Antarctica, Part Two

Read Part 1 about visiting Antarctica. Part three is here.

GETTING THERE AND BACK: THE DRAKE PASSAGE

To get to Antarctica by boat requires crossing the Drake Passage, an 800 km stretch of open ocean that is often rough. How rough? 50 foot waves in bad conditions:

Many people consider crossing the Drake to be a right of passage getting to Antarctica. I think those people are nuts. I’d resigned myself to staying in bed for 2 days each way as my stomach is like a delicate flower in rough seas. But we were lucky – the 2 days getting to Antarctica were not quite as calm as the “Drake Lake” which is what the crew called the calmest passages. But it was close enough that I kept the delicious and frequent meals down and felt pretty good.

IMG_6118

En route to Antarctica

During the passage, we were kept busy with seminars on topics like birding and the history of Antarctica. I skipped most of these as the dramamine I was taking coupled with the gently rocking boat made me drowsy (but not sick) for good chunks of the day.

We sighted the Antarctica Peninsula early morning on Monday Nov 10. There was a sense of giddy anticipation amongst the guests and crew as we got closer to land!

THE PASSENGERS

The people were a big part of what made this trip unique. Our voyage skewed younger than usual. I didn’t meet anybody younger than 23, and there were no kids. The oldest woman on board was 83, was traveling by herself, and had more energy than half of the other guests.

elizabeth at bbq

Elizabeth was often the life of the party

There were also some skiers on board from a previous trip that had been cancelled. That trip was the first commercial backcountry skiing trip to Antarctica, and had a bunch of sponsored athletes on board.

Backcountry Skiing

Off the top of my head, these were three people from the ship that I met: one guy who had summitted the tallest peaks on each continent… 3 times. One guy who in one year had climbed all 54 of Colorado’s peaks over 14,000 feet. And one guy who had been to Antarctica twice to rock climb – two days from the nearest base – once with a friend, and once by himself. He also did a slideshow on how he spent 45 days climbing by himself in Greenland.

And me? It was my first time in a kayak.

me kayaking

The crew I mostly hung with consisted of Swedish Maria, Irish Cormac, Dutch Wichert, Americans Will, Raman, and Emily, and Israeli Amit. We formed a solid crew that shot the shit, drank, ate, and kayaked. Will, Raman, Maria and I also hung out post-trip in Buenos Aires.

doing the apres-excursion


WILDLIFE

I’m not really a bird guy, so the wildlife in Antarctica wasn’t super exciting for me, especially since whales are still migrating south. Later in the season you are more likely to see orcas, humpbacks, and tons of other kinds of whales (though we did see two humpbacks at one point – they were spotted behind us and the captain unhesitatingly turned the ship around to go check them out, itinerary be damned).

The bird exception were the penguins, which were rad. We visited several gentoo rookeries (where they live, mate, etc) and even saw some rogue chinstrap and adelie penguins.

Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap Penguin

L-R: Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap

A few things about penguins:

Leopard seals will kill a penguin by shaking it until its insides come out (video not for the squeamish, skip past the dumb intro slides):

The other cool fact I learned about birds is that an albatross will spend the first 10 years of its life at sea. Crazy.

We saw a bunch of Leopard and Weddell seals too, lounging on icebergs, chilling on land, and swimming (including one that came right up to our zodiac). Cute little (and sometimes huge) guys. We didn’t see any penguin-munching, though, so I can’t fully give it up for the seals.

Deception Island Weddell seal pup

KAYAKING

Before I left, I was contemplating whether I should do this for an additional $700. My friends set me straight, asking whether I would be in Antarctica again (who knows) and whether I had the money (yes). So, never having been in a kayak before, I signed up.

The guides, Chad and Solan, were young, entertaining, and experienced kayakers. The group comprised 16 people who were young and old.

When we were in Antarctica, there were excursions twice a day. The rest of the passengers would either land on shore or zip around the icebergs in zodiacs. Depending on weather conditions, the kayakers would also have an option to kayak. There ended up being five kayaking excursions, and I went on four.

About to get our kayak on

We wore airtight dry suits, life jackets, and kayaking skirts, so if anybody fell in the drink (and one guy did), we wouldn’t get soaked. Wearing that gear gave us the added benefit of looking sexier than anybody on the ship.

ready to kayak

Kayaking was what made the trip for me. We were able to get away from the ship, from the noise, from people, and see things from a different vantage point.

Kayaking

We played mini-icebreaker and paddled through fields of brash ice (where my paddle was literally smacking small icebergs).

We watched leopard seals lounge on icebergs from 10 feet away.

We had penguin leaping out of the water around our kayaks.

Penguin Catching Air

We got a sense of scale of the continent as we paddled up close to the huge walls of ice that rose from the sea.

Kayaking

We (probably) induced a glacier to calve by screaming, hearing the echo bounce around, and feeling the glacier crack and the resulting wave under our kayaks.

Sometimes the only sound was paddles slapping the water; sometimes, it was the overpowering silence of the white continent.

Phillipe, contemplating life

The first day we went out was brilliantly sunny, the skies were clear blue, and the waters were super calm. It was an unreal experience kayaking in those conditions, and Solan said it was even for him a day to remember. For me too, as the rest of the time we were there it was grey and overcast.

me, kayaking

Day one in a kayak

On my favorite kayak excursion, we were circumnavigating Cuverville island. We got halfway around and reached a bottleneck that was jammed with ice. Since we couldn’t proceed, we turned around to kayak back around the island to the ship. The weather turned with us, and all of a sudden we were paddling into a mild snowstorm. It was a good, hard, 20-30 minute paddle into the driving snow, which blocked out my sunglasses and made it difficult to see. Icebergs, brash ice, and land zipped by as we paddled, and few words were said as the group focused on getting to the ship. At one point I started laughing out loud – I was friggin paddling a kayak in the middle of a snowstorm in Antarctica! It doesn’t get much better than that!

Next… Drinking with Ukrainians, playing icebreaker, rounding Cape Horn, and hot springs and Crossfit at Deception Island!

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