Anthony Bourdain once famously called Antarctica, “the last unfucked up place on earth.” I didn’t understand why until I arrived there myself. It had always been on my bucket list to step foot on all 7 continents, I just wasn’t sure when I would get to remote Antarctica. It was never on the top of my travel list. So, when a group approached me about planning their Antarctica trip, and then invited me to join them, I knew this was my chance to finally visit the 7th continent. This wasn’t just a great decision; it was a life-changing one!
After a 24-hour multi stop flight I finally landed in Ushuaia, Argentina. The world’s southernmost city is best known for its natural beauty and unlimited adventure opportunities. We did the “end of the world” train ride where we explored Tierra Del Fuego national park and traveled back in time. We learned all about the prisoners that were stationed there and helped build the train tracks. The town of Ushuaia is worth exploring and certainly do not miss the chance to taste world-famous king crab! I’d recommend leaving at least a day or two to explore Ushuaia.
After months of anticipation, the time had finally come for my fearless group of 11 to board the Ocean Explorer with Quark Expeditions and cruise towards Antarctica. It was no surprise we had to sail through the Drake Passage- known to make stomachs turn. The first 24 hours were rocky but not horrendous. The staff informed us our passage was a 3 out of 10 (10 being the worst). Therefore, we had it relatively easy! For affluent travelers that don’t want to risk possibly getting seasick…there is an option to fly over it. Do not, under any circumstance, let shaky draky keep you from visiting Antarctica! Gentle yoga class, tasty food and unlimited wine served at night helped keep our mind off the boat swaying. There were plenty of educational moments and informative speakers as well.
Fort Point and Hardy Cove, Greenwich Island (South Shetland Islands)
Our first stop was for me, one of the most memorable. Tears billowed in my eyes as we approached a vast and mystical landscape overflowing with penguins and surrounded by glaciers. The South Shetland Islands are indescribable…you must experience it in person! I have never seen a place on earth quite like this. I walked around beaming at all the penguins that waddled so close to you, you could touch them. I wanted to stay in this magical place forever…but knew that I could not so I documented as much of it as I could. My mother got a fantastic photo of all three penguin species together- the macaroni, chin strap and gentoo. We were later told how rare that is- typically you only see one or possibly two species of penguins together.
Once our time was up on Fort Point, we boarded the zodiac boat (my new favorite mode of travel) to Hardy Cove. The largest glacier I have ever seen greeted us and I was excited to do some hiking. We posed for goofy pictures and I relished seeing the group take in this once in a lifetime experience. The vastness and humbleness of Antarctica makes it near impossible to be anything but in the moment. I was immersed, my mind was nowhere else, and it was a beautiful place to be.
Kayaking Graham Passage
It didn’t take long to realize that when traveling to Antarctica you had to be extremely flexible. Much is dependent on the weather and you really can’t plan more than a few hours in advance. I had signed up for kayaking prior to departure yet had no idea when or if I’d actually get to kayak. On our third day the weather cooperated, and my group was first to kayak the graham passage. We put on a wetsuit and headed out. What a neat perspective to see the water this way! It was eerie and mystical to imagine all that could be lurking beneath us. My book on Antarctica informed me that water animals in this part of the world are much larger due to the cold temperature and lack of human activity. My imagination went wild as I thought about all the creatures lurking beneath us. We paddled inches away from glaciers and witnessed two seals on the ice just mere feet away. Despite some rain and getting cold, this was an unforgettable experience!
After four days from our initial departure from Ushuaia we finally stepped foot on the 7th continent. I am grateful I left the barest, most unique and hard to get to continent for last. Holding the Antarctica flag proudly over my head was priceless. Our group stood together and posed. And it was ecstatic to my travel agency booked this life-changing trip and I had a small but important part. It was empowering coming to the realization that if I can step foot on Antarctica- I can literally do anything! It was my biggest feat professionally and one of my biggest personally. I will never forget that feeling of stepping foot on Antarctica for the very first time!
The time had finally come to do the one activity I was most anxious about- the polar plunge! I mean it’s got to be freezing…and should I do it since I have underlying health concerns…and what if my heart stops, and…….Anyways, I threw back a vodka shot, got my bathing suit on and took the leap! And I’m so glad I did. Most of my group plunged and we had a lot of fun. The water was slightly below freezing and I’m fairly certain I blacked out so I can’t tell you much else other than after the initial cold shock my body naturally reacted to get me back on safety ground ASAP! I’ve never swam so fast in my life. My mom took video of all of us and Quark Expeditions did a great job of capturing the moment. They filled the pool upstairs with warm water and we had a pool party afterwards. I’m not exactly sure what is in the waters of Antarctica- but the world certainly got weird after that polar plunge! I believe we all need to dive in the chilly waters of the north pole to even it out 😊
Quark Expeditions has been leading trips to the polar regions for 29 years and is one of the oldest and best. Therefore, It’s little surprise the staff had extensive experience and lived and breathed Antarctica! We were fortunate to have various researchers speak about their extensive experience. Alan lived on Antarctica for many years conducting marine biology. He told epic stories of driving a dog team, diving in the brisk waters of Antarctica and making the most of surviving the brutal winters. What amazed me the most was Alan’s humbleness. Despite a fascinating life and partaking in some of the coolest adventures I’ve ever heard- he was remarkably modest and simply grateful to be there. It was quite clear the vibes on the last frontier had rubbed off on the staff. I could easily think of a few others that could use this dash of humbleness.
To my surprise, zodiac cruising became one of my favorite parts of this trip. It was spectacular cruising around these small versatile boats and being able to go anywhere. I was astonished at how close we were able to get to wildlife. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be close enough to humpback whales to be nervous enough they might flip the boat. And when I show people my pictures of seals just feet away, they are always amazed. There were certainly moments I felt as if I was on mars, with the water still as glass beneath me and the enveloping fog making it difficult to see the horizon. Antarctica is the closest I will ever get to being on a different planet.
Useful Island and Paradise Harbor
Belinda Carlisle was right- heaven is a place on earth. I completed my favorite hike ever on Useful Island and savored the views on top. An unforgettable scene of turquoise water, glaciers and blue sky greeted me, and you could see for miles down Gerleche Straight. Overrun by penguin poo, the trail was slick but entirely worth it! Since we were in Antarctica in January, baby penguins were hatching everywhere. I enjoyed a quiet 10-minute meditation at the peak of the hike while watching a mama penguin feed her babies.
Paradise Harbor was equally as breathtaking. I had never seen glaciers so crystal blue in my life. Rightfully named, it felt like we were in paradise. We got close enough to hear the glaciers calving (when ice chunks break off). The weather was unnaturally warm for this time of year so glacier calving was unfortunately occurring more and more often. A humpback whale jumped just feet from our boat- startling everyone. We quietly sat and watched it swim around us. What a surreal moment!
Camping at Leith Cove
The evening was calm enough to allow us to camp at Leith Cove! And what an ideal spot it was. We took the zodiac boats to the tiny inlet surrounded by Antarctica’s beauty. We couldn’t bring any food (the rules in Antarctica are strict) but warm clothes and bivvy bags (warm sleeping bags) that were provided to us. Considering it was daylight for 22 hours and freezing once midnight hit- we didn’t get much sleep and I wasn’t planning on it either. Luckily, we had a card game which kept us occupied and laughing. What an amazing and unique experience I will never forget! Antarctica camping tip: bring handwarmers and foot warmers to keep your extremities warm and something breathable to cover you face (like a scarf).
We managed another continental landing, this time at the home of 250 gentoo penguins! It was bittersweet to be standing on Antarctica for the very last time of our trip. I felt like I could stay there forever- which is odd for an extrovert to say about the world’s most remote continent. But there is something so peaceful, so serene and surreal about the 7th continent that you almost forgot about everything else. It’s so massive and humbly encompassing that there’s truly no space for your mind to be on anything else but in the moment. And what an amazing way to really live! I enjoyed the hike, watching the waddling penguins stroll up and down their “lane” with little regard to humans and took a video to try to capture it all.
We had a farewell ceremony on the ship and toasted to a life-changing trip. I could not imagine a more fearless, yet calculating, captain than Solan. We did everything we set out to do and more. My expectations were exceeded and for the die-hard adventure fan the last frontier is THE trip you need to take! Until next time, I will continue to reminisce and look back on the 7th continent with wonder, awe, mystery, respect, gratitude and admiration.