Guest Blog by Ajay Gundepalli
It was the summer of 1998, one of our family friends gifted me the World Atlas that had landscapes from various countries, and I was awestruck by a picture of a Penguin jumping from an iceberg with a magnificent ice mountain. Since then it really intrigued me, I wondered, “ what would a trip to these icy glacials and mountains be like”. Two years ago, I started planning my expedition to Antarctica. I didn’t know what to expect from my journey to the white continent but was prepared for it to be a life-changing adventure. And it certainly was!
How I planned my Antarctica expedition
Anyone who has traveled to Antarctica can attest to what a special place it is. From the abundant wildlife to the icy landscapes, there were plenty of jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, and teary-eyed moments. If you’re planning to visit Antarctica for the first time, know that no matter how much research you do, the trip will be full of surprises, likely surpassing any expectations you have.
A starting point to plan your travel journey to Antarctica is that you cannot explore the place on your own – you need to be on a guided expedition. Expedition cruising at its core is about exploration and adventure. Ships are much smaller so they can access remote places. The itinerary is not always followed by the book. Nature dictates everything in Antarctica, so the expedition needs to adapt to any weather fluctuations (mostly ocean and ice conditions) and wildlife movements. There are strict rules for tourists so it’s not a destination for independent travel. I have never been a big fan of cruises, so I was worried about doing my bucket-list experience this way but was pleasantly surprised by the adventures of exploring Antarctica via a cruise. There’s a lot of spontaneity and free time on an expedition cruise so my need for independence and exploration was definitely fulfilled.
Life on the cruise
Life on a cruise ship was filled with educational and social activities. The expedition crew consisted of a biologist, a geologist, a historian, and an anthropologist who gave lectures during days at sea. There were presentations about Antarctic wildlife, icebergs and glaciers, the discovery of Antarctica, and the psychology of living and working in Antarctica, among others. In the evenings we’d also have social events, like trivia competitions, and interactions with others on the cruise, which was fascinating for me as it was an opportunity to learn about other travelers’ motivation to visit Antarctica.
Daily, we’d land at different docks two to three times for about 2 hours each which gave us plenty of time to observe the wildlife and hike around. There were also some sensitive locations (including melting icebergs) where we’d have less time with strict observations from the marine and lifeguards. Getting to landscape areas for walks was also not easy! We’d be divided into groups of 10 and transported in heavy-duty inflatable vessels to the landing sites and once there, we’d have to step into the water (usually ankle or calf deep) to get on shore. Before we’d arrive on site, the expedition crew would have marked territories for us to walk around to respect the wildlife around and for our own safety.
Seasickness is common on these cruises during the travel to Antarctica. Passengers are most likely to experience motion sickness during days at sea – for example crossing the Drake Passage, the most turbulent waters in the world. Sometimes it was hard to walk around the ship or get a good night’s sleep because of the intensity of the waves. Once we got to Antarctica, the ship was much more sheltered from the rough waves which made my life a little better.
My share of fun in Antarctica
The Polar Plunge: This was one of the most memorable and invigorating activities for me in the adventure. I was standing on a black sandy beach on Paradise Bay staring at the freezing water. As I ran into the shallow side of the water, I became acutely aware that the polar plunge was far more torturous. The icy water splashed at my ankles and then my thighs before I dived headfirst into the water with a half-hearted roar. The pain felt real. I quickly surfaced and labored back to the safety of the shore as rapidly as possible. I was then greeted with a shot of vodka to generate some heat throughout my body. In hindsight, the experience was worth the temporary pain for the exhilaration, and it’s a lifetime memory for me which is great for some dinner party stories that I continue sharing with my friends.
Kayak: It’s an intimate experience to explore the inlets that cruise ships can’t navigate. I was around penguins and seals face-to-face and surrounded by whales as they swam around the kayaks. Paddling between the brash ice and enormous icebergs was an incredible way to take in the beauty.
Camping: If you’re bored of your comfortable room aboard the cruise, then camping on the ice is a cool opportunity for you to be more present in the region. One of my favorite moments was sleeping under the midnight sun near Paradise Bay. Penguins and seals flushed the entire place and were our friendly neighbors during our camping experience.
Port Lockroy mail station: Port Lockroy was a fun stop on the itinerary. It’s where we ran into people from other expeditions and interacted with them. As a test, I mailed a postcard to myself which actually arrived at my Chicago apartment after almost 1.5 months!
Breathtaking views of the wildlife and landscapes in Antarctica
Honestly, wildlife is the key highlight of the expedition. The most common wildlife I saw included penguins, seals, whales, and seabirds. As we cruised through the region, we saw wildlife in its natural and raw form – hunting scenes, the cycle of life with penguins mating and incubating eggs, penguins walking around me at a distance of 15 ft and approaching me sometimes as well.
The scenery in Antarctica is wild and enticing, with snow-blanketed mountains, massive glaciers, and icebergs so big they’re measured in kilometers instead of meters. The landscapes were just what I was expecting to see on my first trip to Antarctica, but that’s not to say there weren’t a few surprises.
Antarctica has a few volcanic islands (like Deception Island which appeared dusty and largely free of snow) – not something people typically associate with Antarctica. Deception Island, in particular, was dusty, brown, and largely free from snow.
Antarctica is also not as quiet as you might expect, with sounds of nature interrupting the silence. Here’s some of what I experienced during the expedition you can expect to hear when visiting Antarctica:
- Glaciers cracking and rumbling like thunder as they birth new ice into the sea
- The sputtering exhale of air from the whale blowholes a whale’s blowhole
- Water splashing and forcefully parting as a whale breaches then slams backs into the depths
- Penguins squawking and chicks chirping asking to be fed
- The slapping of penguin feet as they follow each other down their penguin highways
- Seals belching as they lazily exhale puffs of breath that condense in the cool air
- Young elephant seals growling as they play fight on the beach
Visiting Antarctica for the first time was a dream come true. From getting up close to penguins and whales, to being surrounded by mighty glaciers and icebergs, there were so many moments that will remain forever in my heart and mind. Truth is, as much as I planned for my trip to Antarctica, nothing could ever prepare me for just how profoundly personal the experience turned out to be.
Traveling in Antarctica was a far more emotional experience than I expected. From excitement, surprise, wonder, and curiosity, there was no escaping a visceral reaction to Antarctica. The landscapes are so beautiful and the wildlife so absorbing. It’s way too easy to become preoccupied with taking pictures, especially during the first few days, but some of my favorite moments were when I chose to put the camera down and be 100% present. This was especially true during whale sightings and watching young penguins play in the water.
Lastly, I was also reminded of a quote from one of my favorite movies (The secret life of Walter Mitty) – “Sometimes I don’t take a shot. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” I am grateful that I spent my time in Antarctica enjoying these moments, rather than chasing down the elusive perfect photo!