It’s the holy grail of travel destinations – at least to me. The end of the earth. A frozen land populated primarily by penguins, and generally thought to be only accessible by scientists, researchers, and explorers. When I first started dreaming of Antarctica several years ago, I never imagined I’d actually set foot on this majestic continent. But I did! Yet no amount of planning, documentary-watching, or stories from those who journeyed before me could have prepared me for the magnitude of the Great White Continent.
Reaching the bottom of the planet is an adventure in and of itself. For logistical purposes, a night in Buenos Aires is a must, but I recommend spending a few days exploring this amazing city if time allows. Distinctively Latin, yet reminiscent of Europe, Buenos Aires is a lively and vibrant metropolis. It’s near impossible not to be romanced by this city of seductive tango, intense Malbec, and delicious parillas. After four days in the “Paris of South America,” I continued my journey to the “End of the World” – Ushuaia – the southernmost city in Argentina and the jumping off point for Antarctica. It’s here that I boarded the Akademik Ioffe, my home for the next 11 days.
As the sun set upon the Beagle Channel, a school of dusky dolphins swam alongside our ship – a sign of good luck according to maritime folklore. Eventually the last trace of land was gone, and under the starry night sky we ventured into the open waters of the Drake Passage, the crossing of which is a rite of passage for those wish to reach Antarctica. Two days later came the first wondrous iceberg sighting. And the following morning, my faced beamed with excitement as I peered out my window to see soaring snowcapped mountains. Antarctica!
I’ll never forget those first few steps. Donned in fire-red waterproof gear, I began my trek along the snowy path. Within moments, I was greeted by three chinstrap penguins. I paused as to comply with the “five meter distance rule,” but fortunately penguins are above the law and they wobbled toward me with arms wide open. They were completely unbothered by my presence, and in fact a bit curious about me. I was beaming from ear to ear! As I continued my walk along Half Moon Island, the sun was shining and the air was crisp and clean – the scent, however, was not. But that potent aroma meant that more penguins (and lots of them) were just around the corner. I stood there in awe as I laid eyes upon hundreds of penguins, from full-grown, tuxedoed parents to awkward molting teenagers – plus a few furry newly born babies. It was simply spectacular.
The wildlife and scenery I experienced over the next few days was absolutely breathtaking. We saw three different types of penguins, countless other seabirds – including the great wandering albatross, and massive crabeater, as well as leopard and Weddell seals lounging on the shore. I also showed up just in time for fantastic whale viewing. One of my favorite moments was the afternoon spent in Wilhelmina Bay – appropriately nicknamed “Whalehelmina Bay” – where we saw dozens of humpback whales!
Kayaking in Antarctica very well might top the list for me, though. This was the one day during my time in Antarctica that the sun hid behind the clouds and snow lightly fell – and I wouldn’t have had it any other way as I kayaked through “iceberg alley.” I was surrounded by palatial bergs of different shapes and sizes set against a luminous, ombre gray backdrop. The bases of the icebergs were a vibrant, electric blue. Penguins bobbed in the water around me, and I locked eyes with a lone leopard seal relaxing on the ice. Since kayaking is limited to just a handful of travelers, it provides a chance to see Antarctica “up close and personal” – away from the rest of the group and the engine noise of the Zodiac.
When not exploring on land, I felt right at home aboard the Akademik Ioffe. Carrying just 96 passengers, the Ioffe is a well-outfitted research vessel complete with scientific equipment, which made me feel like a true explorer! The ship is basic, but the cabins are comfortable and there are surprising amenities onboard – including a Jacuzzi and sauna – which, along with a cozy fireside lounge, provided the perfect end to an active, exhilarating day of exploring. The expedition team and staff hailed from different corners of the English-speaking world – Canada, Great Britain, Tasmania, and Australia. The crew members were energetic and fun, and all possessed a contagious passion for Antarctica.
I admit I wasn’t quite ready to come home at the end of my journey. The spectacular wildlife, the stunning landscape, and the adventure of it all affected me more than I imagined it would. And while I’m proud to say that I’ve now officially stepped foot on all seven continents, Antarctica was much more monumental than simply checking a box on a list. I feel blessed to have experienced nature in its purest form.