How do you write about Antarctica ? How do you even begin ? Its a treat visually but what do we write about it ? Everything I write will pale in comparison of the pictures available on internet. Now don`t get me wrong – I am not saying that there is nothing worth writing about Antarctica. All I am saying is that I am not a writer. I haven`t written in years. My only prior experience in travel writing was about my travels to Morocco, Russia & Jordan and those places are teeming with culture, history, architecture, food & people. I am somewhat comfortable writing about these aspects of travel but where do I find words to describe the feeling I had when our ship was cruising south and I saw my first icebergs from the small circular glass windows of the dining room. Needless to say it was hard to gulp down another sip of my ginger ale without ice served by the ever smiling Filipino Andrea. I rushed to the deck and I found my fellow traveler Azman from Malaysia jumping with joy and I did a little hi-five with him before heading to my cabin to grab my camera. But I am getting ahead of myself here. I have decided to structure this blog chronologically. Chronologically in time and in thought.
Why Antarctica ?
Philosophically : Because it`s there!
Practically: When I started traveling I mostly traveled for the big-ticket items – Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, Hagia Sophia and so on. As with most travelers I evolved from someone who wanted pictures with these monuments to someone who cherished experiences. I started traveling for sporting events (Euro 2016), for food, for the books I have read (Cartagena), for the live music (New Orleans), for climbing glaciers (Alaska) and so on! Again, I love taking photographs and I love getting my photographs clicked in front of famous places, but I believe my travels are more rewarding now than they were when I started traveling. My travel philosophy changed from “Where” to “Why” and eventually to “Why not”.
Antarctica had always been in the bucket list. I think it’s on the bucket list of every traveler but it`s always buried under the layers. Layers of travel destinations we believe are achievable. So last year when my friend certain Mr. Rizvi made this journey south from San Francisco those layers were unpeeled, and Antarctica seemed a possibility.
The Planning Part :
I am not going to go into the details of what all went through my mind while booking this trip because it was a long process that involved a lot of research online, talking to people close to me because it is not an easy decision to travel to end of the world and parting ways with most of your life savings. Eventually it was an impulse decision but the nuts and bolts are as follows :-
I zeroed in on Quark Expeditions and reached out to their booking agent. Told them my preferred dates and it was easier than booking a movie ticket. I also opted for Kayaking & camping at an extra cost.
The Team : I asked people around who wants to travel with me and no one was ready for this adventure so I decided to book my my trip alone. After booking I called Suhail with whom I had already traveled to 10 countries across 5 continents. Suhail also had said no to the trip all along but he called me back the next day he is going to make the trip. I had to call the booking agent to ensure that we are in the same cabin and for other formalities. After the trip the count has changed to 11 countries and 6 continents. We might as well move in together now.
The Drake : Well now I wish I was talking about the Canadian Rapper Drake but I am not! The only time I have felt threatened by him is when my dates have called him cute. That is okay but this Drake is a different ball game altogether. When I started telling people about my Antarctica trip the first response I would get is – “That is great but have you thought about the Drake ?”. It seemed that they are talking about a sea with dragon. They reminded me of Lorne Malvo telling Gus Grimly in the TV show Fargo – The Crocodile`s Dilemma (S1E1) : “Because some roads you shouldn’t go down. Because maps used to say, “there be dragons here.” Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.”
Now you may think that I am exaggerating but I am not. People are actually concerned about the Drake Passage and have postponed their voyage south by decades.
Nerd Capsule – Drake Passage*
Drake passage is the body of water between South America‘s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. The passage receives its English-language name from the 16th-century English privateer Sir Francis Drake. Drake’s only remaining ship, after having passed through the Strait of Magellan, was blown far south in September 1578. This incident implied an open connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Half a century earlier, after a gale had pushed them south from the entrance of the Strait of Magellan, the crew of the Spanish navigator Francisco de Hoces thought they saw a land’s end and possibly inferred this passage in 1525.[ For this reason, some Spanish and Latin American historians and sources call it Mar de Hoces after Francisco de Hoces.
The first recorded voyage through the passage was that of Eendracht, captained by the Dutch navigator Willem Schouten in 1616, naming Cape Horn in the process.
*Source : Wikipedia
Why is Drake Passage so rough ?
The Drake is just under 1000 KMs wide and is the spot where Atlantic, Pacific & Southern Ocean converge creating crazy currents. Also the fact there is no landmass to impede the currents coupled with the high wind in the region can make it quite an adventure to cross the passage. The Drake Passage is considered a rite of passage on the voyage to the Antarctic.
We boarded our vessel Ocean Diamond on the 10th afternoon after Lunch and headed south into the drake passage. The stars aligned and it was very calm (We didn`t see any stars because summer in high latitudes – remember middle school geography ?). Apparently it was the calmest Drake Passage the crew had encountered in years of crossing and I was not complaining. None of us were! It was time for making new friends, trying out our parkas and boots, enjoying the delicious multi course meals served by the delightful hotel team. There were some really interesting and insightful lectures by the experts on different topics. But the highlight was the food. Unexpectedly good!!! And during one of these elongated dinners we saw some of the icebergs passing us by and we realized we have arrived or it was the other way round – Antarctica has arrived. Most of us finished the leftovers on our plates as fast as we could and rushed to the deck.
We were informed that the same evening at 10 PM we will be making our first landing at Danko Islands. While most of us were getting ready (which is a process – trust me – its like getting ready for a war in 15 minutes) I was hanging around on the deck and that`s when I saw a dark, dirty patch on pristine white land and asked one of the crew members if these are penguins and he said yes they are! I would like to credit myself as being the first one to see penguins on our expedition. What is travel writing if not self boasting ?
Danco Island (Evening – December 12)
sur·re·al | \sə-ˈrē(-ə)l also -ˈrā-əl \
Definition of surreal
That is how I would describe my first tryst with land in Antarctica. We had our dinner and got dressed in our Yellow Parka & jumped into a bucket of chemical (to ensure that we are not bringing anything to the land that doesn’t belong there. This process was repeated every time we stepped out and got back) before heading out. We made our way into Zodiacs, 10 at a time, and were zoomed to the land where crew members helped us onto the land and we trekked our way to the top of the island next to a penguin colony. The view from the top was unbelievable. The penguins were heading from the colony to the top and some were coming back. You could see icebergs from the size of a bus to as big as half a block floating all around the island.
The Penguins : The Danco Island is inhabited by Adélie penguins. They are the most widely spread penguin species are usually found along the Antarctic coast. The diet includes fish & Krill. Please stop Krill Fishing! It is impacting penguin population and breeding cycles. Adelie Penguins are also the smallest of all the species.
There are 18 different species of penguin. However, only two species truly make the Antarctic their home by living and breeding there – the Emperor penguin and the Adélie penguin.
Also you might have heard that penguin colonies smell like shit. It`s actually true that penguin colonies smell like shit. Well technically penguin shit smells like shit (guano! Yes, that is what penguin poop is called). But where there is guano there are penguins and they are friggin awesome!
Well past midnight once we were done with our first excursion of the trip I stepped outside to the deck to experience the “night” in Antarctica and it was bizarre as it was still very bright.
Lemaire Channel (Morning – December 13)
Day 2 started with crossing Lemaire Channel. Our expedition leader Ally had informed us that there is still a lot of ice in the Lemaire channel and we might not be able to cross it but it is worthwhile to give it a try. The iceberg filled passage is 11 KMs long and 1600 meters wide at its narrowest. The day of our crossing the passage was covered in fog and it seemed as if we are in some fantasy movie and there might be a huge statue ahead straddling across the channel. Alas nothing like that happened and we were able to cross the passage without much hassle.
Next Stop was Petermann Island
Petermann Island (Afternoon – 13th December)
Petermann Island has been identified as important bird area (IBA) by bird life international. It was our first interaction with the Gentoo penguin but before landing on the island we headed to Kayak! It was our first Kayaking expedition on the trip and of course all of us were kayaking in the polar regions for the first time. We were shipped from our cruise on sheltered waters on a zodiac. One by one with the help and support of guides and team members all of us got onto kayaks and started paddling. We were on water for roughly 90 minutes before heading to Petermann island again on zodiacs.
Now let me tell you about the experience. You might have seen those videos on internet where the penguins are jumping in and out of water next to kayakers. Yes, it was one of those experiences. It was unreal. Also the penguins are clumsy and not at all graceful on land but in water they are swift, graceful, efficient and even sophisticated. During these 90 minutes, we saw icebergs floating, penguins jumping from land in water and seals just lazing around.
After landing I hiked up to the top of the island and view from the top was bizarre. I couldn`t make out the horizon – the grey of water was merging into the grey of sky. Incredibly huge icebergs were just floating around and then one of the guides pointed out that we had been kayaking in the same body of water an hour ago. The perspective changes everything!
Pléneau Bay (Evening – December 13)
How do you feel about the name “Graveyard of the icebergs” ? I don`t know about you but it made me both nervous and excited. Icebergs come in all sizes and shapes and a great number of them are trapped near the island till they melt away and hence the name. And what better way to explore the graveyard of the icebergs than the kayaks as you get the opportunity to admire these incredible elements of nature at your own pace with penguins jumping in and out of water all around you. The icebergs look incredibly beautiful from up close and their reflections in water will catch your attention time and again. The icebergs exhibit multiple hues of blue. The beauty here is almost divine. I should probably stop after using the word divine.
Camping at Leith Cove (Night – 13th December)
When the opportunity to camp presented itself while booking the trip both I & Suhail whole heartedly opted for it. Both of us have very limited (read : zero) camping experience but what better way to have your first bite in Antarctica ( Suhail also experienced his first snow in Antarctica). In the evening the weather had taken turn for the worse and we were on the bridge when our expedition leader announced on the speaker system with anguish and disappointed on her face that we won`t be camping on this trip. We both came back to our cabin dejected and were ready to sleep when there was another announcement that the weather has changed again and we will be camping. The weather in Antarctica is fickle and sometimes it changes for the worse and sometimes for the better and this time we got lucky.
We made our way to a sheltered island (to protect us from the polar wind) and spread our mats and sleeping bags ( there were no tents). For sometime I left my face outside the sleeping bag with snow falling on my face I could hear or may be feel what is known as the loud silence of Antarctica. There were probably as many penguins on the tiny island as humans that night. I woke up at around 5 when the wind picked up and the temperature dropped suddenly. Packing up was a hassle in such cold weather but all in all an amazing experience.
Paradise Bay (Morning – 14th December)
Paradise Harbour (64.51° S, 62.54° W) is the first time when I sat foot on the Antarctica continent. Before that we were in maritime environment visiting islands. The view from the top is incredible. It was very windy that day and the hike was not an easy one.
But before setting foot on the continent we again went kayaking and saw some humpback whales and some incredible rock and ice formations. As I already mentioned it was a very windy day and maneuvering kayaks wasn`t easy. We had to bend down with chin close to the kayak to lessen the impact of the wind. Still there was a capsizing (of a kayak and not the ship). Hi-fi to Eddie from Boston (if you are reading this). Another guy had to be retrieved from far away from the land where he had drifted because of the wind.
Fast Ice/Wilhelmina Bay (Afternoon of Friday, December 14, 2018)
This was probably the most memorable and fun part of the tip. We were shipped from the zodiac on to fast ice (ice that extends out from the shore and is attached to it.) where we had drinks, made snowman, threw snowballs on people who were strangers just few days ago. I even had a game of cricket with an Australian-Sri Lankan couple (big fan of Kohli). The ball was of course the snow ball and husband was given out LBW multiple times by the wife.
Great Wall Station – China research station (Afternoon – December 15)
The Chinese research station located on the Fildes Peninsula on the southwestern point of King George Island in the South Shetland Islands was our next stop. Truth be told it was my least favorite spot as there was not a lot of wild life or ice stuff. Unfortunately we weren`t allowed to enter the research station but I got phone network for the first time in almost a week. My phone beeped – “Welcome to China and standard roaming rates apply”. All this makes you realize what an amazing world we live in. Before that my phone had received similar message from South Korea (My best guess is a South Korean research station in the proximity). I was able to upload a pic on Instagram (because why not ?!?). I also called my family from the Chinese research station which was a lot of fun firstly because I was able to talk to them after a long while. Secondly calling from an Antarctic expedition using the network of Chinese research station is kinda cool. We also got a stamp for the Chinese Research station which was also exciting for a lot of people but I have seen better stamps in my life! Needless to say that the Chinese travelers were super excited about this stop.
Turret Point (Evening – December 15)
Our Next stop was Turret Point where we Kayaked before landing for the 4th time on the trip. We kayaked in open water and it was very choppy and windy as well. By the time we were done with Kayaking and made our landing the temperature had dropped significantly and I was freezing. The waterproof Kayaking suit isn`t as warm as the yellow Parka. Turret Point is a great stop in terms of wildlife with breeding populations of Chinstrap & Gentoo Penguins and variety of seal species. Since I was in need of some much needed warmth I didn`t hangout around for long and made my way back to the beach to be taken to the ship on the zodiacs.
Elephant Point (Morning – December 16)
Finally our last day. We started with a landing at Elephant Point (no kayaking was possible because of the bad weather). Elephant point on the Livingston island is a paradise for Antarctica wildlife with possible sightings of giant petrels, skuas, Gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and elephant and leopard seals. The young seals on the island were playing among themselves and it was quite a sight. They also made their way towards a few of us. For some reasons a lot of people find seals to be cute. Not me! Penguins are cute but not seals. They are incredible creatures and I enjoy watching them but they are not cute.
Baily Head (Evening – December 16)
It was our last landing. The sun was shining and since we had ventured north the landscape had changed. You could see green, brown, black and few other colors apart from the grey and white of the frozen wasteland that we had left behind. Also Baily head is one of the largest colonies of chin strap penguins with roughly 40,000 pairs. I was super excited about landing (and nervous about the choppy water) and wasn`t sure about kayaking but our guide assured me that I am going to have a great time. She was right!
We kayaked in crystal clear water with the majestic deception island in the background. I wish words could describe how we felt. It seemed most of the penguins from the baily head were swimming all around us. At the beginning of our expedition we were told to locate whales, penguins, seals or icebergs from clock coordinates (eg whale at 3 o`clock) for the benefit of the whole group. My kayak partner Russell (from Australia) started yelling – penguin at 2 o`clock, penguin at 9 o`clock and so on till he got exhausted and finally screamed penguins round the clock. Also I need to remind you that we are still in water so all these penguins are jumping in and out of water around us. It was bizarre. It was unreal. It was incredible and it was amazing.
Finally we headed to land on Baily head in a zodiac. This landing is extremely difficult because of the topography and the swell. We ended up with 12-18 inches of water in the zodiac both while landing and while leaving. About Baily Head again I`ll let photographs do the talking. We are talking about a place with more estimated 40,000 penguins. Russell named Baily Head as the penguin city. Not just that the view from the top and on the way was just delightful.
Deception island which is essentially the caldera of an active volcano was our last stop. The island previously held a whaling station, but now is a tourist destination and scientific outpost, with Argentine and Spanish research bases. The beauty of the place is not justified by photo taken from the ship.
Now we were headed back to Ushuaia but before that the dreaded drake.
I had read about the Drake, I had talked about the drake but now it was my turn to experience the drake. My idea of farewell is slightly different than 2 days of 18+ metres of swell. I didn`t leave my bed for two days. Well I did 3-4 times for the most urgent ask related to the expedition and everytime I came back literally on my knees and crawled into the bed. I had never felt like that before. Deep down I knew I will be alright but it felt this might be the end. But as they say your trip to Antarctica isn`t complete without experiencing drake at its most furious.
Anyhow two days on drake and finally rounded the Cape Horn and entered the sheltered water. I felt life returning to my body and people crawled out of the caves (cabins) like me. I shaved and put on my best clothes just to feel better. Spent last few hours saying farewell to the most incredible people I had met on the expedition. It`s not that everyone wakes up one day and decides to visit Antarctica. Last morning leaving the ship was bittersweet but setting foot on land felt like coming home even though I was 10,000 miles away from home!