Day 219: Antarctica- At World's End

A trip to the local K-mart near my in-laws house in Tehachapi planted the seed for the ice kingdom 4 years ago.

Walking around the aisles that day long ago, I came across a bargain discount book bin and found a Lonely Planet Antarctica edition for 2 dollars. I laughed out loud at the notion of actually going there, but scooped up the book nonetheless thinking that it would be an entertaining read. 

Most guide books start with suggested itineraries, highlights and then country history. The history of our southernmost continent however, is quite short, as the lack of civilizations means that its history starts with notable explorers like Shackleton, and then moves on to more familiar names like Amudsen and then to those who braved routes to the pole first as a team, then individually. One of the more curious endeavors in a series of ‘firsts’ for the continent were the intrepid folks who set out to coin themselves the first skydivers over Antarctica. Sadly, the first attempts killed the first jumpers as at the altitude, cold and lack of oxygen caused the first skydivers to lose consciousness and fall to their deaths. The next batch utilized automatic parachute deployment devices which worked, but brought their lifeless bodies down with a hard thud, immortalized in a way they had not envisioned. 

Antarctica is a land of extremes. Extreme cold. Extreme weather. We set out on the ‘Azamara Pursuit’ from Buenos Aires for a 14 day cruise down south and back up with a stop in the Falkland islands. Although January in Argentina is officially summer, after 3 days at sea of chugging south, we were in 10 foot, white-capped swells with biting cold, whipping winds and constant rain. Despite the Pursuit’s hulking 180 meter length and 30,000 tonnage, the grey horizon line tipped up and down causing everyone to keep a free hand to brace themselves every time the heavy plunge of our bow crashed into a trough causing the boat to shudder and shake. Seasickness bags went faster than a box of Krispy Kreme donuts in the teacher’s lounge.  

Big cruise ships do have a distinct advantage: they’re built around customer service and know how to keep their guests occupied. Every day at 10 am Ava and I joined a bridge class which was followed up by weightlifting in the gym, lunch at noon and afternoon trivia at 4:00pm. By the 4th and 5th day, we had befriended other guests (and a few characters) that made up our traveling community. There was Robin and Alex, from our bridge class with whom we played Euchre everyday just before lunch. There was also Jutgart and Elsina from Brazil, who, never once did we see without drinks in their hands. There was also Debbie, the solo Hawaiian who excelled at dizzying storytelling and the Australian ladies who took Ava out for a couple evenings so Lisa and I could have some ‘adult’ time. As our cruise was in January when school was in session for North American kids, children were mostly absent with the exception of a couple of Kiwis, Argentinians and an Australian boy. 

Thus, the trip was dominated by the kind, genteel, well travelled senior variety. “Old fogeys” my 73 year old uncle characterized of cruise ship passengers. He might have a point. Waiting for a 80 year old to fill their soup dish with a small ladle in the lunch line can test one’s patience and sometimes passengers would not know when to get off the elevators. “Is this our floor?” They would ask of one another when the doors opened. “I don’t know. Where are we going?” Another would ask. I sometimes stepped up to the role of tour guide by shepherding them around when needed while macabrely wondering which of these frail and feeble passengers around me would be next to die. I then quickly shut such thoughts out of my mind, knowing that I’d probably go to hell for thinking such things, or worse, incur the wrath of my mother for not respecting my elders. 

Ushuia and Cape Horn

We rounded Isla de Estados and made port in Ushuia up the Beagle channel (Named after Darwin’s voyage) on day 5 which is the southern most point of Argentina and the common expedition port across the Drake passage. The first time I’d heard about Cape Horn was from an old salty sea dog co-worker named Henry when Lisa and I worked as summer camp directors back on Catalina Island. Henry had gotten hold of some old historical black and white footage of sailing expeditions from the mid 20th century, and couldn’t wait to share it with all of us. His enthusiasm of the video was overzealous but we unfortunately misheard him initially, and thought he was saying ‘gay porn’ instead of ‘Cape Horn’ (as they do sound identical) but he gave us no context so the conversation sounded like this: 

You guys ready to watch my gay porn video?” Henry asked. 

Well, thanks for the invite Henry, but we’re not really interested.” We said back. 

Cmon! Here at summer camp you should stretch your horizons. You should be open to learning new things!” 

We’re not judging you buddy and everyone has the right to live their own life.” 

What are you guys talking about?” 

What are YOU talking about?” 

Cape horn and Isla de Estados is not just a geographical location, but a resting place for more than 130 overconfident ships that are now playgrounds for sea urchins and hallowed sea. The ‘Logos’, ‘Sarmiento’, ‘Estancio Remolino’  and the “Duchess of Albany’ are just some of the footnotes in the local maritime museum that undoubtedly helped make sea travel safer for the rest of us.

Tourism to Antarctica is highly regulated and everyone who touches foot on the continent has to undergo a strict quarantine process to ensure they’re not taking any invasive plant species or other contaminants between their boot treads that might upset the ecology of the area. Because of this, there are 2 ways that you can travel to Antarctica:

The Easier and More Luxurious Way The first (and ironically cheaper) option which we took was a cruise which takes you around the icebergs and landmasses without setting foot on them. Cruise ships leave Chile, Argentina and are actually a very comfortable way to travel. We booked passage on the ‘Azamara Pursuit’ through Affordable Tours.com which got us passage on the 2 week cruise for $10,700 for all three of us which included unlimited food, alcoholic beverages and $1,100 in ship credit that we could apply for shore excursions and spa packages. A kings ransom no doubt, but nothing compared to:

The Harder and More Authentic Way Boats with more than 500 passengers can’t make landfall in Antarctica, so boats that do tend to be smaller and catering to the ultra rich and undergo strict quarantine when boarding or disembarking. These expeditions have a longer queue (sometimes a few years) and cost 5-7 times the price. (We spied The National Geographic boat in Ushuia which costs $14,000 a person and that was considered a very ‘budget’ option) Another popular way for solo travelers to see Antarctica is to stroll into Ushuia (Or Google ‘Last Minute Antarctica Expeditions’) and check upcoming departures to see if there are any last minute open berths trying to get filled at fire sale prices on scientific boats which effectively use tourism to help subsidize their research. I asked around in Ushuia and found trips 10 days to 2 weeks out going from between $5,500 to $8,000 a person and 1 flight option departing from Punta Arenas which spent 5 days at a research base.

Neko Harbor and Deception Island

Our second day cruising around the peninsula, we were met by 4 members from the Spanish research base at Deception island who came on board and shared their experiences doing climate and seismic science for the 3 months of the year that they were here. “What is a typical day like for you?” Ava asked during the Q and A session afterward which most people thought was a great question.

Ava receiving a pin from the Spanish research base.

Our visiting scientists noted that due to international treaties, Antarctica is both protected and not owned by any one country. That, coupled with the inhospitable conditions (Minus 153 in the wintertime) means the continent is our planet’s most pristine and most unspoiled. The ice skirt around the continent bulges to over a hundred miles from its shoreline in the wintertime.

As we set our course northeast to Elephant Island (where Shackleton and his men were marooned after their ship was crushed after 147 days at sea), we settled in ‘Iceberg Alley‘ where the blueness of the ice was beyond belief. Some icebergs next to us were the size of city blocks and is was both humbling to see and also know that 90% of their mass lies underwater. Penguins stood sentry as they floated by and pods of Humpback whales spouted exhalations in the cold air as if to welcome us. Most people waited their entire lives to see this. Ava saw it at 10.

Puerto Madryn

By now, we were used to 11:10 pm sunset and 3:15 am sunrise so we tacked a course north. The captain said that swells around the Falkland Islands had gotten to 9 meters in size so we made port in Puerto Madryn instead of Port Stanley and would have to visit that another day. Puerto Madryn gave us the ability to snorkel with Sealions (a first for Ava) in the frigid, 16 degree Celsius water. “Welcome to Patagonia” said Jorge as we bobbed up and down in our double layered, 7 mm wetsuits.

After 3 more days at sea we were sadly back at port in Buenos Aires and I couldn’t believe our 15 days at sea had come to a close. We said our goodbyes to our many friends and Ava said her farewells to her fan club which swelled to encompass half the ship. “Are you Ava’s parents?” we were commonly asked.

After getting catching a train to take us to the fronterra for a few days of camping and fishing, I made some small talk with a local in espanol:

Where you are going?” He asked.

Al norte” I replied in Spanish. “We’ll be visiting Tigre for camping and some peace and quiet too.

You know, if you have time, you should go south. It’s quite cold down there, but very beautiful I hear.

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