It’s hard for me to even begin to describe my experience with Antarctica. One, I couldn’t believe that actually believe I was there. The air. The light. The sounds. The wind and the silence at the same time. Just to say it was surreal doesn’t do it justice. I could watch all the documentaries in the world about this White Continent. The photographers and documentarians can capture all that this place has to offer but it didn’t feel the same until I was there. When recounting my very short time there with friends and family, my description could never capture the essence, spirit or mojo of this mystical and magical place.
When I first starting researching companies in late 2018 to take me to Antarctica, I remember talking with friends and family about my interest in traveling to this place. Before and after my trip, I was often asked, “why do/did you want to go there,” with an inquisitive or dubious look on their face. My response was “why not?” Where was their sense of adventure? Part of it was going somewhere that not very many people have gone. It’s a place that people don’t have high on their list of destinations to travel. They want to go to Europe for the history, culture and food or the Caribbean for the beaches, all-inclusive resorts and margaritas. I’d rather go on an African safari, eat noodles in Japan and visit the Great Wall of China. I understand that Antarctica isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. As Confucius said, “ Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
My primary motive is to go to all seven continents. Another reason is channeling my grandmother’s sense of adventure and worldly mindset of ‘don’t tell me it can’t be done’ attitude. With her second husband, she traveled the world extensively. You could spin the globe and blindly drop your finger, and there would be a story to tell. Mussy and Clint had been to the South Pole. Clint went to college with Bill Beinecke in the 1930’s who traveled to the South Pole several times supporting the research being done there. They tagged along on one of Bill’s trips. I wish they were still around to tell me there stories. I regret not talking with them more about their travels whether it was personal or work.
With our pending international travels coming together in late 2018, I started my research and planning for Antarctica. At first David was a bit hesitant. Not unsupportive, but was unsure about what I was getting us into. After I had looked at a couple of different outfitters, and he was seeing how serious I was about this, we had a chat about what I had found so far and what his concerns and requirements would be. One of them being not sailing across Drake Passage. I went back to my notes and research to find a company that might have fly overs, and then sail around. And that’s how I found the company we would use, Antarctica 21. I started emailing with them for more information and available dates. We wouldn’t make any of their ships in early 2019, so we looked into their 2019-2020 season, and went for one right before Christmas. David and I would fly directly from Chile to Miami for the holidays with my family.
Once we decided on dates, we’d have about eight months to pay for everything. We would be provided with a great deal of information about our travels as well as information about the White Continent. From what to pack to wildlife information about penguins, whales, and seals. As time grew closer, I must admit that I became a bit apprehensive. The excitement was still there that David and I would be going, but the anxiety of all the contingencies started to take over. What if I didn’t pack the right clothes? What if I forgot something? What if the winter gear we ordered to be delivered to Punta Arenas didn’t fit? What if one of us got injured or sick? What if the weather was bad that we were delayed and were never able to get there? How bad will our sea sickness be? And it goes on and on.
Part of my anxiety may have relied on the fact that we wouldn’t be flying directly there from Colorado. In mid-September we would be flying to Japan for the Rugby World Cup and would be there for a month. Shortly after picking our travel dates, I was able to get us tickets for two matches which was a big bucket list item for David. Since the day we met, it was three small bucket lists as one: go to Japan for his 50th birthday for at least one RWC match. Where would we go and what would we do for travel plans between Japan and Antarctica? This leg of our travels would be the hardest for planning. What to pack without overpacking. Planning but being flexible. Europe had laid the groundwork but this leg was different as we would be encountering a wide range of weather that would impact clothing and packing. I ended up packing two small carry on bags, one for everyday and one specifically for Antarctica with all the winter clothes. My logic was I would only be packing and unpacking from one bag for 95% of the trip and only need to dig into the other bag of winter clothes that I knew would fit my larger frame for a week. On occasion David would inquire about that bag but the moment we arrived in Punta Arenas and popped it open there was some major relief in having these goodies and not scramble to shop.
David and I flew to Punta Arenas from Santiago a few days ahead of the scheduled itinerary to help settle in, one as we were still adjusting slightly to the time zone travel coming from New Zealand and to give us time to explore the area. This was our first time in South America, especially this far south. We did a day trip to the Straights of Magellan that included a stop at Fort Bollness and the Municipal Cemetary. We had lunch along the way. There was a stop on the way to Fort Bollness that was the center most point of Chile. We spent a little time shopping for random leftover gear we thought we wanted like waterproof pants.
We stayed at the Hotel Cabo De Hornos in Punta Arenas before departing that was on the Plaza Munoz Gamero, or better known as the Plaza de Armas and is the main public square. In the evenings leading up to our departure there were demonstrations here because of an increased rate in Chile’s public transit cost. There’s a statue in this plaza of the native peoples that were legendarily tall people, over six feet tall. They say if you rub its feet it will give you good luck.
The day before we flew to the continent we had some housekeeping work with the company. We were fitted for our waterproof boots for sizes and picked up our jackets and gear that we had purchased with them months in advance. There was a conference with a power point presentation, questions, expectations that lasted an hour or two. It was here that we started seeing the rest of our group and met the team that would prep us for our launch. The first night with the official group, after the workshop, we had a happy hour and dinner at a local restaurant to start getting acquainted. Our group of roughly 60 something was probably 50/50 on westerners and Chinese. We met in the hotel lobby and walked the block to the restaurant. There were drinks and finger foods provided as we swarmed in before moving to the dining room. At our table were three other couples. One couple was from LA, doctors about my parents age. The other two couples were from Sydney Australia who quickly discovered they lived in the same suburb. After dinner we returned to our room to finish packing, sorting what was going to Antarctica and would would be in our luggage staying at the hotel for a few nights. David and I quickly learned that our departure time was very fluid on weather. We’d need to be up and ready by 530am to head to the airport but the exact departure time was fluid for the weather of Antarctica. Contingencies were in place to stay at the hotel another night or return to Punta Arenas somewhere for lunch if times were delayed. Long story short, we did end up returning to town for lunch but wheels up and arrived on dry land by mid afternoon. David will say that he had serious doubts and anxieties if this trip would actually happen or not. It wasn’t a real or tangible thing for him until we touched down and walked across dry land to load onto the zodiacs to board the ship.
When we boarded our plane it was painted like a penguin. Our plane would land at the Russian military base and the first few hundred yard upon landing we had to walk in a straight line single file until we were beyond their perimeter. There was also a Chilean base there and an old Russian Orthodox Church. There’s a treaty in place signed by several countries in 1959. It will forever be peaceful. Despite international differences everywhere else in the world, Antarctica is unified in being civil for scientific reasons. Research only, no world conquering or drilling for resources. That first hour walking to the zodiacs, seeing our ship in the harbor was very surreal. Even now, as time has passed, Antarctica has felt like a dream. The hospitality and customer service from the very first moment was amazing. Feeling the spritz of cold water on our faces and that very first selfie it was like we were in a movie. We were given instructions on how to safely load and unload the zodiacs, where David and I could leave our water boots for our daily adventures in the ships ‘mud room/lockers’. The staff met us with the warmest of welcomes as they escorted us to our berth. There was a timeline to meet in the social room for cocktails and a safety demonstrations. We needed to know what to do if the boat sank and where to go. No repeats of Titanic please. The crew gave us an amazing warm welcome and met the Russian captain, a lifer of the Soviet Union/Russian navy. The ship we sailed on was brand new and specifically built for the Arctic/Antarctic and this Captain in mind.
Once we cleared the safety briefing and welcome committee, we settled into our cabin with a balcony before dinner. David and I were prompt to activate our severely limited WiFi and grab drinks at the bar. The dining staff takes the cake in terms of hospitality. While buffets may not usually be the highlight of fine dining, this is. Our group were only onboard for a few days, less than a week, the staff were very quick in remembering our names and preferences. Which would come in handy the following day when I was seasick and could barely keep broth and 7Up down. Community seating was key with others and staff. Quite a few of the staff were there finishing their degrees in science, and were very international. Seating by windows would become a hot commodity for photo reasons. As the days went on we would have more whale and wild life sightings. I would have an incredibly unpleasant experience when David and I were sitting by the window, and saw whales. I leaned over to see, and another passenger felt the need to lean over me for the same photo. When I sat up, I gave a good push to his shoulder to back off.
The sun never truly set during our five days onboard because it was their summer that far south and traveling so close to their summer solstice. Thank goodness for black out shades in our room. We had the most beautiful sunsets/evening colors against the sky and clouds.This is a very example of when words could not describe our experience. Everyone has memories of amazing sunsets that vary from water color paintings to vivid bright every shade of pink, orange, purples, bold pops of color descriptions you can use as the backdrop but these scenes in Antarctica truly brought tears to our eyes. Then add the landscape of the various types of icebergs that are several city blocks wide, tabular icebergs, and skyscraper tall with a full spectrum of white and blue. The layers of ice stalked tall that you count the thousands of years to age the icebergs like you would count the rings of a tree trunk. The mountains of solid rock without much green or vegetation in sight. There was one afternoon activity that there was some mossy looking green growing but that was it. Every time we looked out the windows it felt like the landscape had changed, even if it was only a few moments between glances.
The sounds of the water splashing and waves moving. The silence of nature that really resignated with us. On one of the afternoon Zodiac rides, we didn’t get off on land or an island that day but spent the time looking at seals and penguins and enjoying the landscape of this area by zodiac. Our driver turned off the engines and we all sat in silence for a few minutes. While it was almost eerily quiet and trying to think of what this first experience would be like as Shackelton’s crew first laid eyes on the White Continent. It was quite noisy with the penguins, seals and the sound of the wind is what struck me. It was a bright sunny day, no rain, snow or overcast to speak of. But the noise of the wind whipping through the hills across the water until this little harbor is eerie. No city noises. No boat noises. No engines or honks. Not even a cough, squeak or tussle of clothing on the zodiac for those few minutes.
I felt great the first night on board. After an amazing first meal, David and I hung out on the Observation Lounge/Bar area with some staff and other passengers. We quickly learned that Anytime Fitness had outfitted the gym onboard and four of the top executives were on board to christen their maiden voyage (we were technically the 3rd voyage but first season). One of the team leaders, Ben, was a Kiwi who did the morning wake up and announcements, and general jack of all trades kinda guy. He was hanging out with us watching the water, looking at icebergs and watching for animals. It was late that night, shortly before I retired to our cabin, that we saw our first whales. It was on this first night that David and I made Manhattans our new favorite drink. And when we first discovered Shackleton whiskey. More on this later.
Despite the cold and frigid you’d expect for Antarctica, our room was blazing hot. Had our thermostat on the lowest setting and our patio door slightly ajar, and David and I were roasting. At some point during that first overnight the shade was slightly open and the light bothered me. I stumbled over to adjust it and when I turned around, my sea sickness hit me abruptly. I made it to the bathroom just barely to empty my stomach of my delicious dinner.
There are two activities every day, morning and afternoon. My morning sickness would keep me onboard that day. David was worried about being away and stayed on board that morning, but on my insistence left on the afternoon zodiac. The dining staff was amazing and aware of my sickness bringing me 7Up and broth. They had spaghetti for lunch that day, and as anyone who knows me, is one of my favorite dishes. I took a few minutes in an effort to be a good sport and enjoy myself, but it tasted like cardboard (nothing against the cooks, and more of me not having a palate) and didn’t settle well with my body. By the 2nd day I was starting to rally, the meds and my vibrating wrist band was a big help. My liquid diet of broth, sodas, and Manhattans helped also.
David couldn’t stop chattering about his afternoon out on the zodiacs exploring. He talked about the icebergs and the penguins he saw, the cool people he met on the boat. He mentioned how the zodiac went zooming up onto a small piece of ice floating on the water and pushing it around. He talked about the three different penguins we’d see: Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo. Chinstrap would become my favorite. Gentoo penguins have the white spots over their eyes while Adelie don’t. On a rare occasion we saw a Macaroni that has the yellow hairs coming off its forehead. Somebody on that trip joked that it was the Trump penguin.
The staffers encouraged us to respect penguin etiquette. Stay 15 feet, 3 meters away. If they approached you it was best to stop and move away if safe to do so. We learned about penguin highways, the lanes they moved around in or used to climb up or slide down hills. And boy do they smell! When I did my first morning activity, I could smell them before I saw them as we turned around the corner on the zodiac. Smell like a fish market. And there’s hundreds, if not thousands in each colony. Different penguins don’t mate. Not to sound racist but they won’t procreate with other types of penguins. So it was incredibly rare to see a single stranded macaroni away from his colony. You can tell the difference in penguins diets by their poops. It’s white urine. Pink or green for krill or algae.
From the moment we deplaned in Antarctica, David was like a kid in a candy store. Whatever worries, anxieties, and “what in the world has my wife gotten me into” surrounding Antarctica were gone. Before our return flight to Punta Arenas, he commented that he could die a happy man without regrets for now having been to Antarctica. Gets me teary eyed just writing this. There are few days that are so memorable or unique enough to make the Top 5. David specifically had one of those days on this trip. It began with landing on the actual continent. Everything up to this point was staying on Zodiacs or disembarking on islands near the peninsula. David wore one of his Hawaiian shirts he had picked up weeks earlier. We got a large group photo of everyone that’s as on our ship. There was a good hike up the hill. David and I walked up halfway before stopping to take pictures of the harbor. It was also here he felt the need to kiss a rock. We loaded back up on a zodiac with another couple and we just strolled around the harbor. David and I saw and heard pieces of snow/ice falling into the water causing water ripples. People on board the Magellan were keeping on eye on the snow further up the mountain ridges for potential avalanche hazards. Not only for our group on land to be swept away but also the impacts it would have on the boat and zodiacs in the water. Back on board, before lunch service passengers had an opportunity to do a polar plunge. David willingly jumped off the boat into the freezing cold water. Twice. He was required to wear a harness tied to the boat in the unlikely event he passed out from shock. David went out that afternoon for a citizen scientist project with a PHD staffer working on her thesis after lunch. While out that afternoon, David found floating black ice that he brought back on board for cocktails with dinner. Even though we were the 3rd voyage on the new Magellan, we were the first group to break in their outdoor back patio bbq space. The kitchen staff had the grills fired up with shrimp, fish, chicken, burgers, hot dogs and the like. Even grilled corn on the cob. It was here that David brought his ice chunk out of 30,000 year old ice and drank Shackleton. The day ended with the best sunset/evening colors. David could die a happy man with a day like this. “The whales/ocean could open up and swallow him whole,” he’d say.
For the return flight to Punta Arenas, we would not disembark the ship until we knew the flight with the next group were wheels up. The roughly two hour flight was good timing for us to disembark and walk back to the airstrip, again walking single file once on site of the Russian airfield. When we landed, everyone had another night as part of the reservation back at the same hotel. David and I reclaimed our luggage we’d left while on the ship. We met up with some of the friends we’d made for drinks before having a pizza dinner nearby. The following morning we fly to Miami with a connection in Santiago. We’d spend two nights there before driving north to spend Christmas with our family and share our stories. David put together a slide show of photos and information about the White Continent.
It’s been years now since we’ve been there, and we still comment that we can’t believe we’ve been there. David and I wouldn’t change a thing, no regrets on this trip of a lifetime.