When you go to Antarctica on a well-stocked, well-staffed expedition cruise ship, you expect comfortable surroundings and beautiful vistas. You also expect adventure, although not high adventure.
But you might find it — as demonstrated by last week’s news about an icebound Russian vessel.
The Australasian expedition on the Russian ship got stuck just before Christmas. In the next week, three rescue ships were forced to turn back, and even the final helicopter rescue looked dicey for a while.
None of this surprises me after my voyage to Antarctica. Even though I came and went in relative ease, conditions changed daily and included fierce winds, snow and high seas.
I returned home on Dec. 20. This week’s column answers questions my friends asked. In the future, I will tell you about weather that assaulted us, plans that changed, the passenger who got hurt and my kayaking.
What was it like?
It’s hard to imagine a part of the world more different from home. For two weeks, I saw not a single tree. I heard not a single airplane. I saw no store (unless you count the museum shop on South Georgia Island), no paved road, no hotel and hardly any humans except the ones I came with.
The only way to visit Antarctica as a tourist is to go by ship and live on that ship. This is expensive but includes perks I appreciated, especially our cozy cabin for sleep and to calm my stomach in high seas, and special clothing: tall, insulated boots and super-warm yellow and black parkas that made our group of 100 tourists look like a flock of penguins.
How cold was it?
Actual thermometer readings were warm compared to Minnesota in winter: 25-35 degrees F. However, bone-dry air, frequent high winds and dark, rolling seas made it feel much colder, with wind chills of 10 or lower, even though it was “summer.” Had we traveled anywhere near the South Pole, it would have been even more frigid, minus-15 degrees F in the warm months.
Did you land?
The coastline is steep, jagged and hostile to ships. We rode to shore in 10-person Zodiacs, motorized rubber rafts, piloted by staff. We raced along at 15 to 20 miles an hour, bouncing on waves, salt water spraying in our faces.
Landing from a Zodiac involves turning your eyes to the sea, hauling your legs quickly over the tall rubber sides of the boat and stepping into shallow moving water, your arm locked with that of a staff member dressed in cold-water gear. Although the average age of our passengers was about 55, there were 80-year-olds who accomplished this feat, including one woman who was 88.
The main unanticipated trait a passenger wants for shore landings is the ability to postpone bathroom needs. We were supposed to leave the shore exactly as we found it. If nature called, you had to summon a Zodiac to rush you back to ship.
If nature had called while I was kayaking in my drysuit, I would have panicked. To avoid this, I practiced controlled liquid consumption on the ship, my next landing always in mind.
Is a doctor on board?
Yes. For free. Ironically, ours got sick near the end of the trip.
What did you see?
Penguins, penguins and more penguins. We saw five different kinds, their appearance ranging from majestic to elfin, in numbers from 100 at one location to 100,000 on a beach on South Georgia Island.
The penguins waddled, slid, cavorted with their mates, cared for their eggs and stole pebbles from each other. We were required to keep 15 feet away, but if penguins decided to approach, we were permitted to stand our ground.
We saw whales that breached and blew, albatrosses that followed our boat, and seals that lay on the beach and farted — a lot.
We also saw history.
We followed in reverse the route Earnest Shackelton took in 1916 to rescue 22 of his men. We visited both South Georgia Island where he sought help, and Elephant Island where his crew waited. These two places are 800 nautical miles (920 miles) apart.
I saw a replica of the small dinghy Shackelton and five companions traveled in, and we experienced a repeat of the rocky seas he encountered. The snow-covered mountains Shackelton and two others climbed were daunting, and I learned that the desolate beach where the stranded crew spent four months waiting was shockingly small.
That Shackelton and his men survived is almost inconceivable.
On South Georgia Island, with petrels flying above and seals lying behind us, we stood at Shackelton’s grave. I felt humbled by history and awed by the wildlife.
How’s the food?
It’s amazing that 1,500 miles from civilization at the end of the Earth you can be served very good meals. If the Australasian expedition trapped on the Russian ship carried anything like our food and drink, it’s no wonder they had fun.
Again, environmental restrictions prevail. No refuse is left in Antarctica; none is discharged into Antarctic seas.
Our on board crew was gracious and kind. When seas rocked the ship, they amazed me as they effortlessly balanced full, heavy trays.
Meanwhile, I fell back on old skills. I reached for hand rails. I walked with my legs wide like a toddler.
I crowed like a toddler with the fun of it all.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]