Travel Edition 2019: Antarctica

Highlights of a polar adventure
Amanda Miller
January/February 2019

The penguins were staring at me, but it wasn’t a look of alarm. It was more of a quizzical expression that seemed to say, what do you think you’re doing? I asked myself the same thing. I stood in my swimsuit, on a rocky beach, gazing at icebergs and preparing to put the “polar” in polar plunge.

Living the dream

When I was growing up, we didn’t have cable TV, so I immersed myself in nature and science shows on public television. My love of Indiana Jones movies inspired me to read true adventures of polar explorers. Now, I found myself living my own adventure on a 10-day exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula.

After traveling for 24 hours from Denver to Ushuaia, Argentina, I boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a One Ocean Expeditions vessel that conducts scientific research as it carries adventurous travelers from the southern tip of South America to Antarctica. Accompanying us on our expedition were some of the world’s most respected polar conservationists, such as Denise Landau. I could hardly believe I was traveling seas I’d read about so many times—the relatively calm voyage through the sheltered Beagle Channel, followed by the tempestuous open ocean crossing of the Drake Passage. The rough seas on our crossing ranked a 7 out of 10 with veterans of the “Drake Shake.” I remember hearing the clatter of unsecured items in the next cabin falling from shelves and rolling on the floor.

My first view of Antarctica was a mesmerizing vista of blues, whites, and grays, so serene and so dramatic at the same time. Nothing I’d read about or seen on the screen prepared me for the grand sweep of Antarctica’s collision of sea, ice, and land. For the next several days, we would hopscotch the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, embarking on a morning land excursion, returning to the Vavilov for lunch, then heading out in the afternoon for another adventure before dinner aboard ship. Inevitably, I would be up with my new friends until the wee hours, reliving the once-in-a-lifetime experiences we just had, and anticipating the ones coming in just a few hours.

Seeing wildlife is one of the highlights of any visit to Antarctica. Aboard the Vavilov, the crew maintained a long list of birds and mammals we were likely to encounter. When you see one, check it off the list. Albatross-check. Orca-check. Leopard Seal-check. Minke Whale-check. Penguins-check, check, and check, repeatedly.

One step further

The author prepares to spend the night ashore in Leith Cove, Antarctica. Courtesy of Amanda Miller

Going ashore in Antarctica is no haphazard event. If the winds are too strong, the Zodiacs don’t leave the ship and neither do you. Even in perfect weather, international guidelines dictate that no more than 100 people at a time can go ashore from a vessel. That means that on large cruise ships, some passengers who may want to go ashore cannot. The Vavilov carried 88 passengers, so anyone on board who dreamed of setting foot on Antarctica could turn it into a reality. I decided to take that dream a step further.

We met on deck in the evening, but it was as light as midday. This was December, when Antarctica is bathed in 24 hours of daylight. We headed ashore, where I was handed a shovel and told to dig a hole in the snow. I was then handed a sleeping bag, a heat retaining pad, an extra blanket, and sunglasses to block out the light as I slept. As I lay there, calving glaciers made the craziest thunder I’ve ever heard.  I woke the next morning to the call of sea birds and poked my head out of my sleeping bag to a face full of wet snow that had fallen overnight. It was an experience I will never forget.

Taking the plunge

Amanda Miller, and other shipmates, stripped down to their swimsuits and took turns running and jumping into the icy waters of Antarctica. A doctor and crew members were nearby in case of emergency. Courtesy of Amanda Miller

Which brings me back to that rocky beach with the penguins staring at me. Part of the spirit of Antarctica is taking every single second and every single moment and living them to their absolute fullest. Even as I asked myself if I was crazy for thinking of swimming in waters dominated by towering icebergs, I answered myself with another question: When am I ever going to get the opportunity to do this again? I knew that if I didn’t take the plunge now, I would be very angry with myself later. Not only that, about one third of the passengers from the Vavilov were in their swimsuits, and before long people were executing cannonballs and belly-flops like kids at the pool on a 95-degree day.

When I jumped in, it didn’t feel as cold as I expected, but it didn’t take long before I could feel my whole body tensing up. We headed back to the ship for hot chocolate, soup and a soak in the hot tub. That’s when some humpback whales came close to the ship and I realized I’d have a story that would be tough to top when I got home—the one about how I went whale watching from a hot tub in Antarctica, while holding a beer in my hand.

Sharing my experience

As we swapped stories aboard the Vavilov, I glanced at the clock and saw that it was hours after midnight. In that moment I realized how little time passengers spent in their cabins. I was about to go to mine when someone called out that the krill had surfaced. I made my way on deck and watched the humpback whales feeding on the tiny crustaceans in the summer light of Antarctica. I knew my cabin and my bed would have to wait.

Since coming back, I’ve had the opportunity to book AAA members for the same journey I took. It’s exciting for me to think about the adventures they have ahead of them. I advise building a little extra time on the front end, before boarding the ship in Ushuaia, to recover from jet lag, catch up on some sleep, and generally gather yourself before embarking on a 10-day expedition where you’ll probably find, as I did, that the days are just not long enough.

Amanda Miller is a Travel Agent in the AAA Boulder retail store. She holds several Destination Specialist designations and is an expert on Iceland and Antarctica. She is passionate about adventure, sustainable, and eco-tourism travel. Contact Amanda at 1933 28th St., Boulder; 720-593-5237; or amiller@colorado.aaa.com.