"The Temptation of Antarctica"

Beth Conway

Antarctica’s remote and rugged landscape has been tempting me for years. And when the stars aligned for me last November, I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the chance to explore this isolated polar region. I had the pleasure to travel with two dear friends and fellow adventurous women who find Antarctica as inspiring as I do. Between the three of us we’ve run marathons, tackled the Inca Trail, sea kayaked through the Galapagos, trekking the Fitz Roy Range, give our duckies a run for their money on the Northwest’s waterways, and brave the grizzly bears of Glacier National Park to get away from it all. Antarctica was like an easy where-to-next option for the three of us. We did an excellent job of traveling separately-together.

It is easy to be inspired by such a place. Antarctica holds the title of coolest, driest and windiest destination on earth. This is a place that has conquered history’s most intrepid explorers, yet boasts a vulnerable environment that nurtures incredibly delicate wildlife. The contrast between the continent’s cute, plush penguins and the precarious environment is thrilling. It is truly remarkable to be in the middle of this dynamic. And when I say in the middle – I mean in the thick of things… Our very first day on the Antarctic Peninsula I was casually taking in the brilliant scenery at the shore of Neko Harbor, when a mere 20 feet from me, a leopard seal snatched a swimming gentoo penguin in its teeth and thrashed it in the water. A few disapproving squawks came from other gentoos onshore – but by the time the leopard seal was moving along to his next endeavor, so had the alarmed penguins. My heart remained pounding for the remainder of the afternoon.

I quickly discovered to expect the unexpected in Antarctica. There wasn’t time to let your guard down, because without a moment’s notice a humpback whale might grace the side of your zodiac. Or a black-brown albatross might decide to join you on deck, and ride the ship-winds for a while. Or a house-size piece of ice might calve from a glacier, sending a rolling thunder of water to the shoreline. These unplanned moments happened again and again on my polar adventure.

You can, however, plan on taking your time getting to and from the actual continent. My route took me from Missoula to Denver to Atlanta to Buenos Aires to embarkation in Ushuaia to 2-3 days at sea crossing the Drake Passage. I split up the journey with an extra few days in Ushuaia to do a little side trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park (just a hop-skip-and-jump away from Ushuaia) before getting my sea legs.

Our ship, the Lyubov Orlova, is named after a famous Russian actress. It is a tightly-run ship with experienced expedition crew. A member of our expedition team, Russian born Valdimir, has taken over 120 expeditions to Antarctica. Each trip included roughly 4 days in the Drake, which he likes to brag, equates to over a year in the legendary passage. Our journey was a classic 12-day voyage that included the Antarctic Peninsula with stops in the South Shetland Islands along the way.

In general, expeditions to the Antarctica are very similar. The most common is either a shorter 12-day voyage, like I opted for, or a 23-day cruise that combines the Antarctic Peninsula with the Falklands and South Georgia islands. Itineraries and landings are regulated not only by IAATO (International Antarctica Association of Tour Operators) but also by the weather, ice floe and landscape – landing sites alone are limited, as most of shoreline is dominated by a mountain range jutting up from the sea.

We opted for some extra excursions, like sea kayaking and onshore camping. Penguins – whose internal clocks seemed as confused as our own by Antarctica’s consistent summer sun – provided a noisy night sleep as I tried to hunkered in for a night on the great white continent. I’ve camped in the snow before, but the squawking penguins were definitely a new twist.

There are literally thousands of penguins: gentoos, adelie, chinstrap – and they are not shy. Our first landing on the South Shetland I planted myself in the snow and didn’t have to wait more than ten minutes before a curious chinstrap decided he wanted to see just what waterproof rain pants taste like. A few harmless pecks later, he gave me a final once-over and moved on.

Within a few days of the trip, it was obvious that sea kayakers have a horseshoe up their you-know-what… A total of ten passengers went sea kayaking during our trip, and at least one was able to bring a lucky charm through customs. In one afternoon, the kayakers had up-close encounters with a humpback whale and her calf, a leopard seal, watched an iceberg break in two, and dodged a compression wave.

A personal highlight for me came during the last leg of the trip. That day, the weather seemed perfect for exploring a place called the Iceberg Graveyard. Influenced by currents from the Ross Sea, this particular region consists of an abundance of the most alien, monstrous and mystical icebergs that seemed to have lost their way and accepted this lonesome inlet as their final resting place. The wind whipped over the water, blowing an icy mist into my eyes. It was the kind of cold where it’s hard to catch your breath. Carrying just ten travelers, our zodiac navigated through this labyrinth of ice and water. I had lost site of the Orlova long ago – consumed by the fog and blowing snow. I still have no idea how our guide was able to find the way back to the ship. A few travelers tried to fidget with their cameras, but quickly gave up. This was a moment to enjoy in the now, not from behind a lens. Back in the safety and warm of our expedition ship, the staff, crew and passengers were buzzing with energy. We had cold feet, red noses, were chilled to the core and couldn’t be happier. Ah ha – so this is Antarctica, I thought. Dinner and whiskey helped warm my insides. That night, I slept hard and happy.

Antarctica is a place where it isn’t about earning some adventurous bragging rights. Yes, I returned feeling a bit like one of the “cool” kids – after the polar plunge on Deception Island you can’t help but do a little boasting. But for me the lasting impression was this trip, this experience, this remote place on the planet is a privilege to explore. I cannot wait to return.

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A few final pieces of advice:

- Yes – the rubber boots will keep you warm.

Many ships offer complimentary rubber boots for onshore landings. My boots had no lining – and a simple two layers of socks did the trick. I traveled at the end of November, before a lot of the snow melts and dry ground is exposed. I was walking in waist-high snow at time, and even then the toes were warm. If you’re worried about your toes, rather than crowding your luggage with snow boots from home, toss a few heat packs in your rubber boots and you’ll be set.

  • Respect the Drake Passage

The Drake Passage is legendary for its rough seas and wild waves, and you’ll be rocking and rolling for days as your ship makes way through the passage. Whether or not you’ve ever been hit with motion sickness before, chances are the Drake Passage will turn the most steadfast stomachs. I opted for a prescription patch, and had over-the-counter Dramamine for a back-up. If you go with the patch, make sure to put it on about 24 hours before embarkation.

- Time of year makes a difference

November: The month of November (late Austral spring and early Austral summer) undoubtedly offers the most adventurous time to visit the Peninsula. This is the time to see Antarctica at its most undisturbed form. As the season goes on, the landing areas become impacted and muddy. Some operators tend to discourage November voyages as temperatures tend to be colder and polar ice is still breaking up so access to some areas may be limited. However, the cold temperatures also offer the most impressive icescapes, pristine snow and breathtaking scenery. Wildlife -- particularly whales (however, we had five humpback sightings) -- is not as plentiful as later in the season, but it is a good time to see the penguins mating.

December to Early February: December and January have the most sunlight (up to 20 hours a day), penguins begin hatching. Wildlife, especially penguin chicks, is most plentiful during this time typically.

Mid-February and March: Late summer, February and early March is the best time to spot whales, though you are taking the risk that other wildlife may already be gone out to sea. There tend to be less vessels operating at this time, which means you won't have to compete with other ships for landings. This time of year you are also likely to have better access to areas further south as polar ice melts. Also, you will rarely walk on snow during this time; expect rocky and muddy landings.

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