I remember the feeling of embarking on my first expedition to Antarctica very clearly. Cruising the Beagle Channel during the first day in early March 2006 brought back that incredible sense of freedom that I had only ever experienced sailing. It also awakened many memories of my family, as I was navigating the same waters that I had sailed on 17 years earlier with my father, on a ship built by my grandfather. As I watched Ushuaia become smaller and smaller, feeling the wind on my face, I was certain I was where I had to be.
Since then I have done everything possible to find ways to return. Although I have been fortunate enough to explore all over the world, Antarctica has always captivated me the most, and I want to share some of the reasons for my strong connection with the White Continent.
1. Constant Changes
Antarctica is a place unlike any other. No matter how many times I return to a particular location, it’s always different. The season you visit shapes the landscape and dramatically affects the wildlife you encounter. In November, everything is white, with lots of sea ice, and as you step out on land no human has visited for the past eight months, it is as if you were the first explorer to ever reach the region.
“As you step out onto land no human has visited for the past eight months, it is as if you were the first explorer to ever reach the region.”
As the summer progresses, the sea ice and snow start to melt, and wildlife becomes more abundant.
2. Becoming a Penguin ‘Aunt’
Having spent 11 austral summers on the White Continent, I have experienced the whole breeding cycle of penguins. Being there when they first start returning to land and being a spectator to their courtship, mating and incubating rituals mean I feel almost like an aunt to the penguin chicks as they start hatching.
“becoming a spectator to their courtship, mating and incubating rituals means I feel almost like an aunt to the penguin chicks as they start hatching.”
It’s incredible to see these fluffy creatures growing up, whether they are picking at your boots or chasing their parents around the colony, screeching for food with their high-pitched calls, or finally, at the end of summer, launching themselves in the sea for their first clumsy swim.
One of my favourite memories is of a postcard-perfect sunset while approaching the Lemaire channel, with the moon coming out and unexpectedly a pod of orca showed up! People imagine Antarctica to be all white with maybe a bit of blue, but during these sunsets and in fact most of the time, there is so much colour.
“You may think Antarctica is all white and maybe blue, but during these sunsets and in fact most of the time, there is so much colour.”
4. Wondrous Whales
I’ve had so many whale encounters when they just won’t let you return to the ship. They can be so curious and friendly, and swim really close to the boats. I’ve often been asked if passing whales would flip the boat over, but they have such extraordinary control of their massive bodies that, if they do not feel threatened, they can deliberately and safely pass millimeters away from your boat. I remember once exchanging a ‘high five’ with a whale, the fingers of my outstretched hand brushing against its pectoral fin.
“I remember once exchanging a ‘high five’ with a whale, the fingers of my outstretched hand brushing against its pectoral fin.”
The very best feeling is looking into a whale’s eye, making eye contact – you feel a connection, as if there is a message contained in that look. Every single time I have encountered whales I have been left with such a peaceful feeling, as if my chest had expanded and was full of joy and optimism.
5. Everlasting Relationships
Antarctica is hard to get to and so in most cases the people you meet on such trips all share an adventurous spirit. Relationships in Antarctica grow strong in a short time, especially when you’re working together. Colleagues are like family for the time you are on board, and many of them become friends for life. I met my husband, an expedition leader, on a voyage to Antarctica; he later proposed to me on the frozen sea.
“I met my husband, an expedition leader, on a voyage to Antarctica; he later proposed to me on the frozen sea.”
Every year, before and after the Antarctic summer, many of our polar friends visit us at home in Patagonia and we feel very fortunate to be part of the polar guiding community. I am also still in touch with lots of guests with whom I shared just one voyage, but for whom that one voyage was the trip of a lifetime.
Antarctica is a utopia. It is the only continent on earth that, at the moment, thanks to the Antarctic treaty (and its remote location), does not belong to any country and yet at the same time belongs to all humankind. It has no currency, no land resources exploitation, nor any military activities, and science is its strongest political force.
I always imagined paradise as a warm place, but Antarctica changed that. Paradise is cold and full of penguins, whales and icebergs. It is a place where you wake up every day thinking it can’t get any better and yet it does, even after 11 full summers.