A Journey to the Bottom of the World

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Antarctica is: a continent.
Antarctica is: 5.405 million square miles.
Antarctica is: primarily composed of rock, ice, and snow.
Antarctica is: dry and high. In fact, it is the highest and driest continent in the world.
Antarctica is: cold (although the summer averages between 32° and 40°F along the peninsula).
Antarctica is: isolated; even the water currents don’t allow for warmer water to penetrate.
Antarctica is: home to a penguins, seals, birds and whales.
Antarctica is: pristine.
Antarctica is: beautiful.
Antarctica is: mysterious.

Antarctica is.

The above list is what Antarctica is to most people. The list is true and yet it seems flat and lifeless, unlike the continent it is meant to define. That is because Antarctica is more than just a sum of its parts. Antarctica is a feeling, a distant memory of what the world used to be, and it leaves an imprint on your heart. Antarctica can be a harsh and brutal place to live, and yet ironically it is the place that I felt the most alive. Antarctica is otherworldly and at the same time the most earthly place I have ever been.

My name is Alyssa, and I traveled to the White Continent with Borton Overseas’ On the Keels of Giants Signature Journey in February of 2017 as one of the two group leaders. I have done my fair share of traveling, but this expedition-style cruise to the bottom of the world is by far the most unique trip I have ever taken.  I mean, “expedition” can be a scary word for someone for whose idea of camping means a cabin with working plumbing. But I had always enjoyed cruising and having grown up in Minnesota, I wasn’t scared of a little ice and snow.

The trip began with a series of three flights from Minneapolis, MN to Punta Arenas, Chile, where we boarded Hurtigruten’s newly refurbished Midnatsol and set sail for the Antarctic Peninsula. Although our Signature Journey group comprised only 14 travelers, there were 398 passengers on board the ship.  Despite a diverse mix of passengers from all walks of life and from all over the world, it felt like we were a small community of neighbors, united in our desire to explore the extraordinary White Continent. Each day I would find myself comparing experiences with my fellow travelers around the dinner table; we may have all explored the same place, but we definitely took away different things.

The ship itself was small in comparison to the large Caribbean cruises I was familiar with, but it wasn’t lacking in amenities. There wasn’t a pool, shows, or a casino, but my cabin was comfortable, the food was delicious, and the expedition staff was attentive and knowledgeable. The Midnatsol is actually one of the largest ships sailing the peninsula that can still do a landing on the Continent. While there are options for a more intimate experience on a smaller ship, the added stability and steadiness of the Midnatsol is worth considering when crossing the occasionally ferocious waters of the Drake Passage. We were indeed happy to have that added stability on our return journey through a hurricane!

I will never forget our first landing in Antarctica. We stepped out of the Zodiac onto a rocky beach and into the very different world of Half Moon Island. We were greeted by a few grumpy-looking Chinstrap penguins, who ignored us as they waddled about doing their penguin business, two lazy-looking fur seals, and the remains of an old wooden boat. After a shore briefing and a group photo, we dispersed to explore. I spent the next hour and a half climbing the rocky beach watching penguins jump, seals play, and seabirds soar through the cloudy blue sky.

In Antarctica only 100 people can go ashore at any given time, so our landing times were staggered. It didn’t feel like the beach was crowded; there was space to roam, and plenty of places to sit down and just soak up the scenery. It was the perfect setting to just listen, to just breathe. To just … be.

And then it was time to swim. My polar plunge in Antarctica was one of my favorite experiences. It was exhilarating, exciting, and, yes, cold! We stripped down to our swimwear, waddled into the water (much like the penguins), flopped around for a few moments (much like the seals), took a quick dunk complete with some sputtering (just like the whales), and then it was back to the ship to warm up with some hot chocolate and a hot shower! It was brief, but definitely worth it!

We landed a total of six times along the peninsula. Each day was a new adventure; occasionally we had to find alternative places to land/cruise due to unfavorable seas, rogue icebergs, or wind, but our captain and crew were flexible, efficient, and knowledgeable. We always found something incredible to see and do!

February 6: Cape Horn (Chile)
February 8: Half Moon Island
February 9: Damoy Point
February 10: Neko Harbour
February 11: Gonzalez Videla & Waterboat Point
February 12: Cuverville Island
February 13: Whalers Bay/Deception Island

Antarctica changed me. I notice the change most in moments of calm that surface in my fairly hectic life, when the man-made world fades giving way to a misty land of snow and ice in my mind. And in the moment when a bird swooping across the sky, reminds me of a Wandering Albatross, come to call me back. I have become an explorer, and the compulsion to GO has grown stronger. Every doorway holds the possibility of a new adventure; every road has the potential to lead somewhere new and exciting. Next time, and yes, there will be a next time, I want to see more. I want to cross the Antarctic Circle, go farther inland, camp overnight, and maybe even stay for an Antarctic winter.

Before I left on this trip, I was asked the question, “Why Antarctica?” At the time I didn’t really know; all I could say was that I wanted to go. But after experiencing it, I better understand the “why.” You should go to Antarctica to understand how vital its eco-system is to our planet and why it should be protected. You should go to see how beautiful our Earth is, in the one place where it hasn’t changed for thousands of years. But really, you should go because you will find something about yourself that you didn’t know was there.

Although it is one of the coldest places on the planet, Antarctica will be sure to melt your heart.

Antarctica is.

I am not a photographer, but it’s easy to take gorgeous photos in Antarctica because everything around you is awe-inspiring. You can check out more of my photos from the trip below. Who knows — maybe they will even inspire you to take your own Antarctic adventure!