Expedition to Antarctica: Our 7th Continent

Sharon and Fred Tooley

22 Jun 2018

Two well-travelled NWS clients finally set foot on the great white continent

We have been back from Antarctica since February 9th when our ship arrived back in Ushuaia, Argentina. I have sat at my computer so many times since then, ready I thought, to write this travel blog. This trip was very different. It’s taken months to mentally process and I’ve realised that writing about Antarctica and about our trip there is actually, quite literally, indescribable. It’s a place like no other place on earth that we know of. It cannot be compared to anyplace else on earth that we have seen. The adjectives in the English language that do exist, are not quite adequate to successfully explain Antarctica to someone who has not travelled there. Because of that, instead of a day-by-day “diary” type narrative, this will be more “reflections” about our incredible and incredibly difficult to describe voyage to Antarctica.

Almost a year and a half ago, we made the decision that it was “time”—we had one continent left to visit to make it a complete “seven”, and the remaining continent was the most daunting: Antarctica. We contacted Natural World Safaris to plan our fifth major adventure with them. As with our previous NWS trips, we were fortunate to have had two great NWS experts to work with us on budgeting, timing, and “holding our hands” as we began the monumental task of actually making this huge dream a reality. The decision was made. We selected a small group trip with a 10-day itinerary:  Classic Antarctica on the M/S Expedition.

“A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike, and all plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggles that we do not take trips: A trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck

Our flight from the US to Santiago, Chile was smooth and problem-free. We were on our own for the next two days. We enjoyed our short stay at the Hotel Orly in this beautiful city, but we have to admit—our anticipation about boarding our ship for Antarctica was always in our thoughts in a good, yet distracting way.

We flew from Santiago via Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina where we were met and driven to our hotel, where we spent another night before boarding our ship. We spent the next morning exploring the city of Ushuaia. The weather was crisp and the sky was a sunny blue for the better part of the morning. After lunch, we walked towards the port to see if our ship had docked yet. She had! What a beautiful sight. We had seen so many photos of her white, red and blue hull that it seemed almost surreal to finally see her in reality.

At the specified time, we boarded busses that drove us onto the secure pier at the Port of Ushuaia where we boarded our ship for the first time. We were assigned our cabin, given our ID cards and unpacked and stowed our bags. Next, we reported for a safety lecture and lifeboat drill. We spent the evening meeting our ship’s crew and fellow passengers, and tasting the first of many delicious dinners on board. After dinner we met to be “sized” for our bright red expedition parkas. We turned in early and were lulled to sleep with one of the nicest things about on-board living—being gently rocked to sleep by the ship’s steady movement towards Antarctica.

A Comforting “Sameness”

There is a comforting “sameness” about being at sea on the M/S Expedition—meals at exact times, scheduled lectures and briefings, the murmur all around us of fellow passengers discussing their adventures for the day; the loud intercom calling our groups to begin preparation for our landings; getting our boots and life jackets on in the huge steamy mud room; scrubbing our boots clean of every possible trace of penguin poop after each return; afternoon tea or drinks; the steady view of the horizon and the sea moving beneath the ship. There was a great bar for late-night music and drinks, but at the end of each day we couldn’t wait to turn in and prepare to greet the next day early, with all it might bring.

The Colours and Life of Antarctica

“Prepared to shoot an icy white landscape devoid of much life or motion...It’s not at all what I found when I got there, I discovered a place that was unexpectedly very full of life and full of colour.” – Gaston Lacombe, Photographer

At sea: Standing on deck with our cameras throughout the trip, at first glance Antarctica seems to be a study in black and white. As a graphic designer by profession, colour is a huge part of my life. As I stood there, I realised that what seemed like a landscape in black and white was actually full of colour—the patches of brilliant blue sky, the grey-blue of the ocean, and the hundreds of shades of white. We were thrilled at the sight of our first scarred and barnacled humpback whale's tail flukes—tinged with a bright yellow—and the sleek black-and-white bodies of the orcas that swam with our ship one afternoon—visiting with our ship longer than we could ever have hoped that they would.

At landings: Antarctica is brilliant with colour and life—the rusty red of sea kelp; the soft grey of the beach pebbles; the blue-black of the penguins and the soft muted grey of their chicks. There are the myriad shades of taupe and brown of the moulting elephant seals; the rich brown of the mountains covered with snow, and the soft pink streaks in the snow—actually penguin excrement, yet beautiful all the same. Some landings, we stood on land and viewed an ethereal mist shrouding our ship in the distance, while on other landings, we saw our ship in brilliant white, red and blue under a bright blue sunlit sky.

Always present at our landings were the two of us and our shipmates—hiking on the grey beaches or white mountainsides in our brilliant identical red expedition parkas. Writing this now, months since our return, the trip comes back to me in amazing detail—the air, the sounds of the penguins murmering in a thousand different “dialects”, the colours, and the crisp cold air. The red parkas hang in our coat closet, now. The chances of our ever needing them in our hot and humid climate are very slim, however they will never be packed away out of sight—we love unexpectedly seeing them. It never fails to bring smiles to our faces and a faraway look to our eyes as we are instantly transported back to Antarctica.

The Air of Antarctica

Our first breath of crisp, fresh Antarctic air gave us the beautiful experience of breathing truly pure air for probably the first time in our lives—air that has not been compromised by the pollution that mankind creates. That first breath sent a message to our brains: We are in Antarctica! And it is as real and unspoiled as we had always heard that it would be. It gave new meaning to one of my favorite “notes to self“: Take a deep breath, slow down and realise that life is beautiful and a gift.

The Icebergs of Antarctica

I have to use a much overused adjective for Antarctica here: “surreal”. However, no other adjective can describe these spectacular artworks of nature—ice sculptures carved over centuries. Photographs of icebergs have no way of conveying their size and presence. We are so fortunate to have stood on the deck of a ship in ice-filled Antarctic waters and ridden in zodiacs as they manoeuvred between these mammoth wonders of nature—sometimes shades of white floating within a ring of cerulean blue. Or amazingly enough, sometimes as glowing cerulean blue jewels floating in the icy clear sea. It’s easy to forget about everything else in your life with the wind and cold air numbing your face, while you realise that the photos that you’ve seen and the descriptions of other people’s Antarctica adventures truly cannot, and have not, prepared you for the real thing.

The Gift of a Wandering Albatross

“I now belong to a higher cult of mortal, for I have seen the albatross.” – Robert Cushman Murphy

On our second full day at sea, an announcement was made over the ship’s intercom that a wandering albatross had been sighted on the starboard side. As we stood on deck in awe of this magnificent bird, we realised that neither of us had used our cameras. We had missed the photo while experiencing the magical bird in flight. We consoled ourselves with the fact that we’d see many more on the trip. We, in fact, did not see another one. This was the only one that we saw on the expedition. We marveled in the fact that neither of us were “devastated” about the missed photo. Somehow, experiencing the actual bird in flight was a more significant memory to hang onto than having experienced it through the lens of our cameras.

Camping Out in Antarctica

“The land looks like a fairy-tale.” – Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the Geographic South Pole

We decided that camping out one night on the ice was not to be missed. We have friends and family who actually worried that we had lost our minds. Approximately 40 passengers plus a small crew, their equipment and limited gear left the ship via zodiacs and landed at a beautiful place called Leith Cove, Paradise Harbour—the location is well named. While preparing our tent and gear for the night, we experienced something amazing—a glacier calving—chunks of ice breaking off the end of a glacier, the resulting pieces becoming icebergs. Since light travels faster than sound, we had “heard” these cannon sounds several times during the expedition but had yet to “see” what had created this powerful sound. This night, we were in the right place and at the exact right time. We saw the explosion of ice and then a few seconds later, we heard the incredible “boom” up close and in person! It was like watching nature conduct a spectacular science experiment. That experience, combined with standing at the edge of the ice where our tents were pitched and watching one of the most spectacular sunsets of flaming orange and vibrant pinks, made our very cold night of camping on the ice of pristine Antarctica something that we will have as one of the most amazing shared experiences of our many miles of adventure travel.

Zodiac Boardings and Landings

I’d worried about this during much of our trip planning! The thought of climbing down a gangplank/set of stairs along the outside of our ship, possibly swaying horizontally, and then boarding a zodiac moving up and down vertically was a logical worry! If this is a worry for you and making you question a trip to Antarctica—stop the worry. Our experienced crew carefully explained safety rules and regulations and we all became adept, if not always graceful, boarding and landing in all types of weather and sea conditions. When we look back at the incredible photos that we took and the amazing memories that we will carry with us forever, the apprehension seems unfounded, because like the Drake Passage, zodiac boardings and landings are the only way you’ll experience Antarctica. YOU can do it!

About the Drake Passage

“Antarctica always has the final say.”  The first time our expedition leader, Dr. Alex Cowan, made this statement, we didn’t understand what it meant. Over our 10-day adventure, we grew to understand and to completely respect that statement and all that it came to mean.

I had spent entirely too much time in the 18 months of trip planning, stressing about the Drake Passage portions of the voyage—the “what ifs”, and wondering whether I could make it if we encounter a really rough “Drake Shake”. I spent my childhood on the Gulf Coast of the US; the ocean was part of my life—just not “these three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and the Southern” that meet in the Drake with no landmass to slow down the fierce winds. In hindsight, I wasted so much time reading horrific descriptions of nightmare crossings and, unfortunately, viewing online videos of the worst of the worst.

Sailing to the Antarctic Peninsula: We encountered some choppy water and strong winds, and there was a bit of “rocking and rolling” as we were lulled to sleep each night by the movement of our ship. Those swift ocean currents and winds were carrying us to one of the fastest crossings that the M/S Expedition had ever made—Antarctica was saying: “I’m giving you a gift this time: arrival a full day ahead of schedule” — and she delivered. As we made our first landing in the Aitcho Islands, on Barrientos and Cecilia Islands, it was a “bonus” day and we realised that we were incredibly fortunate to have been given this gift.

Sailing from Antarctica: The evening that we were to enter the Drake Passage on the return trip to Ushuaia, we were told at our usual pre-dinner meeting and review that the ship’s doctor would be speaking with us. He said that based on current weather reports, we would need to take seasick medication if we weren’t already taking it, and that we needed to make certain that our cabins were “Drake-proofed“ —Antarctica was telling us that the Drake was going to be showing us what it could do, starting around midnight. My bravado about the crossing days earlier began to dissolve. We had been wearing the seasickness prevention patches that our doctor in the US had prescribed, since the day we sailed from Ushuaia. Check! Seasick meds done. We cleared off our bedside table and desktop and made certain that cabinet and closet doors were closed. Check! Cabin “Drake-proofed”. We watched the huge waves beginning to roll outside our portside cabin window—surely this was the worst we would get, right? The gentle movement of the ship, which had lulled us to sleep every other night on board, progressed to more of a “Wow“ when we were awakened to something hitting the floor with a crash— we had obviously thought that it was too heavy to require stowing. Then our desk chair flew across our cabin. At first, I was rendered paralyzed with fear and apprehension. The first thing that came to my mind was that I wasn’t sure that I remembered the signal for “abandon ship”!

Hours later, as we felt our mattresses slide out of the bedframe towards the centre of the cabin and then felt them slide back, we looked at each other and started laughing. It was simultaneously frightening and absolutely wonderfully exciting at the same time! All of that worry and dread about what we’d do and here we were doing it: laughing and having one of the most amazing times of our lives! The Drake was showing us what “Drake Shake” meant! For over 30 hours we carried on daily life with modifications—when one of us needed to stand up and make it to our bathroom or to the dining room, the other timed the rolling pitch of the ship and said “Now”, so that the movement propelled us in the right direction! We watched out our third-level cabin window as giant waves covered the windows periodically, as if we were submerged. Later, we were told that some of the waves were estimated to have reached 30 feet! Antarctica was having the last word. I thought of a few people that we had met on board who were travelling without their friends, spouses, partners, etc., because they had decided that the thought of a possibly rough Drake crossing made them too apprehensive to make the trip. If this is you— don’t miss this incredible adventure. The Drake Passage holds the keys to getting to Antarctica. And, we have heard from others who have made the trip that there is always the possibility that you’ll have a “Drake Lake”—smooth crossings both ways. As difficult as it is to believe that I’m saying this: we’re so glad that we didn’t have smooth crossings both ways! Somehow, we would have felt cheated! Now we have stories to tell and memories of the most incredibly rough and exciting 30 hours of our lives. Amazingly, we survived, and better yet, we survived it laughing!

Rounding Cape Horn

As a surprise reward for having braved the “Drake Shake” and missing a landing due to weather, our ship’s captain and crew had been planning to sail around Cape Horn on our return to Ushuaia, if weather conditions permitted. When our captain was able to finally make a course change, the sea settled— Antarctica was telling us that we had taken what she had given our crew, our captain, our safe and sturdy ship, us, and our fellow passengers—yet, we had all survived with smiles and stories to tell! Cape Horn is surrounded by the legendary waters that claimed more than 10,000 sailors' lives between the 16th and 20th centuries. Ships now sail around Cape Horn without the risk of shipwreck or loss of life; however, it was still an amazing “spiritual” experience to add to our already very long list of “once in a lifetime” experiences that this amazing 10-day adventure had provided. When we saw the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego, Chile, the ship’s intercom crackled, and expedition leader Alex read this beautiful poem by Sara Vial. It gave us chills—an opportunity to think about how man and nature must coexist in our universe. And, once again, we thought of the wandering albatross that we had seen in flight during our second day at sea:

I am the albatross that awaits you
At the end of the world.
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners
Who passed Cape Horn
From all the oceans of the world.
But they did not die
In the furious waves.
Today they sail on my wings
Toward eternity,
In the last crack
Of the Antarctic winds.
– Sara Vial

We Will be Forever Changed

We came to Antarctica and had hoped to experience all that I have attempted to put into words. We left Antarctica, changed—the same people yet profoundly different. The voyage, the colours, the air, the wildlife, the icy wind, the powerful sea, the profound quiet that we had never experienced before, and the time we had to think and reflect on our place in the universe. Our trip helped to provide a new sense of being and clearer minds. We fell in love with this distant, spectacularly beautiful place. More importantly, we developed a fierce protectiveness towards Antarctica, and we will spend the rest of our lives helping those who are working so hard to protect and preserve this fragile Seventh Continent.

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