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A couple goes to the end of the Earth – literally – for an unforgettable Antarctic adventure. Writer Martha Nelson shares the details of her friends’ trip.
Text by: Martha Nelson
Country: Antarctica

few months ago I sat on Skype with my friend Sydney discussing woolen socks. Having just moved to the Alps, I was anxious to have a good supply of fluffy footwear to keep my tootsies toasty throughout the winter.

Sydney was also looking for woolen socks for her upcoming trip south. When heading south for a winter vacation, most of us are more concerned with bikinis and flip-flops than with socks and scarves. This trip, however, was not to the tropical beaches of Florida or the Caribbean, but much, much, farther south.

Sydney and her boyfriend, Mikey, were heading on a 10-day cruise around the frigid waters of Antarctica.

Being adventurous travellers and explorers, I was unsurprised to hear of Sydney and Mikey’s holiday plans. Working for a small group tour operator, Intrepid Travel, Mikey often has the opportunity to explore fantastic locations, including Kenya, Peru, and Iceland.

I was eager to hear all about it. So a few months after their trip, I spoke with Sydney and Mikey about their Antarctic adventure.

The trip before the trip

When I first heard of their trip, I wondered how they would get to Antarctica. Sydney told me that they would be taking a boat from Argentina. As it turned out, this was only one of many steps on the long road to Antarctica. The first leg was a flight to New York.

“We left Toronto at midday on Tuesday, November 18, to head to New York. From there we were taking a flight to Buenos Aires, then catching our connection to, the southernmost city in the world,” Sydney explained. “The Ushuaia boat was leaving at 2p.m. on Thursday, so we expected to have a night to rest before boarding.”

On arrival in New York, however, they discovered that their flight to Buenos Aires had been delayed for 12 hours due to inclement weather. Fearing that this holdup would cause them to miss the boat, they jumped on a flight to Atlanta, where they were able to catch an alternate connection to Buenos Aires.

Once in Buenos Aires they received more bad news:Their luggage was still in New York and their flight to Ushuaia had been cancelled. With the boat scheduled to leave the following afternoon, they boarded the last flight to Ushuaia and prayed that their luggage would appear in time the following morning.

“At 10a.m. on Thursday morning, the airline called to say that the luggage was still in New York,” Sydney said with a sigh.

“So we went shopping,” Mikey chimed in. “We had three hours before the shops closed for siesta at 1p.m. to buy everything we would need for a 10-day expedition to Antarctica.”

After three days of stressful travel, Sydney and Mikey were finally aboard the small cruise ship that would be their home for the next 10 days.

“The first few days of the trip were spent crossing the Drake Passage,” Mikey explained.

This 600-mile body of water, also called the Mar de Hoces, or Sea of Hoces, between the southernmost tip of Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, is famed for being among the roughest in the world.

“We were told when boarding that the weather was calling for a red-level storm during our crossing, which meant we were in for a bumpy night of 40-meter waves and gale-force winds.”

“Unfortunately, we didn’t think about the effect the boat movement would have on the room,” Sydney laughed. “So at two in the morning, we were woken up to loud crashes as everything, including chairs and a table, were thrown across the room.”

“It was pretty hilarious trying to tie everything down when the boat was dramatically rocking, and we were full of anti-nausea medication that was putting us to sleep,” Mikey added.

“People often complain about the Drake’s Passage,” Sydney said, “but for us it was a few days to rest and recover after a crazy trip.”

“Sleeping for 20 hours straight on seasickness pills meant that when we actually arrived at the outer islands of Antarctica, we were full of energy and ready to go,” Mikey said.

First impressions

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Sydney said. “I think the sheer size of everything really struck me. You don’t get a sense of it in photos, but everything is just enormous. There are 900-meter cliffs directly above the boat with huge birds flying around them. And huge icebergs everywhere.”

“We spent the first day sailing through the islands before heading to the mainland,” Mikey said. “The islands and the mainland are very different. The islands are volcanic, with black sand, whereas the mainland is rockier and looks more like what I was expecting from photos I had seen.”

“One of my favourite days was spent on Deception Island, where we were able to bathe in a natural hot salt water pool,” he recalled.“The geothermal heat warms the sand. So we built small pools to trap and heat the water. It was quite surreal bathing in a hot spring next to the freezing Antarctic Ocean.”

Wildlife by air and sea

“A lot of penguins,” Sydney recalled. “And a healthy dose of seals, whales, orcas, and lots of different kinds of birds. One of our guides was a bird expert, so he was able to tell us all about the different birds we were seeing. I was excited to see a few albatross; they can get up to an 11-foot wingspan!

“The amazing and unique thing about the wildlife in Antarctica is that the animals haven’t developed a fear of humans. They look at you as something strange and unfamiliar, but not as something to run away from. There is a whole Gentoo penguin colony that lives around the permanent English station of Port Lockroy. And you can walk straight through without bothering them.”

“I was very excited by the wild orcas,” Mikey said. “They are very curious animals and come right up to the boat to see you. When we saw them they were hunting elephant seals, which was so amazing.”

Top 3 tips for visiting Antarctica

No. 1: Make the trip your own.

“It really depends what kind of a trip you are looking for,” explained Sydney. “We were on a smaller ship than most, which was great because we could navigate the narrower regions and see a lot that some of the larger ships miss out on. We could also dock more easily to head onto the mainland to enjoy snow-shoeing treks, or bird-watching, whatever the expedition leaders had in store for us that day.”

“On the other hand there are much larger boats to Antarctica that have all the perks of larger cruise ships. They are more luxurious and have more amenities like pools.

“The other benefit of the smaller expedition was the ability to talk to our tour leaders. They were not your average guides, but professionals and experts in their respective fields. We had a leader with a PhD in international law who explained to us the history behind the ownership and geopolitical influences on Antarctica. Another leader gave lectures on the bird life, another on the whales.

“They were all very accomplished, and spoke various languages. It was great to have the intimacy of the smaller ship to get to know them. A few of them had spent winter seasons doing research at Port Lockroy as well, which was really interesting to hear about.”

“The larger ships offer day trips as well,” Mikey explained. “So you really can make any trip as energetic as you want, with activities like kayaking or hiking.”

“I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in going to take full advantage of the daily activities,” Sydney agreed.

No. 2:Take rain gear.

“It won’t be as cold as you expect,” Sydney said. “It never dropped below minus 5 Celsius, and we got to highs of 3. But it rained a lot, so make sure to take good, waterproof clothing!”

“The trips also run in the Antarctic summer, so in late November we had sunlight for about 21 hours a day. Trips running closer in later December can expect 24 hours of sunlight,” Mikey explained. “So definitely take sunglasses and sunscreen.”

No. 3: Expect the unexpected.

“The main thing to know about a trip to Antarctica is to plan for Plan B,” said Mikey. “Any trip heading to Antarctica starts as far south as possible. So unless you are already in Argentina, be prepared for major delays and holdups even before boarding.”

“Once you are on the boat, you should also expect the unexpected,” Sydney added. “A lot of the trip is weather- and ice-dependent, so don’t assume you’re doing what is on the schedule.”

Whether planned or not, whatever the guides decide for the day will be fantastic. No two days were the same, but they were all equally amazing.”



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A Southern Summer Vacation

My friend Sydney and her boyfriend Mikey recently went on a trip to Antarctica. I was very excited to hear all about their adventure, but it started out as a misadventure.

Everything starts out well, they leave their home in Toronto on November 18th and fly to New York for a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Unfortunately, their flight is delayed due to bad weather so they have to go to Atlanta and from there connect to Buenos Aires. There they learn that their luggage is still in New York and their flight to Ushuaia is cancelled! They finally reach Ushuaia on time to board the boat, but without their luggage, so first they go shopping.

Once on board, the ship first crosses the Drake’s Passage. It is a very bumpy crossing and many things fall over in their room. Luckily, their seasickness pills help them sleep for 20 hours straight.

After this crazy beginning to their trip they arrive well-rested to Antarctica and are immediately surprised by the sheer size of everything. The animals in Antarctica are not afraid of humans and so they can get quite close to the Gentoo penguins and the elephant seals. The beautiful landscape and the amazing wildlife make up for all their previous problems.

 

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A Southern Summer Vacation

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A Southern Summer Vacation

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