It is the last great wilderness. This is one of the few places on the planet that has never seen a permanent human settlement, never seen a war. Beauty abounds: mountains, glaciers, icebergs and the Southern Ocean collide in dramatic fasion. The wildlife encounters are out of this world: you don´t need to approach the wildlife — they come to you. I am now one of the privileged few to have visited this place. I have never been anywhere like it (I know I say this a lot, but, really, if you have been to Antarctica, you know what I´m talking about). The Lonely Planet guidebook says, “Welcome to another planet. Its name is Antarctica, and it’s not so far from where you live.”
The weather was perfect for us. This is the highlight of my world trip so far. I am having some serious writer´s block trying to describe the greatness of Antarctica to you. Arrggh. I simply do not posses the writing skills. I will try to hide this fact by throwing some pics, videos, and stories at you, and hope you don´t notice.
My home for the 11-day trip was a Russian research ship called the Professor Molchanov. At 216 feet, carrying 50 passengers, it was one of the smaller ships to visit the Antarctic. It had a small fleet of zodiacs that we used to do landings. It also had a bar where I consumed many a beverage, and a dining room where we passengers ate like kings.
The mettle of this ship was tested in the infamous Drake Passage. This body of water that stretches between South America and the Antarctica Peninsula is generally agreed to be the roughest seas in the world. The Drake did not disappoint. We got slammed by Force 10 winds (I´m not a seaman, so I´m not exactly sure what this means, but I can tell you it is not a good time). Water plowed over the bow. Swells broaded-sided us and rocked the boat. Having been on boat trips all over the world, I thought I was immune to sea-sickness. The Drake proved me wrong. Usually, when I feel a little nausea, I go out on deck and stare at the horizon, which does not move, and I am fine. But, we weren´t aloud on deck because it was so cold the decks were icing over! To suffer through all this I went to bed and assumed the fetal position. People make fun of the fetal position. I have come to embrace it. Actually I was told that the weather could have been much worse. I wouldn´t want to see it.
I am not a fan of bombarding you with facts from a place, since you can easily find those yourself on the internet. But, Antarctica is so extreme, I think a little data is worthwhile. Antartica is
– 99% covered in ice, which averages 1.6km in thickness, and 4km at its deepest
– holds the world´s lowest recorded temps (-90 deg celcius) and strongest winds (320km/h)
– is officially a desert, as it receives almost only 5cm of precipitation per year
– holds 70% of the world´s fresh water, and 90% of its ice
I think you would agree this is a special place. The wildlife encounters in Antarctica are unlike any other I have experience. One is litterally surrounded by penguins, seals, and whales.
I had an encounter with a leopard seal I will never forget. Leopard seals are one of the Southern Oceans fiercest predators. It will eat penguins and other seals. Now, when you see one laying casually on an iceberg they don´t seem so scary, despite being massive and having gnarly teeth. Then I saw one circle our zodiac. In the water, the leopard seal is in its element — lithe, agile, and powerful. Scary. This 500-pound rose up from the depths and was eyeing up our zodiac! It wrapped its huge jaws around the hulls not two feet from me! It pushed our boat around and investigated all of it, even the motor. I had heard that leopard seals have punctured zodiacs in the past. This memory flashed through my mind as I saw this just below the surface:
Our zodiac driver has been coming to the Antarctica for 9 years and said he has never had an encounter like it. Priceless.
And what about whales? You might ask how close I have come to those. My zodiac was only a few metres from this humpback:
These zodiacs are the perfect tool going to shore and cruising around the glaciers and icebergs.
I have never felt so much disappointment after taking a picture as I did in Antarctica. They are never as good as what I see with my eyes. I come up with a term for this feeling: “post-picture angst.” I have felt a lot of this in The White Continent. Nevertheless, I took hundreds and hundreds of pics. With great difficulty I have narrowed them down to a few dozen for your viewing pleasure, and put them with the rest of my trip photos, in the usual spot. Some of my photographically-inclined co-passengers were very generous and shared a few of their pictures with me. They have been compressed to a very low quality, but are still worth a look, trust me. You should check them out here. As you will see, I am hugely in their debt for sharing them with me.
I have accomplished my most impressive “World -est” yet: I have now been to the most southerly bar in the world!
I think it´s time for another installment of my “How To” series on the Unique Art of World Travel. In installment #14, I show you how to perform the Antarctica Plunge in Neko Harbour. Enjoy.
Next up, my tent and I are going on one last adventure together. Talk to you when I get back to civilization (again).