Traveling in Antarctica

Antarctica was so much more than the marathon. In Ushuaia, Argentina, we boarded our cruise ship, the Vavilov, and were greeted by the One Ocean Expeditions staff with champagne and appetizers. The fiancé and I shared a small cabin with two twin beds and a bathroom that was also shared with the adjacent cabin. The Vavilov is not your usual cruise ship. It’s actually a Russian research vessel for most of the year. The Canadian expedition company One Ocean rents the boat for the Antarctic cruise from November to March and that money supports the researchers the rest of the year. As soon as we got on the Vavilov, we felt very safe with the knowledgeable staff: there was an iceberg specialist, a naturalist, an expedition leader, a kayak specialist, a hotel manager, and a few more crew members that were always ready to teach us something new about the continent.  Behind the scenes, most of the sailors and kitchen workers were Russian and also very competent and friendly. While Marathon Tours, the company I signed up with from the US, was responsible for the race part of the trip, One Ocean Expeditions led all of the other excursions and I can’t say enough about what a wonderful job they did.

Antarctica Group Photo

Antarctica Group Photo

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It took three days to travel from Argentina to Antarctica. First we had to navigate the Beagle Channel and then we were on the dreaded Drake Passage. The Drake is the body of water between South America and Antarctica and it is known for being very stormy, so everybody paid extra attention to the life boat drill we had the first day. Being a small boat, the Vavilov did rock a lot, which I found very relaxing, but many people got sea sick and couldn’t get out of their cabins for a while. For the days at sea, the crew had many presentations planned: we watched movies about Antarctica and marathons, and learned about birds, penguins, ice, and whales from the naturalists. We also had to do a couple of mandatory meetings to make sure we were in compliance with the Antarctic Treaty: pretty much we were following  a “leave no trace behind” rule and had to stay a few feet away from all wildlife. In the end, it was actually a very mellow Drake sailing, as I slept most of the time and even missed a couple of the presentations.

On March 8th we finally saw the first Antarctic land of the trip: the South Shetlands Islands! The next day our first excursion was to Half Moon Island. We had to wear our red One Ocean waterproof suits and rubber boots, so we looked like a bunch of red penguins in Antarctica. And, speaking of penguins, that’s the first thing I saw when I stepped on my 7th continent. There are penguins everywhere and, of course, they are the cutest! The shore has some gravel and rocks, but then the snow covers most of the area. I was impressed by the size of the mountains around us. We couldn’t see some of the peaks as clouds were covering them, but with the sun peeking through, it was a magical view.

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We started our short hike on Half Moon Island and, on the way, there were many seals. Unlike penguins, they are not as friendly. As a naturalist described them, they are like teenagers trying to push the boundaries: they would run up, scream really loud at us, but then they would move away if we made some noise at them. Some seals were really big and scary, but most would just chill on the rocks. When we got to the top of the hill, we saw HUNDREDS of penguins all next to each other. It was molting season, when they kind of hibernate and don’t move for weeks until all feathers have changed. Most of them were just standing there looking miserable (they are hungry and tired), but some of them were done with the shedding process and were walking around being as funny as they could be. This was a colony of Chinstrap penguins, but in the middle of them there was a yellow-haired Macaroni penguin who didn’t have a clue he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. So cute!

I'm in Antarctica!

I’m in Antarctica!

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The next day was marathon day on King George Island! On this island we saw more penguins, seals, and birds, but also quite a few humans as it’s home to research stations from China, Argentina, South Korea, Uruguay, Chile, and Russia. It was the only island with gravel roads, warehouses, and a church, as it’s inhabited year-round. So happy I completed the marathon, but the next day I was so tired and sore from all the hills that I missed the morning excursion to Mikkelsen Harbor in Trinity Island. By that point I had seen so many penguins already, that sleep was more important so I could recover for our kayak excursion in a couple of days. Click here to see a list of all wildlife we saw in Antarctica. In the afternoon we had an award ceremony, where not only the top 3 marathoners and half-marathoners got their medals, but also all the racers that had completed a marathon on ALL 7 continents. And you thought I was crazy!

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The next couple of days there were ship cruises and zodiac cruises through ice lakes with the most pristine water, penguins swimming nearby, and seals relaxing on bergy bits, which are small icebergs. There were massive glaciers everywhere and also real icebergs the size of castles. Just beautiful days in Cierva Cove and Neko Harbor! This last harbor was actually on the Antarctica peninsula instead of an island, so it was my first time stepping on the mainland! Of course, more cute penguins were there to greet me. That day was very windy and a little wet, so the pictures were a bit fuzzy, but later a stunning double-rainbow came out to save the day.

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Antarctica

Antarctica

My favorite day of the whole trip was also our last excursion on the mainland. We first cruised Paradise harbor for another look at the glaciers. The name was very fitting: amazing views of lakes, icebergs, glaciers, mountains, and wildlife. Truly paradise. Some people went to the top of a peak in Almirante Brown for the spectacular views and sled down. The fiancé did that while I stayed with the penguins on the bottom mustering courage for our next adventure: a polar plunge! Our expedition leader would wake us up every day with the temperature of the air and the water. That day the water was 29 degrees Fahrenheit: below freezing! I had promised the fiancé I would to this with him, so we put our bathing suits on and jumped in the water together. To my surprise it was not cold: it was just PAINFUL. We were in the water for just a few seconds, but my hands and feet were more frozen that I thought possible. Although the adrenaline takes care of the cold, the feeling of needles going through your fingers and toes is awful. The hot shower I took after that was the best shower of my life. Speaking from experience, a true polar plunge is worse than skydiving or bungee jumping, but I’m glad I got over my fear and did it with the fiancé!

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The afternoon had more surprises awaiting us in Wilhemina Bay. Most of the boat had signed up for a kayaking excursion, but many times it got canceled because of the weather. We were scheduled for the kayaks on our last afternoon in Antarctica and the day looked incredible! We put on our dry-suits and the fiancé and I shared a tandem kayak. At first, I was terrified: what if we fell in the water? But then Humpback whales started to show up and do their magic. For hours we watched them “dancing” around us. It was like watching a ballet performance. They would go around us in slow motion, spraying once in a while, breaching, turning very gracefully, all right next to us. We kayaked until sunset and at the end of the day I couldn’t have felt more accomplished.

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The next two days we braved the Drake Passage again and all I did was sleep for hours. It turns out sailing the rough seas is quite exhausting! Click here to see a chart of our trip. We arrived back in Argentina and got a plane the same day to the US. Antarctica was so much more than I had hoped. I conquered fears, achieved dreams, learned tons, and made memories with the fiancé that will last a lifetime. Definitely an experience I will cherish forever.

Click here to donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters, a mentoring program that empowers children to also achieve their dreams.

Click here to see a compilation of images and videos  from our trip put together by the crew of One Ocean Expeditions.

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