Antartica had been on my bucket list for about 3 years when I first read that non-scientists were allowed to visit. My goal was to make it to all 7 continents by the age of 30. We were still in the midst of the pandemic, but I was on a timeline at age 29, and a few things still stood in the way of my goal. The airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, had canceled and shifted my flight dates significantly where I wouldn’t even make it onboard the ship. Argentina, the country, had entirely closed their borders to any visitors abroad. Understandably, as most of the world was still in lockdown, I wasn’t certain that I’d be able to make it by 30.
Come December 2021, a month before my birthday in January 2022, with a 2-3 week window, a sliver of hope appeared; The country opened up their borders, the flights were finally aligned, and I was finally able to slip in and out and accomplish this feat, just before Argentina closed their borders again after I flew back home.
It was a grueling solo trip that started in Washington, DC, where I was living in 2021, and the flight route directed me to NYC, before heading down to Buenos Aires, Argentina, then finally to Ushuaia, Argentina where I boarded the cruise ship to the South Shetland Islands and the Antartica Peninsula. I was initially at the mercy of Aerolinas Argentina and had to result in reaching out through rather creative ways on social media to get their attention to change my flight to a suitable one. By that, it still meant a 48+ hour flight, where I dozed off in airports until I finally got to Ushuaia, affectionately dubbed “The End of the World.” I had to spend extra days in Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia at the start and end of my Antartica trip because of the cancelled flights. Ushuaia was a small town, with the best and cheapest King Crab I’ve ever come across. I had a chance to do a few silly things, and even saw Chile from across the border when mailing out postcards. During this entire trip, I was in the midst of finals in my second to last semester of my MBA, and I had to complete a couple of my finals on airport wifi while traveling, all while planning my move back to Los Angeles in early January 2022. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable journey of a lifetime.
My voyage to Antartica was with Albatros Expeditions and my time aboard the M/V Ocean Victory cruise ship was 10 days, and my cabin had a beautiful open balcony view with sliding doors that made me immediately feel at home. The staff were simply wonderful and such great humans. When I initially looked up the trip in 2018, I was fully prepared to be stuffed in a cargo ship with a little peep hole to look out of, if I was lucky. To think that I ended up eating 3 gourmet buffet meals a day for the next 10 days; what a life.
For this trip, having had so much trouble with Aerolineas Argentinas already, I didn’t want to risk losing my luggage, so I packed only a carry-on luggage and personal backpack for this trip. I will say that although I have trained myself to pack light for all my travels, Antartica was a huge challenge, as I had to pack for unpredictable cold weather conditions. I felt justified in taking only a carry-on, because a couple actually had their luggage lost by Aerolineas Argentinas upon arrival, and had to scramble around town to get what they needed for the trip prior to boarding.
We had surprisingly calm conditions sailing through the Drake passage towards the Shetland Islands (Aicho Islands, Fournier Bay, Damoy Point, Danco Island, Cuverville Islands, Lemaire Channel), which is notorious for choppy waters and believed to have caused more than 800 shipwrecks. It’s where the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern oceans converge, ultimately resulting in rough waves. Some of the passengers were hoping for a true “Drake shake,” and boy did they regret that after.
Each day was filled with educational briefings and Zodiac cruises to explore and observe wildlife and icebergs that were unbelievably beautiful. The smell of Antartica consists mainly of penguin guano (poop), which was so pungent in the air and smelled like a fish market. The sound of Antartica, aside from Penguin mating calls, was filled with glacier and iceberg crackles from the old air bubbles being released from the melting ice as we navigated around in the Zodiac cruises. The icebergs, in case anyone was curious, were extremely salty. We wore designated boots that we decontaminated and stored in the mudroom to minimize the introduction of invasive or non-native species to Antartica.
IAATO (The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) states that only 100 people are allowed on land at any one time from a single vessel, so passengers would trade off; when we weren’t on land, we were on Zodiac cruises. The crew would mark off areas that we would keep away from with red flags to give the penguins space as we were not to get too close. However, penguins are curious creatures and might choose to come to you and examine your boot or whatever; we just weren’t allowed to touch them or bring them home, sadly. We had to get out of their way and just be passive observers when they were crossing on their penguin highways. They are curious creatures and I got to spend a great deal of time observing them in their natural habitat, and they were mostly stealing rocks from each other for their mate. Although it wasn’t mating season so late in the Summer, I still peeped a few mating in the snow. Penguins don’t have external reproductive organs, so they do a bit of a balancing act to mate, and still try to be romantic and kiss. The other wildlife were different types of whales, birds, and leopard seals.
On our voyage back, we experienced a true “Drake shake,” with waves as high as 45 feet (15 meters). Most of us on the ship were seasick beyond belief, and as I laid in my cabin, I felt my body rise up almost lifting from the bed, with the rolls of the waves as it tossed our ship around. I spent the day in bed, with food delivered to my cabin. It was a rough 24 hours, but once we sailed past the Drake passage, we were in the clear. Our last dinner onboard was truly special; we were served filet mignon and lobster tails and amazing desserts that my mouth salivates just thinking about, all with a beautiful view surrounding us. Unfortunately, our ship didn’t get to do the Polar plunge or kayaking on this trip due to the weather conditions. My postcard mailed from Ushuaia took about 4 months to arrive. My postcard mailed from Antartica took 1 year and 4 months since the post office was closed during the pandemic.
# of COVID test taken in less than 3 weeks: 5 (1 to get into Argentina; 1 before getting on board the ship; 1 three days after boarding; 1 to get off the ship into Argentina; 1 to get back to the U.S.)
Making it to Antartica, thus completing #7by30: Priceless 🙂