Antarctica. Everything about that word seemed untouchable. It is the coldest, driest, windiest, and virtually uninhabited continent, but it kept calling to us. We have explored six continents on our HoneyTrek, which only fueled our desire to reach the seventh…but how would we ever take an Antarctica Honeymoon? This was a place reserved for penguins, scientists and the ultra rich. Then we met Quark Expeditions: one of the most adventurous, sustainable, affordable, and down-to-earth outfitters specializing in the Polar Regions. We told them about our four-year journey and goal to be the first couple to honeymoon all seven continents, and they were determined to help get us there. Before we knew it, we were signed up for the “Antarctic Explorer” expedition on the Ocean Endeavor, their recently renovated ship with the most adventure options. And so began our journey…a 1,605-nautical mile, 12-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula and the wildest place on Earth.
Ushuaia, The End of the World
We met some of the Quark team and our expedition mates in Buenos Aires for the charter flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, “The End of the World.” We visited Ushuaia at the very beginning of our HoneyTrek and remember marveling at the Antarctic expedition ships in the harbor, trying to fathom what that trip would be like. Now we were here, giddy as all get up, knowing that one of those ships was ours.
The Ocean Endeavor
We boarded The Ocean Endeavor: an Ice Class 1B, 450-foot, 17,420-horse power expedition ship. The 175 passengers were greeted by the 150-person staff (how’s that ratio for personal attention?), and our bags were whisked away to our rooms, while we sipped complimentary cocktails and explored the ship. The recent renovation showed with contemporary furnishings, a variety of cozy lounges, a full VOYA spa, two huge wooden saunas, a modern fitness center, a salt water pool, jacuzzi, and plenty of observation decks. Our fabulous room (bottom two right photos) was the “Twin Porthole Plus 2,” which basically meant his & her everything: Two windows, two bathrooms, two flat-screen TVs, and plenty of space for a couple…or even a third, since our leather couch pulled out. Rooms on the ship range from economical triples to a 320sq-ft suite with bow-facing windows. No matter which category you choose, each is assigned a room attendant for your every request. Joanna made us feel like royalty!
A thick Kiwi accent came through the loudspeaker (the main way of keeping up on the day’s schedule, whale sightings, or anything exciting), asking us to come to the main lounge for an orientation and safety briefing. That was Cheli Larsen, our extremely experienced and hysterical expedition leader. She had a wonderful way of delivering info with comedy and brutal honesty, making even bad news sound like an adventure. “Tonight, we’ll enjoy sailing the sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel,” she says “then for two days, you lucky ducks get to experience the legendary ‘Drake Shake’!” The Drake Passage is a 500-mile wide, 2-mile deep stretch of turbulent sea where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide, creating arguably the world’s most dangerous stretch of sea. We had the privilege of 24-ft swells and 21-knot winds for a proper dance-off with The Drake. We have strong stomachs so we found the experience pretty entertaining, walking around at a 30-degree angle, watching furniture slosh across the room, and feeling the almighty force of the sea.
Days At Sea
There were tons of activities on offer to pass the time on The Drake: Educational lectures, photography workshops, yoga classes, movies, visits to the bridge, kayak and SUP orientations, four-course dinners, and your relaxation method of choice. To wrap our head around the profound science and history of Antarctica, we went to as many of the talks as possible by their resident glaciologists, marine biologists, ornithologists, polar historians, among other impressive experts on board. The experience and resumés of the expedition team blew our minds. Our favorite example is Tara, a young woman who completed the first-ever kayak circumnavigation of the four main islands of Svalbard, Noway—a frigid archipelago full of dangerous polar bears, walrus, and whales–and she wasn’t even the ship’s kayak guide!!!
After 58 hours of rockin’ and rollin’ with Mr. Drake, the winds subsided, the sun came out, and our hopes for Antarctica beamed bright. Icebergs straight out of the Discovery Channel were just drifting by—with penguins on them! Looking at everyone’s favorite flightless birds waddle on the ice was surreal, only to be topped by a dozen of them swimming alongside us.
Whale Welcoming Committee
Then came the humpback whales. One would have been exiting, five would have been outstanding…but a pod of 40+? Unreal! The captain skillfully positioned the boat so we could watch them dive for krill, show off their speckled tails (each one unique like a fingerprint), and spout like fountains. Whales migrate to the Antarctic peninsula in the summer months to feed on the water’s incredible abundance of krill (up to 30,000 of these crustaceans per cubic meter!). Whale watching is best in late February and March, conveniently the exact time-frame of our trip.
First Expedition: Cierva Cove
We anchored for our first expedition in the jaw-dropping Cierva Cove. It reminded us of our favorite parts of Patagonia, like the sheer peaks of the Fitz Roy and the icebergs calving off the face of Glacier Grey, rolled into one. Most passengers geared up in their spiffy new yellow parkas and rubber boots (kindly provided by Quark) to explore by zodiac, while we joined our fellow kayakers for an epic paddle. To make sure participants have the best equipment, training, and nature experience, Quark only takes 16 kayakers per expedition. (When you go to Antarctica, make sure you are one of them!) Quietly paddling up to an iceberg with a family of crabeater seals, watching their silvery fur glisten in the sun, listening to the sounds of their grunts and ice crunching with their every move…it was the most intimate way to explore and appreciate the White Continent.
The Polar Plunge
It’s an Antarctic right of passage to take the Polar Plunge, i.e. hurling yourself into the near-frozen sea for the fun of it. We stood on the dock in our bathing suits, watching a crew member move icebergs out of the swimming area, and thought there was something terribly wrong with this situation. And before you can reconsider…”One, Two, Three, Jump!” I did my best stag leap into the 2-degree Celsius water and felt the chill to my core. I surfaced with a huge gasp, appreciating air more than ever, and scrambled like a wet cat to the ladder. With my feet firmly on the rungs, a huge smile emerged. (You wouldn’t believe me, but check that photo top right.) Feels good to be alive.
We survived the Drake Passage and we were greeted to Antarctica with whales and sunshine. A celebration was in order. Champagne and hors d’oeuvres were served on the deck, the captain gave a warm welcome speech, and a little dance party broke out. There was much to celebrate and this was just the beginning…
P.S. A huge thank you to Quark Expeditions for inviting us on this epic journey and Allianz Global Assistance for insuring our cruise!