Antarctic Peninsula with Circle Crossing
"You really have to experience Antarctica first-hand to truly understand..." my friends and colleagues would say. "In order to know what ice smells like... to comprehend the expansive beauty... to stand in the middle of a penguin rookery in utter amusement...You have to make the journey and experience it for yourself--books and photographs just don't do it justice. Antarctica is a world unto itself, as foreign as traveling to another planet."
And they were right. Even after working at an expedition travel company for four years, where I regularly read and write about this extraordinary place, I was surprised to discover I did not entirely know what to expect!
I sailed aboard the Russian research vessel, Akademik Ioffe, with a hundred boisterous and mainly Australian fellow passengers, sixteen expedition staff and forty-two Russian crew on the 13-day "Antarctic Circle Quest." This trip was a great match for me: Active program (hiking, kayaking, camping options), thirteen days, basic vessel, perfect time of year (January), not to mention the added bonus of crossing the Antarctic Circle. Although more time was spent at sea than most Peninsula voyages, the unique opportunity of crossing the Circle and witnessing the awesome sea and icescapes of the Deep South was worth the wait.
Though a research vessel, the Akademik Ioffe was surprisingly comfortable, spotless, and provided us with everything we could have wanted, including sauna, a cozy bar and lounge, media center, and even a small gym. And, for me, sailing aboard a Russian research ship only added to the sense of exploration and adventure! Meal times were never less than a feast. Each day, we were treated with three well-balanced and hearty meals: A large and varied breakfast buffet, full lunch and multi-coursed dinners, of which there were always three choices.
Our expedition team, friendly and upbeat, and from all corners of the globe: Australia, New Zealander, Canada, Scotland, and Argentina. Each day, they led us on a new adventure with glowing enthusiasm complemented by their first-hand experience, anecdotes, and knowledge. Ray, one of our leaders, had actually lived in Antarctica and constructed a base during the sixties. Peter, our passionate birder often perched at top deck leading bird identification hour, filled our curious minds with facts about fulmars, petrels, and terns. And, each evening, one of our guides would regale us with an after-dinner story or history lesson over a drink in the bar.
The passengers were largely Australian, with a handful from Canada and Great Britain. Their sense of humor, free-spirited nature and passion for adventure was contagious. Laughter regularly carried across the dining room and they were typically the first to take a voluntary plunge into the frigid Antarctic waters or a human toboggan down a snowy hillside. The kayaking group of sixteen developed a special comraderie, paddling together through rain, sleet and sunshine. We would often see them circumnavigating the islands we were hiking.
The highlights were all too many to list, but there remains a series of moments throughout the trip that were most impressionable:
Crossing the Antarctic Circle
Bundled up in our layers of fleece and wool, we mustered on deck and waited for the countdown to began, "10, 9, 8..." We raised our glasses of champagne and prepared for our official Antarctica Circle Crossing: "... 3, 2, 1!!" Cheers of celebration rang out across the ship, glasses clinked, photos snapped. Ziggy, our fabulous Canadian Expedition Leader, held up a colorful sign displaying our exact whereabouts: 66°33.6' South. How far we had all come! In no more than three and a half days, we had traveled farther south than most people will ever journey--and now with a glass of champagne to boot!
Later that night, I saw my first tabular iceberg. Overcome with a sense of awe and astonishment, I felt like I had discovered one of the world's best-kept secrets. There we were cruising south of the Polar Circle at 11 pm in daylight when suddenly someone yelled "iceberg." Immediately, we dropped our deck of cards and darted out to starboard side. And, there it was--magnificent! The size of an enormous skyscraper lying horizontally, brilliantly white, and appearing to glow amid the gray haze and vast open ocean that surrounded us. Our Russian research vessel was dwarfed by its size. Tiny snowflakes graced our noses and eyelashes, and like wide-eyed children on Christmas morning, we smiled and looked up to the sky to watch them fall. So present in the moment were we, and so tiny we felt as guests to this deafeningly quiet and nearly indescribable place.
The next morning, we pushed our way north through the brash ice. A mesmerizing sight--gigantic white lily pads interspersed with chunky blue "bergy bits," as they're called. This day would mark our first excursion, by Zodiac. A day of firsts, we also came upon our first pair of adelie penguins resting on a small iceberg. Quite amazing to realize that while we would last only minutes in these Antarctic waters, these two cartoon-like birds call this harsh environment "home." Bobbing up and down on their ice raft, they watched us watching them and eventually dove back into the icy waters in search of lunch. Once back on board our ship, our expedition team greeted us with thawing hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies.
Petermann Island - our first landing
A welcoming committee of hundreds of adelie and gentoo penguins greeted us our Zodiacs pulled into shore. To our left, a bright red hut contrasted with the white snow, and directly in front of us perched on the snowy slope, five yellow tents. Two women studying penguin behavior were temporarily living here! An absolute spectacular location. Towering mountains, icebergs and adorable penguins in every direction. We followed one of our guides on a hike up the hillside and over the glacier. En route, we passed a small rookery on our left. Every once and a while a lone penguin would cross our path, flop onto his belly then continue on his way. These moments were definitely amongst my favorites. Like little men, wobbling about--such a riot! I had to stop for several minutes and just watch them on the rocks with their young. I could not wipe the smile from my face.
After a morning hiking to the top of Danco Island, we headed for Wilhelmina Bay in search of humpbacks. The wind and dismal grayness quickly gave way to cloud-breaks, and we soon found ourselves beneath glorious sunshine--perfect weather for whale watching! Everything around us seemed to glisten and sparkle. The kayakers eagerly gathered for their fifth excursion as the rest of us gladly sported our sunglasses and filed into the Zodiacs. Right away, we spotted at least half a dozen whales. As our Zodiac approached one of them, we spotted a fluke. A few moments later, a dorsal fin surfaced! We crept closer while keeping a respectful distance. I was awestruck... To see these magnificent creatures so close was an incredible thrill. We watched them gracefully dance above then below the water's surface and listened to their spouting--"phooooff" as water came spraying out the blowhole. Our Zodiac driver's keen navigational skills afforded us great photo ops. We must have been out in the bay circling and floating for at least a couple hours!
It's these and so many other memories from this adventure which remain close to my heart. And, I know no matter where my wanderlust takes me in the future, Antarctica will undoubtedly remain the gem of my far-flung adventures.