We’d been tossing around the idea of a trip to Antarctica for months, and we were excited to have met a few fellow travelers who had booked the same last-minute deal as us. Akio, a single round-the-world traveler from Japan had been sharing a room with us for the last few days in Ushuaia and we ended up with our travel agent from his suggestion. Kristin and Brian are another married couple from the US who are on a two-year adventure around the world. We rarely meet other travelling couples from the States and we hit it off with them immediately. While we were all insanely excited to set out on this adventure, we were also a bit nervous about the infamous Drake Passage, which has some of the roughest seas in the world. A few hours before we were set to embark, we toasted to our great adventure, and took the first round of Dramamine together.
As our sturdy ship, the Antarctic Dream, left the docks and sailed off into the sunset, I gorged myself on the first of the many fantastic three-course meals we would enjoy over the next 11 days. We were told that we’d be hitting the Drake sometime shortly after midnight, so I dutifully swallowed another set of motion-sick pills and bid my farewells to our new friends. I believe I actually said, “Well, I’ll see you in two days.”
I slept fitfully that first few hours, and there was a decided difference in the motion of the ship when we finally hit the open sea. Much to my surprise, I awoke the next morning to a rocking ship, but not the lurching catastrophe I had expected. It seems that luck was upon us and we made the crossing in record time, and with some of the smoothest waters you can find in this part of the world. While I did have to spend most of those two days in bed, I was at least able to come up for meals and some socializing before having to retreat again to our little cabin at the bottom of the boat.
Our early arrival at the Antarctic Peninsula meant that we were able to make an unexpected landing at a Chilean research support base. We bundled up in the many layers we’d need to keep warm – thermals, snow pants, fleece, gigantic parka (provided by the ship), neck warmer, hats, gloves, every sock I brought on this trip and a huge pair of rubber boots – and set off to view the first of the thousands of penguins we would encounter in the next week.
Our ship, like all responsible Antarctic cruise ships, is a member of the IAATO (International Alliance of Antarctic Tour Operators). You see, Antarctica doesn’t have any permanent human inhabitants, and does not fall under the governmental jurisdiction of any particular country. As a result, an alliance has been formed in order to protect and maintain the land and wildlife of Antarctica, and all tour operators have agreed to follow certain standards. For our purposes, one of the most pertinent standards is that you are not allowed to have more than 100 people on land at any give place. There are many ships that have more than 100 passengers, and therefore have to use a rotation system, which limits the amount of time you get to spend exploring the continent. The Antarctic Dream holds a maximum of 80 passengers, which meant we all got to be on land at the same time, and for longer than some other ships might allow their passengers.
Antarctica can be fickle in terms of weather. One of the things every travel agent, and every cruise ship operator, will stress is that the itinerary you look at before you book the cruise is tentative. The staff prepares for as many as two landings per day, but it’s completely subject to weather and ice conditions. It if is unsafe for passengers to be on the zodiacs, then there will be no landing. If the ice is unexpectedly dense in one area, the ship might have to change its course. We were told that the last cruise on our ship was only able to make 4 landings because of heavy fog and snow during their trip. Fortunately, Mother Nature blessed us with spectacular blue sunny skies and over the course of the next five days we were able to go ashore an incredible 9 different times. In addition, we took two zodiac cruises geared towards wildlife spotting around ice-burg filled bays.
I’ve seen the BBC’s Frozen Planet. I’ve seen other people’s pictures of Antarctica. Technically, I knew what it looked like. The thing is, reality almost never matches those incredible travel photos that the professionals take because normal people can’t get to the spots where the incredible photos are actually taken. This is not the case in Antarctica. You get right up in there with the snow and the icebergs and the penguins and the whales. I keep looking at my pictures and thinking, “Wait…I took that! I was THERE!” There are many, many stories we have left to share from this particular part of this trip, and as we sift through our zillions of photos and videos we’ll begin to unravel the threads and share some of the smaller moments that have made this one of the most memorable experiences not just of this journey, but of our lives. To tide you over, here’s a small sample of some of our favorite photos so far. It’s much better viewed full screen.
*At some point very soon I will be writing an even more massively long and glowing review than what is about to follow about the crew of our ship, the Antarctic Dream, on Trip Advisor and I will link to it here. In the meantime I would just like to say that so much of what made our trip so memorable was the amazing staff, crew, and fellow passengers of the Antarctic Dream. We found very few reviews of this ship before we departed, so we weren’t really sure what to expect, but the service and professionalism of this crew exceeded anything we thought possible. Our fellow passengers represented something like 15 different countries, and all ages and walks of life. We met a fantastic array of people, many of whom we hope to keep in touch with in the chance that our paths will cross again. We all ate like royalty, with buffet breakfasts, and delicious plated three course meals, including desert, for lunch and dinner. The expedition team was extremely experienced and well educated, and they were also personable and kind. The staff and crew of the ship were professional and hard-working, but also willing to take a moment to explain how something worked, or dash off to grab their own cameras (and most of them had impressive equipment!) when there was a wildlife spotting from the deck. The Capitan and his staff were amazing, and allowed passengers to come onto the bridge of the ship to see how everything was run. You could literally go up and sit with them and they would explain the workings of the depth finders, the control panels, the mapping instruments, anything! I would recommend this ship in a heartbeat, and if I ever decide to take another polar cruise, either to the Arctic, or the Antarctic, it will be on the Antarctic Dream. They have not paid me to write this, but if they’d like comp me for a trip to the North Pole, I’d be totally open to that 😉