Penguin Portraits: Adventures in Antarctica
Given the gloomy, miserable, wet and frozen weather right now, I’ve decided to write this blog about my trip to Antarctica. Also, it’s pretty much been exactly a year since this trip….so this is a good anniversary blog!
It used to be that the South Pole was a strictly “extreme-likely-to-die-hardcore expedition” reserved only for desperate whalers and crazy-ass explorers who had a suicide wish. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s safer to travel to the moon today, than it was to travel to the South Pole in the early 20th century. However, nowadays, almost the opposite is true. The stigma is that modern-day Antarctic cruises are crammed with old-foggy, one-foot-in-the-grave senior citizens; bird-watching while sipping champagne.
I am here to tell you that this rumour… is true. Out of 130-ish tourists on our cruise, you could probably count on both hands the number of people who weren’t wearing “Depends”.
The Antarctic is classified as one of the most volatile terrains on the planet. To start, it is a treacherous 2.5-day journey by sea, crossing the Drake Passage (no you cannot fly there). The Drake Passage is a violent, unpredictable, and turbulent stretch of Ocean between the southern-most tip of South America (Cape Horn) and the northern-most point of Antarctica. It is by far, the most dangerous sea crossing in the world. For those who might suffer from bouts of seasickness, I won’t lie, this could be the worst 5 days of your life (2.5 days there and 2.5 days back). I’m talking up to 50-foot waves, projectile vomiting, and basically anything that is not nailed down could be a potential source of injury. Not to mention, when you finally do arrive and manage to make it onshore, before setting foot on solid ground/ice you have to bundle up in a waterproof parka (which they provide), waterproof pants, and rubber galoshes (also provided), get in a zodiac (amid possibly rough and choppy seas) with massive humpback whales beneath you who could breach at any time, before you actually reach land. Furthermore, upon reaching land (whew!), despite the massive influx of tourism over the last few decades, there is no “path” for you to walk on. It’s basically, sharp, jagged, pointy rocks covered in slippery penguin poo and vomit. Ok – I know I’m not exactly selling it here, but I just wanted to set the scene and emphasize that this is NOT a place I would pick for a retirement home field trip. So why are there so many golden oldies on this expedition?
*all the Zodiac's on this boat were named after different Canadian provinces :) #homage
Well, a couple of reasons….Mainly, it is a ridiculously expensive endeavour to get there. There is a very short window of opportunity to go each year (November to mid-March), and only a select number of vessels and cruise lines are able to make this trip. In fact, those massive Caribbean cruise ships that are the size of small islands are not allowed to travel this route (if they were I’m sure Disney Cruises would be ALL over it with Ariel carved as siren on the bow of ship).
Only vessels with a maximum of about 200 people (including staff) are allowed. Thus, the potential to make a lot of profit by cramming people in like sardines is severely limited. Instead, tour companies charge outrageous sums of money for the privilege of embarking on this harrowing journey. On average, a 10-14 day trip will cost you upwards of $10K (up to $40K), not including your flight to Ushuaia (southern-most tip of Argentina) from where you port. G Adventures offers a 10-day cruise starting around $5500 in a quad room, which books out a year in advance – I’m actually not sure if this offer still stands, last I checked, the cheapest trip started mid $8K. This is probably the number one reason why these cruises are filled with oldies. They’re at the end of their lives, they’ve got a bucket full of cash, and they want to spend it before it’s too late.
TIP: If you’re flexible with your dates, you can head down to Ushuaia, check-in with some of the travel agencies there, and guaranteed they will be selling off last-minute spots for a fraction of the cost. I’ve met people who have gotten on cruises for $2-3k. #bargain
Anyways, back to why Antarctica will be the best holiday you’ve ever taken...
Despite the rough journey, the destination is worth the pain. Don’t worry, the two days spent stuck on a see-sawing boat isn’t all that bad if you’re not particularly prone to sea-sickness, or you if you took pre-preemptive measures to ward off the nausea (ear patch is the way to go). The ship is stocked full of scientists, naturalist, geologists, biologists and every other “ists” that exists, who host a variety lectures on the land and wildlife of all that is the South Pole. Antarctica, and penguins. Wildlife themed movies and documentaries are screened in the lounge room, there is a library full of books and magazines, and of course there is a bar complete with a band (cause old people love to dance)! In case you really start to get cabin fever, there is even a gym for you to work out in. Although, even on the smoothest sailing days, I could only ever manage about 20-minutes on the treadmill before hurting myself.
To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive that I would be slightly bored due to the older demographic. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to meet a small group of fun and young travellers. We were a motley assortment of 2 single gals from Canada (including me), 2 sisters from the Yukon, a sassy and hilariously sarcastic Irishman, a sweetheart New Zealander dancer, a young and fabulously denim-clad couple from Australia, and one really random paranoid Canadian guy that ended up being the butt of all our jokes (seriously…he was a piece of work…I mean he traveled with a set of special Marshall-Arts knives because he was paranoid that he could get attacked at any given moment….by a penguin….?).
Anyhow, you “officially” enter the Antarctic, not when you hit dry land but when you cross the Antarctic Convergence.
The Antarctic Convergence, also referred to as the Polar Front is a somewhat imaginary, ever-changing line encircling Antarctica. This line indicates where the cold, northward-flowing Antarctic current merges with the warmer (relatively speaking) waters of the sub-Antarctic seas. At any given time and place, you know you’ve passed the convergence when there is a sudden 5-10 degrees (F) change in water temperature. Well, you on the boat have no idea when this happens – but the captain makes an announcement on the ship! It's very exciting. Everyone one runs to the deck or the window to stare at the sea below...not there is any indication that we've crossed the convergence...
*see the yellow line on the diagram above
After you cross the convergence you enter into the Beagle Channel, a calm, smooth, glassy stretch of water that looks like something out of a science fiction movie. #icebergcentral Not to downplay all of the interesting lectures and shenanigans on-board the ship the last two days, this channel crossing was one of the highlights of the trip. We were lucky because the weather played in our favor and the calm conditions allowed the cruise ship to setup a luxury BBQ lunch on the ship deck. We basically got to cruise around watching icebergs, seals and humpback whales while pigging out on BBQ ribs and burgers. There are probably a bunch of photos of me with food falling out of my mouth because I was gaping at the scenery…
The way the expeditions are set up is 2 shore-landings per day. One in the morning, and one in the afternoon. The morning expedition starts bright and early. You suit-up and are separated into small groups of around 8-10 (can’t remember exactly). You board a zodiac and either head to land for an all-you-can-cuddle penguin-fest, or zodiac-cruise around 50-shades of blue looking for whales and leopard seals. The afternoon is similar and while you think that these expeditions may become repetitive after a few days, I can assure you...they don't.. On each expedition we visit a different island or part of the continent, and in each location there are usually different penguins that you can see. On this particular cruise we saw colonies of Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie penguins…I think we may have seen a handful of King penguins as well. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to tell the differences between penguins because I’m not talking about an handful of penguins here and there….I’m talking THOUSANDS of penguins EVERYWHERE. One shore landing had 50,000 breeding pairs of penguins. That is 100,000 penguins!!!
Now, I will tell you that there are better times to go on this cruise than others. Baby season starts mid to late January. However, I think the best time to go would probably be mid-February. At that time the baby penguino’s are out of their nests, fully fluffed-up and running around chasing each other (and you). I was there at the beginning of March, and during this time the baby penguins still had their fluff but were starting to malt a little…which is quite hilarious because they look slightly disheveled, drunk, and are falling over everywhere. You’re technically not allowed to chase or touch the penguins, but you are allowed to sit in the snow, and if a penguin comes up to you and touches you, you are allowed to be touched. #touchme Penguins at this age were also starting to be quite curious. So basically if you lie in the snow, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a couple of baby penguins climb up on you, cuddle in your lap, peck at your gopro, and if you’re lucky, fall asleep. #selfietime.
I should mention however, penguin paradise is not without its faults. The terrain is quite rocky (as mentioned), and if you can imagine, 100,000 penguins all living, eating, puking and pooping on one beach can create an incredibly disgusting stench. On the first day of our first excursion, I stepped out of the ship and took a deep breath thinking that I would breath in a lung-full of fresh, crisp, unpolluted Antarctic air. To my surprise and surmise, I, instead, inhaled a deep breath of rotting, fishy, penguin guano (scientific name for penguin puke). I mean, we were MILES out from shore and that stink still bitch-slapped me in the face….so you can just imagine what it smelt like once you were on land and at the center of penguin city.
You know how most animal themed cartoon movies generally portray animals with funny personalities and behaviors that are obviously exaggerated? Well I can tell you that if you’ve ever watched Happy Feet, the penguins in the Antarctic are pretty darn close in personality to those in the movies. For one, they are extremely social and playful – not just with each other, but with humans as well. I also don’t think this is conditioning, but just a natural curiosity. Older penguin parents actually don’t give a shit about you – they are too busy catching fish, but the babies will follow you, peck at you, chase you and climb on you. They have no fear. They also make these funny pathways called “penguin highways” where they all walk single file up and down the glaciers and mountains. If you get in the way of their “highway” they just stop and stare and squawk at you until you move. They don’t go around. They’ve also discovered and mastered the art of tobogganing. They climb up a giant mountain/glacier in single file and then one-by-one will jump down on their bellies and slide down the hill. Then they get up, and go up the penguin highway again (like a ski gondola) to do it all over.
You could spend all day watching them. Literally, if you are there in the Antarctic during midnight sun (sun 24hrs a day during the summer)….it would be the never-ending day. Antarctica is also where time stands still. There is no official time-zone in the Antarctic, though it’s not really a problem because no one really lives there permanently. Research stations follow the time zones of their home-country.
Another cool attraction that you visit is Port Lockroy. Port Lockroy is on Goudier Island in the Antarctic Peninsula and is also home to the “Penguin Post Office”!
From here you can mail a postcard home, which some say takes 2-6 weeks to arrive, but in reality, more like 4 months. Actually – if anyone is reading this and received a postcard from me from the Antarctic – please let me know! It goes from Port Lockroy, to the Falkland Islands, to the UK, and then onto wherever you want to send it. I think it was also here that you can see where some of the first researchers slept, worked and lived.
There is even a Penguin Cookbook which had recipes like Penguin-Egg Omlette and Penguin Hash Browns. Obviously researchers now don’t steal penguin eggs for food now, but early researchers who wintered there and ran out of food would often have to poach eggs from penguins...or penguins themselves. If you’ve ever seen March of the Penguins, you can imagine just how devastated the penguins would be having lost an egg…#sob
Now, if snuggling with penguins, kayaking with Orcas, and tobogganing down a glacier isn’t grand enough, you can choose to participate in the “penguin plunge”. This is exactly what you think it is. Strip down to your skivvies (or birthday suit as a few oldies on our trip did) and run into the freezing (-0.8 – 2 degrees Celsius) waters for a refreshing dip in the Antarctic Ocean. After about a microsecond swim – basically in and out as fast as your frozen limbs will carry you, you hop back on the zodiac and jump in the sauna to warm yourself back up! I think a fair amount of people can say they’ve visited all the continents in the world, but not everyone can say they swam in all the Oceans of the world! #bucketlist
So I started off trying to write this blog as a plug for why you should go to Antarctica and I know I haven’t exactly done a great job at that. I guess there are no words to describe just how magnificent this place is. If space travel never becomes commercial in our lifetime, Antarctica is definitely the closest “out-of-this-world” experience you can get. It’s also not a place where once you’ve checked it off the bucket-list, you never want to go back. Once you’ve gone once, you will want to return again. I’ve met dozens of people on my journey who have been 4 or 5 times or even 10 times to Antarctica (obviously they are loaded, or they eat cat food for the remainder of the year in order to afford it). The pictures I’ve taken are just a small teaser to the pristine, white, wide, breathless expanse of the South Pole. Do yourselves a favour, you’re only young once and that house, or car, or designer handbag you’ve been saving for will still be there next year. Do something unusual for your next holiday and go tobogganing with penguins!
To see my FULL Antarctic gallery - click on the photo below!