The view from here
It may be that this awesome land has something in its air,
“Meghan, what is that?”
I wake up to a flashing light darting all over the room.
The sensation of rising and falling hits as a giant wave reverberates through the ship and tosses it from one side to the other.
I start reaching around trying to shut off this hell light that is interrupting my slumber.
Is it my phone? No.
I hear my cabin mate adjusting positions above my head, she’s probably murdering me in her mind and also likely wondering if one of these waves is eventually going to throw her out of the bunk and onto the floor.
Ah it’s coming from underneath the bed.. Finally!
With one eye open and poking my head down, I reach inside the cubby hole and see that it is the emergency light attached to the life jacket stored there. I shake it around. Mercifully it shuts off.
Somehow the force of the waves managed to both pop out the cover of the storage area beneath my bed and trigger the 3am light show.
I remind myself despite the rocking and rolling that we and the other 90 passengers are in the very capable hands of experienced Russian crew members aboard the ice-strengthened vessel, Akademik Vavilov.
VERY CAPABLE, I whisper to myself with urgency as the next wave rumbles through.
I lie there in amazement at the extreme might of nature, my small occupation of this giant world and contemplate the experience thus far.
It was night 9 of my 12-day adventure to Antarctica and we were struggling through a Force 11 storm (one shy of force 12 on the Beaufort scale which happens to be a hurricane). The winds were up to 60 knots, swell at 6-7 meters, with the occasional 10 meter wave, surely like the ones I had just felt.
Never in my life had I been so vulnerable to external conditions outside my control than on every single day of this voyage. As our expedition leader continually reminded us, plans were “written in pencil.”
From Day 1 after a 2am wake up call and boarding a plane at 6am from Punta Arenas to King George Island, we knew we were operating on a new sort of schedule.
This reality truly sank in as we trudged the 2km from the plane to the zodiaks in blistering wind and cold. As we ungracefully clambered in the open raft and prepared for the icy, splashy ride to the ship, I could read minds. “Sleep, please.” “I’m not prepared for this.”
But, once safely on board, the briefings started.
Muster drills, gear collection, food. More food. Questions. Wildlife info session. More questions. Food.
Sleep was not part of this equation. Early the next morning, we groggily went through the motions of putting on our gear - a routine we would quickly grow to both love and hate. 11 or so layers of clothing, rubber boots, mitts, hat, scarves. Don’t forget your lifejacket. Let me tighten that for you.
And then finally, we were off the ship, basking in the wonderland scene around us, snapping photos like it was going out of style. I uttered the words “wow” and “oh my god” so many times, I think they lost meaning. The glistening of the untouched snow against the mountains and early morning sun. The seals napping on emerald-coloured ice bergs. Penguins gracefully jumping through the ice-filled water. Add a dose of exhaustion to those circumstances and it really felt like I was in some sort of parallel dream universe.
When conditions were right, we were off the ship and out exploring because things could take a turn in an instant.
Not only did wind, weather and swell impact what we could do on any given day, ice conditions also played a role.
If we stayed too long at a landing spot, the ice could build up and trap us in a bay. The size of the swell could make it extremely dangerous to get on and off the ship, while weather conditions could make it impossible to even try.
It was simultaneously beautiful and frightening to pass by floating ice ranging from small crystals to enormous ice shelves to icebergs of every shape and size in between. I thought about the Titanic regularly. CAPABLE HANDS, I reminded myself.
We all had no idea what was going to happen and that to me was truly thrilling. Because amongst that uncertainty were whales. And penguins. And seals.
Through the chaotic conditions, there was the most untouched and devastatingly beautiful scenery you could imagine. Wildlife that tugged at your heart and an awe-filled wonder that reached for your soul.
As an abstract concept, a continent that is owned by no one and is completely protected for environmental purposes doesn’t mean much. It sounds a bit flowery and farfetched. But when you touch down on a place that only roughly 0.00004% of the human population ever steps foot on, you get a real sense of what that means. Remote? Yes. Surreal? You know it. Beyond comprehension? Absofreakinglutely.
We had to scrub up and down to both arrive and depart the landings on the continent - great care is taken to ensure no rogue seeds or animal particles are trampled somewhere they shouldn’t be.
I felt the utmost respect for nature during this trip, being so far away from civilisation in an absolutely pristine environment at the total mercy of an unforgiving climate.
The expedition leader would tap on the microphone in the dining room and we sat with bated breath and hung on every word about what was coming next. For the first few days, the news was always good and the atmosphere was almost euphoric.
There was wildlife in the area, the sun was shining and the sea was behaving. We’d return to the ship breathless and high on life, greeted by big smiles and hot drinks.
However, those taps on the microphone eventually became a bit ominous. The weather was turning.
As we cross the Drake Strait in these abhorrent conditions and I lay in this bottom bunk, I think about the cost of this trip and what it took to get here. I think about the previous three days of being stuck on the ship, knowing we likely won’t get off tomorrow either. The hasty decisions I made and oodles of money I spent to be laying here, right here, right now, testing the limits of my physical ability to handle seasickness and cabin fever.
With the possibility of seeing the Falkland Islands and the beloved king penguins still ahead but with zero guarantees of stopping or seeing anything, I ponder whether it was worth it.
I’d asked myself this question for many years now as I contemplated making this journey and ticking off the final continent from my bucket list. Once you finally get where you’ve been dreaming to go, will you enjoy it? Will you regret the investment?
Now, here I am. Horrendous seas, sleep deprivation, bad weather days, smell of penguin pooh, money gone. Nothing but grey skies in the forecast.
I reflect on those activity packed few days where we took every advantage of the good weather and did every possible activity knowing that we could be confined to the ship at any moment.
I think of the morning that we interacted with several hundreds of penguins and watched and listened as ice calved off and thundered down toward the water against the backdrop of snowy, beautiful mountains. The afternoon we learned what krill feeding bubbles were and saw the inside of whales giant mouths as they scooped them up, mere feet away. The day we hiked around a black sand beach to observe various seal species in their natural habitat. The night we camped out under the stars with nothing but a sleeping bag and a bivy sac. The day we took a polar plunge inside the caldera of a beautiful volcano…
Those times were everything I could have hoped and nothing I could expect.
And as the “Drake Shake” continues through the night and my cabin mate sleeps soundly above, I can only think of how incredibly grateful I am to be here experiencing some of the best and worst circumstances nature has to offer with people who make the most of every situation.
Antarctica delivered the most unique and untamed adventure and with that glorious feeling of life coursing through your veins, you can only expect a little sweet, a little sour and memories you won’t ever forget.
I can’t tell you how happy I am that I can finally say yes. YES. It was worth every bit of sacrifice.
To me, it really was the Ultimate Antarctic experience - one of total unpredictability. And that in itself made it great. My one mistake was thinking I’d be satisfied. Because now I need to go again.
Meg is one of the co-creators of Travelher and lives and breathes travel. She recently left her full time office role to put more energy into her own projects and recently got back from three months of traveling. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org