My trip to Antarctica was one of the most moving and inspiring journeys I’ve ever taken. Without a doubt, Antarctica is the best place I’ve ever been, as well as the most beautiful.
I’ve written about how Antarctica shattered my ego, changing me as a traveler and a human. But as profound as that was, my Antarctica trip was also about joyful, scintillating, and sometimes scary moments.
There are so many moments that I want to share with you — I could go on forever. Instead, here’s a list of the absolute best moments on my trip to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions. I hope you enjoy reading about them.
Hundreds of Porpoising Penguins
I was delighted to learn that penguins love to “porpoise.” They jump in and out of the water like dolphins, emerging to take a breath before diving down beneath the surface again. They often do it in groups. If you get lucky, you might see around 10 of them doing it at the same time!
Well, that’s what I thought was lucky until we got to Danco Island. We were kayaking through the smooth waters when all of a sudden, dozens of gentoo penguins began porpoising out of the water around us.
Were there ten? There were way more more than ten. Thirty? Fifty? At least one hundred. And they were heading straight for us! Closer and closer and closer and closer, and suddenly they were a meter away, and then suddenly they disappeared.
The water had turned still. “Where’d they go?” I murmured, half to myself.
About ten seconds later, they started porpoising again…away from the kayaks. I burst out laughing. It was as if they spotted the kayaks and abruptly turned around, saying, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, bad idea, BAD IDEA!”
Crossing the Antarctic Circle
Most Antarctic expeditions don’t go as far south as the Antarctic Circle. For that reason, the moment that you cross the Circle is always met with fanfare and champagne.
On our expedition, however, we were slated to cross the Circle at 2:00 AM. Would we be missing it? No way! At 1:45 AM, an announcement came over the intercom, waking us up. “We are just about to cross the Antarctic Circle. If you’d like to celebrate, come on up to Deck Six!”
I didn’t expect many people to get up in the middle of the night — but boy, was I surprised when I got on deck and saw it swarming with guests! Champagne was being served from behind the bar and people were taking pictures with signs.
It felt like New Year’s Eve. There was even a countdown! We shouted the numbers into the air and cheered, toasting the fact that we had gone further south than 99% of humans ever would.
Quiet Penguin Time in Danco Island
There was such a large chasm between what I thought my time in Antarctica would be and what it actually turned out to be. One example? Penguins! I thought I would be spending all my time contorted around rocks, camera on my right eye, squinting the left side shut. But I didn’t take nearly as many photos as I thought I would, in part because it was so tough to shoot while kayaking.
That wasn’t the only reason, though. Antarctica taught me to step back and appreciate the moments for what they were. Instead of maniacally trying to TAKE TAKE TAKE everything I could, to greedily consume it and use it to make me rich and famous, I decided to settle down and accept Antarctica’s offerings with an open heart.
Which made my time in Danco Island all the more special. I didn’t have much time here; we kayakers often had mini-landings rather than full length ones. I had to use it wisely.
I took a few perfunctory photos, including the one above (Caption: “Oh man, Ron thinks he’s Jesus again.”), then settled down on a rock to watch the adolescents play in the water.
And I just stayed.
I watched them play, and preen, and tease each other. Penguins really are some of the most entertaining animals to watch! I smiled and giggled. Soon enough, my time was up and it was time to get back on board. But was that time wasted? Not whatsoever.
The Polar Plunge
The Polar Plunge is one of the most exciting things you can do in Antarctica. What better way to be one with the environment than to jump into near-freezing water? What better badge of badassery?!
I knew from the beginning that I was going to do the Polar Plunge. But the idea of doing the plunge and the reality of getting ready to do it are two VERY different things. I was relieved that we would be getting it over with on our first day, south of the Antarctic Circle on Stonington Island, but then I began to second-guess whether I should even do it after all.
I changed into my bathing suit, threw my bathrobe on top, got in the long line winding down the staircase — and started FREAKING THE FUCK OUT. I couldn’t stop shaking.
Growing up, I loved to swim — but I would always take a very long time to get in. Always the last one in, eternally the last one out. What made me think I could handle 32F/0C Antarctic waters?!
I continued to tremble as I tossed my robe on the ground and walked outside onto the gangway in my bathing suit. Two of us could go down at a time. Our expedition leader Woody and our biologist Ema waited at the bottom of the stairs in full winter gear, huge smiles on their faces. I watched a gentleman jump in and climb out with little fanfare.
It was time.
I got the rope tied around my waist, smiled and waved to the camera, then jumped straight ahead.
SPLASH. I was submerged in the icy water. Needles on every part of my body, aches throbbing deep in my limbs.
“JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS!” I sputtered as I surfaced, climbing up the ladder at record speed. (Why did I say that of all things?! I have no idea.) Everyone was laughing.
I have to say that ordinarily I would never post a photo like the one above. I look terrible, my belly’s poking out, and for the first time in my life I didn’t put on a big smile for the camera. But I don’t care. None of that matters. It doesn’t matter how I looked, it matters that I did it!
(My friend Kirsty was in line after me and told me later, “Kate, I’m so glad you went before me — you made me laugh so hard I forgot to be nervous!”)
Altogether, 87 out of our 200 passengers did the plunge. Most of the rest watched from Deck Five and got thoroughly ribbed for not participating themselves.
Cruising Through Lemaire Channel
Lemaire Channel is notoriously difficult to pass — our crew told us that we were the first ship all season that had been able to pass through. (However, take this with a grain of salt. One of my readers told me her ship also passed through Lemaire Channel this year; perhaps they meant they were the only ship on Quark’s fleet to pass through.)
“You’ll want to come outside and see this,” our expedition leader Woody announced over the intercom. It had only been a few days, but I already knew that when Woody tells you to something is worth seeing, you better get out on deck as quickly as possible.
Unlike other sightings, though, this lasted a long time. We slinked through the passage, Captain Oleg expertly navigating us around the ice. Our ship was surrounded by exquisite mountains, intimidating glaciers, even things I never dreamed possible — like a waterfall of gently falling snow.
The channel finally ended with some bright blue sky peeking out. At this point on the trip, it had been the first blue sky we had seen.
Without a doubt, Lemaire Channel was the most scenic part of the trip, though Antarctica is one of those places that seems to keep outdoing itself again and again.
Wilhelmina Bay was immense in size and strewn with icebergs. But after we got into our kayaks, we realized what made this part of Antarctica special, at least on the day of our visit: an abundance of humpback whales.
Zodiacs cruises are like safaris. If there’s a good wildlife sighting around, the driver radios the other boats and tells them to come see it. Throughout Antarctica you would see the zodiacs all converge upon the same point to watch a breeching whale, or a group of seals, or some cartoon-like Adelie penguins.
But in Wilhelmina Bay, it seemed like every zodiac had its own pod of whales to watch. They were everywhere! And even though we kayakers didn’t have the ability to speed up to them like the zodiacs, we had plenty of them get close to us.
Then one got a little TOO close.
All of a sudden, a humpback whale rose in front of our kayaks. This wasn’t the “logging” where they gently rise and fall while sleeping — this whale knew exactly what he was doing. Slowly emerging, rising from the water, higher and higher.
We gasped. It was so close. Was it going to flop on us?!
It happened so quickly, I didn’t get a chance to take a photo. (That sentence is the Antarctica experience in a nutshell!) Thankfully there were zodiacs on the other side, getting shots of what we later dubbed, “The moment the drysuits became not so dry.”
“I’m always surprised at what we see, but I’m not often impressed,” our kayaking guide Michael told us. “The only thing better than THAT would have been, like, if an orca jumped out of the water right over the kayaks.”
“Yeah, and if Michael Jackson started singing!” I added.
(Only the thirty-somethings laughed. Free Willy forever!)
Carl Gets Crazy
I didn’t have any bad moments in Antarctica, but the only excursion that was a bit lackluster was our morning at Graham Passage. It was raining, waves were rising, and this was one of few times that kayaking was cancelled due to inclement weather.
While zipping around on zodiacs was fun, and there were a few whales here and there, it was cold and wet and we didn’t see much wildlife. But don’t worry — we had Carl for entertainment.
In most parts of the world I’ve explored, you’ll often find an older American man, often from the South, a vagabond with long gray hair, with or without baldness on top; a man who has backpacked most continents over the course of several decades, the kind of man who has had an audience with the Dalai Lama, followed the Grateful Dead on tour, and cheated death multiple times.
Carl was that guy on our trip — the guy who had been to Everest Base Camp multiple times, the only guy on board who was leaving via bus, not plane, to explore Patagonia next. He kindly took a few photos of me with the penguins on Cuverville Island. And on the day in Graham Passage he was in my zodiac.
Suddenly our driver got a notice on her radio. There was a whale sighting nearby — a big humpback. She immediately gunned the engine. Literally everyone on board cowered at the sudden speed, shielding ourselves from the rain as the bow of the zodiac rose in the air, speeding to the other side of the passage. We clenched the ropes, trying to keep ourselves from toppling out of the boat.
“HA HA HA HA HA!” I looked up and I saw Carl grinning, a wild look in his eyes. Everyone was holding on for dear life, protecting their cameras, and turning their faces away from the rain.
But not Carl. Carl had gone full mad scientist, laughing hysterically in the wind, and the fact that the rain had brought everyone else to our knees somehow made that even better.
A Primal Scream in Paradise Harbour
Being on expedition means your itinerary can change anytime — you never know when a region will have too much ice for the ship to pass through safely, or if there won’t be enough space on shore to do a landing. One of those days was when our excursion to Neko Harbour got axed due to ice. We would visit nearby Paradise Harbour instead.
But what a fortuitous circumstance that was! Paradise Harbour was one of my favorite stops of the trip. The water was nearly as smooth as glass. The water was the same color and texture as the sky, and the two edges melded together so closely that it was hard to tell where land ended and air began. (Whenever I see this, it reminds me of Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.)
It was home to a former Argentine station, Brown Station, and it was the only place where I set foot on continental Antarctica, as opposed to various Antarctic islands. (The guides take these semantics very seriously. Some have a problem with the fact that the Antarctica Marathon is held on King George Island — “But it’s just an island, it’s not on the continent!”)
The water was soft and velvety. I paddled through the gray-blue seascape, letting the vast emptiness fill my mind, the only sounds gentle splashes and thunder-like glaciers calving in the distance. More than anything, I wanted to paddle up to the glaciers and see just how tall they were, but that was far too dangerous.
We paddled toward a tall stone cliff. Since this wasn’t a glacier, we could get much closer. Soon we realized that all of the noises around us were echoing. It was a natural amphitheater.
Our guide Michael had a gleam in his eye. “This seems like a great place for a primal scream.”
And we SCREAMED. I led the descant on the highest of A-flats; my fellow kayakers roared in timbres of every color. That release of energy, combined with the peaceful environment, was like wiping my soul clean.
The Last Supper
I’m fairly certain this was the first time we all got to the dining room before the doors opened for dinner. But this was our final dinner! We had to make sure we got a table together, and with our favorite servers, too.
Was this “my group” on the trip? Kind of. One thing I’ve noticed over the years, even when I was sixteen, is that when on group trips, I always flit around with different groups of people. It seems like most people find a few people they like and stick together the whole time, but that honestly has never been the case with me.
I didn’t always sit with this group, but I liked them a lot. We were from the US, Brazil, Britain and Australia. We ranged from twenty-somethings to sixty-somethings and beyond. We were traveling solo, with our partner, with our parent or child. All of us were laughing uproariously and retelling our favorite gossipy stories over the past week, having more than a few glasses of the complimentary wine.
Was there gossip? OF COURSE there was gossip! We were on a ship with 200 passengers for 12 days! And believe it or not, the majority of the gossip was about people over 50! And since this was the last supper, it was our last chance to tell all of the stories.
YOU GUYS, I WANT TO WRITE WHAT HAPPENED SO BAD!!! IT IS BEYOND JUICY!!!!! But this is not the place for it. Let’s just say that if I ever write fiction taking place on an Antarctica expedition, some of the characters are going to be ripped from the headlines, Law and Order-style.
So over lobster tails and steaks, we told stories, corroborated each other’s tales, filled in the gaps, and shrieked with laughter and shock when we came to our conclusions.
Finally, we took pictures with our server Bernard and our bar server Andrea, both of them from the Philippines and — to our delight! — we learned they were married. Seriously, finding out your staff are married is like being at summer camp and finding out two of the counselors are boyfriend and girlfriend. You watch them and giggle and say, “Awwwww,” at everything they do.
A Rainbow at Cape Horn
Since I’ve returned, the most popular question I’ve received from people who have been to Antarctica is, “How was the Drake?” The rough seas of the Drake Passage are no joke; several of my friends on other voyages spent their Drake crossings with their head in the toilet.
We lucked out. There were swells, yes, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. Heading down was so smooth that the crew kept going nonstop until we hit our southernmost point, Stonington Island. On the way back, though, Woody pulled up weather maps showing a storm was barreling straight toward us. Eek.
To get around the storm, we left a half day early. And I’m grateful that we did because once again, the waves weren’t that bad on the way back. The storm avoided us entirely!
As a result, we had some extra time to kill, and the crew decided to round Cape Horn.
Just like the explorers of centuries ago, their sailors yearning for dry land, we watched the Chilean Cape Horn slowly emerge from the mist. We had made it to the bottom of the Earth and survived. So many explorers hadn’t been so lucky.
And then, as if in a movie, a rainbow appeared across the sky.
“Why a rainbow?” I thought to myself. “The symbolism is completely wrong!” Perhaps if we had a rough crossing coming back, or difficult times on the continent, a rainbow would have been perfect note on which to end. The beauty poking through after the storm to say, You got through it, and it all worked out. Our trip had been fantastic — there hadn’t been a bit of hardship.
But the more I thought about it, I realized it was perfect after all. More than anything, this trip to Antarctica made me realize how small and insignificant and inconsequential I am. The rainbow showed me that even with that realization, this world has so much beauty to give.