The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – And how I found a rare white penguin.
In early 2014 while traveling in South America, I kept meeting other travellers who had plans to make the journey to Antarctica from Ushuaia – the southernmost city in Argentina.
Since the 5th grade when I learned about the Antarctic Treaty, the wildlife and climate – I had dreamed of visiting the 7th continent, and now it seemed within reach and I knew I couldn’t let the opportunity slip through my fingers. I started making plans to join a late season expedition before returning to Australia.
It was everything, and nothing I expected.
Here are the things I was most unprepared for
- Ship options
The first thing I had to decide was how I was getting there. As someone who gets motion sick watching big screen TVs, this trip was adventurous even for me, who had traveled much of the world as a single parent.
Did I want a bigger cruise style of ship that would be more stable and have more onboard facilities? A luxury ship? I’m joking, that was never in my budget but I did “window shop” their websites and itineraries and Wow! Or should I choose a smaller expedition style ship?
Ultimately adventure won and I decided on G Adventures – primarily because they offered the opportunity to take small group kayaking excursions from the ship as well as the opportunity to camp for a night on the Antarctic peninsula. Kayaking through glass like waters at dawn, with barely a raised raised head from seals lounging on ice floats we would almost silently glide past, with the occasional whale surfacing for air within feet of our kayak – are memories that will live rent free in my head forever.
2. The drake passage & sea sickness
I should preface this by saying almost everyone else on the ship was fine – but did I mention I get motion sick watching big screen TVs? It was rough. The drake passage is the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, and is reportedly one of the roughest in the world. A handful of passengers needed some extra seasickness medication from the onboard doctor but I needed to be horizontal or I looked like a drunken sailer. Unable to do much more than lay in my bunk with dry crackers and water while other passengers enjoyed the onboard lounge, dining room, library and meeting other travelers wasn’t my idea of fun but as soon as we arrived I had no regrets.
3. That everything wasn’t covered in ice & snow
What?!? Yup! I was expecting white as far as the eye could see. Instead, when I finally emerged from my cabin in the stillness of the first bay we anchored in – I saw black beaches. Turns out these rocky beaches are the perfect breeding ground for Gentoo penguins, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it looked like 20yrs ago and what it would look like in another 20yrs? What about when my grandchildren want to visit? How much further back will the snow and ice retreat?
4. The smell and Sounds
As I left the ship for the first time on a zodiac, still a good distance from the beach I was hit by a smell that only got stronger and more distinct the closer we got. Guano. Thats the technical term for the fishy excrement that covers every surface that penguins can access – but “Phwoar!” pretty much covers it.
And if the smell wasn’t enough to swamp the senses – there were also the sounds. The constant “gakker” from adult penguins, and “peeps” from hungry, growing chicks, filled every part of the air. Its something a camera can never do justice.
Our overnight camping excursion was a surreal and noisy experience. With the sun not setting until the middle of the night, falling asleep to the sounds of a large penguin colony, and cracking ice, was an experience you wont find on any sleep sound app, but hands down – was one of the best nights of my life.
If you are wondering right now – Yes, it is as cold as you think to camp in Antarctica, but the equipment provided made it a comfortable and fun experience.
5. The scale
I’d seen icebergs on TV. Id watched footage of giant ice shelves carving off, but nothing could prepare me for seeing icebergs the size of a Manhattan city block just floating by our ship. And they’re blue! Blue icebergs are formed from the compression of pure snow, reducing the number of air bubbles which then develops into glacial ice giving it that blue appearance.
6. You can post mail from Antarctica
I was as surprised as you might be right now to learn that Antarctica has its very own post office. Known as The Penguin Post Office, it’s located at the British Antarctic territory, Port Lockroy’s “Base A” and is managed by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (who are hiring right now). Never fear being unprepared, because they also sell Antarctic post cards and the coziest plush hoodies. My family were also unprepared – when 4 months after I returned home to Australia, their postcards arrived in their mailboxes.
7. You can trade your Bra for vodka
If you hang your bra behind the bar at the Ukrainian base you get free shots of homemade vodka. Sorry Mum.
8. The friendships
As a solo female traveler I used to worry about being stuck with strangers on group travel experiences – but Ive learned that being in amazing places seems to bring out the best in everybody, and this was definitely no exception. I opted for the female 4 bunk cabin where I shared with other single women who became great friends during and beyond the trip. Our conversations still regularly revolve around talk of a reunion somewhere our Aussie, British & Canadian selves can cross paths again on another adventure.
9. The personalities
Big and small, everywhere I pointed my camera there was another character. Seals acting like puppies of the sea, and seemingly smiling for their shot. Penguin chicks chasing parents down the beach for more food. Leopard seals with runny noses. They all seemed to have their own personalities.
10. Taking the photo of a lifetime
I was so thrilled with the photos I’d captured already, but the day we stopped at Brown Station I was in for a real treat. A particularly snowy excursion, temperatures dropping and time nearing for the last zodiac to take us back to the ship I headed back to the beach for the transfer. While waiting, two of the resident scientists from the ship were chatting in front of me about a rare leucistic penguin behind the base. He says “I didn’t bring my camera”. I did though! I thought. I had no idea what a leucistic penguin was, but with the zodiac not yet in sight I quietly and quickly headed back up in the direction they had been discussing as fast as my oversized rain boots would allow on the slippery surface – and sure enough there was a tiny white penguin chick perched on wet rocks in the falling snow. Click! Click! Click! With my lens pushing its 300mm limits I snapped away at this little chick who was catching snowflakes in an open beak. The serendipity of the moment was perfect. With moments to spare I made it back to the zodiac on time knowing I had caught something really special.
In an attempt to contribute to Antarctic conservation I recently partnered with Oceanites– the only publicly supported non-profit Antarctic research program in the world – to release the collection featuring this little white chick I affectionately nicknamed Lucy.
With every pun intended – this is just the tip of the iceberg! I could write so much more. There was fun, adventure, wildlife beyond my imagination and memories for a lifetime. Even with the seasickness I would go again in a heartbeat. Antarctica isn’t somewhere you can be totally prepared for, it’s something you just have to experience. Since returning, I have talked about going back non stop- especially to visit South Georgia with the King and Macaroni penguins. Itineraries like Viking Expeditions From New York to Antarctica itinerary (via the Caribbean) definitely gets my heart pumping, and with Covid restrictions easing I cant help but think about the possibilities.