Antarctica — Land of Sea and Ice

Very old, very blue ice pack in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula

One of my favorite shots descriptive of scale — a very old pack of glacial ice dwarfs travelers in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula

On February 24, 2015, I posted this to social media: “I’m leaving Antarctica today. But not before stopping to see where Shackleton’s men lived before being rescued and seeing a leopard seal kill.”

Rewriting this now, this post reads as fiction. But this type of experience truly is par for the course in the land of sea and ice. It is the kind of place you almost don’t realize you were ever in until you are on your way out. The entire experience feels like a dream state.

Sometimes Antarctica really calls for a black and white shot

Antarctica is very beautiful in black and white

It’s difficult to describe Antarctica — superlatives don’t really cut it. Some say that it is like Alaska on steroids. Writer Jon Krakauer said it’s like ‘being on the moon.’ I say it’s like seeing Earth for the first time. Any which way, it’s otherworldly. It is all quite difficult to explain…

Maybe the reason that it feels so hidden from the rest of existence is that it’s not an easy place to physically get to. It’s certainly not cheap to get there either. The conditions are extreme, the weather is menacing, and ground operations must be tight, as ‘one can’t survive there for more than a few minutes without being properly equipped’ (again, paraphrasing Krakauer.)

In general terms, the environment governs the great white continent. In terms of geopolitical governance, Antarctica’s best interests are championed by 52 countries that comprise The Antarctic Treaty – an international agreement designed to keep the continent free of political claim so scientific research and discovery can exist there. The continent is vast and uninhabited. but it is not devoid of humans. Those whom live and work at one of the 20 stations currently on Antarctica go there from all over the world and have a deep love for the region. I didn’t meet one person staffed there who wasn’t in some way dedicated to Antarctic conservation.

Where I went, to the Antarctic Peninsula, is located across the stormy Drake Passage from Cape Horn at the southern tip South America in the western hemisphere. It is the most commonly visited area of the continent and is often grouped with visits to South Georgia Island (where the great explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton found rescue for his crew of 27 men in 1916) and the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina. I will write about both of those places in separate posts.


So with that, a micro-look at daily life while traveling to Antarctica

Elephant Island, Antarctica

The beautiful Southern Ocean hugging Elephant Island, Antarctica (It doesn’t look very menacing, but it is! More photos to come on Instagram/iStefPayne)

Elephant Island

This is where I said goodbye to Antarctica with a leopard seal kill, and where Shackleton and his men reached land for the first time after 457 days at sea in 1916. Before then, they had lived on Antarctic ice floes after their boat, The Endurance, was lost to the Weddell Sea the year before. Likelihood of crew survival was very low, morale was even lower, so when their lifeboats landed safely at Elephant Island, it was a major win. The exhausted crew set up camp at Point Wild where they endured a brutal Antarctic winter while Shackleton and four others journeyed to South Georgia Island where they knew there to be a whaling station at Grytviken.

Shackleton’s 16-day rescue mission into the open ocean on a lifeboat named James Caird became one of the most iconic tales of sailing of all time — and that is just the conquering of the sea. That Shack even made it to South Georgia is remarkable, and that every one of the 27 men on the Endurance expedition survived defies all odds. He is regarded as one of the greatest explorers and leaders of men in history.


A Weddell Seal on the outskirts of the South Shetland Islands

A Weddell Seal on the outskirts of the South Shetland Islands

Polar Safari

In general, I associate safari with the savannas of Africa. Hopping into a supped up Jeep reinforced with steel beams and heading out into the bush in search of wildlife is ultimate. It didn’t really occur to me though that piling into a zodiac (small pontoon boat) and cruising the polar waterways would offer a similar experience until I was there… but that’s exactly what we were doing – we were on a polar safari. And instead of a lion’s kill of say, a zebra, it was a leopard seal kill of a penguin. It was an orca kill of a sea lion. I have a bleeding heart for animals and wildlife so it is always a little sad to watch something so cute literally be turned inside out — it’s intense watching natural selection take place before your eyes. And while a kill is somewhat rare to see up close, general wildlife viewing in Antarctica is AWESOME. The animals are very playful. With such a light human footprint and maximums placed on the amount of people who can be ashore at any given time, sea life really isn’t scared of human beings because we are not eyed as predators. Quite different than the African savanna.


Crossing the stormy Drake Passage -- on a calm day

Crossing the stormy Drake Passage toward the Antarctic Peninsula — on a calm day they call it the “Drake Lake”

The Drake Passage

This is where the world’s stormiest seas flow. As I wrote above, the Drake connects the southern tip of South America and the South Shetland Islands on the Antarctic Peninsula. It is where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans converge with polar waters, and where the most voluminous current in the world, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, flows west to east around the globe. That’s a whole lot of action in one area of sea, and that is why it is the stormiest, and why the sea life is so abundant.

A very blue, very old iceberg floats mostly below the surface

A very blue, very old iceberg floats mostly below the surface

The swell is storied to be up to 200 feet (100 feet is probably more realistic), and even at its calmest, “ocean motion” is likely to put you on your back at some point during the crossing. From Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula, it takes 2.5 days to see land. That’s a whole lot of rocking…

And what about seasickness? It’s sort of like altitude poisoning – regardless of your fitness level and/or overall health, you may be affected by ocean motion. Before this trip, I’d not been on a cruise ship for any length of time, so I wanted to see how my body reacted without prescribed medication and if I was prone to seasickness. I was okay, but I’m a tough old bird. It’s probably wise to carry some along. Others had to high-tail it out of meals and gatherings numerous times.


The general scene of the Antarctic polar plunge

The general scene of the Antarctic polar plunge

The Polar Plunge 

You guessed it! The infamous “Polar Plunge” is simply a quick dip into the oceans of one of the two Polar Regions – the Arctic and the Antarctic.

I chickened out of doing it in Lapland, northern Sweden two years ago – mainly because of the method (madness) of how they do it there – in a carved out square of miles of frozen lake ice. In Antarctica, I free-fell into open ocean, lost a moment of my life to shock, and hopped out to a towel being wrapped around me. In a couple of moments I reached a normal body temperature and felt just fine – invigorated actually. I think a certificate of accomplishment is in the mail…


Hoisting a National Geographic / Lindblad Expeditions flag on the Antarctic continent with explorer Peter Hillary -- life can be surreal. (Credit: Jonathan Irish)

Hoisting a National Geographic / Lindblad Expeditions flag on the Antarctic continent with explorer Peter Hillary — life can be surreal. (Credit: Jonathan Irish)

“Fast Ice” 

If you’re going to go to Antarctica, you’re going to learn about the ice. Ice floes are large packs of floating ice. Icebergs are broken off pieces of glacier that float freely in the open water. Fast ice is what the captain looks for when seeking a place to park his ship so that travelers like me can safely disembark and step foot on continental Antarctica. For me, fast ice is synonymous not only with the first time I stepped foot on land, but also where I hoisted a flag with explorer Peter Hillary as if we were conquering the continent after a wild expedition. Peter is the eldest son of the first man to summit Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary; together, they were the first father/son to conquer the world’s highest mountain. Traveling with Peter was eye-opening. Through lectures he gave on the ship and during one-on-one conversations, I was able to learn about what the life of an explorer is really like and how with it comes not only great moments of accomplishment, but great tragedy as well. He is a fantastic storyteller and shows a surprising willingness to open up and share very private stories from his life. I talked to him about my work at NASA in human space exploration; after which he returned to me a story of going to the south pole with his father and Neil Armstrong… Life can be surreal.


Living on a ship can be a very strange thing...

Typical scene on the National Geographic Explorer (w/ Lindblad Expeditions)

Life at Sea

I took away some small anecdotes about life at sea on this trip…

  • Have fun with new friends — maybe work on a creative project.
  • Take sea naps! You’ll never sleep so well as when being rocked to sleep by the sea.
  • Know that even if you plan to work out in the ship gym daily, you probably won’t — but you will eat three times a day right on schedule.
  • You will almost certainly find by the end that you’ve had an overwhelming amount of conversation.
  • Whistling is considered bad luck to a captain;
  • And most importantly; never call the ship a boat. “It is not a boat, it’s a ship!!” — Captain Oliver

I traveled with National Geographic Expeditions & Lindblad ExpeditionsQuark Expeditions is another operator that are well respected in the travel community.


Animals of the Antarctic:

Every day, the Lindblad ship crew and captain kept record of the wildlife mammals and birdlife we had seen. Here is a selection of what we saw:

Sea Leopards, Whales (endangered Blue, Beluga, Humpback, Minke, Orca, Spectacled); Seals (Cape Fur, Weddell, Crabeater), Penguins (Chinstrap, Gentoo, Adelee); Hourglass Dolphins, and the glorious king of all traveling birds — the Albatross!




Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

The epic tale of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. There are a few versions of this book that were penned after the craze of world exploration really hit during the 1950s and 1960s. I read the Albert Lansing version and loved it. I hear that the version by Caroline Alexander is really great too (I’m reading that next!)

In the Ghost Country: A Lifetime Spent on the Edge by Peter Hillary

A memoir of extraordinary depth and searing honesty, In the Ghost Country is the story of Peter Hillary’s physical and emotional journey across the icy wastes of Antarctica.

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent by Gabrielle Walker

A study of and look at the most alien place on the planet, the only part of the Earth where humans could never survive unaided.

The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library Exploration) by Roland Huntford

The great race between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen to become the first to reach the South Pole

The Worst Journey in the World (Penguin Classics) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Many of the explorers, experts, guides and photographers on my trip recommended this work, calling it their favorite of all books about the region. (That is on my reading list too!)


And when I first stepped foot onto the great white continent… 

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Categories: Adventure + Exploration, Cities & Countries, People & Cultures, Polar Regions, Where to Travel

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