Where do we even start in an attempt to explain our experience on an Antarctic cruise?! We could likely dedicate an entire website to our experience, but we will do our best to keep it down to two posts. As Danny so eloquently reflected in our first Antarctica post (click here to read), the experience was incomparable and overwhelming. When we booked the cruise to Antarctica last summer, I think we hoped we were signing up for a once in a lifetime type of experience. However, I don’t think either of us could have pictured what cruise life would be like for 10 days, in the Antarctic no less. So here goes the second Antarctica post, a less sentimental overview than Danny wrote, and instead, more of an attempt to breakdown our day to day life in Antarctica.
We booked the cruise in the cheapest way possible, which meant not sharing a room on the ship. I shared with two other females and Danny had two male roommates. We absolutely both lucked out and had phenomenal roommates. Undoubtedly, our experience was enhanced by the friendships we formed. In my room I had Michelle and Abby, from Marin County, CA and Durham, NC, respectively. We bonded quickly, especially after our first room was flooded with water from the kayak room next door, and we were moved to a new room on day two. Danny had Geoff from Virginia Beach, VA, and Roger from Stockholm, Sweden (who originally is from Lake Forest, IL, but moved to Sweden 40 odd years ago), as roommates. They had the best triple room on the ship, with tons of extra space to hang, and it quickly became our nightly happy hour cocktail hangout.
We were very surprised by the number of people our age on the ship, and in general, people who we enjoyed getting to know. Out of the total 180 passengers and around 30 expedition staff, I’d estimate about 40% were around our age. Regardless, we all suffered together, some more than others, as we crossed the Drake Passage, the entry way into the Antarctic Sea, during the first two days of our expedition. It was sort of an initiation into Antarctica; one has to survive the rocky seas of the Drake before being allowed to witness the awe-inspiring beauty of the southernmost continent.
For the first two days of the cruise, we worried the sea-sickness wouldn’t wear off and wondered what we got ourselves into. The waves were 12-18 feet high, and the ship swayed so much that we felt like pinballs going wall to wall when walking down the hallways. It was two days of diagonal drunk walking, in a Dramamine daze, while trying to keep our meals down. Danny was worse off than I was, but kept it together, with puke bags in his pockets at all times just in case, but which remained unused. During those two Drake days, the expedition staff on the boat, as they were called, began their lectures and talks. The staff included many impressive experts, on topics ranging from sea birds, sea mammals, penguins, glaciology, history and photography. Their enthusiasm on all Antarctica topics was incredible and contagious. We attended as many sessions as we could manage while feeling queasy, but more so, we laid in bed awaiting calmer seas.
Once we made it through the Drake, the weather cleared up incredibly, with the seas as calm as could be, and the landscape began to change dramatically. We started to see icebergs out our portholes and glacier covered islands as far as the eye could see. And that’s when the rhythm of the whole experience took shape. Our daily schedule would be something like this…
We would get woken up at about 7 AM by a staff member over the ship wide loudspeaker, and then we’d be at the breakfast buffet by 7:30 or 8. The day’s activities and locations would be posted for us to read, and would begin quickly after we were done eating and done layering up in warm and waterproof gear. The cruise company actually gave each passenger a bright yellow, extremely warm parka to wear outdoors throughout the cruise and then to take home after. The penguin colonies we visited must have thought we were all our own breed of strange, yellow creatures. They also lent us rubber, waterproof boots to wear on all Zodiac boat rides and landings. Each morning and afternoon, we would have both a Zodiac cruise and an actual on shore landing (courtesy of the Zodiacs), each lasting about an hour and a half. The location of each changed daily as the ship relocated every night, and sometimes even during the day between morning and afternoon outings.
A Zodiac is a small rubber, extremely durable, motor boat that holds about a dozen people. For the Zodiac cruises, we would be driven around by an expedition staff member, usually an expert in some sort of Antarctic flora or fauna, to find wildlife floating on icebergs, whales in the distance, penguins swimming, or awesome iceberg or glacier sculptures to observe. In the last post Danny described one of our more memorable Zodiac rides during which we simply stopped in front of an immense glacier wall, turned the engine off, and just listened to the sounds of the glacier cracking and calving, waiting for a piece to calve off into the ocean in front of us. The drivers would get us up close and personal with just about anything, even if it meant driving through a labyrinth of carved up sea ice.
During the landings we got to step foot on the Southern Shetland Islands, a few Antarctic islands, and the continental Antarctic peninsula (there is a map below of our route). We also visited Port Lockroy, an historic British research station that has a staff of five people who actually live there and run a small museum and gift shop in the summer months. It was the only “inhabited” area we visited. All of the landings were to areas with large penguin colonies, and gave us opportunities to observe them, go for short hikes, and even some snowshoeing as well (that includes Port Lockroy which has a penguin colony living amongst the buildings). We were extremely lucky to have favorable weather for two Zodiac rides and two landings every day. The weather in Antarctica is extremely unpredictable, which normally would give the staff quite a challenge in creating the daily schedule. From what we heard though, we had the best weather they had seen all season, with almost no wind, and periods of sun and blue sky almost everyday. The only change to the schedule was a last minute reroute of one Zodiac cruise due to thick sea ice blocking the intended cruising area.
During the expedition, we were fortunate to see four different types of penguins, all during their nesting season. The colonies were full of penguin couples building nests, sitting on eggs, exchanging egg sitting positions, stealing nesting materials from their neighbors, and even a bit of mating. Lots of drama to observe! The types of penguins we saw were Chinstraps, Gentoos, Adelies, and then one Macaroni penguin. We learned how to identify the different species and even a bit about their specific behaviors. Even though these penguins are officially “wild”, we got to know them pretty up close and personal at times (no touching though), and even though they are stinky little dudes, they are definitely cute and endearing. Danny even does a pretty good penguin impression, which if you ask him to do in public you may regret. We came across a few different species of seals and sea lions, including the elusive, predatory leopard seal. And we were lucky enough to have a close encounter with a Minke whale, and spottings of Orca whales and lots of Humpback whales from a distance.
After our action packed days, we would usually have some down time before dinner and also a daily debrief with the expedition leader and the staff of experts. Evenings came with choices of lectures, a few organized activities, cocktails, and general hanging out. We were always free to walk around outside on the decks, and even to go hang out on the bridge with the captain and his team. The bridge was the best place to spot whales off in the distance and to learn about how the ship was navigating through the icy waters. Our other favorite hang out area was in a lounge called the Observation Deck. It was located on the top floor of the ship, with windows on all sides but one, doors straight outside if we were to see something we wanted to run out and get a closer look at, and best of all, a piano for Danny to play. By the end of the cruise, he had a small fan club who would wander in to listen to him play. The sun was out for an extraordinarily long time every day. Official sunset was probably about 11:30 PM and official sunrise probably around 4 AM. But it never got totally dark outside! There was always something to photograph, and with whale, seal and penguin spottings from the ship at all hours, it was hard to stay off deck without camera and difficult to make ourselves go to sleep!
We took a ton, a ton, of photos and experienced too many highlights to list. Afterall, this was a 10 day experience, and it was nothing like either of us has ever seen or done. But below is our attempt to narrow both down. We do hope you check out our entire Antarctica photo catalog, click here for part 1, click here for part 2. I must mention that there are a few pesky dust spots on our camera sensor that show up in these photos. We don’t have Photoshop on the road, so we can’t remove the spots until we get home.
Highlights (there are a lot)…
- There were iceberg sculpture gardens as far as the eye could see.
- We were on constant wildlife watch for whales, seals and sea birds.
- We tried to catch penguins on camera jumping out of the water while swimming, and finally got one!
- Had an up close Minke whale encounter while on a small Zodiac boat.
- On the last night of the cruise, around midnight, we spotted around a dozen Humpback whales from the bridge.
- There was constant motion in the scenery with new glaciers calving, old ones melting and moving and sea ice floating; nothing ever stays the same.
- We enjoyed observing the penguins walking along their penguin highways, from nest to the sea, and back to the nest again.
- We had a few close penguin encounters when we would be walking and one would come close to us and pause while trying to decide which direction to walk around us.
- After the first few big penguin colony landings we evolved from having to explore every nook and cranny into just finding a place where we could sit down and just observe the penguin drama.
- We had nightly happy hour drinks in Danny’s room with Roger and Geoff.
- We got to know a Frenchman named Vianny, whom we gave the American, easier to pronounce name of Vinny. He is a ship architect and engineer whose company was hired to design a new ship for the cruise company, so he was actually on a work trip! He shared a lot of interesting details on ship building and accompanied us on numerous trips up to the bridge to show us how the ship navigational tools worked.
- We met a British couple, Laura and Ross, who were doing a similar backpacking year to us. We wound up meeting up with them for a post Antarctic adventure in Torres del Paine National Park (more about that in our next post).
- Even though we had a pretty regular crew we sat with at meals, we mixed it up at quite a few dinners and got to know many other people including the expedition staff.
- Food, food, food. So much food. Breakfast and lunch buffets and dinners where we sometimes ordered more than one entre to split, and of course the desserts. We were such fatty mcfattensteins.
- One night we had an outdoor Antarctic BBQ for dinner and silly hat party.
- My two roommates, along with Danny and his roommate Geoff all did the polar plunge jump into the frigid Antarctic Sea. Geoff did it dressed in a speedo adorned with rainbows, unicorns and a gnome.
- One night was Antarctic Jeopardy quiz night where Geoff was one of four contestants and participated dressed only in his polar plunge unicorn speedo.
- Danny smoked a cigar and had a Scotch on the bridge with the acting captain on duty and a few other friends. The Scotch was actually formulated using the same recipe in the bottles that Ernest Shackleton brought with him on his famous, and doomed, Antarctic expedition in 1914-1917.
- There were lots of interesting characters on the ship, one in specific who could talk for hours, never making a lick of sense. I accidentally abandoned Danny with her for an epic nonsense conversation, and I still owe him for that.
- We saw an amazing sunset on way out of Antarctica with no rush to take the picture. Because of the angle of the sun there, the sunset lasted about an hour!