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antarctica-2052

Hey Buddy!

When I told friends and family that I was planning to go to Antarctica, the overwhelming response was: “why would you want to do that?”

My response was to wonder how someone could NOT want to go.  The penguins, exquisite ice formations, penguins, raw natural landscapes…and did I mention the penguins?

“But it is so cold!  And dangerous!”  Well, not really.  I mean, these are not the days of Shackelton.  I knew from the start that it was pretty unlikely that I would get trapped on an Antarctic island with no shelter or provisions waiting for the captain to return to rescue us (like the crew of the Endurance).  But, still, it is far from “civilization”; the jumping off point of Ushuaia, Argentina, is about 1200 km (approximately 746 miles) from Antarctica.  And, right as I was preparing to head down to South America to catch my ship, a different cruise ship hit some ice and sank (although all the passengers were rescued without incident).

We were warned from the outset that the passage via the Drake Channel would be rough going, which was, frankly, an understatement.  Many of my fellow travelers were room-bound with severe sea sickness, an ailment that I happily escaped.  I spent the first 24 hours of the trip enjoying the relatively unobstructed views of the marvelous gigantic ice formations floating by with greater and greater frequency as we got farther from the South American mainland.

To protect the environment and limit the stress on the wildlife, the number of people allowed to disembark at a given time (and even per day) is limited.  We passengers, divided into smaller groups, gathered in the holding area, clad in the ship-issued bright and bulky red jackets and life preservers, awaiting our turn to climb out onto the metal platform on the side of the ship and hop down into the 15-person inflatable Zodiac boats waiting to zoom us through the ice-laden waters towards the snow and rock-covered land.

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I believe I can fly! I believe I can touch the sky!

The initial landings on the islands surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula, several of which are home to large colonies of chinstrap, Adele and Gentoo penguins.  While we were strictly prohibited from approaching the penguins, we were permitted to interact with them if the little guys came to check us out.  Lucky for us, the penguins’ curiosity—particularly about the bright red beings that had descended upon them—led to some wonderful interactions.

There were so many things to learn about them.  For example, did you know that penguin guano is pink because of the pink krill that is the staple of the penguin diet?  And it is rather, well, pungent.  Rather.  But somehow one gets so caught up in the cuteness of the anthropomorphic penguins that any unpleasantness is forgotten and time flies by.   I just cannot adequately express the joy I felt while watching penguins waddle down a beach or hop up a rock mountain (a pretty tall one at that – talk about perseverance), or slide along on their tummies.  Each time on shore, the time elapsed before I had a chance to take everything in, and, before I knew it, I had to climb back in the Zodiac and head back to the ship, so that the next group of passengers could have their time with the penguins.

Of course, penguins were not the only wildlife to see.  Sea birds, including various types of albatross, floated and dove gracefully behind the ship, waiting to see what sort of fish would turn up in the ship’s wake.  Sea lions abound on land, living peacefully (and lazily) next to penguin colonies.  And. on several occasions, whales appeared off the side of the ship, although I often missed the full breaching and only saw the water spouts. antarctica-016

The time on the ship was well spent as well, admiring the breathtaking landscapes.  There’s a stunning variety of  blues and greens and even nuances in the bright arctic whites.  Colossal snow-capped mountains, floating icebergs, crackling turquoise and cerulean ice shelves are all a part of the everyday in Antarctica.  For those who wanted to learn more about what they were seeing, there were also lectures by the experts and scientists traveling with us on topics ranging from the history of Antarctic expeditions to the effect of global warning and tourism on the 7th Continent and its wildlife.

After two weeks of “landings” and some fun nights of celebrating a 4 AM sunset–followed by a 6 AM sunrise–with new and old friends, we returned through the much-calmer Drake Passage to Ushuaia none the worse for wear, with dreams of returning someday to once again bond with penguins.

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