The Antarctic Adventure

Traveling amidst a pandemic is certainly not easy, so it is more than a little ironic that this adventure might never have happened in more normal times. Antarctic expeditions normally book out one to two years—an impossible wait for a stranger to patience. Being able to embark on this journey that we booked just six months ago is something we could not have hoped for in our wildest dreams.

Day 0: Houston

Tomato bisque was the only hot food here this evening, but I have no complaints since it’s my second favorite soup. We had an hour layover, so we stopped for some food and some rest before leaving the northern hemisphere. Just like the rest of the terminal, the lounge was fairly empty; restrictions on foreign travel to the U.S. have just been lifted, so traffic at the international terminals was just picking back up. It took no time for us to zip through the airport and catch our final flight to Santiago.

And then just like that, we took off.

Day 1: Santiago

United Airlines flight 847 touched down promptly just before 09:00 local time. American Airlines flight 957 from Miami beat us by a few minutes, but we were the only two big flights here at this hour. Getting through the COVID screening processes was mostly uneventful, except that we had to redo our affidavits on the spot. (These had to be submitted no more than 48 hours before the flight. I had gotten overzealous and filled them out almost exactly 48 hours before departure, but the limit turned out to be 48 hours to arrival, so the forms had expired during the flight.)

Silversea had staff at the terminal helping us along the way. After getting our PCR tests and going through immigration, they loaded us and our bags onto a van. The drive to the hotel would take about 45 minutes in weekday late morning traffic. Of course, Santiago—like the country at large—is mountainous, so it was not surprising that the drive would take us through many very long tunnels. What was a bit surprising though, was how smoggy the city looked. It turns out that because Santiago rests on a fairly flat basin surrounded by mountains, every slight bit of pollution would stay trapped and linger to cloud up an otherwise picturesque skyline.

A room at the Mandarin Oriental is certainly not a bad place to spend the day in quarantine, which we were required to do until our COVID test results were ready. The hotel is a cylindrical building sporting a large open atrium, with guest rooms on the perimeter overlooking the city or the Andes mountains. The interior décor is modern and elegant, though not at all Oriental as its name might suggest.

Just after 17:00, we woke up from a sound nap. Our negative COVID test results were ready, so we got to enjoy our first dinner in Santiago at the hotel’s Senso restaurant. Over a beer and a glass of chardonnay, we admired the views of the gardens and the impressive waterfall over the lagoon pool. The menu is distinctly Italian with added local flare, like the pappardelle topped with Chilean Loco—an abalone-like shellfish.

Day 2: Santiago

The realization that a prickly pear is actually the fruit of an Opuntia cactus, or that any cactus has any edible part at all, would come only later. The focus during breakfast was deciding whether this curiosity tasted more like a melon or a pear, and savoring the other cheeses, pastries, and eggs all before us.

We would start our only full day in Santiago exploring the Metropolitan Park. Only a ten-minute cab ride away, it is the largest urban park in Chile, with a very hilly topography. A cable car took us from the base at Estación Oasis to the summit at Estación Cumbre. The ride was relatively short but offered spectacular views on both sides.

The summit is also known as San Cristóbal Hill. We walked around the area to take in the views from various sides before hiking back down to Estación Tupahue. The path was busy this Saturday morning, with thousands of bikers and runners laboring up the hill with unrealistic ease. Although our brisk downhill trot might seem undeserving in comparison, we rewarded ourselves by snacking on ice-cream anyway.

The panoramic bus took us the rest of the way to the park’s southern entrance at Pío Nono. Although it was past noon on a Saturday, many of the shops here were closed. The streets however were still filled with people.

Our half-hour walk to Plaza de Armas would take us across the Mapocho River, through Parque Forestal, and over the busy streets of historic downtown. Surrounded by historical landmarks and filled with palm trees and fountains, the plaza has the grandeur befitting of a central town square of a capital city.

By four o’clock, we had retraced our steps back to Estación Oasis to find our cab back to the hotel. Dinner tonight would be simple and hearty: a club sandwich and good ol’ cheeseburger, with plenty of ketchup packets that just refused to open.

Day 3: Punta Arenas

Breakfast was hosted by Silversea this morning, and it was the first opportunity to see some of the other passengers on the trip. Perhaps to add an aura of meticulous coordination to the whole process, everyone was partitioned into groups leaving 5 minutes apart. At 08:35, we were up and promptly got on the bus to head to the airport.

The charter flight to Punta Arenas was run by LATAM and would depart from a private terminal in the main Santiago airport. Diego Barros Ortiz stretches parallel to the runway, and as the bus plodded along, United 847—the same flight that took us here just two mornings ago, touched down right beside us.

The flight would take just about 3 hours. Though it was delayed by an hour because we had just missed our landing slot, we still made a timely arrival to Punta Arenas just after 14:00. During the half-hour bus ride to the port, a local guide gave us the history and geography of the city. In addition to being a port city for Antarctica expeditions, Punta Arenas has a big sheep farming industry—there is an estimated 200,000 sheep in this city with a population of only 130,000. She also explained that the city has tundra climate and is pretty much always cold and windy; and about that, she definitely wasn’t kidding.

We got on the boat just after 16:00. Our butler Aakash was already at our suite to greet us. After the obligatory safety drills, we enjoyed dinner at the forthrightly named Restaurant. Appetizers for the night were Crudo (Piedmontese beef steak tartare) and Oxtail Consommé, followed by main courses of lime-marinated king scallops and roasted leg of lamb. For dessert, we each had the hazelnut chocolate cheesecake.

The boat was scheduled to set sail at 18:00, but strong winds delayed us by about two hours. As we were finishing dinner, we saw two tug boats getting ready to pull us from the dock. And then with hardly any fanfare, the Silver Cloud headed into the seas.

Day 4: Strait of Magellan

It took the entire night and a good part of the early morning for the ship to get to the South Atlantic. The sailing was a bit choppy but not awful. The scopolamine patches appeared to be working for now, but the real test might have to come when the sailing really gets rough.

After a nice breakfast at La Terrazza, we attended the mandatory IAATO training—a slideshow and a set of videos about rules that must be observed when visiting South Georgia and Antarctica at large. After a brief rest, we had a buffet lunch, also at La Terrazza. Next was biosecurity screening, where the expedition staff carefully examined the outer layers of everyone to make sure no foreign seeds or other organic material end up on shore. It took a good part of the afternoon to run everyone through.

We spent a few hours at the Panorama Lounge to catch up on emails over coffee and cocktails. At 19:00, captain Mino Pontillo hosted a welcome hour where he introduced the other senior officers of the Cloud. From there, we went directly to dinner at the Restaurant. For appetizers, we had Asparagus Velouté with Truffle Essence, Vegetable Vol-au-Vent, and Coconut-crusted Prawns. Our main courses were Grilled Maine Lobster and Malabar Chicken, followed by Strawberry Crème-brûlée and sugar-free tapioca pudding.

Day 5: South Atlantic

I was seated for breakfast as soon as La Terrazza opened at 07:30. Today would be spent entirely at sea, but there would be plenty of lectures to occupy us. The first one of the day was given by Victoria Salem on the History of South Georgia. She gave a detailed account of the sealing and whaling activities on the island, and historic expeditions that came here before us.

Lunch was at the Grill, a restaurant with open-air seating by the pool. The skies were totally clear with not a single cloud to be seen, so the ocean looked intensely blue. It was a perfect day to enjoy a cheeseburger on the pool deck overlooking the expansive ocean surrounding us.

As we were sailing in the middle of the ocean, one curiosity that hit us was the constant sight of birds. We must be hundreds of miles away from land, but everywhere we looked, there would be dozens of birds happily flying around us. Bernardo would tell us why at the first lecture of the afternoon: “Seabirds are Amazing: Here are Some of the Reasons Why.” In a profoundly duh moment, we learned that seabirds like albatrosses and petrels actually live in the seas, and go on land only hesitantly to nest.

Immediately after the lecture was a mandatory kayak briefing. The Cloud has a half-dozen kayaks that can let us paddle around South Georgia and Antarctica for a few hours at a time. After the briefing, I joined the expedition team on Deck 8 to look at seabirds. I think this might have been the first time I tried photographing birds in flight—BIF had never been my genre, but I can certainly see the excitement in it.

The last lecture of the day was given by Steffan Danino on the geology of South Georgia, an island made up of igneous and sedimentary rock. Located at the border between the South American and Scotia plates, the island was formed when rocks deposited by turbidite currents were trapped between the plates and subsequently pushed to the surface.

What would I do if I didn’t have a blog where I can file away such fascinating facts instead of committing them to memory?

Dinner tonight would be at La Terrazza. Appetizers were tomato soup and squid salad, followed by pappardelle with duck and eggplant parmesan. Desserts of the night were chocolate cake and chocolate-orange ice-cream, in which Matt found particular delight.

Day 6: South Atlantic

We continued sailing east towards South Georgia, and the day would again be filled with lectures and briefings. At 09:00, Marcel Lichtenstein talked about the moon’s phases and origin. One interesting tidbit (that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t) is that a waxing moon always appears on the right, while a waning one shows on the left.

After a buffet lunch at La Terrazza, we catched up on emails in the library. At 14:00, Ken Wright gave one of the most anticipated lectures of the day on “Kings of South Georgia and Antarctic Penguins.” Though Emperor penguins look similar to King penguins, they grow to about three times the size, and are exclusive to the more southern regions of Antarctica. For this trip, we are hoping to see the King, Gentoo, Macaroni, and Chinstrap penguins.

The day’s recap and briefing was at 17:00, where we were prepped on our arrival tomorrow morning. There would be two landings, one at Fortuna Bay in the morning, and the other at Hercules Bay in the afternoon.

Shortly after 18:30, the expedition leader announced over the PA that a pod of whales was sighted on the starboard side of the ship. Since that is the side of our suite, we immediately jumped onto the veranda, and as promised, we saw at least a half dozen whales, some probably only a couple hundred feet away. The sighting deserved much excitement because whales were not expected here in mid-November.

We returned to La Terrazza for dinner tonight. Appetizers were tomato and vegetable soup and poached eggs. For main courses, we had veal steak and king prawns. Dessert were tiramisu and the much-loved chocolate-orange ice-cream.

Day 7: South Georgia

We got up early around 05:30 this morning because we are in zodiac group 2 which was scheduled to get called at around 08:00. After having a full room-service breakfast, we put on all our winter gear and waited excitedly for the disembarkation announcement. The schedule was right on time, and within an hour, we were on a zodiac pulling onto shore, while hundreds of seals and King penguins greeted us.

Just about a mile inland from Fortuna Bay is a King penguin colony. Seeing one in the flesh and in habitat was a completely magical experience, not only because there were thousands and thousands of them everywhere, but also because these creatures seem totally unafraid and unfazed by our presence, and many curious ones would walk right up to us. Fur and elephant seals were also ubiquitous here; we were warned that they might be more aggressive than usual given a recent shortage of food, but we didn’t run into any issues and the seals mostly kept to themselves.

The best season for visiting Antarctica is a subject of much debate. While the most popular opinion appears to be, “Antarctica is breathtaking any time of the year, so just go,” the top concern for traveling early in the season, as we did, is not seeing penguin chicks. This November trip is one of only a few solutions to a highly constrained scheduling problem, but the predicament around penguin chick sighting certainly seemed inconvenient while we were in the midst of planning this adventure. Luckily, some stranger on Tripadvisor promised that penguin chicks can be seen in South Georgia in November, so here we are.

And the stranger was right! Unlike most other penguin species, King penguins have a very long and complex breeding schedule, so there are chicks in many colonies on South Georgia for much of spring and summer. We were absolutely overjoyed seeing thousands and thousands of these brown, fluffy chicks everywhere. A few even walked up close to us—since we were probably the first visitors here in almost two years, we were probably the first humans these chicks ever met.

The original plan for the afternoon was a zodiac cruise around Hercules Bay, but this was cancelled because the winds were too strong. Instead the Cloud set sail for Jason Harbour, with the hope that we could do zodiac cruising here tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, Victoria Salem gave a 90-minute lecture on Shackleton’s Endeavor expedition.

We had dinner tonight back at the Restaurant. We started off with scallops, pumpkin crisps, and lobster bisque. Main courses were filet mignon, followed by raspberry soufflé and black forest cake for dessert.

Day 8: South Georgia

It was a totally calm night because the Cloud was docked peacefully at the harbor. The rotation algorithm they used would put us as the very last group to disembark this morning, so we had time for a relaxing breakfast at La Terrazza.

Because this spot was chosen last-minute to evade the strong winds at Hercules Bay, most of the exhibition guides had never before visited this location. It nonetheless turned out to be a great choice, with plenty of seals and King penguins scattered throughout the beaches.

This was a zodiac cruising activity (we did not get onshore), but we still got fairly close to the wildlife. Snow fell as flurries at times, obliquely obscuring the scenic wonder before us. But there were only patches of ice on the mountaintops, so the raw geology was all there for us to discover. At first, the penguins sauntering aimlessly on loose rock seemed so infinitesimal before the almost infinite grandeur of the mountains gazing down from afar. And then we realize that it is precisely the juxtaposition of the lofty against the bold, the conflict between the indifferent and the buoyant, that makes this island so extraordinarily sublime.

We returned to the boat for lunch at the Restaurant, starting with carrot soup, followed by a salad and Mediterranean seabass. I briefly considered skipping dessert today but immediately decided that would be silly; the pear and blackberry crumble was delectable.

Shortly after 14:00, the Cloud arrived and anchored at King Edward Cove, just outside Grytviken—the capital of South Georgia, the seat of the South Georgia government, and the site of a now-defunct whaling station. By 16:30, the zodiac would drop us off on the shore next to the cemetery, the site of Ernest Shackleton’s grave. Hundreds of seals were scattered over the entire area; when sleeping, they look just like giant rocks, so we had to be careful not to get too close or run over them.

The site has a mix of abandoned buildings and machinery from the old whaling station, and some newer buildings in use by the government. None of them were open due to COVID precautions, but we were free to walk around the whole site. Just a couple hundred feet from shore is a Norwegian church. Now over 100 years old, the church has been restored and maintained by volunteers on the island, and is now still occasionally in use for services.

Beached at the shore are three wrecked ships, the Petrel, Albatross, and Dias. As an avid urban explorer, I could easily spend an entire day photographing each one of these ships and abandoned buildings here at Grytviken. But the combination of the geology, the wildlife, and the fact of just being here in an abandoned whaling village in the middle of the South Atlantic, felt overwhelming at times—we weren’t sure where to go or what to look at.

With his comically large nose, the male elephant seal was aptly described by one of our expedition guides as having “a face only a mother could love.” But within the unlikely spectacle of rusting shipwrecks and battered piers before a snowy Antarctic landscape, his unsightliness seemed more like a droll caricature, an almost endearing reminder that we were in some mystical, faraway place.

We were back on the Cloud at just about 18:00. After a recap and briefing, we had dinner at the Restaurant, where we were joined by Bill whom we met on the bus ride back in Punta Arenas. We all had the Indian fixed-course menu, with samosas, tandoori chicken, and carrot cake with pistachio ice-cream.

Day 9: South Georgia

The journey to St. Andrews Bay was quite choppy, and woke us up a few times throughout the night. By 07:00, the Cloud was anchored in mostly calm waters, and the guides had started readying the zodiacs for today’s expedition.

As we opened the door and stepped onto the veranda, we thought we heard sounds of chirping seabirds. The shore was miles away, and looked speckled with tiny white and brown dots. Through my telephoto lens, the speckles looked bigger, but still inscrutable. I played the image back on the camera at full zoom, and realized what we were hearing was in fact the chorus of 150,000 pairs of calling penguins, each one disguised as a grain of sand on a boundless beach.

Shortly after 10:00, our zodiacs would take us to shore. The weather was unexpectedly warm and clear, and we could walk around without hats or gloves. The mountainous landscape is partly glaciated and looked magnificent.

We walked perhaps about a mile, hugging close to the shore, until we reached a stream where plenty of seals were sleeping, half of their faces steeped in water. Penguins were playing, hopping on and off the shore. A thousand things were happening in a thousand different directions. It was humbling to feel like grains of sand ourselves in this limitless expanse where penguins prevail.

We were back onboard before noon, and since the weather was sunny and warm, we had lunch at the open-air Grill on the pool deck. Our burger and reuben sandwich were paired with New York cheesecake for dessert.

Just before finishing lunch, the Cloud started sailing towards Drygalski Fjord. The weather got noticeably windier and colder as we approached. And as the ship entered the fjord, the conditions became downright inhospitable. Harsh weather is par for the course here, and the wind today reached 59 knots.

The severe weather is part of the allure of Drygalski; the other is its unique geology where the rock formations are different on the two sides of the fjord. On the east is mostly sedimentary rock, and on the west are mostly basalt formations that are much richer in color.

This would be our last stop in South Georgia. After the Cloud turned around and exited the fjord, we were on our way to Elephant Island, crossing the infamous Drake Passage. Despite having our Scopolamine patches and Dramamine, we still very much felt the roll of the ocean. We could feel seasickness starting to hit us, so after the recap session, we had room service for dinner.

Day 10: Drake Passage

The Drake Passage was still standing up to its infamy today, but our motion-sickness meds had kicked in more and helped. After breakfast at La Terrazza, we attended the first lecture of the morning given by Elizabeth Pierce on “Discovering the White Continent.” It was fascinating to learn that Antarctica was not fully mapped until after World War II. Much of the early interest in the continent was more commercial and less scientific, and early explorations were mainly after the whales and seals.

The last time I played Bingo was probably in grade school, and it was refreshing to play two rounds here in the Explorer Lounge, even though we didn’t win. The staff had built two snowmen by the pool, so we stopped to take a look before heading back to the suite to watch the movie Breaking News in Yuba County.

After lunch, we attended the first lecture of the afternoon, “The origin of Whales” by Dmitri Banin. We’ve always known that whales are mammals, so what in hindsight should have been obvious (but wasn’t) is the fact that whales evolved from hoofed animals (artiodactyls). As their ancestors spent more time in water, their legs eventually became flippers, and their nostrils moved to the top of the head.

After a break of a few hours, Steffan Danino gave the last lecture of the day, “The Story of Ice.” While it didn’t seem like ice could be a thrilling topic, the lecture was in fact fascinating as Steffan told us how Antarctica had evolved from a rather tropical setting to today’s frigid tundra.

Dinner tonight would be at the Restaurant, where we had spinach soup with poached egg, cheese and potato pie, grilled cod, and bread and butter pudding for dessert.

Day 11: Drake Passage

Today would be another full day at sea, with various lectures scattered throughout the day. The crew also spent a large part of the morning administering COVID tests for everyone.

The day’s first lecture was on climate change, by Jane McPhee-Frew; this was the first of a two-part lecture, and Jane gave an overview of the science behind climate and the greenhouse effect. In the afternoon, Victoria Salem gave a lecture on “Otto Nordenskjold’s Swedish Antarctic Expedition,” a lesser known journey to the Antarctic, but rivals Shackleton’s famous expedition in terms of risk and travail. And in the final presentation of the day “Adaptations of Animals to Extreme Climatic Conditions,” Dmitri Banin talked about how penguins, seals, and seabirds have evolved to cope with the almost inhospitable conditions in Antarctica.

Day 12: King George

The original plan for today was to arrive at Elephant Island, but due to a medical emergency onboard, we were headed to King George Island in the South Shetlands where medical evacuation facilities are available. The medical evacuation plane was scheduled to depart Punta Arenas at 18:00 and arrive at King George at 21:00. The schedule was very specific because apparently these planes have only enough fuel to go one way, so they must make absolutely sure that weather conditions allow them to land. Since we have a few hours to spare, the expedition guides added a zodiac cruise at Ardley Island this afternoon.

Until then, our time was occupied by more lectures. Ken Wright started the day with a presentation on the “Methods and Lifestyle of a Seabird Researcher.” While it was not wholly relevant to Antarctic expeditions, it was fascinating to learn about the lengths these researchers go through to study seabirds at remote and inhospitable locations around the world.

After about hour of watching seabirds on the pool deck, we returned for the second lecture of the day by Victoria Salem on “The Antarctic Treaty System.” Victoria’s account was very thorough as always, and she described in detail the history and current status of various international agreements governing the protection of Antarctica.

Even though it was the coldest it had been in the journey so far, we decided to have lunch at the open-air Grill today. The hot carrot pumpkin soup was heartwarming on such a cold day, and our veggie burger and grilled mahi-mahi were excellent.

Just before 16:00, our zodiac group was called for a cruise around Ardley Island, a small piece of land in Maxwell Bay near the southwestern tip of King George. Home to a sizable Gentoo penguin colony, the landscape here is rocky and partially glaciated. Several research station buildings are scattered about.

The zodiac took us close to shore, and we got to see plenty of penguins trotting about. The birds here were mostly Gentoo penguins, but our expedition guide claimed he also spotted a few Chinstraps. In addition to covering the shoreside, the Gentoos also formed a huge colony on Faro Hill, a high cliff at the eastern tip of the island. Watching them clumsily trying to climb the hill, and falling every once in a while, was immensely entertaining. At the top of the hill is a striped structure officially called a lighthouse, but looks like just an ordinary passive nautical guide.

Back onboard the Cloud, we enjoyed a few cocktails at the Dolce Vita lounge, and afterwards dinner at the Restaurant. The fixed-course menu today was Spanish, and while I’m sure we would have loved the paella, we opted instead for the lobster tail and eggplant parmesan. Dessert was a chocolate-pineapple opera cake, and chocolate-orange ice-cream.

Day 13: Antarctica

We woke up to our first sight of Antarctica, an experience that would not soon be forgotten. The sun was shining through scattered clouds. The seas were clear, with an occasional iceberg floating past us. Today was exactly two weeks after we left home to embark on this journey, and we were more than overjoyed to finally be here.

By 07:30, the Cloud was anchored at Hope Bay at the northern tip of the Trinity Peninsula. The activity of the morning would be a zodiac cruise around the area. Today would be our turn to be first to disembark, so we had an early breakfast, and then anxiously awaited the call. Steffan was our zodiac guide, and he took us close to shore to see the thousands and thousands of Adélie penguins here. Indeed, Hope Bay is the site of one of the largest Adélie colonies in the world, with over 250,000 birds.

The Adélies are endearing and social creatures. They are also curious ones, heading to the water’s edge and pause, as if indulging in some deep contemplation about what mystery might await them in the sea. Just after pretending that they might jump, all would then back away, as if having just uncovered some shocking secret. All along the snow-covered cliffs by the water, groups of them would walk gawkily but in perfect single-file, as if heading to board an invisible bus. And meanwhile, a smaller faction would be climbing halfway up a hill, then hesitate and traipse back down, as if needing to reclaim something forgotten. It all looks like a whimsical story with a plot that is too pure for us to fully unravel.

On top of one of the hills in the distance, I saw what appeared to be silhouettes of two people. Confused at first, we would quickly realize this was no alarming discovery because the area is the site of the Esperanza Base—a permanent, year-round Argentinian research station. About 10 families actually live here, and the base even has a school. The several dozen buildings are easily spotted as they are all painted bright orange.

I suppose setting foot on a new continent deserves some pomp and circumstance, but we were just trying to not fall over as we stepped out of the zodiac and landed on the rocky beach beneath Brown Bluff. Some Gentoo and Adélie penguins were here to welcome us, while the rest of them were nesting in their colony about half a mile away. The beach is very rocky with mostly large, gray, rounded pebbles. The penguins, who can’t walk on smooth land all that gracefully, would slip and fall even more, but they are undaunted as always—perhaps we all can explore and find greater worlds if we don’t let embarrassment get in our way.

Early summer is nesting season for the Adélies, who build nests from small pebbles that they arrange into a bowl above ground. The male penguins would gather rocks and bring them pack to their mates, and we got to see that all around the colony. Most of the penguins here were incubating; every once in a while, one of them would get up and change position, and it didn’t take long before we were able to get a glimpse of some penguin eggs.

After a short hike up a mildly steep slope, we got to a vista point where we enjoyed a view of the beach. The climb was slippery, and we made our way up as clumsily as the penguins did. Brown Bluff was now towering above us. This was once a volcano, so it was not surprising that the whole area is covered with dark igneous rock. The skies were clear, and we could see icebergs and floes scattered across this end of the Weddell Sea.

Since we were the first zodiac group today, there was plenty of time to enjoy a cocktail before recap and dinner. The fixed-course menu today had a Asian theme. We had duck crêpes and crab bisque, followed by vegetable curry and porcini-stuffed cannelloni. Desserts were coffee mousse and pineapple cake with passion fruit.

Day 14: Antarctica

Shortly after we woke up, the Cloud was ready to drop anchor at Mikkelsen Harbour. We had absolutely perfect weather for our landing at Trinity Island. The skies were mostly clear with beautiful scattered clouds; the air was crisp and winds were light. We would be the second-last zodiac group today, so we spent a few hours sitting in our suite with eager, excited anticipation.

The zodiac ride to shore would be the most interesting yet because we would sail through brash ice—small fragments of floating ice that broke off of icebergs or floes. As always, we could see and hear the penguins as we made approach. Already, we could see several different colonies on the island. Most of the birds here were Gentoos, but we could spot a few Adélies here and there.

Most of the island was covered with at least a few inches of snow, so the hike was slow at times. But no one was in any hurry because there was always something interesting to notice, some view to appreciate. The penguins were cute and interesting as always, but the landscapes were epic. The island is about six miles from the Antarctic Peninsula, and on a clear day like this, the view of the Antarctic mainland—with its immaculate ice sheets, snow-covered mountains looming over the harbor decorated with floes and brash ice—was out of this world.

We were still reminiscing about this morning’s incredible expedition during lunch, but that wouldn’t diminish our delight at enjoying the almond bread pudding with white chocolate syrup. Of all the amazing food onboard, I’m guessing that this will be the indulgence I will miss most. And I suppose that is only natural for someone who named his home WiFi network Bread Pudding.

Meanwhile, the Cloud started sail for Cierva Cove. Even as we approached the cove, we were in awe of the icebergs floating past us. When we finally anchored, the wait for the call for our zodiac group seemed never-ending.

It would be after 16:30 when we started our cruise around the cove. More clouds had moved in, but the icebergs looked as spectacularly blue as always. We meandered through the brash ice, and lingered around the more interesting ones.

Occasionally, we would spot a piece of black ice—old ice that is compressed, extremely dense, and look almost crystalline. Compared to the vast, pristine icebergs we normally see, black ice is smaller, and looks mysterious, shrouded in secrecy. Seeing one feels like we’ve just discovered some rare, enigmatic jewel that was lost to the nethermost corners of the ocean since the earliest beginnings of time.

In the distance, we could spot a whale spouting; and so for a moment, all the zodiacs stood still to wait for it to surface once again. We all got perfectly still, as if dreading that the slightest noise might scare them away. And then it breached again. And then there were two.

About halfway through the cruise, we pulled up to another zodiac with only two staff members and some boxes. Curious at first, we soon realized this was the champagne zodiac. Perhaps it was because today was Thanksgiving, or perhaps they plan this for every zodiac cruise. But here in the middle of an icy cove in Antarctica, amidst porpoising penguins and wandering whales, we were sipping champagne while the zodiac was meandering around a million pieces of ice fragments, random samplings from age-old glaciers. It was an unlikely experience, bizarre and fantastical.

As it was indeed Thanksgiving today, the chef had prepared a Thanksgiving menu, which we delightfully enjoyed. The fixed course menu started with Assiette de Caviar and a macaroni and cheese bake, followed by traditional turkey roast with homemade pumpkin pie for dessert.

Day 15: Antarctica

As the Cloud anchored off Danco Island this morning, light flurries were falling and the seas were calm. Plenty of snow had fallen overnight, and the staff had been busy all morning shoveling snow from the top decks. After breakfast, I spent about an hour on Deck 8 taking photographs and enjoying the vistas. The brash ice was denser here than anywhere else we’d been, and the ice sheets could have been miles high. Nevertheless, the landscape didn’t feel cold, but rather heartening, almost effusive with wonder.

Because the landing site was snowed in, we were delayed somewhat as the expedition team cut out areas for the zodiacs to land. When we got there, we could see the monumental effort they’d put in, and we were truly grateful that they had made this landing possible. It was perhaps my favorite site so far, with pristine, snow-covered hills, several penguin colonies, and brash ice floating in vast expanses of water all around us. Just as we thought we’d already experienced the most stunning landscapes, Antarctica would prove to be even more spectacular and magnificent.

The penguins here are Gentoos. Halfway up the hill is a colony with a few hundred of them. The snow was at least six to ten feet, and we would occasionally sink a foot or two if landing on a soft spot. But let’s not blame that on the bread pudding.

Soon, we would be within stone’s throw of the penguins, who were as playful and funny as always. Some tried to venture to the water’s edge, and the more playful ones would get there by skidding down the hill on their round stomachs. Whether we were more amused than the penguins might remain forever unanswered, but that is clearly a question too frivolous for their epic world.

The original plan for the afternoon was a landing at Neko Harbor. However, the ice was so thick that the Cloud could not venture in. Indeed, as we were turning back, thick dense fog had rolled in. The winds had picked up, and from our veranda we could see snow blowing in a horizontal blur.

We were dazzled by how capricious and hostile the weather here can really be. So although our last excursion was cancelled, we nonetheless felt like we got a truly Antarctic experience. How remarkable must it be for the wildlife here to never stop braving these elements with nonchalance and imperishable glee?

And with that thought, we dosed up on Dramamine, lest the slight roll of the seas make us queasy in our sheltered suite on the Silver Cloud.

Day 16: Deception Island

The Cloud was just entering Whalers Bay as we started breakfast. From the restaurant balcony, we could see the rocky mountains of Deception Island towering right in front of us. The island is actually an active volcano, almost circular in shape, with a very narrow entrance—Neptune’s Bellows—that opens into the bay forming the center of the caldera.

Just before 08:30, we would get ready for our last excursion of this trip. While I love seeing and exploring abandoned buildings, I’d never expected to be able to do this in the Antarctic. So it was fascinating to see the old whaling station here, with abandoned iron tanks, tractors, station houses, and even an airplane hangar.

Because the island is an active volcano, the sand on the beaches would allegedly feel warm to the touch if the geological conditions were right. We tried by digging our hands into the black sand, but alas, didn’t feel anything magical.

On our walk back to the zodiac, I was thinking that this was the only landing where we didn’t see any penguins. But even before I finished the thought, we spotted a lone Gentoo penguin walking along the beach. It was really a curiosity because apart from a few birds, there was no wildlife on this island. The exhibition guides would tell us that most Antarctic wildlife would find this volcanic island too warm.

Just as we were finishing lunch, the ship would exit the island and start making her way back to Punta Arenas. Meanwhile, Jane McPhee-Frew started the afternoon with a lecture on “Whales and Dolphins of the Southern Ocean.” The fact that dolphins are actually toothed whales was one of those pieces of information that we probably knew at some point but never used enough to remember. Jane gave an overview of most (if not all) of the baleen whales and toothed whales, with plenty of underwater videos showing how these creatures live and feed. The ones of Orcas hunting penguins and seals were more than a bit harrowing.

The conditions over the Drake Passage were expected to be quite rough. Even though we were triply medicated, we could feel the wrath of the sea. We were not looking forward to the next two days—but, maybe, perhaps, just somewhat possibly, we might feel shortchanged if we didn’t get the full Drake experience.

Day 17: Drake Passage

The Cloud was braving its way north today, and from the interactive map, we could see we were almost halfway into the Drake. The swells were 30 feet, and the waves would break over our balcony on deck 6. Even heading out of our suite for breakfast seemed like an adventure.

After returning our boot rentals, we watched the morning’s lecture from our suite. In “Gardens of Antarctica: Lichens and Their Ways,” Ken Wright presented the biology and ecology of lichens, both in Antarctica and elsewhere. The photos that he was able to get of colorful lichens from all around the world were as impressive as the fact that he has a favorite lichen.

On the plane ride to Santiago, I had started reading Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. The book gave a detailed account of Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing voyage to Antarctica in 1914. While it did a great job at convincing us about the fortitude and grit the explorers must have had to get through these expeditions, experiencing just a tiny bit of their travails really hit home the precariousness of their survival—how does anyone endure the Drake passage without warm bread pudding for lunch?

Just before dinner would be the Captain’s Farewell and the Crew Parade. Captain Mino Pontillo told us about some of the minor obstacles that the sailing encountered over the past two weeks. Then the entire crew of the Cloud paraded through the auditorium amidst a standing ovation from the guests. Even though we knew that supporting such an expedition cruise required a huge staff, we were still surprised at how many crew members and expedition guides there actually were.

As dinner approached, the Cloud was nearing the north end of the Drake, and the sea felt noticeably calmer, so we ventured to the Restaurant for dinner. The fixed course menu had a seafood theme, and we had tuna tartare, crab cakes, borscht, shrimp and scallops, and cherry jubilee for dessert.

Day 18: Punta Arenas

Today would be our last full day on the Cloud. While we had the best of times on this trip, we were also ready to head home to our less adventurous lives. On the navigation map, we could see that we have reached Tierra del Fuego, and indeed, we could see land when we looked out the balcony.

The morning’s schedule included two lectures. The first was “A History of Patagonia” where Victoria presented the native tribes who inhabited the region. An interesting fact about that history is that the natives would wear padded shoes, so the Europeans who saw their footprints had assumed they were giants; that myth would prevail over many generations. The second lecture was on “Those Amazing Pinnipeds: What Makes Seals and Sea Lions Unique” where Bernardo gave an overview of the group of mammals that live both terrestrial and aquatic lives; these include seals, sea lions, walruses, and even polar bears.

The afternoon’s highlight was a video presentation put together by Ben who recorded footage throughout our entire trip. It was an absolutely spectacular video, capturing the wildlife, landscapes, and scenery that we saw. After the video, our expedition leader Danny called the entire expedition crew on stage for a very warm farewell.

For our last supper at the Restaurant, we got more than our fair share of appetizers, with carrot soup, grilled scallops, roasted beets, and asparagus ravioli. Our main courses were vegetable lasagna and swordfish, followed by chocolate-orange ice-cream and chocolate blueberry mille-feuille. Knowing how to pronounce my dessert was one thing I learned from the Great British Bake Off.

By now, the Cloud was anchored off Punta Arenas, but we would all have to get our PCR tests before we could disembark. Soon after dinner, we were called for our tests; these were the most uncomfortable yet, and we were not the only ones crying bloody murder.

As we had to have our checked luggage ready before the night was over, we packed up our suite as best we could. I don’t know how our bags ended up more packed now than before, but such is the experience of a professional hoarder.

Day 19: Punta Arenas

Throughout the trip, we have learned much about the harrowing hardships endured by the great Antarctic explorers who came before us. It would almost seem like no Antarctic adventure could be complete without some unthinkable catastrophe, some terrifying finale to leave to the annals of history.

The debacle on the last day of our adventure certainly falls short of being historic. But nonetheless, at times we thought that it might; we are 21st-century millenials after all.

By the time noon rolled around, part of me was really worried that we might get quarantined here on the boat for weeks. We vacated our room at 08:00 and were supposed to disembark soon after. And despite having gotten our negative PCR test results, the Chilean bureaucracy would not let the boat dock. We would not find out what really happened until much later, but shortly after 15:00, we breathed a huge sigh of relief to hear Danny start his announcement with, “A very good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to let you know…”

Because we were delayed by seven hours, the charter flight that was supposed to ferry us back to Santiago had left, and Silversea was frantically trying to rebook everyone on commercial flights back. We were two of the lucky ones who got to leave today, but our ten o’clock flight from Santiago to Dallas would leave without us.

We arrived in Santiago before midnight. At times, things appeared chaotic—it wasn’t clear that anyone really knew what was going on, and we had half expected to be stranded at the airport. But lo and behold, as soon as we left baggage claim, about a half dozen Silversea guides were there to take us to the airport hotel.

Even though we were supposed to be on American Airlines flight 940, we were glad that things mostly worked out. Before we went to bed, we would get our news updates about the new omicron COVID variant and the new travel restrictions being stood up all around the world; we could feel the gate closing right before us.

Day 20: Santiago

All flights from Chile to the U.S. leave at night, so we would have almost a whole day here at the Hilton Garden Inn. Because the hotel is near the airport and quite far from the city, we would just stay put until we left again for the airport at around 19:00.

Over breakfast, we got to know some fellow passengers whom we had never met over the past two weeks. About a dozen of us made it here last night. We learned that in a particularly unfortunate turn of events, one of the flights leaving Punta Arenas after us had to make an emergency landing somewhere, and those passengers were still stranded.

United flight 846 would depart right on time. Because it was a night flight, it was easier for us to catch some sleep. And by the time we awoke, we would be in the northern hemisphere once again.

Day 21: Houston

The same hot food counter that served me tomato bisque on Day 0 was serving oatmeal this morning.

Exactly three weeks ago, we were here in the same terminal, full of excitement and anticipation of what our big adventure might entail. Today, we would retrace our steps back to terminal C, complete with a sense of delight that our best hopes were more than realized, and our worst fears never came to pass.

1 reply to The Antarctic Adventure

  1. Found you! I look forward to following this! It will be a while before I start submitting pictures to Getty as I have a few things to do first. Got home a couple of hours ago – hope your journey improved!!

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