Antarctica isn’t your normal travel experience; it’s extreme in just about every way imaginable from how you get there to what you see during the trip. There are a lot of ways to describe and share this experience, but these five words encapsulate it for me personally.
1. Wet – The entire Antarctic experience seemed to involve a lot of water, which is obvious I guess. Visitors to the 7th continent visit via expedition cruise ship, no matter if they sailed directly or are participating in a fly-cruise. It’s the best way to see the continent and offers a unique viewpoint. Sometimes the most amazing sights in Antarctica aren’t organized; they’re seen off the bow of the ship when you least expect them. All around of course is evidence of Antarctica’s chilly status, snow and ice in various degrees of summer melt and vast graveyards of icebergs peacefully floating by. Fog, ice, rain and snow – Antarctica has it all and chances are you’ll experience all of them at least once if you visit. But that’s not necessarily what I mean when I say that water is an important memory for me, it’s a lot more than just watching a giant mountain of ice float by. When I think of Antarctica the first thing I think about isn’t a penguin or seal, it’s sitting in a Zodiac boat jetting over the water, the cold water spraying in my face. Sitting there facing forward I knew that I wasn’t an intrepid explorer, but I sure did feel like one and that’s why water was such an important part of the experience for me.
2. Light – Being on the bottom of the world as Antarctica is, light plays a strange role in anyone’s trip and will change based on the time of year. When I was there in February sunset and sunrise were pretty normal, happening at 6am and 10pm respectively. But light is an important companion when you visit Antarctica because it’s constantly changing and dramatically affects the experience. On my first full day cruising around, the sun was bright and the skies blue. Everyone said we were lucky but it didn’t seem that way to me, it just seemed like a beautiful summer’s day. The next day I understood what they meant. I awakened to a world that had changed completely. The waters were full of ice and the sky was a menacing grey that was dangerously close to being black. What little light made it through the thick cloud cover didn’t brighten things, it only made them creepier. It was beautiful, but in a way completely different from the previous day. Light continued to be a friend throughout the adventure, always changing and always adding beauty and drama.
3. Cuddly – You may not have expected this one, but as an animal lover the wildlife experiences were an important part of the expedition for me personally. Throughout the week of cruising I saw thousands of penguins in various stages of life, from the seasoned adults to the super puffy chicks who hadn’t yet matured. They may have been dirty and a little smelly, but they were cuddly as hell. It took every once of willpower to refrain from picking one up and giving it a giant hug. Well that and the threat of imprisonment in a Chilean jail. Penguins aren’t the only cuddly creatures though, Antarctica is home to seven kinds of seals, most of which have a certain presence of personality and because of that are of course cuddly. Flying birds however lost me on the cuddly scale. I just don’t like them and I don’t know many people who would call them cute with a straight face. The penguins more than make up for their deficiencies though.
4. Friendly – Antarctica isn’t friendly, far from it. It’s a hard, imposing place that screams, “You don’t belong here!” No, it’s not the continent I’m referring to but the people with whom I experienced it. Expedition style ships feature small, close quarters while remaining comfortable. But after spending a few days with the same 40 or so people, all experiencing the same amazing adventures, bonds form and they form quickly. By the end of the first day friendship groups had formed, even though everyone was generally friendly to all of their shipmates. I’ve been on other small-ship, expedition style cruises before and experienced the same thing there as well. I love going through these once in a lifetime trips and knowing that I’m experiencing them with people equally fascinated and friendly. Better yet, these friendships don’t stop when you leave the ship; they tend to persist for years afterwards.
5. Surreal – I began this post by saying that Antarctica isn’t your average trip and it’s not. It’s an experience unlike any other and extreme in every way. It’s far away and takes many hours of flying to even start the cruise around the continent. Everything there is huge, in proportions that make you feel like you’ve entered the age of giants. But it’s also surreal. It’s surreal to watch a purple and pink Antarctic sunset. It’s surreal to sea a pod of humpback whales following the ship. It’s surreal to sit on top of a mountain surrounded by rock, ice and several hundred penguins. It truly is unlike anything else you will ever do and that is the magic of the experience, the pleasant bizarreness of it all. If you’re fortunate you’ll realize that while you’re still there so that you can mentally capture even more of those special moments in an effort to never forget just how humbling the adventure truly is.