Guest Review submitted by Dawn B.
Antarctica proved to be a dream vacation. I’ve visited many far-off places of the planet, but Antarctica holds a place of honor all its own. It is a magical land where we were privileged to spend 8 days exploring in their late spring (Nov-Dec) season. During our expedition we had landings twice per day – morning & afternoon. We went ashore for 2-4 hours each time, hiking ~ 2 miles at each landing site. We found the area pristine, quiet, remote, tranquil, desolate, unforgiving, & inspiring. A magnificent land! You simply cannot imagine what it feels like to be there – until you are there. But all the while I felt a deep respect, if not an intimidation, from the ocean & the weather, at whose mercy we gently visited this forgotten land.
Before I begin describing what it's like to travel to Antarctica in detail, I urge you to find a globe (not just a map). Turn the globe upside down & take a close look at this distant continent that surrounds the South Pole. You’ll see that it’s roughly shaped like a circle, with a prominent peninsula that juts up towards South America. It’s surrounded by the Southern Ocean, (which is really just an extension of the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans). Argentina & Chile (both countries share portions of the southern-most archipelago called Tierra del Fuego) are the closest countries to Antarctica, a mere 550 miles away. (By contrast, New Zealand is ~ 1500 miles away & South Africa is ~ 2200 miles.)
The actual continent (the land) is about the size of the US & Mexico combined. But for most of the year the continent appears to be twice that size due to the ice shelves that attach to the land mass. Only in the late spring & summer does some of the ice clear from the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, allowing 10,000 tourists each year to visit this hidden land. There are no commercial enterprises, no hotels, no restaurants, no stores (save a make-shift souvenir stand in one of the British installations we visited).
Unlike our other adventures, once we arrived at our destination, there was no language to learn, no indigenous people, no human cultures to understand, no money to exchange into foreign currencies, no customs to clear. There are no real monuments or site-seeing (save a deserted whaling station in one of the bays). The only structures present are small science stations/shacks (we visited two) & a small US military station at the South Pole. The continent technically belongs to no nation, although about 80 nations have signed on to the 1991 Antarctic Treaty, which governs the region. Essentially, Antarctica is dedicated to science. I know of no commercial air flights to Antarctica (only military planes). It would be difficult to arrive there any earlier than November & it would be unwise to remain any later than March. If you decide to over-winter (as the military & some science stations do) there’s really no way out until the weather warms again.
Of the earth’s 7 continents, Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest, loneliest & highest of them all. Thanks to these attributes, the area has been left virtually uninhabited & undeveloped. Formed from volcanic eruptions eons ago that gave way to lava beaches, mountains, & hillsides, the average elevation of the continent is 7,000 feet. When you visit Antarctica you spend time exploring the surrounding islands as well as the actual land on the east side & west side of the peninsula.
The air temperature this time of year is ~ 30 degrees F, but it can vary a great deal. One landfall delighted us with air temp in the high 40s, but the weather can feel immensely colder depending on the wind. On most days the wind was minimal, but a couple of times it felt as though it ripped through my body. The water temp is more constant, ~ 28-33 degrees F. Ocean water freezes at 28.5 degrees F, so you often see ice forming on the water. (It’s friggin’ cold to swim in, as we can attest to when we donned bathing suits & attempted to enter the water by some beach thermals. We quickly caught on that the warm thermal waters last up to one’s ankles & then turn bitterly cold.
We did come well prepared with the necessary apparel (per the list) to combat the cold. Each time we ventured ashore we religiously wore our knee-high rubber boots, long thermal underwear, waterproof pants, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 pairs of socks, 2-3 layers on our upper body, hat, sun glasses & the polar-rated blue parka provided to each guest. Of course we wore orange life preservers whenever we rode in the zodiacs, sea kayaks or hiked on the pack ice floating on the ocean. (You’ll see in the photos.) Because of all the clothing layers, it takes 15-20 minutes just to prepare to go ashore for each landing.
Our trip was top-notch, thanks to Wildland Adventures who presented an incredibly comprehensive experience of Antarctica. The food was great & varied, the accommodations were tiny, but the shared facilities - lounge, library, dining room - were lovely. (The library became my special “happy place” during our voyage.) There’s lots of room to roam – inside & outside on the decks around the ship. We heard twice daily lectures from 13 naturalists - including a geologist, a history professor, an underwater sea expert, one NatGeo photographer & two PhD research conservationists from the Oceanites organization. We learned about the discovery of Antarctica, with reports on Ernest Shackleton & others who first braved this forgotten continent back in the late 1890s. I also read books to provide greater context & background.
The Wildlife – It’s all about the Penguins!
We learned about Antarctic wildlife, including the 5 types of penguin we encountered – the adelie, gentoo, chinstrap, king & emperor (largest of all penguins standing ~ 3-4 feet tall & weighing ~ 80 lbs). These 5 are the only penguins that breed in Antarctica. (FYI, there are 17 penguin species in the world, all found in the southern hemisphere.) We were surrounded by penguins as we visited their colonies. They had no fear of coming close to us as we stood or sat nearby. Although penguins evolved from birds, they only “fly” through the water with their wings, using their feet to steer. They need to emerge at least every 10 minutes, to catch a breath. Most of the penguins were nesting this time of year, though we did spy some new-born chicks (see photos). Every year they return to the rookery where they were born, to breed. All penguins (except the emperor) must build their nest on bare land, placing rocks in a circle on patches where the ice has melted only the emperor nests directly on the ice. Penguins lay one or two eggs each year. Males & females take turns incubating the eggs for about one month. Their arch enemy is the skua, a bird that steals penguin eggs to eat. Brown skuas lurk wherever penguins are nesting.
Penguins live into their 20s, laying 1-2 eggs each year. When food is abundant, they feed both hatchlings; when food is scarce they feed only the first chick, letting the second one die. They feed the fledgling chick for ~ 2 months & then it’s adios, forever. They poop a lot, as you’ll see by the pink guano all around their nests. They molt annually, where over the course of ~ 3 weeks they lose all feathers & grow new ones. They can be noisy, squawking & honking (like the chinstraps & gentoos), or quieter (like the adelies & emperors). They enter the ocean & swim together in large groups, to keep safe from the leopard seals or fur seals that might eat them.
We learned about 5 types of Antarctic seals (although I struggled to tell them apart). We cruised with a pod of orca whales & saw amazing pelagic birds (petrels & albatrosses) with wingspans up to 11 feet across. There are very few fish species that can inhabit the frigid Antarctic waters, but there is a host of other sea creatures that dwell beneath the ice (like isopods & krill, which is the basic diet for penguins & seals). The wildlife was amazing & definitely the highlight of the trip - hands down!
It’s breath-taking! As you cruise the region you view massive icebergs - tabular ice that soars 40-50 feet high & miles long floating in the ocean. Knowing that just 10% of the berg is above water, you strain to imagine how deep the other 90% must be as it plunges beneath the sea. Ice, in all its forms – be it tabular icebergs, burgee bites, growlers, ice shelves or pack ice – glistens with an intense aqua blue color. (You’ll see plenty of evidence in the photos!)
The Lemaire Channel, with its narrow corridor, is spectacular to sail through, delighting you with its icy mountain landscape. The bays & harbors are majestic, with massive ice shelves built to the point of calving, portending dangerous avalanches as they crash into the sea. During our expedition, the Antarctic Peninsula offered nearly 21 hours of daylight. Daytime sunshine – when unimpeded - was extremely intense, while sunsets late into the night provided unparalleled lighting for capturing gorgeous icescapes.
Visiting Antarctica - In deciding whether to visit Antarctica, you might want to do a reality check, like:
• First - It’s hard to get to & it’s a long ways away. You fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina (12-15 hrs); you overnight in Buenos Aires. Then you fly to Ushuaia (3.5 hrs) which is the southern-most city in Argentina, in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Then you board the ship & travel up to 2 days across the Drake Passage. All told, it can take up to 6 days of travel to get to/from Antarctica.
• Second – it’s cold (no matter when you visit). The weather is changeable & unpredictable – it may rain, snow, windstorm, etc. while you’re there.
• Third, you gotta get all the recommended gear or you’re gonna freeze your tush off. We had most of what we needed from our previous travels but we still needed some additional stuff.
• Fourth – sea sickness is possible & the Drake Passage is considered the worst waterway in the world. From Argentina it’s 550 miles across this treacherous span with potentially howling winds, huge ocean swells & not a sliver of land in between to impede the wind or ocean movements.
• Fifth – it’s expensive. We booked the cheapest cabin & it was over $10k per person and this was several years ago. Sometimes booking early provides you with a credit for international or internal air. Ask about specials.
Additional Antarctica Factoids
• 60% of the earth’s fresh water comes from Antarctica.
• There’s no flora, per se, except for some moss/lichen that emerges in the warmest season.
• Without the ever-present ice pack surrounding the continent, Antarctica would be the lowest elevation continent in the world. But due to the ice, it has the highest average elevation.
• Millions of years ago Antarctica was not covered in ice. It started as a warm, lush land covered with flora, with an average temp of 55-60 degrees.
• Fossils of swimming dinosaurs – estimated to be 60 feet long - have been found there
• Many people confuse the polar regions, so for the record:
o Antarctica is a continent surrounding the South Pole – It’s land surrounded by water & it is home to penguins
o By contrast, the Arctic region surrounding the North Pole is not a continent – It’s water surrounded by land & it is home to polar bears.
In planning our Antarctica trip, I chose not to include 2 other magnificent spots to see – South Georgia Island & the Falkland Islands (Los Maldives). These are very remote islands, far off the coast of South America. This would have added another week on to the trip, with an equivalent amount of cost. However, after seeing the photos, videos, & hearing about the wildlife at these 2 magnificent islands, I’m thinking we’ll have to return to this wondrous region on a future trip…
Happiest of New Years to you & yours
May you find new wonders & exciting adventures in this bright New Year!
Learn more about travel to Antartica