After four days navigating the icebergs and glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula, we pull into the polar opposite: Deception Island, a red-rimmed volcano peeking out of the sea. The geothermal activity melts the usual thick blanket of ice and reveals the layers of oxidized iron, black ash, with a sprinkle of snow on top. We peeled ourselves from the bow of our expedition ship and geared up for a very different side of awe-inspiring Antarctica…The South Shetland Islands. (Catch the beginning of our Antarctic expedition in our first and second post)
Kayaking Deception Island
Most of the Quark Expedition passengers hopped in zodiacs for a marine safari while our small group prepared for a kayak. Kayaking is an extra fee, but paddling Cierva Cove and Deception Island reaffirmed it’s the best way to get in touch with Antarctic nature. Quiet, small, and stealthy, a kayak can glide past sunbathing fur seals without disturbing them or even inspire a bit of play. When the curious teenage seals took note of us, they rode in our wake, dove under our bow, and popped up for staring contests. We paddled towards Neptune’s Bellow, the opening of the flooded caldera, then the volcanic micro-climate gave us the nod to head in.
A zodiac brought us onto the storied beaches of Whalers Bay. In the early 20th century, this whaling station had 12 factory ships, 27 whale catching boats, and 200 workers processing 5,000 whales a season. It later housed Chilean, Argentine, and British research stations, until 1969 when a volcanic eruption turned this island into a time capsule. Mangled buildings, corroded blubber boilers, whalebone graveyards, and ships that have splintered into oblivion are all that remain. Just when you think Doomsday has arrived, you see penguins, seals, and birds thriving in all their adorableness. The contrast of life and death, mixed with dense fog and volcanic steam is simply mesmerizing. We wandered the island, peering into cockeyed buildings and exploded vats, thinking about the people who once exploited this land and we were reminde…nature always wins.
Orca & Fin Whale Watching
As we sail away from Deception Island, the captain spots a pod of Orcas in the distance. One of the benefits of exploring Antarctica on a smaller ship with an adventurous mindset, is that you can change course when opportunity strikes. From a healthy distance, we observed this group of 20+ Killer Whales (FYI, they’re actually in the dolphin family) dive in unison, flashing their tall dorsal fins and Shamu spots. Just when we thought this episode of Animal Planet was over, we see three Fin Whales off the starboard side! The second largest mammal in the world, Fin Whales can grow up to 90-feet long. (You grasp the size when you see its head dive under and seconds later its dorsal follows.)
You’d think all this aforementioned action would have happened over the course of a week in Antarctica…but it wasn’t even lunchtime. Sometimes there is so much excitement in a given day, you need the downtime just to soak it all in. As we sailed toward our next excursion, we headed outside to feel the sun, breeze, and beauty wash over us.
Barrientos Penguin Colony
When your Expedition Leader, who’s explored just about every island around the Antarctic Peninsula says, “The Aitcho Islands are my absolute favorite stop,” you know it’s going to blow your mind. We docked at the penguin-covered Barrientos Island with stadium-sized icebergs floating on one side and mythic mountains on the other. We had amazing penguin encounters all week, but this was by far the most up close and personal. After months of continuous feeding by the mamas, the chubby adolescents are left to fend for themselves. A little hangry about the situation, they go on squawking, chasing each other for scraps, and approaching visitors for any love at all. We squatted down for some eye-level observation and were completely surrounded, one even went for a nibble on Mike’s camera! Just watch the video.
Zodiac Cruising The Aitcho Islands
Upon leaving the penguin colony, we scrubbed down our boots (it’s mandatory to ensure diseases aren’t spread around the continent) and began our zodiac safari around the Aitcho Islands. The sheer cliffs and sculpturesque rocks had formations reminiscent of Easter Island with the sunset light, shadows, and strong winds making everything more dramatic. We ended the day with a long sit in the sauna, watching the islands get smaller in the distance, feeling an immediate longing for Antarctica.
Rocking & Rolling
How do you cope with the waves and melancholy of a return trip on the Drake Passage? A Drake Shake of our own. The Quark staff hosted a Rock-n-Roll costume party and we danced ourselves silly with our new friends until 3AM. We may have only known this group for ten days but we shared an experience that’s beyond words, and best expressed with interpretive dance and ear-to-ear smiles.
Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina
After two days of relaxing, reminiscing, a photo contest (Mike got 3rd place :), a charity auction, and Captain’s Farewell Feast, we disembarked in Ushuaia, Argentina…The End of the World. We said goodbye to the Expedition Team and joined Quark’s day trip to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Fortunately, the park’s spectacular mountains, lakes, and sunshine helped ween us from other-worldly Antarctica.
Antarctica is as close to utopia as it gets. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 nations (now 53) to share and preserve this land for common good and scientific advancement. In a world rife with war, environmental exploitation, and gross inequality, Antarctica is a chance to do things right, to set ego and greed aside, and make decisions in the best interest of the Earth. While the weather might keep us from moving to Antarctica, its peace and prosperity will always remind us how to live.
P.S. A huge thank you to Quark Expeditions for inviting us on this epic journey!