Antarctica Expedition: Chasing Dreams

I had always wanted to visit Antarctica, and like many of my other trips, I figured I’d eventually get there, but I’d be going solo. It was an expensive trip, and most of my friends either didn’t have that kind of budget, or those with the budget didn’t necessarily want to spend it going to Antarctica— it’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.

I was more than comfortable going to Antarctica alone. Besides, I wouldn’t technically be going alone —I’d be joining an expedition. 

But then, I discovered my younger sister (Jennifer) also dreamed of going to Antarctica —as much as I did, and she could afford it and had generous vacation time at her place of employment.

Without hesitation, I proposed that we make our dream a reality—she agreed, and we settled on a date. 

After doing some research, we booked our trip with Lindblad Expedition. The itinerary promised two weeks of exploration aboard the National Geographic ship Explorer alongside 150 other travelers. Because of the high cost of the trip, we decided to book it 18 months out so we could make monthly payments.

When Jennifer’s friend, Cindy, caught wind of our plans, she couldn’t resist joining us.

Embarking on the Antarctica Expedition: Setting Sail and Discovering Ship Life

We traveled to Buenos Aires, where we met the Lindblad representatives.  The next day, we boarded a charter plane to Ushuaia, a three-and-a-half-hour direct flight that marked the start of our adventure. Later in the day, we boarded the gangway to the ship’s deck for our journey to Antarctica. 

Once onboard, Jennifer and I found our room, which was located on the main deck. It was smaller than expected but had the basics – two twin beds (very comfortable), night tables, a desk, two small closets, and a compact bathroom. It also had a small port window that allowed us to look at the sea.

I was particularly excited to find my official Lindblad Orange Explorer jacket neatly placed on my bed. I wasted no time trying it on, and happily, it fit perfectly—instantly making me feel like a real explorer! I loved it.

Heading out on the Explorer
Boarding the explorer

Weeks earlier, we had received comprehensive information about the trip, including essential gear and packing recommendations. There was an onboard store for any forgotten necessities.

I packed everything on the required list except for boots, which I rented through Lindblad’s Ship-to-Shore service. So, after I unpacked my things, I made my way to the bistro deck to claim them (it was $80.00 to rent plus a $100 deposit—but you need these boots)

After we set sail, everyone gathered in the main lounge for the necessary safety drill and an introduction to the expedition team, who would accompany us throughout the expedition.

The passengers (approximately 150) were organized into six disembarkation groups to prevent overcrowding in the mudroom on the lower deck. This space was the hub for storing our gear and preparing for zodiac or kayak excursions, ensuring a seamless operation.

While 150 people might seem like a sizable group, I thought so too—it never felt crowded. Perhaps it was because there were ample spots to relax and spread out throughout the ship—the ship was basically the length of a football field. 

Breakfast and lunch were always self-serve buffets with various options. Dinner was more formal— with a menu to choose from. There were three choices: a meat dish, a fish dish, and a vegetarian option. The dinners were always satisfying and generously portioned. During dinner, soft drinks, beer, and wine were complimentary, though there was a limit of two glasses of alcohol. Liquor was also available but at an additional cost.

It was encouraged to switch up your tables when eating to socialize with other passengers. 

Besides the three main meals, we had daily afternoon tea in the Bistro and pre-dinner cocktails with appetizers in the Lounge. There would be no going hungry on this trip. Plus, coffee, tea, and soda were available all day in the Chartroom.

Each day at 7:30 a.m., our Expedition Leader, Adam, would gently rouse us with a cheerful “Good Morning, Good Morning, it’s time to rise!” through the PA system, signaling the beginning of another thrilling day ahead. Although there was a morning stretch class at 7:00 a.m. in the Lounge, I always chose to stay in bed and await Adam’s wake-up call.

Each morning, while at breakfast, a crew member placed a daily itinerary on our beds to ensure we were well-informed about the day’s plans. However, it’s worth noting that while the expedition promised visits to specific places, the actual locations were often subject to unpredictable factors like weather and sea conditions, making navigation challenging. And on occasions, unforeseen circumstances changed plans.

With no land in sight, we had ample options to keep occupied. The ship had an extensive library with plenty of chairs for relaxation and a gym. Additionally, the lounge often screened documentary films or hosted talks to keep us engaged. Other times, professional photographers on board would host breakout sessions such as “Introduction to Expedition Photography.”

One of my favorite things while aboard the ship was visiting the Chartroom on the Bridge Deck. On the tables, detailed maps displayed various routes, and a daily movement map of our ship was always available, making it an interesting visual addition to our journey.

Antarctica
The map showing the route we went

Still, the most remarkable moments came when we stepped onto the deck—where we scanned for whales, dolphins, and seabirds. And, of course, seeing those magnificent icebergs passing by was a constant source of wonder. I had to pinch myself a lot during this trip—it was still so wild to think I was here, exploring Antarctica in all its raw splendor.

The journey across the Drake Passage takes approximately two days, or half a day, depending on good or bad weather. And from all I had read, the Drake Passage is an adventure in itself. So, I was well aware that the Drake Passage could be challenging—it was the cost of traveling to Antarctica.

Fortunately, the crossing was relatively calm, with only small waves— lucky me. I was so relieved that we had clear skies and calm waters.

Antarctic Wildlife Encounters: Adélie Penguins and the Mystery of Pink Snow

During the mid-afternoon of our second day at sea, I caught my first glimpse of Antarctic land as we approached the South Shetland Islands—unbelievable! At one point, we anchored, and while one group went kayaking, Jen, Cindy, and I boarded a Zodiac with others from our group to explore. What an exhilarating experience it was.

One of the first things I noticed was a Leopard Seal lounging on a piece of ice. I had read how dangerous they were and that they would hunt humans—it was hard to believe that this silly-looking creature was a fierce hunter.

Cruising on the water with no other ship in sight was exhilarating. We were literally the only one in the vicinity—surrounded by icebergs and glacier-covered mountains. This all added to the sense of adventure.

Day four was particularly exciting for me because, after breakfast, we boarded the Zodiacs again, this time heading to Paulet Island, home to a large penguin colony. Yes, Penguins!! It was on Paulet Island that I first laid eyes on the Adélie penguins. From what I have read, there are over 100,000 pairs on the Island.

As we approached, you could see the penguins swimming in the water. It is actually referred to as porpoising. The penguin basically glides across the water’s surface by repeatedly leaping, resembling the way porpoises swim. It was fascinating to watch.

To my surprise, these penguins were quite dirty, their white bellies speckled in what appeared to be pink mud. Even the snow on Paulet Island had a peculiar pink tint to it. So, what’s behind this pink phenomenon? I learned it all comes down to their diet.

Adélie penguins mainly eat Krill, which, in turn, consume microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton containing a pigment called astaxanthin. It’s this pigment that is responsible for the distinctive pink color of the penguin’s poop.

And with so many Adélie penguins in the area, their pink poop seemed to be everywhere you look (and step). It’s a weird consequence of their diet and the abundance of these adorable creatures living on Paulet Island.

Besides the penguins, the other thing that made Paulet Island particularly special was that it was my first time setting foot on Antarctica, making it my seventh and final continent. It was an unforgettable moment.

Antarctica
My seventh continent!

Later in the afternoon, we dropped anchor again,  hopped aboard a Zodiac, and headed for Brown Bluff (located on the Tabarin Peninsula in northern Antarctica). What a day!

Antarctic Adventures: From Snowy Islands to Icy Plunges

We anchored and took the Zodiacs out again the next day — landing on Snow Hill Island. Situated near the southernmost reaches of the planet, it remains an infrequently visited area. But when traveling on the Explorer (or similar)—you get to be one of the lucky ones! My travel took place at the end of January, so I was too late to see any Emperor penguins—they were long gone. Once again, being alone was such a strange feeling—only an empty horizon was in sight.

Once back on the ship, the journey continued. At one point, we stopped on the east side of James Ross Island near Rabot Point, where we walked on this huge area of sea ice —talk about exciting. Before we could disembark the ship, several crew members went out on the ice, checking the surface to ensure it was safe for us to walk on. Luckily, it was. It was truly incredible. I know the word incredible is overused —but not in this case.

The following day, our group went out exploring in kayaks. They were double kayaks, so Jen and I took one together. I love kayaking and doing it in the Southern Oceans of Antarctica – that was just over the top —icebergs all around us. At one point, we paddled right past a humpback whale. If I had one complaint, it is that I would have loved to have been kayaking longer. I just adored it.

Kayaking in Antarctica
Our first time out kayaking in the Antarctica

But, later in the day, we were back in the water, this time out doing more exploring in the Zodiacs (something I also would never tire of). We saw more of my friends, the sea lions, all lounging on large rocks or chunks of floating ice.

And guess what else I did today? The polar plunge! I was seriously so scared—but I was in Antarctica after all, and there was no way I would NOT do this. That said, about half of the passengers passed.

I slipped into my swimsuit, anticipation building as I waited for my moment. When one of the crew members finally called my name, I went onto the deck, hesitated momentarily, and then took the plunge. It was like diving into a pool filled with ice cubes; my body had never experienced such cold. After getting out of the frigid water and putting on a warm robe, I was handed a shot of some mysterious liquor from a crew member—its type didn’t matter. All that mattered was how it instantly warmed my insides. What an exhilarating experience, what an unforgettable day!

And then, of course, more time at sea.

Adventures with Penguins and Glorious Blue Ice: Cuverville Island to Port Lockroy

The next day, it was a stop on Cuverville Island, where I enjoyed watching more little penguin friends—this time, it was a gentoo penguin colony. I could watch them waddle about for hours. I just loved how they would leap out of the water when swimming, and as they reached land, they almost slid in on their bellies. It was hysterical.

Then, a bit later in the day, we were back on the water—first in kayaks, later Zodiacs. It was just stunning. The days just kept getting better—surrounded by Bergy Bits, Growlers, and Icebergs. But maybe the most beautiful thing I noticed was the blue ice— the most gorgeous shade of turquoise.

More time at sea.

The next day’s stops were Port Lockroy and Paradise Island.

You’re instantly immersed in the rich history of this place the moment you step out of the Zodiac on Port Lockroy. As for me, I hit the jackpot – penguins, and I do mean penguins, were everywhere. And to add to the charm, there’s even a post office and a little gift shop. I’m a big sender of postcards, but sadly, I don’t think I sent anyone a postcard stamped from the Penguin Post Office.

Port Lockroy is where I would have to say goodbye to my penguin friends (I seriously fell in love with them) because the next two days would be at sea as we returned to Ushuaia.

Antarctica
Gentoo penguin and chick

So, as we made our way north, there were more presentations and games and, of course, time out on the deck, continuing to take it all in.

Drake Passage: Turbulence, Calm Seas, and a Memorable Farewell

As we neared the Drake Passage, the staff set up temporary rope railways should the ocean get choppy, making it difficult to move about the boat. I hoped I would not need them.

The turbulence began during dinner, leading to a comical scene as everything on the table slid to the floor. Starting to feel queasy, I decided to skip dinner and hoped to sleep through the crossing of the Drake Passage. I wasn’t the only person to leave the dining room. It seemed quite a few were feeling like me or worse.

 When I got to my room, I could see the waves out my little port window —it was getting rough out there. Lying on my bed made things better for me. At some point, I fell asleep and did not wake up until morning. Apparently, some waves got as high as 20 feet—I’m so glad I slept through that.

By morning, the seas were calm enough that we were allowed back on the deck. And that is exactly where I went after breakfast —searching for more whales and birds.

Antarctica

The final evening’s event aboard the Explorer featured Jamlin Tenzing Norgay, a special guest speaker and the son of the renowned Everest pioneer, Tenzing Norgay. It was a fantastic conclusion to an incredible adventure.

I usually don’t bother with insurance, but my perspective changed regarding Antarctica. While I decided to skip medical coverage, getting evacuation insurance was an obvious choice. Given the immense isolation of the area, it just seemed like a necessary precaution.

Reflecting on my expedition to Antarctica, every aspect was awe-inspiring. Even facing challenges like the rough crossing, the ultimate experience justified it all—it was a dream come true. And honestly, it exceeded my expectations by a long shot.

Antarctica: A Priceless Expedition of Beauty, Discovery, and Unforgettable Memories

It’s hard to put into words how incredible the entire experience was. Antarctica felt like a whole other world.

The ship and its crew were top-notch and took good care of us. The food was good. The internet wasn’t always reliable, but I don’t mind disconnecting occasionally.

A truly remarkable part of my Antarctica adventure was the complete lack of other ships during our journey. It was just us the entire time, and it magnified that feeling of solitude while making me acutely aware of my insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

During my expedition, I had the opportunity to observe a variety of Antarctic wildlife, including penguins (Adélie, Gentoo, and Chin Strap), seals (Leopard Seals, Crabeater Seals, Weddell Seals, Elephant Seals, and Antarctic Fur Seals), whales (Finback Whales, Killer Whales, Blue Whales), Sea Lions, and various species of birds. However, I regret that I can’t recall their specific names.

Without a doubt, Antarctica is undeniably one of the most breathtaking places I’ve had the privilege (yes, I sincerely mean privilege) to explore, and yes, it did come with a hefty price tag—but no regrets.

 And stepping onto my seventh continent, my sister by my side, was an experience I can’t honestly describe—it came with some tears—tears of happiness.

Though the Drake Passage got to me a bit on the return to Ushuaia, I’d retake this trip in a heartbeat.

If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting this beautiful and magical place—find a way and do it.