Touching down on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands, I am both exhilarated and nervous. Although this is not my top lifetime goal of visiting all 196 United Nations-recognized countries, I am checking off the 7th and final continent; one that many will never visit. As the kids say, I feel #Blessed.
We land in Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva Station, an Antarctic Chilean military base, as Chile is the only country in the world that offers landing access to commercial flights. Ships can be boarded from Ushuaia, Argentina, but this entails crossing the Drake passage, one of the world’s roughest sea lanes, which can take from a little over a day to five days, depending on the size of the craft and the craziness of the seas. Australia has a half day turnaround flight from which one can glimpse Antarctica’s eternal winter.
My companions and I board Antarctic Airlines from Punta Arenas, across the Magellan Straight from Tierra del Fuego. Here we embark upon an expedition over the next five nights, exploring the Antarctic Peninsula. We hop onboard a black zodiac, a military-grade inflatable boat, which will be our transport for our daily off-ship excursions.
The ship sets out overnight for Cierva Cove, on continental Antarctica. The following day’s morning excursion is a zodiac cruise to get our first taste of glaciers, icebergs and whatever wildlife surprises us. Similar to an African safari, sightings are not guaranteed. We take what nature offers. For most, the “Big 3” of Antarctic wildlife spotting include penguins, whales and seals. (No polar bears. That’s the arctic!)
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After setting off, we encounter a vast and desolate whiteness; glaciers in between snow-covered peaks that have been inching toward the Southern Ocean for millennia; a splattering of icebergs and pack ice of all sizes and in all directions; and a family of humpback whales feeding on the krill-rich water that unites all the animal life in these polar waters. The weather is 2 degrees on this “summer” day, but with wind chill it easily drops 5 to 10 degrees more. Though the frigid conditions chill our boat, the exhilaration of being in our first authentic Antarctic experience warms us to the core.
Day in and day out, we go on two daily excursions. Usually, in the morning we observe animals in their natural habitat, by foot or sometimes even by kayak. During the afternoon, we get more active, witnessing the uniqueness of Antarctica, whether by sending a postcard from the world’s southernmost post office on Port Lockroy or by hiking the most active caldera on the continent in Deception Island.
We visit penguin colonies and learn about the lives of gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Unfortunately, the king and emperor penguins of Happy Feet fame cannot be seen this far north on the peninsula. This special time of the year is when penguins molt, or shed their old feathers in lieu of a new waterproof set. The chicks are now irritating their parents, endlessly chasing them around the rocks, asking for more regurgitated feed. (For me, this draws parallels to my son persistently asking for more toys, or my baby hungrily demanding a top-up from his Mama.) There is a lot of activity going on, making for better entertainment than season 2 of Narcos: Mexico.
Life in perpetual white
We visit rock beaches where seals of all kinds laze about. Weddell, leopard, fur and elephant seals on icebergs are perfect portraiture models, rarely moving and always gazing with expressive eyes. In the water we search for whales, getting no closer than 30 meters, while hoping they will approach even closer for our National Geographic-style pictures of their great tails diving or their majestic somersault breaches. I am lucky to witness both from humpbacks, and also manage to briefly spot transient minke and killer whales.
Having gone on different game drives, searching for giraffes in Calauit Island National Park (Palawan), to lions in Kruger National Park (South Africa) to tigers in Ranthambore National Park (India) and jaguars in the Pantanal (Brazil), I now realize that polar safaris are different. Due to our overall absence, the animals have completely no fear and pay us little attention, barely acknowledging their bright yellow jacketed visitors. Here, the animals are king and we are mere passers by, not deserving of recognition.
The kaleidoscope colors of Antarctica include shades of white, gray, blue, green and aquamarine. For me, the most eye catching is the blue ice, which indicates a glacier or iceberg age of up to a million years. One evening, the crew is nice enough to pick up a block of floating ice, to be chopped up and served in that evening’s libations. I try a Dalwhinnie 15 whiskey with one ancient rock, expecting it either to be the purest water I’ve ever had or one that would finect me a disease the world hasn’t seen since cavemen times. I pray the alcohol content of the whiskey kills it.
But, as oft happens with peer pressure, I soon find myself in my swimmers and a bathrobe, hesitatingly walking toward the jumping platform, listening to “Ice, Ice Baby” blasting from some sadistic crew-member’s speakers. The plunge stirs sensations I’ve never felt: breathlessness from my body sucking all the warmth into my organs, leaving my limbs numb; brief panic from what appears to be a momentarily endless swim back up the ladder; and the most frigid cold a person can feel, beyond the bones and to the soul. But I manage to compose myself, climb out, scream tons of expletives (many in Tagalog), and march back into the ship, head held high in triumph. Take that, nature!
On our last day, we take our final zodiac ride back to the air strip from our ship. As our rubber zodiac approaches shore, a raft of penguins swim around the boat to my side, fishing on this fine morning. Not even a foot away from me, I am reminded that even though I am leaving, Antarctica remains long after me, a last bastion of Mother Earth, where nature reigns supreme.