First, a few facts about Antarctica that might help you understand a little more about this amazing place.
Antarctica is vast, half again as large as the United States, and ice covers 98% of its surface, averaging one mile in thickness. This represents 90% of the ice in the world, contains over 70% of the global fresh water supply, and the immense weight actually deforms the Earth. On average, Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of them all (over 9000' at the South Pole). There is little precipitation except at the coasts, which technically classifies the interior as the world's largest desert.There are no permanent human residents, and no evidence of any prehistoric or indigenous population. It was originally sighted around 1820, but was largely unexplored until the early 1900s. The only humans there are at the scientific research stations (about 4000 in the Antarctic summer; 1000 stay the winter) or on the increasingly popular cruises like ours, and it is estimated that 25,000 tourists visit Antarctica annually. We spent a week cruising a small portion of the western part of the Antarctic Peninsula (far left above), only barely touching this huge continent.
To get there, most ships depart, like ours, from Ushuaia and spend 2 days crossing the Drake Passage, notoriously some of the roughest seas on the planet. As we sailed out of the Beagle Channel, I decided to preemptively apply a motion sickness patch, even though I've never really had much of a problem along those lines. Dad did as well, and we both went to bed with the ship gently rocking us to sleep. We were about to find out what 'Drakeproofing' really meant! Around 2 am the ship's rolling woke me up, but I was able to get back to sleep. About 30 minutes later however, the entire contents of the desk next to my bed were dumped on my face — including a glass of water, clothes, my alarm clock, everything. Surprise! I had a little trouble getting to the bathroom for a towel, hanging on to anything sturdy as I walked, but I was definitely not prepared for this — and it was only the beginning. Dad and I made it down for breakfast, but I wasn't feeling so hot even then. It was comical to watch people walk, and everyone looked like they were just learning: legs wide apart, staggering steps, missing doorways, etc. After renting my morning meal I decided to stay in the cabin the rest of the day and not eat at all. Dad, having spent summers on fishing boats when he was younger was fine, thankfully, and Alex seemed to hold up well, but poor Tom spent the entire two days holed up in his bunk fasting. Aaron did well at the start, but spent the second day largely horizontal with me, although I was able to eat again by then. We amused ourselves by having water bottle races, placing two equally filled bottles in the center of the desk, and the first one off wins. We never had to wait long, and it was a good way to pass the time. As bad as we were feeling, this wasn't at all a bad crossing according to the guides — at least not yet. With no scenery to view outside they held several presentations educating us about what we would be seeing and how we were expected to behave, although many people would sit near the door and when they abruptly left we all knew why.
The second day on the Drake got nasty. In the afternoon the wind picked up and it started snowing horizontally. The ship was really rocking now, with 25-30' swells and wind whipped whitecaps, and the captain ordered all passengers inside (not that anyone really wanted out). I made a quick trip to the bridge for the photo above and saw that we were experiencing gale force 9 winds (90 mph) and were in water that was over 12,000' deep!
By dinner things had calmed down somewhat, but the ship was still pitching around uncomfortably. We took solace in Woody's prediction that we should reach Antarctica early the next morning, so I set my alarm for 5 so I wouldn't miss anything. When it went off, my first thought was the ship stopped rocking! Then I looked out the window and my jaw dropped. I grabbed my coat and camera despite the dim light and raced outside. We made it!
The ship quietly glided through small chunks of ice heading to the Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage between dramatic cliffs and a wonderful introduction to Antarctica. I was the first on deck and had been out for some time when Woody's announcement came over the speaker, "Good morning folks, it's 6:30 and if you aren't up yet you should be!" Breakfast was delayed an hour as we made our way through the channel, and the light came up slowly, the mountains holding the sunrise back while the colors glowed over the peaks.
By 7am most of the passengers were on deck, all with cameras in hand. There wasn't much talk except for an occasional 'wow' or 'gorgeous', and we all were totally in awe of the beauty we were witnessing. As the sun finally peeked above the mountains, the ship drifted to a stop, dropped anchor, and we all reluctantly headed to breakfast. We were eager to get a closer look!
We spent the rest of the day on two zodiac outings in Circumcision Bay (really!), named because it was first discovered by the French explorer Charcot in 1909 on January 1st, the Catholic day of recognition of Jesus' circumcision, a holiday thankfully not yet acknowledged by the good folks at Hallmark.
The weather was perfect — downright warm at times, and we were wowed by the scenery, only distracted by an occasional humpback whale or seal basking on a piece of ice. We just couldn't get enough, and didn't want the day end.
As the light waned after dinner I went back on deck to watch the last rays grace the peaks, still pinching myself that we had made it to Antarctica!