Chinstrap Penguin in Antarctica

Antarctica. Remote, unpredictable, inhospitable with snarling winds and an unforgiving frost. Despite the potential for danger, seasickness and extreme frostbite, I’m happy to report that I’ve returned safely from my 11-day expedition aboard the Antarctic Dream, a former Chilean Navy vessel turned luxury cruise ship.

Often confused with the Arctic – Antarctica is the land mass at the South Pole. Here, penguins not polar bears dominate the icy waters. It’s the world’s windiest, driest, coldest, highest continent and is the largest wildness area on earth with some 90% of all the ice on the globe. The continent has no government and, though there is a treaty among some 47 countries, it’s not owned by any one nation. Today, there are scientists doing wildlife research about the effects of global warming in Antarctica but no indigenous inhabitants are known to have ever lived there.

Icebergs in AntarcticaIceberg in Antarctica

Each year, thousands of tourists make the long and often gnarly journey from the port of Ushuaia Argentina, across the Drake Passage, 1000 km of rough seas between South America and the frozen continent of Antarctica.

Our group of international (mostly German and Dutch) tourists spent two-full days (and two-full days back) chilling on the boat, trying to adapt to the rocking waves and constant instability. Dramamine, an anti-nausea drug, became my new best friend and I popped those little white pills every few hours in order to keep my sea-sickness at bay and my dinner down.  Choppy waters caused the boat to rock back and forth, dishes to smash, dresser drawers to open and slam shut and there were times where I actually thought I was going to roll out of bed in the middle of the night. Be warned. Bring your sea-sickness pills or spend those few days hugging the toilet.

The journey was worth it.  We toured around the South Shetland islands, and, when weather permitted, disembarked from the ship into 12-person Zodiacs. From there, we cruised around and made several landings on shore to see penguins!

The smell is one of the first things you notice. An acrid, ammonia-esque smell of ‘guano’ or (penguin poop) hits you as you slide out of the Zodiak and onto shore. Then it’s the sound. In Neko Bay, there’s a colony of Gentoo penguins who are squawking uncontrollably. It is through this distinct call that they can locate their mates and chicks. There are nine varieties of Penguins, but the Gentoo and Chinstap (named for the distinctive black line under their necks) are the most common.

Beyond penguins, we had a chance to see the illusive leopard seal, a predatory mammal who spent most of the day basking in the sunshine on a nearby iceberg. We also saw petrels, Wilson petrels, skuas and blue-eyed shags and elephant seals. Armed with mega-pro cameras that would give anyone lens envy, it was obvious to me that it’s really the wildlife that people come for.

Penguin chicks in AntarcticaElephant Seal Antarctica

From November to January, it’s summer in Antarctica; a time when penguins are hatching their eggs and feeding their chicks. Temperatures are warmer than usual and there up to 20 hours of sunlight every day. The sun never fully sets, so, with a constant soft light even at 11pm, it’s a photographers dream!

Dream of visiting Antarctica? Here’s what you need to know, before you go:

-If you’re flexible on time but tight on cash, head to Ushuaia in Argentina. Last minute Antarctic excursions can be organized through travel agencies there. I found a trip for $3500 USD for 10 days.

-Be sure to book with a company that is approved by the IAATO, an association of tour operators that promotes ethical travel

-Expect seasickness. Pack Dramamine or other motion sickness pills to prevent illness. The downside of Dramamine is that it does make you sleepy and lethargic. Ginger flavored gum is a good alternative.

-Between the rough seas and slippery floors, it’s best to keep one hand on the boat at all times.

-Bring slippers (with rubber treads) or Crocs for hanging around the boat deck. I learned the hard way. I slipped down the stairs because I was wearing socks. Doh.

-Dress in layers, weather changes abruptly and can be extraordinarily cold and windy.

-The weather determines your itinerary, so stay flexible. Expect delays, changes of plans and cancellations of landings due to weather.

-Bring lots of books, games and time-wasters on the boat. You’re spending at least 72 hours on the Drake Passage not doing much. It can get very boring if you’re not prepared.

-Be socially responsible: follow the guidelines on how to behave around wildlife.

-Wear sunscreen with SPF 60, You can easily get burnt to a crisp during land excursions.

-An internet connection will likely not be available on the ship so prepare accordingly. Leave an automated response message on your email letting your people know you’re out of town. On the Antarctic Dream, a satellite phone card was available for purchase for $50 USD for 20 minutes.

-Getting in and out of the Zodiak, hiking on land, walking up and down the stairs of the cruise ship, balancing yourself during rough seas – all require a certain level of fitness and health. Be sure you’re up to the challenge.

-While there may be a doctor on board for minor cuts and bruises, you’re a long way from emergency medical attention. Evacuation could take a while, so keep that in mind if you have serious health problems. BYO drug prescriptions and, when purchasing medical insurance, opt for maximum coverage if case of evacuation (which can be very expensive).

-If you’re not able to afford a trip to Antarctica, excursions in Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city, can give you a taste of the Antarctic wildlife. Penguins, penguins and more penguins.

Julia in Antarctica