¡Vamos a Antártida!

The opportunity to travel to Antarctica through my study abroad program was honestly one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. In my field log of the trip, I wrote that every successive day was the “most exciting, amazing, breathtaking, spectacular, unique, and fun day of my life.” The trip was one of the main reasons I chose to go on this abroad program, although the program as a whole was absolutely amazing — Antarctica was just the cherry on top!

Our trip kicked off on Wednesday, November 14th, when we embarked aboard the M/V Ushuaia, a research vessel from the 1980’s that’s been recommissioned as a tourist boat. Our program group of 15 students, the first student group ever to take a trip to Antarctica, hopped aboard with 90 other passengers and 30 crew members for the most exciting 10 days of our lives. The basic structure of the trip consisted of 2 days crossing the infamous Drake Passage, 6 days cruising around the South Shetland islands and Antarctic Peninsula, then 2 days for the return trip.

M/V Ushuaia’s route from el puerto de Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula & back

After a celebratory toast with all the pasajeros y tripulación, the boat took off around 4pm, heading south through the Beagle Channel out to the South Pacific Ocean. Everyone performed an emergency drill with lifejackets and a tour of lifeboats and emergency evacuation procedures. Excitement levels and nerves were running high among my friends, especially since we had heard so many ~colorful~ descriptions of the journey across the Drake Passage before embarking. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current surrounding the Antarctic continent is extremely strong. When it flows between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic peninsula (the narrowest gap between land masses around the continent), the water moves extremely quickly and violently, causing some of the roughest waters in the world. Before the trip, a few of my classmates watched videos of 40 foot swells roiling over the side of boats crossing the Drake. The M/V Ushuaia’s crew told us that around midnight we’d enter the Drake Passage and begin to feel the constant rocks and rolls accompanying the shaky Drake. In preparation, we received pastillas (pills) at dinner that were 3x as strong as normal nausea medication, so we wouldn’t be bedridden for 2 straight days during the passage. Even with the pastillas, I could barely sleep that first night as I kept being rolled from one side of the bed to the other! The ship’s stability rating of 2 out of 10 really did not help matters, but at least the propensity of the boat to rock with the waves kept us from capsizing!

Luckily, crossing the Drake Passage on the way out to the peninsula was so much better than all the stories I had been hearing. Only a few people in my group felt really seasick, but I felt fine taking the pastillas. The weather was beautiful, and I loved going outside to watch the waves spanning in every direction out to the horizon. Although the boat rocked from a 45° tilt on one side to another, I got used to constantly rolling back and forth. However, walking through the ship was extremely difficult! I constantly had to hang onto railings or chairs or I’d crash into the walls. So, after many games of Uno, nausea medication-induced naps, various educational talks (in Spanish!) about icebergs/seals/penguins/etc., and a surprisingly disappointing lack of 40 foot waves crashing over the side of the ship, we arrived at the South Shetland islands off the coast of the Antarctic peninsula. Then began 6 days of amazing adventures and excursions from our ship to the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The basic structure of our days began with a wake-up call from the captain, an early breakfast, then gearing up to hop on the zodiac boats to reach our destinations. Sometimes we would tool around in the zodiacs through fields of massive icebergs or underneath giant arches of ice, and other times we would ride to a landing site and walk around on various Antarctic islands or the continent itself. After the morning excursion, we would zodiac back to the ship, sanitize our rubber boots so as not to transport invasive species to Antarctica, then have a nice lunch. Then we would layer-up for our afternoon excursion (weather permitting), disembark once more, tool around another breathtaking site, then head back to the ship for dinner. The days were extremely full, but so gratifying and exciting that they were worth the exhaustion!

The actual destinations we planned to visit each day changed very frequently, as the crazy cold weather and 60-70mph winds tended to render some sites inaccessible. The expedition leaders would debrief us about all the possible location options for the day, sometimes listing 8 different plans in case something went wrong. One day, both our planned continental landings were cancelled due to nasty winds, but we still were able to ride zodiacs around gorgeous icebergs in the morning and enjoy our navigation through the Gerlache Straight from the ship’s deck in the afternoon. The sites we traveled to each day are listed in this excerpt from our official expedition logbook below.

  • November 14: Ushuaia, Argentina – Patagonia Sea – Beagle Channel
  • November 15: Drake Passage
  • November 16: Drake Passage – Barrientos Island, Aitcho Archipelago
  • November 17: Spert Island, Trinity Island (Palmer Archipelago) – Mikkelson, North Gerlache Strait
  • November 18: Fournier Bay, Amberes Island – Navigation Neumayer Channel
  • November 19: Neko Harbour, Andvord Bay – Portal Point, Reclus Peninsula (Danco Coast)
  • November 20: Whalers Bay: Deception Island, South Shetland Islands – Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands
  • November 21: Drake Passage
  • November 22: Drake Passage – Beagle Channel
  • November 23: Ushuaia

 

Here is a map of all the places we visited throughout our Antarctic expedition! In total, we sailed 1,811 nautical miles!

Site locations we visited on our Antarctic expedition

At every site we visited, I swear the views and experiences became more and more incredible. Some highlights included watching a leopard seal hunt Gentoo penguins in the water from 1 meter away in Neko Harbour, making two continental landings on the Antarctic Peninsula in one day, hiking up Antarctic glaciers and culopatinando (buttsledding!) down 9 times, seeing 7 orcas circle our ship (including a calf!), drinking champagne while watching the Antarctic sunset (at 10:30 pm!), and doing an Antarctic POLAR PLUNGE in Deception Bay, an active caldera volcano!  A group of us even woke up at 3am to watch the Antarctic sunrise, but sadly it was so foggy we didn’t see anything! Even better than admiring giant glaciers vaulting out of the bay or watching immense icebergs suddenly crash into the bay in front of our eyes, I think my favorite part of each excursion was all the insane wildlife we saw at each site. I will never ever get tired of watching Gentoo penguins waddle by in a squad, slip and fall on their faces, then get right back up and keep on moving. Truly inspiring. Equally cute were the packs of Weddell seals sunbathing on the icebergs with giant stomachs exposed to the sky. Chinstrap penguins would wander right up to the seals, knowing that they didn’t move fast enough to be dangerous unless they were in the water! Almost every day, we could see humpback whales and Antarctic minke whales from the deck of our ship if we had a good enough eye. We kept detailed field notebooks of our trip, and I had such a fun time drawing all the cool wildlife we were lucky enough to see.

Onboard the ship, we had an Antarctica homework assignment: collectively as a group, we had to interview everyone on the ship and ask them questions concerning Antarctica and climate change. That led to some INTERESTING conversations, let me tell you. I interviewed a man from Slovakia, a woman from Poland, a woman from Texas, a woman from Australia, a woman from Spain, and an elderly couple from Australia. That last interview was truly trying because I was fortunate enough to be talking to a climate denier! Even though he derailed my survey, I “thoughtfully” listened to all his trash about how Greta Thunberg is a conspiracy theorist and that the Great Barrier Reef isn’t actually in danger because every image of bleached corals is photoshopped. I then explained to him how coral bleaching and the Greenhouse Gas Effect work (using knowledge from my Earth Systems Chemistry classes sophomore year at Colby!). It was an eye-opening (and slightly terrifying) conversation, as for one of the first times, I was exposed first-hand to climate denial rhetoric. Many of the rich, upper-class, elderly, white tourists aboard the Ushuaia with us also chose to indulge these unfortunate beliefs, and many interviews with my classmates sparked passionate debates.
 
 
 
Although some of the passengers were good eggs, I preferred talking to the crew members. All hailing from Argentina, the crew members really enjoyed talking to our student group, because we were some of the only people who would talk to them in Spanish and actually demonstrate interest during educational charlas. Because we developed such a good relationship with the crew, our program got to do an exclusive 2 hour tour of the Ushuaia’s machine room, meet the boat engineers, and learn about the inner-workings of the ship. However, we had to keep the tour very hush hush, so the other passengers wouldn’t get jealous.
 
All in all, this trip was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. I’m so grateful to have had this incredible opportunity to explore various regions of the Antarctic peninsula, especially at such a young age. This experience makes me want to consider the possibility of returning someday to conduct scientific research at an Antarctic research station. I feel so lucky to be able to look back on these incredible memories and photos for the rest of my life!
 
Gentoo penguins in foreground, the M/V Ushuaia herself in the background
Zodiac tour through icebergs and under arches
At Argentinian Scientific Antarctic Base Camara
Ancient whale bones at Deception Island, Whalers Bay
Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula
In love with this beautiful place!
Caillie and I cheesin’ at our last Antarctic excursion!
Zodiac cruise through an iceberg field
Glacier at Portal Point
Just trying to stay warm…
Champagne and an Antarctic sunset? Yeah, I’ve peaked
Wall of Caldera Volcano, Deception Island, Whalers Bay, South Shetland Islands
Chinstrap penguins at Half Moon Island
Immense icebergs viewed from the ship
Gentoo penguins waddling by at the top of a glacier in Neko Harbour, Antarctic Peninsula