This iceberg was about six stories tall. Above the water.

This iceberg was about six stories tall. Above the water.

I warn you in advance. This is a long post. In fact, it’s so long that I’ve chosen to divide it up into several “episodes.” It’s long because Antarctica was awesome in the true sense of the word “Awesome.” As in “inspiring awe.”

Also, unlike most of my posts, it’s a mixture of contemporaneous writing and after-the-fact interpretation. But there’s a good reason for that. In fact, it was arguably one of the highlights of the trip. Accessing the outside world from Antarctica is still difficult. So I simply couldn’t post from Antarctica. Indeed, I was completely cut off from the outside world for one full week. Yeah, it was tough at first. But after a few hours, it just felt great to recognize the world was surviving without my input. Here are my thoughts as (and after) 64 fellow passengers, 51 crew members, and I set sail around the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula between the 18th and 23rd of January in 2016:

How does one get to Antarctica? My trip began in a strange way. A while back a few researchers at Harvard or Yale or someplace like that gave little children cookies and told them not to eat them for five or ten minutes. They tracked the kids for years afterward. It turned out the kids that waited – the kids who were patient – were far more successful later in life. So, I decided to gauge my future potential by booking a trip to Antarctica 365 days before I could go. Only about 36,000 people come down here every year and trips fill up quickly. So, in January of 2015, I booked my journey for January 2016. I was slated to fly ten hours to Santiago, then three more to Punta Arenas (at the bottom of Chile), and then a final two hours to Frei Station on King George Island (the southernmost airport accepting commercial flights on earth). Altogether, that’s fifteen hours in airplanes. From there, we would hop on a converted Danish Ice Breaker and explore.

When I arrived, I expected to be among other adventurers. Most of my peers were actually quite a bit older than me. There were a few passengers, however, about my age. We ended up hanging out with each other and enjoyed as much of Antarctica as we could. You’ll meet these guys as we move along the Peninsula.

Sea Kayaking in Antarctica was amazing. Yes, that's water and not glass.

Sea Kayaking in Antarctica was amazing. Yes, that’s water and not glass.

Visiting Antarctica is not easy. There are several ways to do it.

  1. You could be a scientist.
  2. You could do something for the scientists – like cook.
  3. You can fly over it – Qantas offers occasional overflights from Sydney.
  4. Or you can, as I did, take a cruise ship. Most ships sail over Drake’s Passage, which is the roughest water on the planet. I chose to avoid that challenge opting instead for a flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island in the South Shetlands.

Now, it’s important to note that the term “cruise” ship for our mode of transport is a bit generous. Most of the boats down here are converted ice breakers. My cabin, for example, was at the front of the ship and each time we hit a chunk of ice, the loud groan and subsequent scraping woke me from my light slumber. And they were certainly light slumbers, seeing as the sun doesn’t set until about midnight. And, even when it does set down here, it’s simply a brief transition from dusk to dawn.

Ice, by the way, is categorized in the following ways:

  • Iceberg: Bigger than 15 meters across (more than 45 feet)
  • Bergy Bit: 5-15 meters across (between 15 and 45 feet)
  • Growler: Less than 5 meters across (less than 15 feet)

And, as I’m sure you know, 80% of the ice is below the water’s surface. You can’t see it. We rammed a lot of ice. Thankfully, our ship, the Ocean Nova, was sturdier than the Titanic.

Dusk and dawn lasted for hours and looked about like this.

Dusk and dawn lasted for hours and looked about like this.

It turns out tourists come to Antarctica for many reasons:

  • Some people come for the wildlife.
  • Some come to explore the history.
  • Many people come to learn more about the science that’s being done in Antarctica.
  • A lot come for the amazing opportunities for photography.
  • A few on this trip came to meditate (we avoided that group gave them plenty of space). You’ll get to spend more time with them in future posts.
  • Some come for the sense of adventure.
  • And many – including me – come because it’s their seventh continent and setting foot here is an important travel milestone.

Each reason was good. And I found a way to take advantage of them all. Those topics will serve as the outline for the upcoming “Antarctic Episodes” on this “season” of Next up: The wildlife. Keep your eyes on!