The Big Ice : Antarctica Cruise Part 1

A cruise to Antarctica, the southernmost land mass on Earth (just a little info for those of you who consider geography to be one of those obscure things best left to professionals, like aerial acrobatics or using salad forks) is something that has always featured prominently on our master list of “things to do before we get sick of travelling”, but has never before made it to the top thanks to a number of considerations, not the least of which being the obscene cost of the undertaking, not the most of which being a mistrust of birds that are far better at swimming than flying. For many of our eager shipmates, finally setting foot on actual terra firma on the continent itself meant the long-awaited accomplishment of visiting all 7 continents this planet has to offer. Finally! Not for us, though, sadly, and a little bashfully, only just now having reached an even half dozen. I do wonder how many people in the world can say, or must admit, that they have been to 6 of the 7 continents, and are only missing Australia??

* Yes, I know that technically the continent itself is Oceania, but isn’t this way a lot easier for everyone?

The Big Ice: Antarctica Cruise Part II

Point is, the first time we visited South America, four years ago, we opted not to take an expedition cruise to Antarctica, based on a combination of cost and time, and ended up hearing all about how amazing it was from some of the other people we’d met along that trip and we’ve always sort of regretted missing out. So that wasn’t going to happen again.

Beagle Channel

And as well it didn’t – amazing! The scenery, the people, the wildlife, we couldn’t have asked for more. We got what seemed to be extremely lucky with regard to weather, not to mention some particularly incredible wildlife encounters (a pod of orca whales feeding on another whale, anyone?).

Anyway, before I get too carried away…

Factual Details (so that you may form a solid base of knowledge going forward with which to better understand the dubious and occasionally incomprehensible stories I will soon attempt to relate) Departing January 16 from Ushuaia (known affectionately as “The End of the World”, and inaccurately as “The Southernmost City in the World”)

Pronounced Oos-why-ah, and full to the brim with outdoor gear shops and dogs that sidle around suspiciously and peer at you out of the corner of their eye, like you can’t tell they’re watching. They aren’t fooling anyone.

Our company – Quark Expeditions. Our ship – the Sea Spirit. Capacity 114 passengers, 90 or so staff, 2 dining areas, 1 conference room and 15 hand sanitizer dispensers. By far the most popular room was the bar/lounge featuring an impressive wall of liquor, a library, stereo, share computer and plenty of comfortable chairs arrayed around tiny tables that were wisely bolted to the floor in case of rough seas, but which made rearranging to accommodate additional social drinkers like a complex card trick performed by an 8 year old. There was also a large and shiny piano (I stand behind that description in lieu of knowing anything at all about piano types, brands or variations in mahogany content), it’s mere presence a nice thought (I’m sure someone originally pictured large groups of ruddy-faced outdoorsy types crowding around it and joining in on impromptu sing-alongs of “Glory Glory Hallelujah”, “Under the Sea” or “Fat Bottomed Girls”) but now seemingly only taking up valuable seating space.

It's all about perspective

Although, in its defence, it did come in pretty handy as a place to pile jackets, books, laptops and any number of sturdy-looking journals, these loyally hauled down each afternoon only to sit untouched for several hours before being quietly returned to their cabin late that night featuring the brief opening passage:

“Antarctica: Day One. Left Ushuaia around 6 pm. Explored ship. Stood on deck for a while. Got too windy. Discovered there is an open bar.”

Followed by 49 blank pages.

Then we were to spend the next two days crossing the infamous Drake Passage (owing to a number of complicated scientific factors such as current, tradewinds and fidgety whales, considered one of the roughest stretches of water on Earth). Best case scenario – uneventful seas and nothing but ocean and occasional seabirds as far as the eye can see. Worst case scenario – rough seas, cabin lockdown, mob vomiting, and finding it almost impossible to tweeze your eyebrows without blinding yourself).

Six days cruising the calm, scenic waters in among the islands and icebergs lining the Antarctic Peninsula, a large spur of land jutting upwards in the general direction of Argentina, an interesting geographical feature to be sure, but rather dubiously cited by the Argentine government as definitive proof it is actually part of their dysfunctional and economically careless nation.

Dinner with the Gang

Two days crossing back over the Drake Passage. Very similar to the first crossing except without the giddy anticipation, and considerably more hung over.

Once back on dry land, several nights waking up at 3 am feeling as though the bed is gently rocking back and forth, and not in the comforting “that’s just Uncle Al having a bad dream again” way, either.

Sure, when you boil it down to the bare essentials like that it doesn’t necessarily sound like the trip of a lifetime, but then I haven’t gotten to the part about waking up with a headache and mysteriously dry mouth on a viciously rocking boat and attempting to eat runny scrambled eggs that keep sliding around the plate just out of reach of my fork. Yet.

<Awesome segue>

That brings me to food, something that was never in short supply on the Sea Spirit. We were dutifully fed three times a day, come hell or high water (luckily only one of those were an issue), plus there were snacks in the bar, candies left on our pillow (oh Leland the Cabin Steward, you flirty minx, you) and appetizers at all of the daily recaps and occasionally at the educational seminars (where we learned important things like how different birds have different names, and how penguins don’t really use the internet all that much).

Sometimes sunrise peeing pays off

And considering that all the food needed to be stocked, stored and planned out before we ever left Ushuaia it was incredibly varied and just plain outstanding. Actually, not “considering” anything. The food was just really good, period Every meal offered choices between two soups, two salads, four mains, and multiple, multiple desserts. They clearly had thought this all through well beforehand when they suggested we opt for jackets one size larger than we would normally wear.

<Mediocre Segue>

Speaking of jackets, that is what we wore whenever we left the ship on our twice or thrice daily excursions. Yet another of the pleasant and uncommon perks provided by Quark Expeditions was the large, bright yellow, bulky, multi-pocketed, bright yellow, extremely warm, wind-proof, water-proof, sexual attraction-proof, bright yellow parkas that you may not be able to find in any recent issues of GQ, or even Backpacker, or even National Geographic, well, maybe in National Geographic, but were nonetheless highly functional and perfect for our needs (many pockets to hold gloves, binoculars, toques, cameras, penguin-attack whistles) and the conditions we would face (extreme cold, gale force winds, pelting rain, burdensome sexuality). And the best part is they were ours to keep.

Deception Island

Theoretically. Unfortunately they didn’t provide an extra backpack to fit it in, or a Nepali porter to haul it around for us so we had to leave ours behind (actually mine ended up in San Jose but that’s another story, well, not really, I gave it to a guy who lives in San Jose, so more of a statement of fact).

They also provided pairs of sturdy insulated rubber boots. Basically every landing was a “wet landing”, meaning that you stepped in the water when getting out of the zodiac. But this was only one of many reasons these boots were so important. The second was that we often found ourselves walking through snow while on land, often melting snow since the temperatures were usually hovering just above 0 C range during the day. The third was that while our jackets, toques, waterproof pants and ever-present life vests made us look like nerdy, sample-collecting scientific types, these big boots gave us just the slightest hint of a bad-ass edge, like a chemistry teacher with sideburns, or classical pianist driving a moped. The fourth, fifth, and I guess sixth, and, well, all the rest of the reasons were… penguin shit. It was everywhere, and at times the smell was almost enough to trigger a little baby gag reflex or two, especially if combined with some rolling seas and a bit too much time the previous night broadening one’s horizons with Manhattans, Cosmopolitans, tequila and, gasp, more than one brand of beer.


Luckily, we had read a good tip before going on the trip that suggested taking Vick’s Vaporub to spread under our noses to mask the smell when visiting the penguin rookeries. This did a great job of overpowering the smell, although I suspect that occasionally the people around us found the uncontrollable rivers of snot pouring out of our noses a tad off-putting.

<No Discernible Segue>

Once we were through the Drake Passage each day was to include at least two “activities”, meaning either loading us onto motorized zodiacs (those hardy small engine boats that look like they are inflatable but really aren’t, whatever that’s about) for either a “zodiac cruise” (enjoying the sights, and getting up close and personal with icebergs, glaciers, seals, whales, and the giant zoom lenses of fellow passengers) or a “landing” (meaning the zodiac would expel us on the shore to meander along the scenic beaches and spend some quality time emphatically staring at the local wildlife, such as nesting birds, chaotic penguin rookeries and disgusting wallowing sea lions, etc. (the etc. in almost every case being a few thousand more penguins, give or take a few thousand).

In between, we did our best to squeeze in the occasional nap, or shower, or a few moments sorting photographs, but realistically the better part of our time on the ship seemed to be spent loading up at one huge buffet meal or another. Then there was wildlife spotting from the decks. Or, in our case, hastily scrambling out of the lounge hoping to catch a late glimpse of something in response to someone’s frantic cry of “Whales! 2 o’clock!” or “Iceberg!

4 um, 15 maybe? 4:20?” There was actually a hot tub, too, not that I ever used it, and Laynni just the once after her Polar Plunge (she just jumped into the freezing ocean, for no good reason, on purpose), which was simply a practical exercise in raising her core temperature back to a level more conducive to human life than, say, seals, or whales, or, you know, ice. Of course, after our first landing things got pretty festive in the hot tub and a weird old American guy tried making out with a young Dutch girl. Deee-nied. Followed by 8 more fairly awkward days. Luckily, though, his lack of success did leave him with more time to record videos of his roommate snoring. Busted! Or something. I guess.

Lunch on Deck 5

That was an interesting little twist that didn’t affect us – all by ourselves in a cozy double, free to get as sick of each other as we pleased, just like always. Quite a few of the other people on the boat, however, were sharing a cabin with a stranger, or 2 or 3 in some cases, depending on the room and, I would hope, how much they paid. Gotta say, 10 days on a ship cruising Antarctica qualified as a unique, memorable experience when shared with a spouse, I can barely picture how much crazier it would have been to live with someone you just met. Probably no crazier than watching a baby penguin hatch before our very eyes, but then that comparison really makes no sense, so who’s to say?

Our room was almost embarrassingly comfortable – big bed, small couch, large walk-in closet (which we rarely took the time to enjoy as we kept all our expedition gear in there and after a couple days it started to smell, well, a lot like a penguin’s anus), tiny desk, huge window, miniscule bathroom, well, you get the picture.

Some stuff was big, other stuff was small. Like at the circus. And, of course, there was the intercom, with its direct feed to what seemed to be someplace very close to my pillow. Which Big Brother, also usually known as Cheli – Expedition Leader/Late Night Top 40 DJ, used to inform us of all current educational activities, meal offerings, wildlife sightings, and to remind us that if we planned on boarding a zodiac anytime this morning to get our asses down to Deck 3, tout suite. Regardless of what she was announcing, though, the one constant was that it always came five minutes into a much-needed nap. Finally, to top it all off we also had a TV with two, count ’em, two, channels. One ran a continuous movie loop. One movie per 24 hours, over and over, starting, naturally, with Frozen Planet I, then Frozen Planet II, then March of the Penguins, then slowly transitioning away from the Antarctic theme with Life of Pi (still on the ocean, but alas no penguins), and then a bunch of completely unrelated stuff involving elderly British people, Indian scam artists and Will Ferrell wearing glasses, in no particular order. The other channel simply showed our scheduled itinerary for the day, all the time. Pretty handy, and kind of made us feel important, like we were part of a really prestigious international conference charged with solving the world’s class segregation problems in just a few short days, or it would have, if not for seminars with titles “Seals: Are They Really Smiling or Do Their Faces Just Look Like That?”, or “What Types of Wine Go Best with Fried Penguin?”

Finally setting foot on the continent

Well, that’s it for Part 1. You now have at least some idea of what the experience entailed, how our days (and nights) were spent, and why we progressively filled up more and more of the frame in our photos as the trip went on. What you haven’t heard much about is why we keep saying it was such a terrific adventure. For that you’ll have to wait for Part 2, due sometime soon after the next time we are pinned in our room by the fickle Patagonian rain, or possibly spend 4-5 hours bored stiff in the El Calafate airport, let’s say, maybe Wednesday. The photos have already been posted to Facebook, and they certainly tell the story better than I can, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to ruin it by trying. Two hundred words describing what it was like to watch thirty metres of ice suddenly break off a glacier and crash into the water. Three hundred words to describe following a humpback whale around an iceberg-strewn bay only to have it fall asleep next to us. A thousand to paint the picture of the Adelie penguin that pinned down its neighbour and forced himself onto a number of body parts in a less than gentle fashion. Oh yeah, it’s gonna be something, all right.

Also, for a specific review of the boat itself you can see this post on the Trip Advisor Antarctica forum: