Our expedition ship squeezes through the Lemaire Channel, sandwiched between the towering mountains of Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. Even in summer, there can be too much ice for ships to pass, but we are heading into the gauntlet of Kodak Gap, an apt nickname for this extremely photogenic passage. Standing at the windy bow of the Quark Ocean Endeavor, a tear from cold and joy slides horizontally across my face. At 65°04’S/64°00’W gorgeous glaciers pour off every cliffside and the icebergs resemble Richard Serra sculptures. And so begins Antarctica Part #2 (read Part #1 here!), where we take to the sea with a stand-up paddle board, waddle through penguin colonies, and finally set foot on our seventh continent. All aboard!
Standup Paddleboarding Pleneau Bay
We dock in Pleneau Bay, an iceberg graveyard between a ring of mountains, and gear up for our morning excursion: Standup Paddleboarding! We were among a handful on the ship to SUP, partly because there are limited spots and partly because it’s borderline insane. Standing on a shaky board over hypothermia-inducing water and paddling around icebergs that could roll and tidal wave…this could go badly. But instead, it was epic. The sheltered bay was perfectly still, reflecting every neon-blue iceberg like a mirror. We paddled through brash ice in a state of heightened adrenaline and wonder. Watch this SUP video for a taste of the action.
Our heads were still reeling from standup paddleboarding but after a hearty lunch and afternoon siesta, we were off to our next excursion: Port Charcot. Named after the French scientist who stationed himself here in the winter of 1904, the island has the remnants of his research hut, boat, and a cairn. It’s wild to imagine living here during Antarctica’s harshest months, especially since it’s so cold (-40° without wind-chill), the penguins don’t even stick around. The 1,000+ penguins on the island were finishing molting and growing their waterproof feathers. Most of the Adelie penguins were already heading north, but we were lucky a few hung back, so we could see all three Antarctic Peninsula species: Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap!
Zodiac Cruising Lemaire Channel
Most days consiste of two big excursions, but today we got a third…exploring the Lemaire Channel by zodiac. We hopped in one of the 10-person boats, and as luck would have it glaciologist Colin was our captain. He reminded us that the glaciers are like toffee, a viscous fluid, slowly flowing and changing shape. He’d point out the moraines to show us the direction the ice flows, the crescent-shaped crevasses denoting a faster flow, and the striations in the icebergs–each representing a year in time. The landscape is so gorgeous it speaks for itself, but Colin’s insights made the ice resonate.
Evenings on the Ocean Endeavor
When you disembark from the day’s last excursion, there is always a hot-cocoa bar with a variety of liqueurs waiting to warm you up. Can you imagine anything better? How about we follow that up with a hot shower, and a five-course meal with perfectly paired wine? Evenings on the Ocean Endeavor were always a fabulous affair—from the quality of the food to the level of service to the company. There are no assigned seats or reservations and no formal attire necessary, so we would join a different table for lively conversation each night. We dined with everyone, from fellow RTW travelers, Australian farmers, an English dentist, and even an 80-year old triathlete.
Anchoring the boat in Paradise Bay, the zodiacs whisked us over to Cuverville Island, home to the largest Gentoo Penguin colony ariound the Peninsula. Over 5,000 pairs arrive each December to breed. By March most of the parents are feeding at sea, which leaves thousands of adorably clumsy adolescents to figure out life. They give rookie attempts at belly slides, running over the rocks (more often tripping over them), and spastically swimming in the water. We strolled the ice-capped island, making way for penguins darting in every direction.
Young penguins are quite vulnerable once they take to the sea and we saw this first hand when a leopard seal snagged a Gentoo for lunch. Thrashing the bird into bite-size pieces, his sheer force was memorizing. Leopard seals are one of the fiercest Antarctic predators, with 1,000+ lb. bodies, powerful jaws, and a taste for warm-blooded animals…they even hunt other seals. They generally keep clear of humans, while the fur seals and crabeater seals can be quite cheeky. We had six crabeaters encircle our zodiac, diving around and checking us out for over 20 minutes. There wasn’t a day that went by without a solid seal encounter.
While all the islands that surround the peninsula are technically considered Antarctica, setting foot on the landmass that extends to the South Pole is much anticipated. We stood alone at the bow of the boat, watching the continent draw closer, and could hardly contain our excitement.
We swung our legs out of the zodiac and finally set foot on the continent…our seventh continent. We practically ran up the steep mountain, enjoying every slippery step through the snow and piece of hail that pelted our face. We were the first ones to reach the rocky outcropping, with panoramic views of Neko Harbour and the endless white landmass as far as the eye could see. It felt like our four years of travel were culminating at this one moment. This called for champagne. We snuck a bottle in our rucksack (don’t follow our naughty example) and popped the cork, the wind exploding sparkling wine into the air and up our noses. Giggling from the tickly bubbles, utter joy, and complete awe, we sat back and reveled in the milestone moment.
Watch the HoneyTrek 7th-continent celebration with champagne and hail.
P.S. A huge thank you to Quark Expeditions for inviting us on this epic journey!