I pretty much knew this would happen. I knew that I would get back from the most exclusive, out-of-the-way travel destination I have ever ventured to and have no idea how to put the experience into words. As much as I love blogging about my travels, I’ve actually been dreading sitting down and writing about my time in Antarctica, because expressing the beauty and mystique of the place in writing is the herculean task of all herculean tasks. It’s one of those places you have to see to believe, but given that the continent attracts a mere 30,000 visitors a year (compared to the global total of 1.03 billion international trips taken in 2012, meaning Antarctica makes up fewer than .003% of all trips abroad), chances are you won’t. But you should. You really, really should. Then again, part of what makes Antarctica so great is the isolation. So maybe you shouldn’t.
My friend Kate and I had this trip planned for no fewer than 14 months. We had talked about it in November 2012 – I finally purchased the ticket in February 2013. I would spend the next eleven months worrying about everything under the sun – getting injured and not being able to leave the ship; coming down with some communicable disease and not being allowed on the ship; the world coming to an end before I could experience Antarctica. When the day finally arrived for us to board our ship, neither of us could believe it was here.
We weren’t allowed to board early, so we had nearly a full day in Ushuaia, Argentina to kill. Many think of stunning mountains and dream-worthy hiking and climbing when they hear the word Patagonia. The mountains were nice indeed, but we had very little interest in sticking around to see them once we had the icy continent in our sights. We did manage to keep ourselves occupied with a hike to Martial Glacier via a chair lift, which proved far colder than we might have imagined, but with stunning views to make up for that. Once at the top, we hiked for another 45 minutes or so until coming upon the glacier, which I saw as an opportunity for my first of a few sledding runs on the trip.I’ll let you guess which part I sledded down
We got through the day and it was time to board our ship, the Akademik Ioffe (pronounced ye-off-uh). Built in Finland in 1989, now owned and operated by the Russians, this was the first multi-day cruise ship I would ever embark on. Having nothing to compare it with may have enhanced my experience, as I wasn’t expecting the 3,000-passenger luxury Princess or Carnival-type of cruise ships I’ve heard so much about. The Akademik Ioffe was small, with a maximum capacity of 96 passengers, but comfortable nonetheless and, most importantly, came equipped with an ice-strengthened hull. The last thing we needed was to run into the same situation as the Akademik Shokalskiy, which just three weeks prior had become stuck in the ice on the other side of the continent. Although to be honest, they seemed to be in no danger and to be having fun, so I secretly hoped we would get stuck. Temporarily.Back down to the port to embark
We embarked around 4 p.m. and found our cabin to be right across from where we entered. As this was by far the most expensive trip either of us has ever taken, Kate and I had decided to go with the cheapest option of a triple-share cabin. We expected it to be small, and it was. On the left-hand side were two standard twin-sized bunk beds, to the right a sink and closets, farther towards the end on the left a small desk and at the very end, perpendicular to the bunk beds, was my bed under two portholes that didn’t open. No bother, we thought. It’s comfortable enough to sleep in, and besides, we’re heading to Antarctica – they could have made us sleep in the bathrooms, for all we cared. Kate hung out in the reception area while I unpacked my bag, as it was hard for the two of us to do any kind of maneuvering in such a tiny space.
Eventually in walked Jill, our new roommate for the next two weeks. We had a few concerns about rooming with someone we had never met, but we couldn’t have asked for a better roomie than Jill. An Englishwoman from the Midlands (from somewhere outside of Birmingham), she had that slightly warped sense of humor that epitomizes what I love about the Brits. She often joked about her spiky hair leaving her resembling a macaroni penguin, something that sadly is not seen enough in the Antarctic.
Next we made our way to the dining room, where we had a snack and a glass of champagne and met some of our staff, including a talk from Chad, our expedition leader. We got the low-down on the ship, what we would be doing over the next 12 days, and instructions on our upcoming lifeboat drill.
The lifeboat drill, as I imagine on any ship like this one, was mandatory. We would soon learn that we definitely did not want to end up in one of these things. While the two lifeboats on our ship are designed to fit every passenger, staff member and crew member on board, just being in the thing with the some 15 other passengers who dared to actually go a step beyond the drill and enter into the lifeboat made me wonder how another 60 or so would ever fit, let alone keep their sanity for hours or days while waiting for rescue.
After chatting with our fellow passengers and standing on the outer decks to watch the crew throw the ropes before departing, making our way through the Beagle Channel and eventually seeing the land disappear, the rest of the evening was spent “Drake-proofing” our rooms. I had read absolute horror stories about the Drake Passage: bodies getting thrown this way and that, bones breaking and stomachs being emptied out. We got lucky – not only did I hear of no broken bones and only one lady losing her dinner, but once I got a motion sickness pill in me (the rocking did upset my stomach a bit) I actually kind of enjoyed the motion of the boat. “Drake-lake” was a term I would become familiar with – it refers to the rare crossing when the waters are calm like a lake, as opposed to the self-explanatory “Drake-shake”. So we secured anything that might shift or fall in the night, but all for naught.Some of the smaller boats on the dock. Getting ready to leave Ushuaia Kate and me, ready to go The crew throwing the ropes Setting sail into the Beagle Channel It wasn’t too long before we had dolphins swimming next to our ship
It was a beautiful evening and a day I will never forget. We could already sense the excitement of what we were about to experience.
Facts about Day 1:
– Latitude: 54°48,6’S, longitude: 68°17,8’W
– Sunrise: 5:36 a.m., sunset: 9:42 p.m.
– Air/water temperature: +4°C / 39°F, +7°C / 45°F
– Wildlife spotted: Peale’s dolphins racing beside our ship, black-browed albatrosses, southern giant petrels, imperial and rock shags, Chilean skuas, kelp and dolphin gulls, South American terns