Nowhere on Earth compares to Antarctica. It’s an unspoiled frozen land that barely has been touched by civilization. The human race is merely a visitor to the seventh continent. Several countries have set up temporary research stations there, trying to stake a claim to this pristine land, while intrepid travelers journey through the Drake Passage from Argentina on expedition ships ready to explore the final frontier of world travel.
Antarctica is a vast land of ice and snow and visitors marvel at its enormous ice shelves, active calving glaciers, and floating icebergs larger than high-rise apartment buildings. One might think that there is nothing to see or do in Antarctica beyond gazing at the never-ending span of water and ice. But the place is brimming with wildlife unafraid of human contact. Whales surface within arms’ reach of your boat. Penguins waddle up to peck at your jacket to say hello. Seals bask on ice floes, barely giving you a second glance. Petrels fly overhead, scanning the ocean for food.
Take an expedition to Antarctica and you’ll find the scenery unforgettable, too. The Gerlache Straight is so awe-inspiring that photographers nicknamed it the Fuji Funnel and Kodak Canal. In the iceberg graveyard of Pleneau Bay, giant chunks of ancient ice have run aground and created extraordinary formations due to rolling and erosion. One could spend a week simply sailing along the coast observing the ice and scenery, but there are many things to do in Antarctica that you never may have considered before.
Did you know you could camp in Antarctica? Not many people visit Antarctica to begin with, but even fewer can say they actually have camped there. We slept in bivvy sacs under a full moon as we listened to a Weddell seal gurgle and snore on the shore close by. It was cold and uncomfortable, but camping on Antarctica provides the avid traveler with ultimate bragging rights
When on the water, the most spectacular way to explore is by kayak; it was one of the most exhilarating and peaceful adventures we’d ever done. The rushes of paddling through dense brash ice and circling icebergs while penguins were jumping at the bow of our boat both were thrilling. At the same time, paddling in silence hearing nothing but the crackle of ice as we approached sleeping seals on huge flows of ice was very peaceful. Because you are paddling in silence without the noise of an engine, wildlife remains undisturbed and you can go even closer to them than you ever could on a motorized boat. As our guide Val said, “I couldn’t imagine seeing Antarctica any other way.”
Wildlife encounters on Antarctica are extraordinary. Our journey with Quark Expeditions offered daily zodiac excursions to explore islands and ice, but it also gave us the opportunities to float closer to seals basking in the sun and to let whales come in for closer views. Seeing whales from the ship was exciting, but to see them swim under the zodiac and surface just a few feet away was extraordinary. Whales haven’t been hunted in Antarctica since the 1970s; experts think this is one of the reasons the animals in the area have little to no fear of humans. This is one of the factors that makes Antarctica the perfect place to witness wildlife in its natural habitat.
While Antarctica’s whales are healthy today, they were hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s, and there are still remnants from that dark time scattered on the shore. When visiting Deception Island, we explored an abandoned whaling station. Large decaying boilers and barrels still stand on the beach where whales were killed for the oil in their blubber. As you walk along the shore, you see whale bones scattered in the sand. It is a strong reminder of just how destructive the human race can be.
Viewfinder Tip: Put your camera in a large Ziploc bag before going inside, it will help to protect your camera from condensation.
Another worthwhile land excursion is a visit to the British research station at Port Lockroy. Here you can peruse the museum to see what life was like for the early explorers. There also is a gift shop where you can buy Antarctic souvenirs and send postcards to your loved ones from the continent’s only post office. Outside you can explore the buildings as penguins scamper from place to place.
Speaking of penguins, Antarctica has millions of them. You will see them wherever you go, and never will tire of encountering the little tuxedo clad cuties. It’s important to note that you must stay at least 25 feet from penguins, and you can never block their well-trodden pathways leading to the sea. But if you sit still and watch them from a safe distance, they may approach you to say hello. It’s perfectly acceptable if a penguin comes to you, so long as you don’t reach out and touch them. They can walk all over you if they like, but you must never disrupt their lives. We had so many curious penguins come up to us, it was if they were speaking to us and welcoming us to their land. And we welcomed each and every opportunity.
For the truly adventuresome, a dip in the frigid waters of the Antarctic Peninsula is a must; something you’ll remember forever. The water is 31.5 degrees Fahrenheit! When taking the plunge from our ship the Sea Spirit, we jumped from the stern of the ship into the middle of an icy bay. The cruise company tethered us to two spotters to make sure we’d be safe, and a zodiac was parked 30 feet from our dive site for those of us who were daring enough to swim out to it. Dave managed to swim the entire distance; I jumped out of the water almost as quickly as I jumped in (I spent the minimum time required in the water to get the T-shirt). As painful as it was, I am so glad I did it. I would have regretted not doing it for the rest of my life. Now, when it comes to Antarctica, Dave and I can say, “We came, we saw, and we literally got the T-shirt.”
There are so many adventures to be had in Antarctica. It is so much more than a cruise through water and ice; it is a continent filled with life and adventure. As travel to the South Pole becomes more accessible each year, more people will be going there. If you visit, make sure to add one of these adventures onto your expedition and make your already unforgettable experience even better.
Where is the most remote place you every have visited?