Living the Dream: An Antarctic Expedition

The penguins were staring at me, but it wasn’t a look of alarm. It was more of a quizzical expression that seemed to say, what do you think you’re doing? I asked myself the same thing as I stood shivering in my swimsuit, gazing at icebergs and preparing to put the “polar” in polar plunge.

When I was growing up, we didn’t have cable TV, so I immersed myself in nature and science shows on public television. My love of Indiana Jones movies inspired me to read true adventures of polar explorers. Now just a mere 15 years later, I found myself forging my own expedition on a 10-day exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula.

After traveling for 24 hours from Denver to Ushuaia, Argentina, I boarded the vessel that would take me to the ends of the Earth from the southern tip of South America. Accompanying us on our expedition were some of the world’s most respected polar conservationists who have spent their lives dedicated to this remote region of the world. I could hardly believe I was embarking on seas I’d only dreamed of traversing — the relatively calm voyage through the sheltered Beagle Channel, followed by the rocky, open ocean crossing of the ‘Drake Lake’ that’s become a right-of-passage and friendship-forming inside joke for anyone venturing to the seventh continent.

My first view of Antarctica was a mesmerizing vista of blues, whites, and grays, so serene yet dramatic at the same time. Nothing I’d read about or seen on the screen prepared me for the grand sweep of Antarctica’s graceful collision of sea, ice, and land.

Land, ho!

For the next several days, we would bounce along coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, embarking on a morning land excursion, returning to the ship for lunch, then heading out in the afternoon for another adventure before settling for dinner onboard. Every night I would inevitably be up with my new friends until the crack of dawn, reliving the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of that day and anticipating the ones coming in just a few hours.

Along with the unforgettably striking landscape, seeing wildlife is one of the highlights of any visit to Antarctica. The specialized crew onboard maintained a long list of birds and mammals we were likely to encounter. When you see one, check it off the list. Albatross-check. Orca-check. Leopard Seal-check. Minke Whale-check. Penguins-check, check, and check, repeatedly for the entirety of our journey.

One Step Further

Going ashore in Antarctica is no haphazard event. If the winds are too strong, the Zodiacs (sightseeing boats) don’t leave the ship and neither do you. Even in perfect weather, international guidelines dictate that no more than 100 people at a time can go ashore from a vessel. That means that on large cruise ships, some passengers who may want to go ashore cannot. My boat had just 88 passengers, so anyone on board who dreamed of setting foot on Antarctica could turn it into a reality. I decided to take that dream a step further.

We met on deck in the evening, but it was as light as midday. This was December, when 24-hour daylight bathes the rugged polar landscape. We headed ashore, where I was given a shovel and told to dig a hole in the snow. I was then handed a sleeping bag, a heat retaining pad, an extra blanket, and sunglasses to block out the light as I slept.

Taking the Plunge

Part of the spirit of Antarctica is taking advantage of every single second and living it to the absolute fullest. Even as I asked myself if I was crazy for thinking of swimming in waters dominated by towering icebergs, I answered myself with another question: When am I ever going to get the opportunity to do this again? I knew that if I didn’t take the plunge now – if I didn’t seize the day – I would be very angry with myself later. Not only that, but also about one third of my fellow passengers were in their swimsuits, and before long people were executing cannonballs and belly-flops like kids at the pool on a 95-degree day.

When I jumped in, it didn’t feel as cold as I expected, but it didn’t take long before I could feel my whole body tensing up. We quickly hopped back in the ship for hot chocolate, soup and a soak in the hot tub when we heard some commotion. Humpback whales had come close to the ship and for me, time froze; I realized I’d have a story that would be tough to top when I got home—the one about how I went whale watching from a hot tub in Antarctica, with a freshly cracked beer in my hand.

Sharing My Experience

As we all got to know each other through reminiscing and sharing tales of former journeys, I glanced at the clock and saw that it was hours after midnight. In that moment I realized how little time passengers spent in their cabins – it was about treasuring the experience with your fellow adventurers. I was about to call it a night after hours of wildlife watching when someone called out that the krill had surfaced.

I made my way on deck and watched the humpback whales feeding on the tiny crustaceans in the midnight-sun of Antarctica. I knew my cabin and my bed would have to wait because the experience was too good to pass.

Since coming back, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with fellow travelers looking to make the voyage to Antarctica, and I’ve had the pleasure of recalling many amazing moments of the expedition where, should you go, you’ll probably find, as I did, that the days are just not long enough.