Category Archives: Antarctica

Antarctica: Part I

(see more photos on facebook)

Day 1,   January 19, 2010   A Dent in the Wallet

I’m over the biggest hump on route to Antartida (Spanish for Antarctica).  Never mind crossing the windiest stretch of ocean on Earth… the decision just to get on a southbound vessel was the hardest part.  Just yesterday I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina the most southern city in the world, hoping to have the same last-minute bargaining power that I had used on a boat in the Galapagos Islands.  Unfortunately I found a much tougher beast than I found in the islands off of Ecuador, and arriving at the peak of tourist season wasn’t going to help my ability to negotiate fares either.

For the last year I have mulled over the ways in which one could go to Antarctica.  They are as follows:

#1 On your own personal sailing expedition…I don’t have a boat, and I’m a pretty poor sailor, so this option did not make it on my life list.

#2 Get a job as a scientist, researcher, or service worker at one of the research stations for a 6-month Antarctic summer…Truthfully, I’m sick of jobs that take over my life and isolate me from the world, so this would not be an option either.

#3  Spend about six grand on flight….not the bang for the buck I was looking for.

#4 Spend $3-12,000 on an Antarctic cruise, which vary in levels of comfort from Navy-style berths to first-class cabins (champagne included).

My only option would be #4, a price which I could cut in half by scoring a last-minute deal in Ushuaia.  I debated for days about committing to it.  A few thousand dollars would last me for months on the road in countries I have yet to explore.  I have taken pride in traveling on a tight budget, and have insisted that doing so enriches the experience. At the same time, who knew when I would be back in Ushuaia again (if ever) and it would costs thousands to return.

I recalled a visit to Chamonix, France when I was just 18 years old.  I had the chance to climb Mount Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, with a friend, but I eventually backed out because I was too cheap to shell out thirty dollars to rent a harness and ice equipment.  I regret that decision to this day and now scoff at the idea of missing unique opportunities to save on money that you’ve already saved.  What’s the point of saving money in the first place?  For some, it’s to buy a house, or to save for a child’s education.  For single, irresponsible. and selfish me, I save so that I can embrace these types of opportunities.  This could be my one life opportunity to get to the world’s seventh continent, and once I arrived at its closest port, I realized that my decision to go had already been made.

"The Ushuaia" leaving the port for which it was named

I boarded the 70-meter, 80-passenger ex-research vessel, the “Ushuaia” at 4:00 pm today.  As I unpacked my bag in the smallest cabin on the boat, I soon forgot that my savings account was just half the size it was the day prior.  And so began the trip.

Day 2, January 20, 2009  “Dazed on the Drake Crossing”

I went to bed tired last night…and awoke to light this morning.  I mistook the ceiling light that my roommate left on for a sunlit window, and I jumped out of my upper bunk to check the time.  1:30…shit…we had slept for 14 hours, and had missed the morning Antarctic lectures.  Apparently the swaying boat and the uniform sound of the motor below us had put me in a sleepy daze.  I dressed and climbed the stairs above.  There must have been a conference going one for I was the only one in hallway, but soon looked out a porthole to darkness, realizing my mistake.  The dark Antarctic sky called me out.  It’s 1:30 in the morning you asshole.

We spent all of day 2 crossing the Drake Passage, the narrowest section of the Southern Ocean, which connects the Antarctic Peninsula to Cape Horn, South America.  At this latitude, unobstructed Westerly circumpolar winds build up to produce nasty swells and the world’s most daunting waters.  For better or for worse, we encountered a peaceful sea today, and swells rarely amounted to more than a few meters.

With not much to look at but an open sea, I used today as an opportunity to meet some of the seventy passengers onboard.  Fifteen were from the Netherlands, a good few from the States, five from Argentina, a couple from India, Pakistan, and China, and quite a bunch from Australia and Europe.  My roommate Benny, a native of Vancouver with Chinese blood, born just a day after me, was on a similar journey to that of my own.  He too was traveling for 2-3 years, but his trigger was a fight with his dad, and the need to get of his family’s business.  Remniscent of Chris McCandless from Into the Wild, he packed his bags for seemingly endless journey.

Day 3, January 21, 2010   Land in Sight

Three Chinstrap Penguins provided a warm welcome

“Off.”  That’s how I could describe my condition so far on the trip.  I don’t know if it was the swaying boat, the loud engine next to my bed, the lack of exercise, or all the junk food I was eating, but for some reason I was lethargic, achy, and surprisingly unexcited about the expected landfall later that day.  My excitement and hopefully my energy level would increase as we neared the Antarctic mainland.

By lunchtime, some 800 kilometers into the trip, we encountered the South Shetland Islands, an archipelago just off the Northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Small islands, flanked by cliffs and narrow, iceberg-filled channels…this is what I came for.  At 2:00 pm, we boarded a train of Antarctic-proof zodiacs and landed on the Aitchos Islands.  A line of two feet-tall chinstrap penguins welcomed us to their smelly home.  Tens of thousands of Penguins on an island the size of a Manhattan city block makes for a high density of penguin shit, and I’m now convinced penguin feces rivals only those of humans in the gross factor.

We walked across the drizzly desolate island, strictly staying 5 meters away from all wildlife.  As the winds and rain picked up and temperatures plummeted to about zero, my rubber boots sucked all feeling out of my toes.  However on this trip, I need not worry about the shivers for a hot shower is never more than a few hours away.  Our zodiac return to the ship was quite exciting as the swells picked up to three meters.  Following each wave crest, the bough of the zodiac would crash down and completely drench the front four passengers, as if we were in an Antarctic water amusement park.  One U.S. lady upfront was so horrified that she began to cry.  This was good for her I thought.  As we approached the ship the zodiac crashed against Ushuaia’s massive metal hull, and if someone had their fingertips on the outside of the tube, fingers surely would have been crushed.  One elderly man was so paralyzed by the situation that we literally had to lift him out of our boat onto the deck above.  Passengers were completely wasted when they got onto the deck, and I think some were questioning their decision to come here.

Day 4, January 22, 2010  Touching Ground on the 7th Continent

Last night the Ushuaia cruised across the Bransfield Strait (otherwise known as the mini-Drake because of the swells it generates) and into the Antarctic Sound.  As we entered the sound, icebergs became so frequent that the boat had to slow to just a few knots as it navigated around them.  They were absolutely massive, some the size of city parks, so large that they would circulate the Southern Ocean for years before melting.  Unlike normal islands, icebergs migrate with the currents, so it requires two crewmembers to be on iceberg watch to ensure we don’t pull a Titanic with these unmapped obstacles.  They pose such a challenge that we have an ice captain onboard, exported from Russia, who specializes in this type ice navigation.  Enormous seals slept on these rolling ice beds, and if you had the right light, you could see the aqua blue bottoms, the majority of the iceberg mass below water.

Deep-blue iceberg drifting in the Brainsfield Strait. Up to 80% of an iceberg's mass is submerged underwater.

Encountering the beautiful ice bergs reminded me of a slide show I went to of my child-hero, the late Alex Lowe, one of the world’s great mountain climbers.  He showed pictures of his “Sailing to Climb” Antarctic expedition, where he joined a southbound sailing vessel to ice climb the world’s tallest icebergs.  With envy, I pictured him carefully cramponing off the rubber hull of our zodiacs, swinging forcefully on his first pass into the ice, as to avoid slipping into the ice-cold or slashing the inflatable boat below.  The perfectly cut blue ice floating at sea would be my fondest memory of Antarctica.

We intended to cruise to Paulet Island, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, but the pack ice from the Weddell Sea extended out into our route, much farther than expected.  This was the same ice that trapped Shackleton’s expedition in 1914, crushing both his vessel The Endurance, as well as his dream of making the first traverse of Antarctica.  But while he and his crew spent 14 months getting themselves out of this epic, we were only inconvenienced for a morning.   As a nice alternative we cruised south and made our first landing on the Antarctic mainland.

At 9:30 a.m., the zodiacs landed, and many of the ships’ travelers had just touched their final continent.  Located at 65 degrees South, we had landed on the Northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, but we had yet to cross the Antarctic Circle.  In the Northern Hemisphere, there are many towns and small cities scattered across greater latitudes in Norway, Alaska, and Russia.  But Antarctica is a much different from the Arctic.  With a landmass extending from the South Pole, temperatures and winds are much more extreme than in the high boreal latitudes.  Consequently, 98% of Antarctica is covered in ice, and options for landing on dry ground are few and far between.  Today we found a sliver of that two percent, a volcanic outcropping called Brown Bluff, where we set up base for three hours to admire the surrounding glaciers, icebergs, and penguins.

Antarctica: Part II

Day 5, January 23, 2010   Best day yet!


What make my travels so worthwhile are the small memorable moments.  Moments, when you look around, and you’ve realized you made a right decision to come here, and confess that there is nowhere else in the world where you’d rather be.  One of those moments came for me on Day 5, when Ushuaia slowly navigated through the Isles, and the evening sun emerged through the clouds for the first time on the trip.  There was finally a contrast between the sea, land, and sky.  I knew right then that the Antarctic Peninsula was the most spectacular landscape I had ever visited.  Standing out on the bough, I turned to my new friend Luis, a photographer from Valencia.  He stopped shooting for a moment and we shared that “holy shit” grin.  After traveling solo for so long, it was nice to share a moment like that with a good companion.

Virgin walls waiting to be climbed

Yosemite-like rock walls emerged from the narrow, ice-filled sea.  On each side of these massive cliffs lie blue crevassed glaciers which extend to horn-shaped peaks above.  Having climbed in the glaciated Ruth Gorge of Alaska I have seen a similar landscape, but in place of a valley glacier is the wild Antarctic Sea, speckled with deep blue chunks of floating ice. The climber in me (or the one that used to be in me) couldn’t stop admiring the number of first ascents to be completed in this range.  If this were a personal expedition, one could easily tackle a dozen virgin peaks in just a few weeks.  Perhaps another day…

Day 6, January 24, 2010  “It’s not personality, it’s penguinity.”

Last night during a debrief of our day’s journey, one crewmember suggested that during our landings we pay attention to one penguin, follow it, and observe its humorous “personality.”  An elderly Indian woman immediately stood up and made her first public comment of the trip.  “They’re penguins. They don’t have personality, they have penguinity!!!”  Impressed with her clever comment, I committed today’s landing, and many more, to observing Antarctic penguinity.

We encountered three species of penguins in Antarctica: Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie, all equally beautiful and hilariously entertaining.  In Brown Bluff, I watched hundreds of penguins walk together down a beach, stop to call at each other for a minute, and then dive into the sea from a specific stretch of sand.  They swam out to the open water ten times as fast as their waddling pace, taking frequent dolphin-like leaps above the ice-cold water to get a breath of fresh air.  Within a minute, a flock of a hundred more penguins arrived, only to perform the same ritual from the exact same launching site.  In the distant coastline, several more armies of picky penguins were waiting in line for their preferred beach.

I walked inland a bit to find stray penguins, waddling to the beat of their own drums.  They walked aimlessly, stared into the sky, carefully climbed rocks, and clumsily leapt from them.  They pushed off and land with both legs, as if they were performing a standing long jump, and they frequently face plant, dirtying their bellies, and bruising their precious beaks.  Unembarrassed, they pick themselves up, and waddle along in a rush to go nowhere.  Free of any responsibility, these were probably the penguins that had failed to have offspring the previous winter.

I walked a bit further to see a circle of some fifty penguin nests.  Mothers and Fathers sit in these rock piles, keeping their chicks warm and sheltered from the Antarctic winds, while their partners would venture out to find more pebbles for the nests.  Occasionally they would get lazy and steal rocks from unwary neighbors, and if caught, they would be in for a long chase.  Some nests were occupied by several chicks, who cuddle together for warmth.  These “nurseries” are part of a free Antarctic penguin child-care program, whereby parents can go out to feed at sea while a hungry neighbor sits and watches the local chicks.

Day 7, January 25, 2010  Iceberg Alley

This morning we had the luxury of stopping on Verdanksy, a Ukranian research station, just off of the peninsula.  This is where the British used to (and now the Ukrainians) monitor the thinning of the ozone layer, which is considerably more serious here than anywhere else in the world.  While not working lab equipment, the thirteen male scientists and support staff are proudly perfecting the distillation of vodka.  For a tourist, a shot costs three bucks. But if you are a female, generous enough to donate your bra to the lonely bartender, you can drink the day away, free of charge.  You be the judge of whether or not your donation is going to a worthy cause.

And the major highlight of the trip…Iceberg Alley.  Today we had remarkably calm and clear weather, perfect for some zodiac exploration of an iceberg-filled bay.  Approaching the bergs, we soon realized we weren’t the only ones enjoying the sun.  Seven hundred pound Leopard seals were sunbathing on tiny bergs, their heat creating puddles of water beneath them, and the ice melted out to conform to their bodies.  We came within inches of these sleeping giants, who, like the penguins, felt no need to respond to our arrival.  I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Day 8-11,  January 26 – 29, 2010     Cruising Home

Antarctic weather returns!!!  Consistent 40 mph winds would alter our itinerary.  Instead of viewing wildlife on Day 8, we landed on a more protected bay and hiked to a volcanic crater.  Sulfur would be our last whiff of Antarctica and we boarded the Ushuaia for the last time, South America bound.

The heavy winds continued and unlike our first crossing, this one would give us typical conditions of the Drake Passage.  The Ushuaia has a shallow, flat-bottomed hull, effective for turning narrow Antarctic channels and navigating icebergs.  An unfortunate side-effect is that swells push it around more than any boat I’ve ever been on, even more than a 20-foot sailboat that we sailed up the coast of British Colombia.  Thirty-six straight hours of boat rocking kept many in bed for the entire crossing, and I slept more than I had in the last year.  The last night we anchored ourselves in the quiet Beagle Channel and the sailors, who normally remain aloof from passengers, invited us down to their meager living quarters to celebrate our return with a night of debauchery.  I finally had someone with whom I could share my dollar-boxes of wine.

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I’m now heading back to Bariloche, committing myself to 35 consecutive days of work to pay off the trip, and I have no regrets about my decision to head to Antarctica.  Perhaps I will be back on another type of expedition, probably to a different place if the wallet permits.  Maybe the Vinson Massif, Queen Maud Land, or the Ross Ice Shelf.  But if I don’t, at least I can die, knowing that I touched just a small piece of the most beautiful and desperate landscape on Earth.  I saw just a tiny fraction of the Antarctic Peninsula, probably the most accessible points on the whole continent, but at the same time it was the most fantastic and untapped landscape I had ever seen.  It’s a place that will remind skeptics that the world still has unexplored ranges, unclimbed mountains, and unchartered coastlines…just pack some warm clothes and an ice axe, and hitch a ride on southbound vessel.