The great white desert continent of Antarctica. A land full of so much life: from algae, to krill, penguins, birds and seals to whales of all sizes. Antarctica may be a cold desert with miles of glaciers and freezing water but it holds more amazing features than meets the eye. Sometimes you just have to sit back and quietly observe your surroundings. You'll be astonished at what you see or hear next.
Originally we planned to visit Antarctica in an effort to visit the last of all 7 continents before we both turned 30. It was simply a checklist on our bucket list. But once we arrived, it became so much more than that. Antarctica is one for the books.
Let us start off by saying we actually had no idea it was even possible to visit Antarctica without being a research scientist or someone who works for National Geographic traveling on assignment. We did a little bit of research and found out anyone (with a healthy budget) could make their way down between October - March of any year. All voyages are via ship, which you stay on between landings to and from Antarctica (surprise, there are no hotels around that you can simply book on Expedia or the like next door to a colony of emperor penguins). You eat, drink, shower, sleep, and spend a good deal of time on a ship.
We looked into a few expedition companies and really loved the value and offerings of Quark Expeditions. They offer spacious rooms no matter the cabin size you book, the prices unmatched by other highly rated companies, the expeditions are led by researchers, scientists and other adventurous people, and has availability for stand up paddleboarding, kayaking or other activities (depending on the trip) in the environment of some potentially amazing wildlife. The trip we booked offered 3 full days of landings in Antarctica along the Antarctic Peninsula, fell at a convenient time in February and would allow us to visit a new part of the world we've never been.
The Killorans are going to Antarctica!
We saved up money, booked our Fly the Drake excursion aboard the Island Sky as soon as possible, and paid off our trip a few months before departure. It's definitely not cheap to get there, but if you spend and save your money right, anyone can make it happen. We travel with intention and with intention comes sacrifice on extraneous expenditures. For us, it's worth it. 100%.
In preparation for our trip, we did some research to figure out how best to pack our things as compactly, efficiently and with as little weight as possible. As mentioned earlier, the only times to really visit Antarctica are in the US's winter months, which means the Southern Hemisphere will be in summer. But even though it's technically summer, it's still the Antarctic, it's still freezing, and packing can become quite challenging if you're planning to make the most of a trip down South.
In you're planning to make the journey down and plan to spend time somewhere else in the Southern Hemisphere, click here for a listing of our favorites that made packing for two weeks in all possible climates a breeze.
Now that the packing and prepwork is out of the way, feast your eyes on the beauty that is...
Antarctica is absolutely breathtaking.
It's beautiful, clean, full of more life than the eye can see, wildlife living symbiotically together, the full circle of life all in one place.
Keep in mind that the journey from your home down to the moment you see these mammoth icebergs in real life is all part of the adventure. If it were simple to get down there, everyone would be going all the time. But it's not easy. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, (a lot of money), a little luck, and an exponential amount of excitement to get from point A to point B. If you're up for the adventure, it's worth the ride!
Aboard the Island Sky:
There are two major ways to get into the Antarctic Peninsula: via Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile. Originally, we were booked to Sail the Drake via Ushuaia but our ship got booked up by a company so we were rescheduled to Fly the Drake via Punta Arenas instead. Honestly, this didn't really upset us too much. If you haven't ever heard of the Drake, you should check out this video.
Quark Expeditions was worth every penny. The ship was so comfortable, the food was so delicious, the crew was knowledgeable, friendly and welcoming. Considering the experience we have had previously with other cruise lines, we weren't quite sure what to expect until we arrived. Due to the sea ice and expense it takes to be in Antarctica, cruise ships are fairly small compared to typical European or Caribbean cruise lines. The Island Sky only allowed up to 102 passengers and about the same number in crew. With the smaller ship size, it was easy to mingle and get to know the other passengers.
Like ourselves, everyone came to Antarctica with a purpose. It was so fascinating getting to know more about so many people. From our plane ride from Santiago to the dinners in preparation for the trip south, we already became close with some extremely interesting people. Some of the relationships we were able to build in such a short period of time have caused us to plan out trips to visit the people we met when we travel to their neck of the woods.
Meeting new people is one of our favorite highlights of any trip. It's amazing to discover others like you traveling the world, seeking out new adventures, and have managed to find their way to the same place as you. Like us, everyone has a story. We love sharing our story and hearing all about others and their stories!
The White Continent:
Part of the adventure of going somewhere as remote as Antarctica is the voyage to get there from civilization. But once you arrive, you forget about the hours it took to get there. Antarctica was unlike any place in the world. It's a landmass covered in miles and miles of glaciers with sea ice surrounding the coldest of places where life starts.
The wildlife was so fascinating, probably one of our favorite parts of the trip. Observing them in their natural environment is not something someone could say very often. Some of the wildlife we saw with our own eyes and others we were told about by the team members with Quark.
Krill - the source of most food for the wildlife living in Antarctica. They are so small, nesting underneath the sea ice itself where algae collects, where they feed and grow until they are large enough to leave. They mobilize in huge swarms under water where they become the available food for penguins, seals and whales. We didn't really see krill, but it's still fascinating how important of a roll in the survival of the Antarctic circle of life they serve.
Penguins - There are several varieties of penguins that nest in Antarctica. On our voyage, we came across Gentoos and Chinstraps but there are several others to be seen in other parts of the continent. They are hilarious to watch. When they waddle around, they stick their wings out to balance over icy slopes and rocky areas. There were a few ungraceful ones we'd see trip over something here or there. In their nesting grounds, the penguins wear in their penguin highways, or pathways through the ice that get them from the water up to the nesting grounds.
One of the most fascinating aspects of penguins are the fact that, though they can't fly, they're still a very migratory species of birds, spending approximately 80% of their lives in the water. The other 20% of the time they're on land, laying their eggs and feeding their chicks. Once the chicks grow through their 2 years of adolescence, they will go through a molting transition where they loose their fur and grow their waterproof feathers. Until they are able to complete this process, they are extremely vulnerable to all sorts of elements including predatory birds and rain.
Each penguin species adapts to live under certain climates and the slightest alteration in climate can greatly affect their ability to stay alive in the early stages of life. Antarctica is the largest desert in the world and even though it's icy, rain is not a common phenomenon. However, with the global temperature warming, there are serious concerns for certain species of penguins in areas where it's now raining and the furry chicks with their non-waterproof feathers will actually freeze to death because they cannot fully dry off while staying on land.
Skuas - predatory birds that nest right by penguin colonies. They actually feed on weaker baby penguins when their parents are gone fishing and they are at their most vulnerable state. It's fascinating how they co-habitate all over.
Antarctic Kelp Gulls and other sea birds - they also tend nest near penguin and seal colonies though it varies between the various species of birds. All of which have similar waterproof feathers, nest in Antarctica in the summer time, and migrate when it gets dark and cold, similar to penguins.
Seals - a variety of seals live on the land, rocks, icebergs of all sizes and natures all around Antarctica. Some feed on penguins, others on just krill and then the few that feed on other seals. On our trip, we encountered Fur, Weddell, Crabeater, Leopard and Elephant Seals. The funny thing about them is how dog-like they act. Whining, barking, wrestling with each other. It's hilarious.
Whales - luckily, nowadays with the extinction of legal whaling, whales can be seen very frequently. We encountered Minke, Humpback, and pod of Orca Whales while sailing and on our various excursions. Whales, as magnificently large they are, also feed mainly on krill. So krill, as mentioned before, are the food source of most other Antarctic wildlife. It's important they continue to multiply and survive so everything else in turn can also survive.
Even with only 3 short days, we were able to see and do so many things. Here's a map of our route on board the Island Sky showing each of our landing sites.
Some major highlights from our experience with Quark:
(apart from the obvious of just experiencing and seeing Antarctica and all its widlife)
SUP/Stand Up Paddle Boarding
We signed up for this with 5 others on the stillest and quietest bays. This was our moment where we really reflected on our journey and experience of being this close to nature at it's purest and rawest form. Being only an inch from the water near a landing full of Gentoo penguins, we encountered Gentoos hopping out of the water within a couple of feet of our paddleboards, saw Fur and Leopard seals swimming around us hunting for penguins or simply playing around, pushed our way through brash ice around bergy bits and other icebergs of various sizes clacking as we went by all while following a Minke Whale who was swimming close enough for us to hear it's breathing and the resulting spray of water splattering across the surface of the sea. There was a moment where we all sat quietly on our boards, took breaths in of the fresh, cold air, and really felt alive. It was chilling hearing all these sounds so close by. It doesn't get any more real than this. And we will never ever forget that feeling.
The Polar Plunge
Which is almost like a right of passage when coming to the polar regions, was definitely something we were wary of before coming on our trip, but we both did it and are so glad that we did. Needless to say, it was the coldest either of us have ever been. Whereas on the SUP boarding experience, you're in a full dry suit so if you fall in, only your hands or head would get wet. With the Plunge, you are tethered to the boat and jump in with only your swimsuit on. It is literally like pins and needles the moment you hit the water, but the second you swim back and they help you out, you are greeted with a dry towel, a shot of vodka (which you hardly even taste at this point), your robe and slippers. Though our feet didn't fully thaw for at least a half hour after taking a gradually warming shower, it was totally worth it. See video and photographic evidence here.
Seeing Icebergs and Glaciers
Icebergs tend to flip at any given moment which can then cause immense tidal waves, which is why we were told to keep pretty far away from them, just in case, on most all experiences on zodiac boats, SUP boards or even land. On our last landing when we were waiting to catch the last zodiac back to the ship, we watched as a nearby fairly large iceberg decided to flip. It was so unreal because everything is so still and then all of the sudden....it flips!
And icebergs are always deceiving. Fun Fact: Only about 10% of the iceberg pokes out above the surface of the water and the other 90% is what is actually below surface. They're HUGE! It's absolutely amazing to see.
Glaciers are ice that have formed on land, packing down snow over hundreds and thousands of years. Antarctica has glaciers that extend several miles below the surface on some of the southernmost reaches of the continent. When glaciers reach a certain breaking point, they calve, and chunks of the glaciers fall into the ocean which then become known as icebergs. When we were at Neko Harbour after our SUP boarding excursion, we were taken to land for a few short minutes and witnessed a pretty big calving. Everything was so quiet until the sound of creaking grew louder and louder until SNAP, it broke off. Fun fact: Some glaciers and icebergs are white, some turn blue. When they reach that point where they're blue, that's caused by the weight of the ice over the years pressing down on itself forcing all bubbles out of the ice, giving them that blue look when the light hits it. Absolutely gorgeous.
Needless to say, we would come back again in a heartbeat. But, in all honestly, it has really opened our eyes to the world, inspired us in new ways to look at nature and the effects we, as humans, have on it. Nature deserves a chance to survive and continue on long after we have left this world. Our children's children should also have the opportunity to experience the pureness of remote places like Antarctica. Who wouldn't want to see something as beautiful and almost hauntingly calm as this penguin:
We were fortunate enough to partake in this one-in-a-lifetime adventure.
We wouldn't change any of it for the world.