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Anusha Sekhar, Suhas Pillai

As you may recall from our article on where to go (here), Antarctica wasn't on our list of places to visit when we began planning our trip. It made the list because the southernmost tip of South America is the closest place to Antarctica, about 1,060 kms (660 miles) away. For context, the next closest place on earth to Antarctica is Cape Grim in Australia, located 2,400 kms (1,500 miles) away. If we ever decided to do this trip, it would be most logical to do it from South America.

The main sticking point was the cost. Cruise fares are typically expensive given regulations and the remoteness of the continent. Luckily, we were planning this trip at a time when Antarctica travel was just beginning to resume post pandemic, and got ourselves a pretty solid deal. It still didn’t feel cheap, but we were paying 30-40% less than an average Antarctica cruise fare during a pre-pandemic season. 

Suhas and I had never been on a cruise before. We would have at best spent 6 hours at sea (in total) before this cruise. But now, this cruise ship was going to be our home for eight whole nights, taking us to the remotest part of the world, without internet or phone connectivity, on the choppiest possible waters. In nervous anticipation of what was to come, we barely slept the night before.

Our journey to the southernmost continent of the world

I'm going to come right out and say it: our journey to Antarctica was not fun. Not our time on the continent itself, which was surreal and utterly amazing, but the ocean voyage to and from it. Those were the roughest days of our three-month trip.

 

That's because the journey to Antarctica from Ushuaia, Argentina, involves crossing the Drake Passage, known as one of the roughest, windiest seas in the world. 20-30 feet ocean swells are not uncommon in these waters. Our ship, the Ocean Nova, kept rocking heavily from side to side throughout. There were a couple of moments when we panicked, fearing that the ship might roll over. These were, of course, false alarms. We obviously didn't need to worry. We relaxed seeing how the crew was pretty chill about it. The choppiness was new to us, but for them, it was just another day on the job.

Unreal Antarctica

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All of that rocking and rolling meant that we were seasick throughout – dizzy, nauseous, and spending most of the day in bed. Anusha bore the brunt of it. She was only able to eat anything after receiving some heavy-duty medication from the onboard doctor. Each way essentially felt like a two and a half day long intense hangover, without any of the benefits of being drunk. 

It was not all misery though. For those of us doing better on seasickness, the food and service onboard was absolutely amazing. We had white tablecloth service and every meal was plated to perfection. Coffee and snacks were available throughout the day and there was an open bar every evening. We thought we were getting the luxury treatment until the crew let us know that the larger ships take hospitality to a whole new level.

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We made friends onboard and took part in games and activities when we could. The crew also organized fascinating learning sessions on a wide range of topics like the history of Antarctic exploration, introduction to the different kinds of wildlife, and the impact of climate change in Antarctica, to keep us engaged throughout. 

 

The A+ hospitality and our excitement of seeing Antarctica soon kept us going on the rough seas. What lay on the other side was a magical, surreal place unlike anything we’d ever seen before.

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Caution: Penguins Crossing

 

Most people associate Antarctica with penguins (some might think polar bears, but they are native to the Arctic). So, it was only natural that we all wanted to see penguins the moment we arrived in Antarctica. And, the penguins did not disappoint. We saw our first penguin even before we left our ship, chilling on a floating piece of ice.

The first time we set foot on Antarctic land, a whole colony of penguins greeted us. Walking around, it felt like we were in the middle of a busy penguin market. They were also not afraid of getting close to us humans, probably because they thought we were funny looking giant penguins. Also, penguins have no land predators in Antarctica, so they do not fear any creatures they see on land.

Wendy, our ship's bird expert, explained to us that we might see four types of penguins around here: Chinstrap, Gentoo, Adelie, and if we are really lucky, an Emperor. We saw hordes of Chinstraps and Gentoos, but didn’t get so lucky with the others. That said, we did hear an emperor penguin squawk in the distance while on our zodiac boat once.

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Penguins weren't always cute and pretty though. There were penguin colonies (called rookeries) where male penguins noisily fought over pebbles to build nests. These rookeries were also quite dirty and stinky, thanks to all the guano (penguin poop). Penguins on land are usually filthy and covered in guano. If you saw clean penguins, they probably just came out of the water.
 

In addition to penguins, we saw snowy sheathbills. These birds are native to the continent and are scavengers that feed on penguin guano. These pretty looking white birds play a key role in keeping Antarctica pristine and clean.

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We had penguin sightings every day. Sometimes we saw them slide on their bellies, waddle in a line, hike up steep slopes, and even porpoise in the sea. We couldn't stop taking pictures of penguins. We'd often think, "Alright, no more penguin pictures", only to bring the camera out the next time we saw them do something really silly or cool. Seeing these adorable creatures in their natural habitat was simply fascinating. It's impossible to get tired of them.

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What’s so intriguing about ice?

Prior to this trip, if you had asked me what I thought about ice, I would likely have answered, “It's just ice, what's there to think about it?”. But when you find yourself surrounded by sea ice, giant icebergs, and ice that has been around for more than 10,000 years, your perspective changes.

It's really cool to see icebergs up close. They are essentially large blocks of ice that broke away from glaciers. You see them in all shapes and sizes. Some of them have a beautiful blue glow underneath due to the light reflecting from the ice below the water. We even saw wobbling icebergs that apparently sometimes tip over. 

We were then introduced to brash ice, which are fragments of freshwater ice that originated from ice shelves, formed over tens of thousands of years. As this ice gets compacted over time, air bubbles are gradually squeezed out, and can take a really long time to melt. Nigel, our guide and boat driver, picked up a piece of floating brash ice and dropped it in the middle of our boat. Suhas bravely took off his gloves to hold this really ancient piece of ice.

The last and final type of freshwater ice, which we didn’t get to see but heard a lot about, were Antarctic ice cores. These cores sometimes contain information on atmospheric conditions dating back over 800,000 years. Researchers have been drilling ice cores since 1998 to study the relationship between greenhouse gases, temperature changes, and the impact of human activities on climate over time. 

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The most common type of ice we saw everywhere though, was sea ice. Since we were visiting Antarctica right at the beginning of the Austral summer, most of it was just loose chunks floating about. Had we been in the same spot during winter, the sea would have been fully iced over.

While we mostly got to experience the interesting parts of ice, we did have a challenging boat ride back to the ship once. Within an hour of arriving at our excursion spot on day two, the winds became nasty. As a safety precaution, we were asked to return to the ship as soon as possible. Once we boarded our zodiac boat, the wind became stronger, pushing all the sea ice around it together and blocking our path. Our expert boat driver, Pelin, patiently and gradually cleared the ice so that the boat could eventually exit. We weren't too worried about the situation because we knew we were in the hands of highly trained professionals. Thankfully, we weren't visiting Antarctica in the early 1900s, when it wasn’t uncommon for ships to be stranded in sea ice, especially during winters.

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The seventh continent

Having seen countless penguins and endless ice on our very first day in Antarctica, we were wondering what else we could see and do here. That’s when a fellow passenger pointed out that we hadn't yet been on "Mainland Antarctica". We had only walked on an island in the Antarctic Peninsula on day one. Upon hearing this, our expedition team decided to take us to a mainland landing spot on day two. 


It was certainly exciting to step onto the mainland (and perhaps get to the south pole if we were prepared to hike and sled 2,900 kilometers over weeks to get there). Also, for quite a few of our fellow travelers, this was the 7th continent they were visiting. Our expedition team set up a “7th continent” flag at the landing site for everyone to take pictures. Antarctica was continent number 5 for both Suhas and I. We hope to have explored all 7 some day.

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All this talk of the 7th continent reminded me that humans only reached Antarctica in the late 19th century. For a very long time, people believed that there could be land to the south, but did not know if it actually existed, or how big or small it was. Ancient maps called it “Terra Australis Incognita”, meaning unknown land to the south. 


The map here illustrates why people didn't know more about the continent pre 1900s. There is no way we could have reached this far down south without making progress in science and technology. Also, if you see 2D maps like those on Google, Antarctica will seem much larger than it is. In reality, it is the 5th largest continent in terms of land area, only larger than Europe and Australia.

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The days here can be incredibly long or short depending on time of year. We experienced 18 hour long days when we visited in late November. A peak summer day can last 24 hours, especially near the south pole. On the other hand, Antarctic winters can get really dark and harsh. The sun sets in late April and rises again only three months later. The idea of not seeing any sun for that long is unthinkable to me. Though lots of explorers in the past, and many scientists today have chosen to spend time here during sun-less winters.

Human presence in Antarctica

Antarctica's relationship with humans is a bit of a mixed bag. Sealers and whalers were among the first people to come down here, followed by explorers, researchers, south pole enthusiasts, and eventually tourists like us.

 

There is no downplaying the exploitative impact humans have had on the continent. We visited an old whaling station on Deception Island, which is now a museum. This station was established by Norwegians and was operational until 1931, processing thousands of whales to meet the world's oil needs. As alternative oil sources became popular, this industry declined. By the end of the 20th century, the whaling industry had reduced global whale populations by more than 60%.

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But it's not all bad news. Early explorers, like Shackleton and Amundsen, helped map the coastlines and interiors of the continent. Scientists gathered valuable data about the weather and geology, and marine expeditions discovered unique Antarctic species. Even dinosaur fossils have been found, shedding light on Antarctica's history and connection to the other continents.

We paid a visit to Damoy hut, once a British rest-stop for scientists and now a museum. Inside, we got a real taste of how they lived - from the bunk beds to the kind of food they ate. We were also told there were no showers for the months they spent there - some of the challenges of conducting research in such a remote environment.

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All these human activities, especially the exploitative ones, led to the signing of the landmark Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The treaty designates Antarctica as a space dedicated to peaceful scientific research, banning military activities, mining, and nuclear waste disposal, while promoting the sharing of scientific findings. The treaty is a huge step forward in our collective effort to preserve this remarkable part of our planet.

When climate change got real

Climate change took center stage during our Antarctica trip in a way I hadn't anticipated.

To be honest, I hadn't given the environment much thought until this trip. I started paying attention to it when I observed our expedition team going above and beyond to keep our visit from interfering with the local ecosystem. They had us vacuum all our gear, and clean our boots and poles every time we got on and off the ship. This was to avoid introducing any non-native organisms to the continent. We also had to stick to specific paths on Antarctic land, and be careful not to disturb penguins, seals, and other creatures living there.

Probably because of this attunement to the environment, I was deeply disturbed by what we saw on Damoy Island. Before I share more details, it is helpful to understand the conditions necessary for penguins to breed successfully:

  1. Location: They almost always head back to their birthplace to breed because they know there will be suitable spots to build nests, and a high chance of finding food

  2. Timing: They lay eggs early in the summer, just in time to raise their chicks and make them self-sufficient before winter sets in

Coming back to the incident - while waiting for our boat out of Damoy Island, we saw penguins scrambling and grabbing any rocks they could find. Initially we were quite delighted to see all the activity around us, until we realized that they were gathering rocks to build nests in a tidal zone. Owing to unseasonal snowfall, a side effect of climate change, the land they'd normally build their nests on was buried deep under snow, in summer. When a low tide exposed new land, they mistook it for stable ground. These nests, tragically, wouldn't last beyond the next tide, potentially sweeping away any laid eggs. If the penguins couldn't find proper nesting ground in the next few weeks, their breeding season would be over. I’m catastrophizing a bit, but if this trend continues for a while, we will see a significant decline in penguin populations in the future, and for no fault of their own.

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That very evening, we watched 'Chasing Ice’, a documentary that showed quite a compelling, visual, and tangible manifestation of climate change. Later, Marcelo from our expedition team in his presentation on climate change mentioned that parts of the Antarctic peninsula have warmed by over 3C in the past 50 years, well exceeding the Paris agreement's maximum limit of 2C. That’s when my alarm bells went off. 

Impacted by these experiences, I decided to delve deeper into the issue of climate change. I spent the next few months immersed in research, gradually gaining an understanding of the enormity of the problem and the potential solutions. Reversing climate change is going to be one of the biggest challenges for humanity in the coming decades, but it's one I'm hopeful about, and committed to dedicating a meaningful portion of my working life to.

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Our trip to Antarctica was well beyond “worth it”. The amount of learning we got, the inspiring stories we heard, and the deep appreciation for nature we felt, are all really hard to quantify. Also, I don’t know if I would have made the decision to pivot my career towards climate action if not for this life changing experience. 

 

Really thankful we got the opportunity to visit a place so unique and wonderful.

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