I paused apprehensively, dessert spoon suspended mid-air as the ship shuddered to a stop. Those of us that remained in the dining area looked around in surprised confusion. I jumped up to the nearest porthole and found myself staring out at a field of snow. An inexplicable wave of excitement washed over me and I let out an involuntary whoop.
“We’re banked in the snow!”, I shouted back to my table mates as I raced toward the deck at the bow of the boat.
A blast of cold wind seared through my single layer of Smart Wool as I threw open the door in order to gawk from the bow. Our keel was solidly plowed into a seemingly endless blanket of white that dissolved into jagged mountain peaks all along the horizon. Should I be concerned? I glanced up at the pilot house and the grin on our captain’s face confirmed that this was all part of the Antarctic experience.
Snow fields. Icebergs. Glaciers. To a tropical girl like myself, it all sounded so white and barren, not to mention cold. But Antarctica certainly didn’t feel white and barren, nor even intolerably cold. It was more of a non-stop adrenaline rush. As I sped back to my room for my camera and coat, leopard seals burst out of the water along the snow line that was half-way down the ship’s length, just outside my room. I got in the habit of constantly carrying my camera and coat with me because you just never knew when you might find yourself banked in the snow, positioned next to orcas hunting off the bow, inspired by breathtaking scenery or fascinated by a particularly impressive iceberg – one covered in penguins or a languidly lounging seal if you were lucky.
Even just being on the boat in Antarctica was exciting, especially in the narrow and majestic Lemaire Channel, but the true gems were the expeditions. Anticipation electrified the air as the mud room filled to capacity with everyone hurriedly donning their wool socks, rubber boots, scarves, hats, gloves, sun glasses, rain pants, coats, backpacks… individuality was lost as everyone morphed into red versions of the Marshmallow Man. It was a relief to finally step out of that sweltering space into Antarctica’s crisp, frigid air and be greeted by brightness. The ocean, the sky and even some of the ice itself sparkled in shades of blue, a spectacular backdrop for the contrasting but equally flashy, white snow.
All expeditions started in zodiacs; The rubber boats allowed for shallow shore landings or up-close and personal excursions through iceberg mazes. Zodiac tours meandered through rafts of porpoising penguins, navigating around floating ice and snow in a quest for attractive ice formations and wildlife, neither of which were particularly hard to find. Icicles, striations and an emanating eery shade of sapphire decorated every other ice feature. Small icebergs felt intimate and inviting, tempting us to explore their crystal caves and crevasses. Large icebergs were grand and imposing, making us and our zodiacs seem insignificant in this vast landscape. Hidden among the icebergs were Leopard Seals resting between penguin meals; Weddell Seals occasionally chomping on snow; and Crabeater Seals, inappropriately named given they don’t eat crabs, often bearing scars from killer whale attacks and covered in pink clumps of their actual food, krill; all lazing comfortably on low icy rafts.
Even more exhilarating than the zodiac tours were the kayaking opportunities where even small icebergs towered above. Adelie Penguins eyed me suspiciously as I glided up, pacing and squawking their disapproval as my kayak nudged their snowy islet. I got to explore sparkling crevasses, paddle through an Imperial Shag feeding frenzy, and test the icy waters. My desire to get close to a glacier, however, was squelched several yards away by a life guard of sorts – a viking-hat clad man in a zodiac who steamed over to inform me that I could go no further, but gave me hot chocolate with a shot of peppermint schnapps as a consolation prize.
Above all though, my favorites were the visits to the penguin colonies. I’d plop down in the snow and watch their antics unfold. Gentoos, Chinstraps, Adelies, it mattered not. I loved them all and was entertained for hours as they trumpeted, squabbled over rocks, courted, mated, fought or doted lovingly over an egg. They gracefully porpoised up to shore after hunting, put Olympians to shame with magnificent leaps straight out of the water to clear ten feet or so of ice, then nonchalantly tobogganed across the snow on their bellies to rejoin the colony. Or not. Some face planted on the solid ice walls and once out of the water stumbled less gallantly back to the colony.There seemed no shame in awkwardness though; Penguins seem to take life in stride. Even the day that fresh, sludgy ice covered the ocean to make swimming a dangerously slow proposition, the penguins accepted what needed to happen. They trooped to the water’s edge, piling up in nervous masses of hundreds waiting for some critical number to enter the water at once. They’d bicker and fuss, then decide something wasn’t right and waddle back up shore. They paced back and forth, repeating this routine until finally it was time. It was unclear whether the front rows chose to leap or were forced from behind, but suddenly there was a surge of penguins splashing into the ocean. A long, slow rolling motion amid the churning waters signaled the presence of a much dreaded Leopard Seal. The waters appeared to part as penguins further out widely dispersed to sea and those closer to shore frantically paddled back to land, joining the mad rush inland. One lone Adelie did not make it. In the middle of the no-penguin-zone it whipped through the air, solidly in the jaws of the intruding seal. The seal thrashed its prey back and forth across the sky, attracting seabirds who anxiously awaited the moment when the seal would skin the penguin and toss the pelt aside, providing them too with a meal. Watching the poor penguin flail across the horizon was tragic, yet exhilarating. This too was part of the Antarctic experience, live action wildlife highlights.
And of course, no Antarctic adventure would be complete without a blizzard. Mine was at Deception Island, an active volcano with just enough of a dip in its caldera for ships to squeeze through. It was hard not to feel a little apprehensive as we plodded by the shipwreck at the entrance, waves pummeling the vertical cliffs on either side of us. I expected a little more calm once inside, but horizontal snow thwarted any views of the abandoned whaling station until I’d landed ashore. Even then I risked bumping into some giant, rusting structure that I just couldn’t see until it was almost too late. It was all I could do to stay upright in the 50 mph winds. And once again, the penguins just carried on. They emerged from the waters, shook off the excess wetness and hunkered down on their bellies in the snow, avoiding becoming just another drift by occasionally shuddering off their latest layer of snow. Sharing a blizzard with penguins was phenomenal; but as they stayed to endure the storm, I returned aboard to a warm cup of Kahlua-spiked hot chocolate. I’ll always gravitate toward warmth, but there’s simply nowhere else on the planet to experience Antarctica; And it truly is an experience that every nature traveler should strive for.