January 1-3, 2019 Ushuaia, Argentina
It’s December 24th, 2018. I am wandering through the streets of Ushuaia, desperately trying to find a passage to Antarctica. This was not the original plan. “Tierra del Fuego” (the Land of Fire) has inspired me. I want to know what lies beyond … beyond these frigid waters … all the way to the ends of the World.
I had heard that it’s possible to get deeply discounted last minute deals to Antarctica. I had traveled to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires, with no concrete plans. I left it up to destiny. It was high season, everything was booked. Destiny said NO. I was not going to Antarctica in 2018. I left empty-handed and flew back to Buenos Aires on Christmas day December 25th, 2018. A couple of days later I got a call from Fede at Wayfinder Adventures.
There was a berth available in a 3 person cabin on a ship leaving for Antarctica on January 3rd, 2019. And it was 30% off.
Destiny said YES. I was going to Antarctica, not in 2018 but three days into 2019.
This meant I had to invest in another plane ticket to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires. I decided to travel on January 1st – what better way to start the new year than to travel to the southernmost city in the world? Ushuaia itself is a fascinating place. You can see penguins here, even without sailing to Antarctic waters – they’re called Magellan penguins.
And the town has the Martian Glacier looming right above it, giving it a mysterious feel.
The second day of 2019 I sailed through Beagle Channel, teeming with wildlife and in the evening I hiked all the way to Lago Esmeralda, a beautiful lake with emerald-colored water.
After a couple of days of hiking and exploring Ushuaia, January 3rd was upon me and I was going to Antarctica. Wow. Was this really happening? The excitement was building.
Fede, at Wayfinders Adventures is not only an agent selling trips, but he also happens to be a guide for Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. And he too was embarking on a trip to Antarctica on a different ship and had just arrived in Ushuaia the morning of January 3rd. Fede actually saw me off to my ship the MS Expedition. Now that is service!
When I signed up for this trip I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no life-long dream of going to Antarctica. I knew very little about the ominous Drake Passage. I didn’t do a lot of research on the kind of ship that would be best. But I lucked out. The MS Expedition was a mid-size ship – the perfect kind. Not a 500 person mammoth cruise liner where only 100 people at a time get to land on the continent, thus not experiencing all landing sites (it is a rule imposed on passenger ships to Antarctica).
Our ship, The MS Expedition has a maximum capacity of 134. So the number of clients (if you subtract the crew and staff) was well under a 100 people. Meaning that everyone would be able to land at every site. We enjoyed 6 landings over the next several days. In fact we landed every day we were near land and sometimes more than once a day.
It was about three in the afternoon and we were checked in and shown to our rooms. As can be expected our living quarters were tiny. I noticed a backpack on one of the lower beds. The other lower bed, a bunkbed was free. I snagged it. The third arrival would be on the upper bed. I wondered “Who are these two traveling companions of mine?”.
Cabin 209. Safety Briefing.
After dropping my bag to claim my bunk, I went for a walk around the ship. When back at the cabin, I met Bastien, from France, the occupier of the other lower bed. A few minutes later in comes Marvin, a desi like me, the occupier of the top bunk above me. He announces “Hey, I’m Marvin from New York.” I was thinking, this is going to be interesting. Two desis representing both coasts of the US and a Frenchman! (Desi is a term used for a person of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi decent)
Spending 11 days at sea confined to a little cabin for privacy (or lack thereof) can go many different ways. Luckily Marvin, Bastien and I formed a sort of organic friendship. When we conversed, we were raw, we spoke the truth. We philosophized about life, relationships, love, religion, family and friendships. It was quite unexpected and perhaps catalyzed by the unearthly and spectacular surroundings we were in. We actually spent most of the zodiac rides and landings separated from each other. I am hard pressed to find a single photo of us together with our feet planted in Antarctica.
We were in the “zone”. We would see, hear, feel, and smell (think Penguin Poop!) Antarctica through our own lenses and filters.
Back on the ship too, young Marvin would be circling around the ship, sometimes with his notepad, writing down quotable quotes or lessons learned from others. Bastien and I too, would frequently switch tables at meal times, getting to know others from the ship.
And then there were those moments – be it back in the cabin, on deck quietly waiting for a humpback to breach, or in the bar over a cold one – we would have those deep conversations.
We have become unlikely brothers. As we navigate this trip called life, just as in Antarctica , we go about having our experiences, but we always check back in with each other and in those darkest of moments and those fleeting highs – we share. We speak the truth.
Grateful to have you in my corner “209ers”. This one’s for you.
Brothers in Arms
As it turns out the guiding crew of our ship, the MS Expedition, belonged to an outfit called G Adventures and to their credit, they performed many scientific readings and monitored birdlife and environmental conditions on a regular basis. And we were lucky because on our last day in Antarctic waters we were able to ride zodiacs around Spert Island – a first for the crew of G Adventures.
Our ship was not an ice-breaker, but our captain boldy took us as close to the Antarctic circle as possible through the Lemaire Channel. I cannot describe that day accurately. No description will do justice. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Navigating through a sea littered with moderately sized ice-floats and icebergs. Seeing a great number of leopard seals lounging on the floats. And being surrounded by Antarctic terrain with peaks all around, caked in ice. I was thinking to myself. Wow. A mountaineer’s paradise. If only the approach didn’t cost close to 5 figures (in dollars). To add to this, there was a low-lying mist, creating an eerie feel. One that captivates and keeps you searching …
This was to be my Antarctica. Antarctica through my lens. Sometimes misty, sometimes clear. But without fail always awe-inspiring. Welcome to my Antarctica. The journey begins below.
January 3rd, 2019 Drake Passage bound for Antarctica
We lifted anchor and with engines humming, the MS Expedition sailed away from Ushuaia and navigated the Beagle Channel into the sunset, headed towards the icy continent. After a spectacular 5-star meal while gazing out into the Beagle Channel, we explored the decks of the ship. It was very exciting to be on a ship like this one. The MS “Expedition”. What a name – evoking adventure, risk and discovery.
January 4th, 2019 Drake Passage bound for Antarctica
That first full day on the MS Expedition was a day of discovery. I spent as much time as I could on deck. The number of bird species we saw that very first day was incredible.
Southern Giant Petrel and Black Browed Albatross, Drake Passage
The Drake Passage was quiet. I had actually taken dramamine (for sea sickness) because of all the warnings and it was a complete waste. The seas were calm and I just felt sleepy all the time. I think I slept through Matt’s “Citizen Science” talk (no offense Matt) and was generally very sleepy. Would the Drake be so kind on the way back? We shall see 🙂
Screenshot of our location, Drake Passage.
As far as expedition days go – today was pretty chill. We got fed more 5-star meals from our mainly Filipino catering crew. And in the evening we had our pick of brews from the ends of the world!
January 5th, 2019 Antarctica (Half Moon Island)
Today was a big day – “Land Ahoy!”. We had our first sighting of the continent. Today we were arriving in the vicinity of the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. We were not supposed to land today, but our kick ass Captain Juraj Zekan from Croatia got us there ahead of schedule. So we were to have an unscheduled bonus landing at Half Moon Island. There were a few shelters marked as Argentine territory with their flag. It was the Argentine naval station Camara.
First landing in Antarctica. It’s snowing. All smiles. Top right: Argentine Camara Naval Base.
For our very first landing and in true Antarctic spirit it was snowing lightly, as we were welcomed right away by a colony of chinstrap penguins.
Chinstrap Penguin Colony, Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica
We had a nice hike around the island during which we visited a couple of chinstrap penguin colonies. They are distinguishable by the black strap all the way across the chin.
It was the first time taking the zodiacs and the ride to and from the ship was exciting.
Back at the ship that evening we celebrated an incredible first day on the continent having landed on the Antarctic peninsula. And we were treated to one of the most incredible midnight sunsets ever!
January 6th, 2019 Antarctica (Neko Harbor and Danko Island)
We had not one, but two landings today. In the morning we explored Neko Harbour in Andvord Bay. In Neko Harbor we were greeted by Gentoo Penguins this time with their orange beaks.
Penguin Highways. Birds had gotten to these penguin eggs.
Neko Harbour had some impressive glaciers with so may crevasses.
After returning back to the ship we were off again to explore Danco Island.
The ice sculptures all around were magnificent in beauty and scale.
You could not but think that some of these were sculpted by humans. For example the tunnel below looks so symmetric and manmade, but it is a natural formation.
And this one below resembles a space ship.
It was a warm day (the high today was 13°C) and I had to strip most of my layers and I stripped down to a T-shirt in Antarctica. Far out! We enjoyed a nice hike up to the top of Danco Island.
There were gentoo penguin colonies scattered all around. Gentoos lack that stripe along the chin that chinstraps have, but they have a notable orange beak.
The guides on the ship were mainly north americans, but there were two South Americans Marcelo and Iggy (Ignacio) from Argentina.
With new friends Marcelo and Iggy
We saw other wildlife besides the gentoo penguins. There were a few Weddell Seals and Cormorants hanging around.
Cormorants and lazy Weddell Seals
January 7th, 2019 Antarctica (Lemaire Channel and Port Charcot)
Today was a mystical day. Today the MS Expedition approached the narrow straits of the Lemaire Channel. Ice ridden waters. Seals everywhere. Sometimes I didn’t know where to look. At the ice all around the ship or the towering peaks, covered in mounds of ice and snow. And with a low lying mist, the whole scene was just magical.
We were really close to the Antarctic Circle (66° 33′), but we had to turn around because the ice was getting too thick and it wasn’t worth the risk.
At 65° south we were just shy of 66°, the Antarctic Circle
That day on the Lemaire was my best day in Antarctica. We had’t even landed yet. We were on the ship, but charging slowly through the ice and taking in the beauty and size of everything around was something special. This day made me realize how vast the planet was and how we as humans are a small cog in the system. Unearthly. Yeah. You could say so.
Crabeater Seals on Ice Floats, Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
After we turned around just shy of the Antarctic Circle the captain set sail for Port Charcot on the North Shore of Booth Island. The French Explorer Charcot had spent the winter here in 1903. We were dropped off by zodiac and enjoyed a colder Antarctic day.
No you are not imagining this – a Hercules C-130 fly by of our ship!
After our excursion of Port Charcot on Booth Island we were to take the zodiac to the Iceberg Graveyard, instead of heading back to the ship directly. It was a most amazing zodiac ride. Our guide Rex, is a mechanical engineer-turned zodiac technician. His passion for the job meant that we got some extra time in the water. There were hundreds of gentoo penguins in the water, entertaining us with their antics. Jumping, swimming, just plain acting silly as penguins do 🙂
The Iceberg Graveyard was the highlight of all the zodiac rides, the ride by Spert Island was a close second. This is the place where icebergs go to die. The name evokes an air of the sombre and indeed it was a humbling display. The ice formations that I saw that day were like sculptures – they seemed almost manmade works of art. One can not but imagine a higher power at work. I was in awe.
As we approached the MS Expedition by zodiac after an amazing visit to the Iceberg Graveyard we were greeted by some Crabeater seals lounging around, being lazy. Some made sure we did not disturb them any further.
Greeted by cranky Crabeater Seals
Today was an amazing day in Antarctica. I reflected a lot that day. The powerful Lemaire Channel, the beautiful Iceberg Graveyard. The Hercules C-130 flyover was such an odd intrusion. And even us as humans trodding up to the top of Booth Island. How out of place we must have been with our red jackets dotting this pristine white and blue environment. I – ever the rebel – opted for my green Marmot mountaineering jacket – never heard the end of it from the guides :).
A reminder really that this is one of the last frontiers. We have to do what we can to preserve it, leave it as it is. As we lust for more wealth exploiting the world’s resources, how far will we go? I draw the line here – leave Antarctica alone!
After the day we had, we were all in a celebratory mood – we even had a barbecue on deck!
BBQ on deck, MS Expediton, Antarctica. Sonja from Germany and Bastien from France.
Ok I will admit I took my jacket off just for this picture! Notice the time on the watch dial – almost time to turn into a pumpkin 🙂
January 8th, 2019 Antarctica (Damoy Point and Port Lockroy)
Today weather-permitting we were to have two landings. One at Damoy Point and the other at Port Lockroy. The former is home to Argentine and British refuge huts.
The latter, Port Lockroy is British Base A and home to the only post office in Antarctica – the Penguin Post Office. For a dollar you can mail your postcard to anywhere in the world – they have their own Antarctica stamps.I myself posted about 10 postcards!
Damoy Point was an interesting place. We saw a smallish sailboat docked in the waters and then I had to pinch myself – there were a couple of climbers climbing up one of the peaks. This had to be a dream. Do you know what the Drake Passage is capable of doing to a small boat? Yes these people were crazy. Case in point – they were climbing in Antarctica.
It was snowing lightly, again making for a very magical Antarctic environment.
Snowing. With Brian from the UK.
The highlight at Damoy Point was the penguin rookeries. It was amazing to see the various stages of penguin breeding, starting with building nests, to keeping the eggs warm and caring for the young.
We learned a lot about penguins on this trip. They are really funny creatures (very smelly too – that’s all penguin poop – the red!).
The next stop was Port Lockroy, British Base A. We went there straight from Damoy Point and the zodiac ride there was incredible.
We saw leopard seals on the ride. Leopard seals are amazing creatures, weighing up to 300 pounds. They are merciless with penguins, but such is the cycle of life.
We soon landed at Port Lockroy. Penguins abounded here as well. Again these humans, looking like red dots in this home of the penguins seemed somewhat out of place. So did a post office in the middle of nowhere. A post office? Really?
Port Lockroy, Antarctica. Passport stamped!
I mailed a few postcards (about 10) and mailed one to myself, wondering who would be home first – me or my postcard 🙂 As it turns out I got my postcard a couple of weeks after I got home to California. I heard that the postcards go to the UK by ship first! And then get distributed. That is a long trip for them!
Writing in the logbook at Port Lockroy and mailing postcards
Somehow the gentoo penguins here were very fond of the buildings and structures and there were a lot of them near the post office and museum.
Gentoo penguin eggs hatch in pairs. The male and female penguins take turns keeping the eggs warm at the right temperature.
They also protect the eggs from predators and the young chicks are given great care.
Port Lockroy was a fascinating place. I actually saw leopards seals, mailed a few postcards and saw hundreds of penguins at the “Penguin Post Office”! Not a bad day. And it was about to get cooler (literally!).
We had the option to take the Polar Plunge. Literally plunge from the ship into Antarctic waters – temperature -1.5°C (30.2°F).
In cabin 209, we each do our own thing, but this – this is insanity. We needed each other. Bastien, Marvin and I donned our swim trunks and we got ready to walk the plank…
We were cracking jokes and fooling around, all to mask our fear of getting our asses frozen. Even though we had a choice, this is the way the dice rolled…
In a pre-plunge bout of insanity I bid on a Polar Plunge towel, being auctioned. I won and was now $100 dollars poorer 🙂 At least it was for a good cause.
January 9th, 2019 Antarctica (Spert Island)
As we made our way back up, north towards the land of fire, Ushuaia, we had one more treat. A zodiac ride around Spert Island. This was a first for G Adventures and it was exciting. Even the guides didn’t know what lay ahead. And as luck would have it we had Scotty from Toronto as our zodiac guide that day. Scotty oozed optimism – this was going to be a great zodiac ride.
The rock looked very volcanic and we were traversing through caves and tunnels with the water crashing into the walls and icicles hanging from the ceilings. It was surreal.
The caves just kept coming. And having Scotty as our guide meant that we would be getting close to the icebergs and and would be charging through narrow pathways between ice.
This was a spectacular way to end our last day in Antarctica – the Drake awaits. A storm was brewing. Would captain Juraj try to outrun it?
But we were living in the moment. Taking in Antarctica in all it’s glory. The scale of things here is mind-blowing. The walls on either side of our zodiac reaching towards the skies.
Goodbye Antartica, Hello Drake
As we set sail for The Land of Fire later that evening, a lot of emotions were brewing inside me. This was it. I didn’t know when I would come back to the icy continent. For some this is a lifelong dream. What a privilege to be here.
People were tired. The Drake Passage was looming ahead. I went to the bow, once more on deck. Bastien joined me. We silently gazed into the ocean. There was only one other person on deck. A few chinstrap penguins were skipping alongside the ship. And then … from a distance we see a spout of water. It’s a whale. Bastien and I look at each other. “There must be more”. Within a span of an hour we’ve spotted about a dozen humpback whales, some even breaching for us. What a show. And the final adieu, a whale swims right by the ship, barely six feet from starboard and waves its fluke goodbye.
Whales breaching. Whales spouting water as they breathe.
The final farewell
As we entered the Drake by nightfall we were entertained by the staff and crew. Iggy displayed some hidden talents as a magician. And the ships mainly Filipino dining staff doubled as The Monkey Eating Eagles and rocked us into the night – and the Drake!
January 10th, 2019 Drake Passage bound for Ushuaia
Early in the morning the next day, Bastien and Marvin followed me to the gym, where I would find the yoga mats and we would take them down to the bar, which was more spacious and airy. I did yoga on the ship every day. The Drake had started to rear it’s head. Warrior One was now a Wobbly Warrior! But what fun! Yoga-ing the Drake Passage. Priceless.
Later that day, the dining hall was a ghost town, and about half the passengers were confined to their cabins, some throwing up. I had not taken any dramamine this time because there weren’t any big waves on the way to Antarctica. I had essentially taken a chance. I learned that I was not susceptible to sea sickness and took the swaying of the ship in stride (secretly enjoying it). We had 30 foot (9 meter) waves at one point. Moving around the ship became a challenge. It was comical trying to get out of my chair in the lounge. Bam! Back down on the floor this time…crawling back into my chair 🙂 Better wait it out a bit.
The storm that the captain had tried to outrun, had caught us. The ship was splashed with rain as it swayed in various directions. The view from the window sill of the dining hall into the horizon said it all – if you have some idea about geometry and angles.
January 11th, 2019 Beagle Channel, Argentina
We had weathered the Drake and were sailing into the Beagle Channel by mid-day, ahead of schedule.
Out on deck everything looked so different. We could see and smell trees and the Beagle Channel was full of life as we sailed into Ushuaia.
We would be spending the night on the ship, docked in Ushuaia, back where it had all started. Like sailors we would be given leave to have drinks on shore after dinner, but with a strict return back to the ship 🙂
January 12th, 2019 Ushuaia, Argentina
Today we left the ship. Here we are, toying around. We found a last seal to take a picture with 🙂
We were still to have a few more hours together, us brothers-in-arms. We decided (ok I decided) to hike to the Martian Glacier. We picked up our friends from the ship – Louise and Richard – the awesome couple from England. The exploring continues. And on cue, in the southernmost city in the world, in the land of fire, it starts snowing. A brilliant end to our Antarctic odyssey.
It’s good to reflect on what this trip has meant to me. Being in Antarctica was mind-blowing. A new sight, a new creature, awe-inspiring at every turn.
But as I reflect on my life as it is today, I now, more than ever, feel the human connection. Or the importance or value of the human connection. We live in a world where we are inundated with noise -our minds working in overdrive. Are we really paying attention to the people around us and in the right way? What do we prioritize? A meeting, a goal, money, a promotion?
Antarctica isolated me from the world as we know it. It threw me into this vast expanse. No cell phone, no news, nothing familiar to my world.
I bonded with two brothers from different worlds, one across the country, the other across the ocean. What an unlikely gift.
So I think more than ever no matter where I am, whatever I am doing I make a promise to myself to value the human connection. I don’t need to be in Antarctica for that. I just need to pay attention and be aware.