Summertime Snow — A Journey to the Antarctic Peninsula

Writing about one of the coldest places on Earth poses a great challenge, especially while one sits in a hot and humid city, Belo Horizonte, east/central Brazil. I came from having to wear four layers sweaters and jackets every time I stepped outside to wearing shorts, a t-shirt, flip-flops and I’m still overheating.

Humid heat is draining. I am exhausted all the time. I’ve never slept more in my life. It’s probably a combination of things: traveling, new food, backwards sleeping schedule, my aunt’s family… I can’t seem to drink enough coffee to keep me going.

Anyways, the Antarctic Peninsula. Surprisingly, for me at least, it is a highly traveled area in the summer. Some people I’ve spoken to didn’t know it was even possible to travel there. One guy I spoke to in a hostel a couple months ago, from Colorado I will add, who had his bachelor’s degree I will also add, was skeptical about whether or not the continent even exists.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Antarctica does in fact exist. And it is a lot more than just snow and ice, more on that later. It’s a highly sought after tourist destination, especially for Americans, Australians, Europeans, and the Chinese. Not many people can drop roughly $6,000 to $20,000*** to be on a cruise ship with 200 passengers for 9 days. I call it a cruise but it’s not really a cruise, per se. It’s similar to a cruise. It has its luxuries but we also took scientists along with us who studied penguins during our landings so it is technically an expedition.

***That’s for a room on the ship alone (I don’t know how much the most expensive rooms are so I put $20,000). For me, that did not include air fares, hotels, transportation, etc. Quark, the Polar region expedition travel company who I sailed with, offers a package where you meet in Buenos Aires then they fly you down to Ushuaia with other passengers but that’s only organizing part of the way down there. Once on board, one can spend an unlimited amount of money for alcohol, massages, and whatever else they want during the expedition. Our ship also had an awesome gift shop on board offering goodies such as: waterproof backpacks, Go-Pros, Arcteryx jackets, you name it.***

The Ocean Endeavor was originally the Konstantin Simonov, built for a Soviet company back in the 80’s.

So, how did I end up on this expedition? How did I hear about this? How did I get down there? How did I pay for this? Is Antarctica a continent?

Three days before I set sail, December 8, I didn’t know if I would be on the ship. I did know, however, know that I would be taking a bus from Punta Arenas, Chile, down to Ushuaia the day before embarkation. I had heard about people going to Antarctica, but I didn’t know how you could get there unless you had an ungodly amount of cash. I sort of knew there were tourist vessels and I assumed they were way too expensive for a backpacker, or the average person for that matter. There had to be another way to get down there.

I started to do some basic research on how to get down to Antarctica. Turns out the only “affordable” way is to leave from Ushuaia, Argentina. Obviously I was looking to go from there since I was traveling there, but I was interested in other ways to make the trip. You can fly or take a ship from South Africa or Australia but it is a much longer trip. There are, most likely, other ways to reach the seventh continent from other places but you would need to pay a lot of money and/or have some friends in high places. The most convenient way is from the tip of South America.

From Ushuaia you can take a ship down or fly down to the white continent. I’ve heard of trips where people pay a grand or two and do a flyover of the continent just to look out the window. I’ve also heard of people landing on the icy runways, somewhere near a base I’m assuming, and walking around for a bit before making a return flight back to Ushuaia or Punta Arenas, Chile, that same day. None of those options seemed like a worthwhile trip in my opinion.

I had a few base requirements in my mind I needed to check off in order for the trip to be worth the money, time, and effort. I needed to walk on the continent. Not just on islands, although I did mostly just that, but actually step foot on the continent. Other passengers shared a similar mindset. A friend I met on the ship, Joe, put it this way:

It’s like going to Hawaii, man. They’re just islands, not the continental U.S. It’s like sort of going to the U.S. but not actually going there.

Those weren’t his exact words but you get the idea. I had to walk on continental Antarctica to feel I truly visited the continent. Disclaimer: I don’t have anything against Hawaii or discount it as not being part of the United States.

Another requirement I had was that I had to travel by ship. I don’t know why but I originally thought, “Hey, maybe I could find a supply ship or something going to a base and see if I could work on board for a free trip down there.” I thought that would be such a cool way to get down to the continent, plus it would make for a great story. I don’t doubt that is impossible but realistically, that probably wasn’t going to happen in the timeframe I had. By this point (the second week of December) I had made arrangements to see my aunt and uncle in Brazil for Christmas so I only had two weeks to make the trip.

My last requirement was that I needed to see some of the wildlife up close, as well as see the mountains, glaciers, and icebergs up close. You can’t do that if you do a fly over or if you are only on the continent in one spot for a couple hours. A cruise, or expedition, was my only option.

I emailed a few tour companies based in Ushuaia about last minute deals to Antarctica. They needed to leave within the next few days, December 11–14, and return before December 22nd. That severely limited my options, but it is the start of the summer when ships regularly make the trip, so I had hope. Honestly I wasn’t too worried about it. I had a gut feeling that there would be a ship going down that I would be able to catch.

On December 8, 3 days before I left, I got a reply from a group called Freestyle Adventure based out of Ushuaia. They said they could hook me up with a ship leaving the 11th returning the 19th, stay in a 2-person room, everything included (meals, activities, some cold weather gear, insurance), all I had to do is pay in advance and show up in time to board the ship. Bam, just like that I had my chance to go to Antarctica.

I paid hundreds, if not thousands of dollars less than what other people paid for the same experience. Most people booked many months in advance. I highly encourage you to look at the cost of the trips listed on Quark’s website to get a sense for how much people typically pay.

Last minute deals really are the best way to go on cruises, or expeditions, because tour companies are trying to fill up the remaining rooms. I really lucked out because I ended up not even having a roommate. Last minute decisions are really underrated. You kind of have to accept the fact that things might not work out. In return, if you’re lucky, things fall into place.

I miss the chocolate on the pillow every night.

Now, while I did end up going with my first and only option, I didn’t make the decision right away. I had 48 hours to email other companies and weigh my options. I had emailed a couple other people and even received an email or two back from them, but it would have been thousands more than what I would have paid with Freestyle Antarctica. Plus nobody else had the dates I needed for the last minute trip. In the end, I really didn’t have a whole lot of time to decide not to go.

Here are a few thoughts that ran through my head while deciding on whether or not I was going to make this trip happen.

This is something people plan for months, years even. What the hell am I doing?

Should I tell anyone? I kind of like the idea of being in one of the most remote places on Earth and none of my friends or family have any idea where I am.

Am I really going scrape out thousands of dollars from my savings to go on a last minute trip to cross the roughest seas on the planet?

Absolutely. And, miraculously, I didn’t get seasick the entire trip.

It’s funny because around 8pm on the night before I left, I was sitting in my hostel on the phone resolving an issue with my bank transferring money out of my account. I didn’t have a spot on the ship less than 24 hours before I left. But I got it all taken care of. At 4 pm the following day, I walked down to the port and got on the ship.

So there you have it. December 11, 2018, I left Ushuaia for the Antarctic Peninsula, having told nobody where I was going. I guess Sarah from Freestyle Adventure knew I was going but still, practically nobody knew I where I was! I enjoyed that feeling.

The first part of the journey entailed crossing the infamous Drake Passage, or the “Drake.” The Drake is the span of water between Cape Horn and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans meet.

Thankfully the water wasn’t too rough on our way down to the peninsula. It took around 2 full days of sailing. “Rough” is a loose term when talking about the Drake, with “calmer” seas it still wasn’t easy to walk around. Everyone stumbled around the ship. The crew, on the other hand, knew what they were doing. We had a nice dining area where waiters would come around to tables every so often. They seemed to dance their way around people and tables while carrying trays of food and drinks.

Snow in the Drake

On day 3, in the morning, we arrived at the Barrientos Islands. It was a beautiful day and we got to take one of the zodiacs, an inflatable boat, to shore to see penguins.

Loading onto the Zodiac

While on shore we saw chinstrap and saw colonies of Chinstrap, Adelie, and Gentoo penguins. We only saw these three types of penguins the entire trip. The more famous Kind penguins and Emperor penguins live on different islands and further south below the Antarctic circle.

Gentoo penguins

The penguins laying down are the females protecting their eggs. Usually they have two and they’re protecting their eggs from predators, usually other birds.

Chinstrap penguins

The male penguins carry pebbles to give to their mates. Often times they will fight over pebbles or steal from other nests. From what I learned on board the ship, read about, and seen in person, I believe this is a gift of love as well as a practical gift to help build up the female’s nest.

What!? Antarctica isn’t all ice!?

On day 4 we next three days we visited Cierva Cove. Normally we visit an island or do a zodiac cruise twice a day but the weather was not permitting to do an excursion in the afternoon. In the morning we did a Zodiac cruise to see some wildlife and drive through rough waters. We were all were soaked and freezing within 10 minutes.

Our zodiac also had engine problems so we almost had to get towed back to the ship. Thankfully our guide had everything under control and kept our spirits up while we were stuck.

Elly knows what she’s doing

The highlight of the day was definitely seeing some icebergs close up. The melting of the ice and pounding of the water on the icebergs create unique shapes. No one ice berg is like another.

Ice berg close up
Iceberg with zodiac for size

I was glad we didn’t go back out that day, all of my cold weather gear was soaked. Our ship had an open bridge where passengers could go up and look for wildlife. They have wildlife booklets and binoculars out for anyone who wants to use them. I spent a good amount of time there on our way back up the peninsula before we got out into the Drake. I saw quite a few wales from there.

In the morning on day 5 we sailed through the Lemaire Chanel. No amount of pictures can do this place justice, or any part of Antarctica for that matter. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

The thick snowfall added to the experience. Something about dodging icebergs and searching for the best view on deck to to get better views of the mountains and glaciers surrounding us felt so cool. I can imagine the first explorers doing the same thing, standing on deck in awe of what no human before them had ever seen.

There was a lot of snow

Later that day we went for a zodiac cruise and then landed and saw more penguins.

It’s truly incredible the amount of wildlife on this continent. Many we don’t see because they are underwater and in unreachable areas.

Despite the name, Crabeater seals eat krill

And then we saw Peterman Island, where we saw yet again more penguins and incredible views. On the island there is an old Argentine refuge, now a historical site. Nobody can go in there unless they are stranded and need shelter.

As fun as the penguins are to watch, I enjoyed the mountains and icebergs just as much. There’s so much I want to show and some things I can’t write about so I show the photos I took for a better representation. This trip was mainly about seeing the wildlife, glaciers, mountains, icebergs, etc. so it only makes sense to show you photos that represent what I saw.

On day 6 in the morning, our last day before we headed back north, we dropped our anchor in Paradise Harbour and visited Brown Station. No picture, panorama, or explanation can describe how massive and beautiful this harbor is. The light was fantastic and cloud cover wasn’t so bad.

For a photographer, Antarctica is heaven. The lighting changes constantly and when there’s good lighting, it’s very good. Since I didn’t have a long lens, I stuck with landscape photography mainly. It was fun experimenting with the framing of the different landscapes.

The last day in the peninsula, we got the call over the intercom we had been waiting for all week. I was dreading it, but secretly very excited for it. It was time for the polar plunge.

The water was -2º C that day

After the plunge, my new friends and I celebrated our journey on what was the most beautiful day of our trip.

We like jumping

Of course, our trip back home couldn’t go as smoothly as it did on our way there. On Monday Dec. 17, we experienced at least 40 knots of wind and 7 meter swells. I bet we had at least 8 meter swells but that’s what was announced over the intercom. I took a double dosage of the seasickness tablets and passed out for 2 days. No joke, I was awake only for meals and a couple lectures on the way home.

I forgot to mention that each day we had lectures about wildlife, glaciers, or history of Antarctica. The wealth of knowledge on the expedition was like taking a crash course on Antarctica. It seemed like it would be information from a semester long class that they packed down into a week of lectures from multiple scientists on board.

I will especially miss history lessons from Ed the historian

I will also miss the little things on the cruise, like the daily puns from an anonymous guide.

Even with the luxuries, the cruise didn’t feel like any other cruise. With the high spirits, scientists, historians, rough waters, extreme temperatures, it truly was an expedition. I can’t say enough how incredible the crew and guides were the entire time. Everyone seemed excited to see me and wanted to answer everyone’s questions. I imagine that would get tiring after each trip but they really knew how to keep everyone excited and satisfied.

I’ll leave you with a quote, because everyone likes stoic quotes, from Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, and the first man to reach the South Pole.

Glittering white, shining blue, raven black … the land looks like a fairytale. Pinnacle after pinnacle, peak after peak — crevassed, wild as any land on our globe, it lies, unseen and untrodden.

Avid traveler. Midwest native.

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