Antarctica on the G Adventures Expedition:
Back in 2018, my dearest parents put forth a down payment for an Antarctic cruise to depart in spring 2020. Of course, given the course of history, that did not happen. This is why I’m writing this now, seated in a café in sunny Buenos Aires, a day before we depart for the port city of Ushuaia, and board a boat to head towards what the weather report says is -35-degree weather. I haven’t had too much time to dwell on this trip, my headspace mostly taken up by work and other endeavours, so my lovely parents have taken up the brunt of the planning. But now that we’re in Buenos Aires, flights all figured out, soaking in the heat, I’ve had some time to think about the upcoming adventure. I’m excited and grateful that my parents have taken it upon themselves to sign us up for this trip of a lifetime, and although I’m a little apprehensive about what is certainly going to be a long and at times boring trip, I’m mostly excited.
It’s now ten in the evening of the first day at sea. I’ve decided that Day 0 was boarding. Everything up to boarding went smoothly: we caught all our flights, spent time touring the city Ushuaia and its national parks, eating lamb, steak, and king crab. We boarded the G Adventures Expedition, a 140-person ship crewed by some 70 staff, lubricated our hands with tequila-smelling COVID-era hand sanitizer, and were shown to our staterooms, which were a bit more spacious than I’d expected. Perhaps I had underestimated its luxury. Dinner soon proved otherwise: I had a flounder fillet that tasted mostly of the eggs it was battered in; neither the avocado salad appetizer nor the pudding dessert was much. I took an anti-nausea tablet as advised, but it was of the drowsy variety, and I fell asleep before ten. Quite comfortable.
I woke up to the sea rocking us in the cradle of the ship, half an hour prior to the end of breakfast service. I ran up the stairs, ate a hearty English breakfast, which was much better than the dinner the previous night, and promptly threw it back up. Clearly, the anti-nausea medication was a well-informed decision. Throughout the course of the day, I had two good meals (chicken Tikki Masala and lamb chops), a lot of ginger tea, a few lectures on the wildlife I could expect to see, and several drug-induced naps. According to the captain, our trip through the Drake passage was the calmest of the year, at a 1–2 out of a scale of 10.
I would not want to know what anything above five felt like. As someone who has only occasionally felt carsick when reading too much in start-stop traffic, the closest analogue I could compare it to would be a hangover while on the set of Inception. Too much bright light or head movement made me want to puke. Certainly, the mandatory tequila-scented hand sanitizer prior to meals wasn’t helpful. Watching the dining staff carry towers of shrimp cocktail piled atop trays was impressive but didn’t help my pounding head. I’ll get my sea legs under me yet.
Given the adventure that it had taken to get me here, I’ll be very disappointed if the animals don’t show up in full force.
Show up in full force they did! The Drake crossing was the calmest and fastest of the season according to the captain (and we’re nearing the end of the season now), so we were able to make an “operation” a day earlier than normal. We were given briefings on how to stay safe and protect the wildlife; given that we called it an operation, it was clear how seriously the crew took the whole thing. Clothes were vacuumed prior to landing, and boots were scrubbed and disinfected twice. Perhaps because we weren’t in the thick of things yet, I felt quite warm in my three layers of tops and bottoms.
After an uneventful ride in Zodiacs to Half Moon Island, we were greeted by hundreds upon hundreds of chinstrap penguins and a few fur seals. We stayed on the island for an hour, and I observed two things during that stay. Firstly, penguins stink. The guano that covered the island was an assault on the nostrils. Secondly, penguins and seals must be the most profoundly stupid animals on the planet. They clearly had to put all their evolutionary skill points into surviving the elements as opposed to any sort of intelligence or grace. For animals that spend a great portion of time on land, and breath air, penguins and seals seem very maladapted to moving around on the ground; watching penguins hop from one boulder to another and seals drag their girth around the rocky beaches made me wonder how much havoc a wolf could wreak.
I was on the first group off the boat, so upon return I spent some time in the gym before dinner. Doing core mobility work on a moving ship was interesting, but what was surprisingly more challenging was running on a treadmill: I pushed the speed setting all the way to 18, but owing to the rocking of the boat it hovered around a 16, and would often dip below 14. It might have seemed like much, but it nearly caused me to fall off the treadmill or slam into the front. Still a welcome set of stretches, some light strength work, and some poverty dips on the treadmill.
A quick dinner and a few notes, and then I was off to bed.
I sit now in my stateroom, on a bright and windy afternoon, chatting with roommates waiting for our group to be called for Zodiac boarding to Neko Harbour. This morning we landed on Cuverville Island, which was snow-covered, unlike Half-Moon during the summer. Today there were thousands upon thousands of gentoo penguins hopping along the cliffs, focusing their energies on molting. We saw an adult encourage chicks to get into the water, and one penguin collecting rocks for another. On the Zodiac ride back, we saw a leopard seal lounging on an ice floe. Wicked stuff.
At the moment of writing, I’ve just come back from our second landing, and find myself in the ship bar. It’s one of my favourite places to write, because it’s usually empty save the few smokers outside, and because the bar tables are raised to a more ergonomic level than any other table in the ship. We saw yet more penguins this afternoon, and I noted that the snow was often either a greenish or reddish hue, owing to the algae that could live on snow, according to our ship biologist. On the Zodiacs back to the ship during this operation, we also saw humpback whales up close, perhaps ten meters from us at the furthest point. Also wicked.
I’ll sign off today with a particularly humourous passage from South!, Shackleton’s account of his doomed 1914 expedition to Antarctica which I’ve been reading:
“This was the first landing ever made on Elephant Island, and a thought came to me that the honour should belong to the youngest member of the Expedition, so I told Blackborrow to jump over. He seemed to be in a state of almost coma, and in order to avoid delay I helped him, perhaps a little roughly, over the side of the boat. He promptly sat down in the surf and did not move. Then I suddenly realized what I had forgotten, that both his feet were frostbitten badly. Some of us jumped over and pulled him into a dry place. It was a rather rough experience for Blackborrow, but anyhow, he is now able to say that he was the first man to sit on Elephant Island. Possibly at the time he would have been willing to forgo any distinction of the kind.”
I currently sit on deck with a t-shirt and a vest after lunch, waiting for another operation. Though it is uncomfortably cold, today it is not enough to deter me from braving the elements to enjoy the view of the Lemaire Passage while writing, nor to return to my stateroom in search for warmer clothing. This morning, we landed on Port Charcot, the wintering island for many a French expedition during the Age of Exploration. There wasn’t any new wildlife to enumerate, but we did see a field of grounded icebergs which was impressive.
I’ve begun to think that I’ve seen everything that there is to see on this voyage to Antarctica: whales, seals, penguins, icebergs, and glaciers. I can’t imagine how the crew will manage to surprise me next. The end of the day will also mark the halfway point of our expedition: we will have two more days of operations, and then we cross the Drake passage once more. Hopefully I’ll have my sea legs in by that time.
I sit once again in the bar with my sister, awaiting our first landing. The lack of sun accompanied by the wind and waves was sorely felt by all this morning, and we had to leave our first point of anchorage to attempt another landing site. During a briefing yesterday, they mentioned that tomorrow, Day 6, might be a sailing day as well owing to the weather. That would be unfortunate, a whole three sailing days to get back to Ushuaia.
My sister and I have been playing a lot of darts given the lack of entertainment options available to us. We haven’t gotten good, but can at least aim for certain numbers now and play Killer. We’ve become a bit of a mainstay in the bar, and today one of the European smokers walked by us and said “Ah, it’s the darts addicts again.” I could only chuckle at the irony.
A few noteworthy moments from the remainder of Day 5 and the entirety of Day 6. We were permitted to do a polar plunge on Day 5, which was heavily participated in. It was a fun little dip: colder than when I waded into Lake Louise during the summer or when I took photos in the lake at Panorama Peak base camp a few winters ago, but also easier since it was only an instant of commitment, not a constant decision to push onwards.
We only landed once yesterday, at President’s Head on Snow Island, which had no snow on it contrary to its name. We saw perhaps forty elephant seals up close, nestled in the muck and molting, as well as some mosses and grasses, an absolute rarity. It was sunny when we landed, and it continued being sunny, but crossing back over the Drake Passage was not a pleasant experience. I turned in shortly after lunch, could not finish my dinner, and then continued sleeping until now, where I find myself in the bar again in the late afternoon.
I’ve probably managed eleven hours of sleep a day over the entirety of the cruise. It’s an interesting phenomenon for someone like me: I need all the sleep I can get, and behave almost like a narcoleptic, sleeping very easily when my head hits a pillow or a headrest. In this age of attention sinks, and now that I have data, it’s virtually impossible for me to remain alone with my thoughts for long. Aside from showers and walks that don’t necessitate me bringing my headphones, I’m always mentally engaged. Even showers and walks are short enough for me to lock into one thought and address it.
But right now I’m better rested than I’ve ever been. I’ve been in bed for twenty-four of the last thirty hours, lying awake seasick for much of that time. All my thoughts are settled, nothing is keeping me awake except for a surplus of sleep. Though the nausea was uncomfortable, it had been an extraordinary experience swimming in the sea of my consciousness without any worries. I’ve worked out my work problems as much as I could while on a boat somewhere in Antarctica. I’ve combed through my social anxieties and money worries. I’ve overcome a few other persistent mental blocks. And now my mind is free. Nothing weighs on my consciousness. I can focus on the here, the now, and my writing.
I sit writing this on the first of four flights across six airports in twenty four hours; if all the connections go smoothly, including a three-hour connection with an airport change. This itinerary would take me straight from the end of the world in Ushuaia to Montreal, from a cold summer to a colder winter, and right back into corporate life. It feels a bit schmucky writing this, but I feel the same way I always do coming back from longer trips: a desire to return to normalcy, to see people, and to catch up on work.
Nothing noteworthy happened in the final days of the trip: we finished our rough Drake crossing, played some more darts, ran another five kilometers, and finished Shackleton’s book. The expedition leader, or the head tour guide, iterated many times throughout the journey that we would not be the same person at the start of the trip as at the end. If Heraclitus were to be asked, he would wholeheartedly concur, but I’m not sure if I agree with his meaning. Though this trip exceeded expectations, and being able to see Antarctic wildlife in their natural habitats was amazing, I would not say that changed my worldview much.
Aside from the curiously refreshing bout of clarity in the rough seas, one thought did occur to me. On some of the less snow-capped islands and beaches it was really possible to imagine it as Toronto in the winter, City Island and the Beaches, but without any sort of human influence. They were completely bare and absolutely pristine. No roads and poles or even garbage and well-trodden paths. It is the only land that I’ve been to in the world that has felt that way, the earth as it was without us. Even in less remote forests and mountains, there are sounds of cars and evidence of trails. I’ve always preferred the city to nature, but seeing these places without any human touch was a vision to behold, and enough of a treat.
So yes, it was the adventure of a lifetime aboard the Expedition. I saw things that I will not see again, and had moments of clarity that would otherwise be unattainable. I did some reading, some writing, some running, and got a little better at darts perhaps. I hope I can carry everything with me for the rest of my time in this world.