Taking the Plunge: My Journey to Antarctica
Thanks to my job as a Destination Specialist with Vaya, I’ve had the pleasure of traveling extensively throughout South America and visiting some very special places. It never fails, however, that tales of Antarctica elicit the most interest. More travelers than ever are trekking to the White Continent, but it still remains an intimidating and out-of-reach destination for many people.
A crucial aspect to my job is getting to know my clients and helping them choose the best trip for their personal priorities and interests. So how should one start to think about a journey to Antarctica? There are some important questions to ask yourself as you begin to plan your trip:
1. How much time do you have? Cruise lengths vary significantly, and the total amount of time you are able to take for this trip will determine where you can go and how long you can spend at the Antarctic Peninsula itself.
2. What is your budget for this trip? It’s no secret that Antarctica is a remote and relatively expensive destination. The price for your trip will vary significantly depending on the length of the cruise, the category of the ship, and the type of cabin in which you stay.
3. How important is it to you to be active during the cruise? Certain vessel operators focus on being as active as possible and include specialized activities (such as kayaking, snow shoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding) in the cruise rate, while others charge for these special activities and have a fixed number of passengers who can participate in them each cruise.
4. What are you most excited to see? Although the experience will be wonderful no matter when you go, and key elements are present regardless of your travel dates, there are a few variations throughout the season that are good to consider. For example, if you are most keen to see penguins and specifically penguin chicks, then going in January to about mid-February is best. If your priority is to see as many whales as possible, then going at the end of the season, from mid-February to March, is usually best. If you are most excited about the ice and seeing large icebergs, then it can be best to go in the beginning of the season (November and December) when the continent is “re-awakening,” so to speak, and the ice is sharp, icebergs are massive, and the snow a brilliant, unsullied white.
My Own Experience in Antarctica and Some Traveler Tips:
For my own trip to Antarctica this year, I was fortunate to sail on the Ocean Endeavour, operated by Quark Expeditions, on a nine-night program to the Antarctic Peninsula. During the two days we spent crossing the Drake Passage on our way to Antarctica, the Expedition Leader and guides were busy preparing us for the adventure ahead.
We had multiple lectures each day talking about the ecological, geological, and historical aspects of Antarctica. We were also briefed on the rigorous IAATO regulations (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators – a wealth of knowledge and a website worth visiting) which specify how visitors to Antarctica must behave to reduce their impact on this pristine environment. I have experienced other robust conservation efforts before, for example in the Galapagos Islands, but I was particularly impressed by the meticulousness of our preparation en route to the peninsula. Guides sat patiently in the main lounge and inspected every single piece of clothing we were to wear on excursions, picking away little balls of lint on my ear warmers, vacuuming out my backpack, and showing us how to wash our boots and pants in a special solution.
I started the trip in late February, putting me at the peninsula during peak whale season. Each day we saw humpback and minke whales all around us. We landed at two Gentoo Penguin colonies and visited the Chilean military base. We saw a good number of seals, mostly Antarctic Fur Seals and Weddell Seals. One lucky group spotted a Leopard Seal, the fiercest of predators in this part of the world.
As an afterthought, I signed up for an outing on the stand-up paddleboard program. I had never done SUP Boarding previously, but the boards are wide and relatively easy to balance. The guides suited us up in high-tech dry suits, which are awfully fun to get into and to wear. In the that event you fall in the water (which I did, half on purpose, trying to strike a few yoga poses on the board!) they keep you completely dry and (mostly) warm in the sub-Antarctic waters.
If your physical abilities allow, my highest recommendation would be to sign up for a kayaking or paddleboarding program – and to do so the moment you book the cruise, as space is limited and usually fills up quickly. While zipping around on the zodiacs is a very enjoyable way to experience the awesome beauty of Antarctica, there is no question that getting away from the hum of the zodiac engines in a smaller group of kayakers / paddlers in the absolute silence of one of the most remote places on earth will likely be a highlight for you. Having humpback whales breach three feet away from me, as I stood in awe on my little paddleboard, feeling like I was a part of their magical kingdom for a few moments, will remain one of the best memories of my life.
Another highlight for many travelers to Antarctica is taking the “Polar Plunge.” This is when normally-rational people willingly fling themselves into the Southern Ocean, a body of water that in the summer months hovers just above freezing. The moment my trip to Antarctica was confirmed, I knew I had to do the Polar Plunge. It wasn’t something I wanted to do – in fact, the thought produced a deep sense of dread – but I felt like I absolutely had to have this experience.
When the weather allowed for us to take the plunge, we were called down to the lower deck in our bathing suits and bath robes. I thought maybe a dozen other crazy people would be there, but to my surprise I was met with a long line of enthusiastic plungers.
We huddled together in line, chatting nervously. Finally the crew threw the doors open, and as an icy blast of Antarctic air hit our bare legs, the reality of the temperature and our lack of protective clothing became very, very real. I quietly started crying on the inside, took deep breaths, and told myself it would all be over very soon.
They strapped a large harness to my waist (which was freezing from the previous plunge!), I stepped to the plank, and cannonballed in.
The few seconds I was in the water were exquisitely painful. I scrambled out as fast as my shocked limbs would allow me, and then, a total rush of endorphins took my body. I felt radiant; I went up to the top deck in my bathing suit and robe to watch more people jump in and was stunned to realize I was completely comfortable in the Antarctic air, the warm glow of the endorphins keeping me cozy and buzzed. I am so glad I took the plunge and hope to never do it again!
An Antarctica cruise is truly expeditionary and requires that you embrace the unexpected. As our Expedition Leader told us many times, “we will happily take what Antarctica gives us.” You will have an itinerary with some specific locations programmed each day of your cruise and these will undoubtedly change. The weather determines everything in this part of the world, and so changes will happen, often hour by hour. It was impressive to watch the Expedition Leader liaison with the captain, the guides, and even the kitchen staff, all of whom had to remain entirely flexible to the weather conditions. The entire team worked tirelessly to ensure we got as many opportunities to get off the ship and experience the awesomeness of Antarctica as possible. For me, this spontaneity added to the excitement of traveling to a very remote part of the world, and made each opportunity we had to get off the ship feel very special.
When you confirm a cruise, you will get a long packing list from the cruise operator. Many of the items you will likely already have (if you do any kind of hiking / skiing in your regular life). They will also list some specialty items, which may or may not be crucial to your experience. The two specialty items I did not choose to obtain that I wish I had are: a dry bag backpack and equipment to protect my camera.
My regular travel backpack has a waterproof layer that I simply pull out and put on the backpack when needed. However, the bottom of the zodiac boats gets wet (from people’s boots and the rain) and I was constantly opening and closing my backpack to access things like my water bottle and camera. The rain cover was silly and cumbersome in this situation, and so the ideal bag to have for the excursions is a dry bag that also has straps so that you can wear it on your back while you are walking on the peninsula.
I have a nice camera, but I’m not fussy about my equipment and don’t mind it getting a little wet or having to stick it in my jacket if it’s raining for some time. The amount of precipitation will differ based on the time of year you go, but I experienced rain on nearly every excursion and had trouble keeping my lens raindrop-free. It is worth it to come with some equipment that will at least keep your lens dry to get those great photos!
On that note: I would also encourage you to put your camera down regularly and simply be present. There were a few excursions where the whales were all around us and I took (no exaggeration) 500 blurry photos of partial whale tales. The guides then supplied us with their beautiful photos (taken on excellent equipment far surpassing my own) and it made me wish I had put my camera down and simply savored the spectacle with my own eyes.
On a 9-night program I spent 3 full days at the Antarctic Peninsula, which went by in the blink of an eye. (1 pre-cruise night in Ushuaia, 1 departure day, 2 days on the Drake, 3 days at the peninsula, 2 days on the Drake returning to Ushuaia.) If you have the ability to go for a longer time, I would absolutely recommend that you do so. For such a special trip that is likely to be once-in-a-lifetime, it is worth it to spend more time there. Antarctica will not disappoint.
Ask us how we can help you arrange this special trip! We’d be happy to help you plan more time in South America before and after your cruise, as well, in other regions in which we specialize, such as Patagonia.