When I was starting out as an adult, I never dreamed I would travel as much as I have. I drove across the country several times and that was pretty much the scope of my travels. I was pretty broke, but gas was cheap back then and I drove anywhere I wanted to go. Typically it was to move from one town to another.
As a young father, I used to think that someday I’d like to take my kids to more than just Disneyland. I dreamt of going places Americans didn’t typically go with their family. China sounded pretty cool. But that was way out there in dreamland, and I had no specific plans on how to get there.
Since then, I’ve traveled to all seven continents – with 2 of my 3 sons. (I didn’t disown the 3rd, he just wasn’t big on travel and had his own military dreams to persue.)
By far the “coolest” place I’ve gone, in both the figurative and literal sense, was Antarctica.
It’s unique in many way, especially because it has no tourist lodging, restaurants, or gift shops. The only permanent buildings on the entire massive continent are research stations that look much like old west shacks (although, I cannot say what they ALL look like, I’m sure some are more sophisticated. We, the tourists, stayed aboard the Explorer II, a small cruise ship specifically designed for rough seas. There were only 200 paying passengers, 20 naturalists, and a sizeable ship’s staff.
I asked my mother-in-law who was along with us to compare this trip to the one we sent her on to Alaska. She tactfully said, “In Alaska you go on excursions to see wildlife. Here, if you are lucky, they might move enough for your Zodiac to pull up on shore.”
Not to worry, the Zodiac drivers are very adept at NOT hitting the wildlife but it can be challenging. Penguins are everywhere and not at all afraid of people. They come right up to you, especially the young ones, to inspect you by pecking at your legs.
The color of the icebergs was an incredible blue, almost iridescent. The guides told us the iceberg’s are fresh water and are created by centuries of snow build up on the land or on top ice flows. The blue color comes from the high pressure of tons of snow and ice on top. Often times the Zodiac pilots will haul in big chunks of ice and bring it back to the ship to be chopped up and served with cocktails.
The circuit the cruise ship followed was the same route as Ernest Shackleton, a polar explorer 100 years ago. His ship, Endurance, got stuck in pack ice and was crushed. His crew took refuge on a nearby island. Shackleton and one other man went in a row boat to get help. They crossed 720 nautical miles of Antarctic ocean to to South Georgia Island which was inhabited. All of his men were rescued and he holds the distinction of being the ONLY explorer to never lose a man. He is buried on South Georgia Island and visitors raise a glass in his honor at his grave.
The wildlife on South Georgia Island is overwhelming. It is a breeding ground for many species, including the King Penguins. From the landing zone on the beach, you can see roughly 500,000 penguins across the inlet cove. You can walk amongst them, and if you stand still, they’ll come up and peck at you. There are also elephant seals which are the size of a large sofa, and the males will raise up on their hind quarters and slam each other, belch, fart, and lay about. Sounds like my average weekend.
The highlight of the trip was sailing between South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands. Wind had kicked up as we set sail, and things began to rock and roll. Within a few hours, the waves were between 20 and 30 feet high (from peak to trough). I was on the seventh deck, so quite a ways out of the water. I stood out on our cabin’s deck with my video camera, but, the two dimensional image doesn’t do it justice. The front end of the ship would periodically rise up out of the water then slam back down with the ocean waves crashing across the deck and bridge.
There are several cruises to Antarctica, and they take pretty much the same route. You always want to be on a SMALL SHIP. The only way for tourists to explore the continent is via Zodiacs and the more people on the ship, the fewer times you can get to land. I’ve heard of lotteries being held on large ships to see who would get to actually set foot on the continent. These trips can be pretty spendy and if I paid big bucks and had to stay on the ship, I’d be pissed.
An alternative way to get there is like a friend of mine, Angela did. After she graduated college she went to a job fair and filled out dozens of resumes for big named employers. The only call back she got was from Raytheon asking if she’d like to work at their research station in Antarctica doing support and logistics. She did, and she tells me it was the most fun six months of her career.
If you don’t think you’ll ever take the time or lay out that crazy kind of cash for such a trip, Ernest Shackleton’s journey is documented in a book, Endurance, and is a great read whether you ever get to go there or not.
Video South Georgia Island. Elephant seals are about 8:00 minutes in. Hilarious!