Flying to Antarctica (Without the Drake Passage): My First Journey to the 7th Continent
Orne Harbor, Antarctica
As I stood on the windswept tarmac in Puna Arenas, Chile, I felt nervous yet wasn’t sure why. Anticipation and excitement, yes. But, as a seasoned traveler, anxiety is not something I typically experience before getting on a plane. Perhaps it was not knowing exactly what to expect. Or having to be prepared to change plans at any time and relinquish control? None of those possibilities were things that mesh terribly well with my Type A personality. But I would quickly learn that giving in to mother nature and rolling with the unexpected are part and parcel of the intrigue and magic of a trip to Antarctica.
Getting Ready but Staying Flexible
It started with an announcement as I sauntered casually into our hotel, anticipating an afternoon of leisure ahead. I learned that our plane to the South Shetland Islands would now be departing a full day early, flying out within a mere 3 hours of arriving to Punta Arenas. Our ship, the Ocean Nova, awaited us on King George Island for our onward journey to the Antarctic Peninsula, and vessel staff had determined we would advance our departure time to take advantage of a brief and quickly closing weather window on the island. And weather, we were quickly learning, determines all when it comes to travel in Antarctica.
As I looked out over a sea of fellow passengers, each spilling the contents of their suitcases out across the lobby floor in a frenzied effort to consolidate (the weight limit is 20 kilos per person across all luggage), it finally hit me that I was heading to the White Continent. Even while packing at home and rummaging through the used gear section of my local outdoor store for some last-minute items, my upcoming trip to Antarctica still felt like any other. But now that I was vacuuming my backpack as a biosecurity measure, and pulling on snow pants and special boots to board a final plane south, I started to more fully grasp the inimitability of the experience I was about to have.
Flying the Drake
The friendly, helpful staff of Antarctica 21 graciously fielded questions from nervous travelers while still efficiently moving all ~60 of us toward the airport with speed. And then just like that, we were off, flying high above the fabled Drake Passage aboard a DAP Airlines BAE 146-200. In just two hours we comfortably transited what takes most cruise vessels at least two full days of rocking and rolling across open oceans to accomplish. This is of course the primary advantage of the fly-cruise option. While there is something to be said for the onboard preparation time a traditional crossing affords (days at sea are filled with interesting lectures by naturalists and staff on all topics Antarctica), as someone prone to seasickness, I for one was grateful to have skipped the multi-day ocean voyage to Antarctica from Ushuaia (and back).
People often ask me: Aren’t those flights unreliable? And to a certain extent, the answer is yes, just as everything is unreliable in Antarctica! Whether you’re on a boat or a plane, contending with the unpredictable and rapidly changing weather at the bottom of the world is a constant. Indeed the ability to adeptly manage, adapt, and respond to those conditions is one of the many attributes that made the crew and expedition staff on my journey so impressive.
Of the 241 flights Antarctica 21 operated over 19 years (as tracked through March 2022), 187 of them (or 78%) flew as originally scheduled. An additional 16% of their flights over that same period operated with only a one-day delay, and 6% departed a day early, giving a select few travelers one whole extra day to explore the Peninsula (this is indeed what happened to my lucky group in February 2023!). In the face of such unpredictable weather, it’s comforting to know Antarctica 21 has a preferential relationship with the flight operator to ensure their travelers receive top priority on inbound and outbound flights over this route.
As our plane descended through the clouds to Chile’s Frei Station, we could see the Ocean Nova anchored in the harbor below, surrounded by a barren, rocky landscape dotted with penguins and patchy snow. Upon landing, we were quickly shuttled from the gravel runway to the beach where a line of zodiacs, manned by our 12-person expedition team outfitted in smiles and yellow parkas, awaited to take us to the ship.
Boarding the zodiacs, it was all the crew could do to get us to focus on the safety tasks at hand. The excitement was palpable, with most of us already oohing and aahing at the abundant wildlife surrounding us. “You will see soooo many penguins, I promise!” the crew yelled, as they tried to get us into our life vests and onto the boats. They were upbeat, patient, and efficient, but the immediate goal was to get us on board and straight to a safety briefing, drill, and late dinner, as it was already pushing 9 pm by the time we arrived.
You will see sooo many penguins, I promise!
Exploring the Peninsula
Our official introduction to the staff and crew of the Ocean Nova, as well as our first naturalist lectures on board the ship, took place the next morning as we finished crossing the Bransfield Strait, the waters separating the Shetland Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula.
We then spent the next five days exploring the stunningly scenic and wildlife-rich seas and islands found along the western side of the Antarctic peninsula, including all its many fjords, bays, inlets, channels, beaches, mountains, craters, glaciers, and icebergs. Each morning and afternoon we’d embark on a mini-expedition by zodiac and then on foot, all outings deftly planned and coordinated by David, our experienced expedition team leader, along with his team of guides, naturalists, and the boat captain.
The specific sites and landing locations of our expedition activities were always selected just hours beforehand based on prevailing weather and sea conditions, with the staff preparing and often executing multiple contingency plans each day to account for the unpredictability of the harsh Antarctic environment. We quickly got used to qualifications accompanying all our evening briefings and the morning loud speaker announcements when addressing the next day’s activities. “We are going to attempt a landing at…” or, “We are going to try to visit if conditions allow…” Again, as a Type A planner myself, “Trust me, you’ll see and do cool things in Antarctica, but we can’t really tell you when and where” is not a very satisfying answer. But after experiencing the White Continent myself, I now better understand why it’s so challenging to provide travelers with detailed itineraries and fixed activity plans in advance of Antarctica cruises!
This is not a cruise, this is an EXPEDITION!
But I can share what a “typical day” on board the Ocean Nova looks like, to the extent that anything “typical” exists in Antarctica. After each day’s breakfast, and then again after every lunch, 8-10 zodiacs would be lowered by crane into the water from the ship’s upper deck. Each was manned by a member of the expedition team and could carry up to 10 guests. We would then head out to explore, observing shipwrecks and other remnants of the 19th and early 20th century polar explorers and whalers, tracking pods of feeding humpback whales, or gliding by icebergs with napping leopard seals. These zodiac expeditions were always the coldest part of the day, due to the wind and splash. But they also resulted in some of the best wildlife encounters we experienced. Kayakers would also head out at these times. (As kayaking is an activity with limited space, it is imperative to select and pay the additional cost in advance to secure your space: $895 per person for the duration of the trip.)
The guides were not only skilled at maneuvering the zodiacs, but they were also affable, personable, and incredibly knowledgeable about the natural and human history of the region. And each brought their particular expertise and experience to Antarctica, whether that be in glaciology, geology, climatology, ecology, marine biology, ornithology, citizen science, polar exploration, mountaineering, emergency medicine—you name it! The Ocean Nova staff was one of the best I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. Plus, the small size of the ship meant similarly small expedition group sizes and regular, close interactions with them that truly enhanced our overall Antarctic travel experience.
From the zodiacs, we would make landings to explore on foot. Sometimes we’d be on an island, other times we’d be walking the continent itself. In all cases, our guides would flag out a couple of routes, of varying difficulty, for passengers to follow. Here you could really spread out from your group if so desired. Some people would choose to stick closer to the landing site. Others might summit hills and ridges in search of even better views (or to work off the copious amounts of delicious food we indulged in on board!). Snowshoeing was also an option at many of the landing sites (for an additional cost of $85/outing). However, February is late in the season and there is less fresh snow, so I didn’t find snowshoes could get us anywhere we couldn’t otherwise walk in our standard-issue boots.
The stars of the show on land in Antarctica are the penguins. Massive colonies of Gentoo, Chin Strap, and Adélies seemingly occupy every square foot of exposed ground or rock. These are the three most common penguin species on the peninsula. If you want to see the big guys, you will have to head to South Georgia Island or travel much further south. I, for one, was more than content to watch for hours as these smaller varietals waddled and slid along their penguin highways en route from the water to their nests.
A Trip of a Lifetime
While I expected lots of penguins, one of the biggest surprises for me in Antarctica was how varied, and honestly how beautiful, the land and seascapes were. For some reason, I had expected more monotony in tone and terrain throughout the cruise. Just lots of flat ice as far as the eye could see, blending unremarkably into a grey sky. And don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of ice, just as bluebird skies were few and far between (at least on our trip). But, Antarctica was so much more. The sheer scale and gradient of the mountain landscapes–and the opportunities we had to walk, snowshoe, climb, kayak, and navigate on top of and amongst them–was one of many pleasant and unexpected surprises for me on the White Continent, as both a mountain lover and a more active traveler.
The opening words of our expedition leader really rang true: “This is not a cruise, this is an expedition!” And for me at least, I’m so glad that they did. For anyone who may be considering a trip to Antarctica but wouldn’t normally describe themselves as a “cruise person,” either due to concerns about lack of activity or seasickness, rest assured there is a perfect trip out there for you. And I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a fly-cruise expedition in just such cases.
While a cruise to Antarctica wasn’t previously on my own radar as a top priority, I now understand why the 7th continent is on so many travelers’ bucket lists. I’m a total convert! Whether it’s the wildlife, the novelty of an extreme snow-and-ice-covered destination, or the chance to immerse yourself in one of the most remote and pristine places left on Earth, Antarctica truly is the trip of a lifetime. The tremendous awe and privilege I felt every day of my journey is hard to describe, and it will be hard to match. And the joy of that experience makes me even more excited to help craft similar experiences for our travelers in the future.