Sounds of the night Borobudur
Lunch at Rumah Dharma with the Call To Prayer in the background.
On the way to Borobudur in Indonesia for the weekend.
I waited many years to step foot on the Antarctica continent. It had been a dream of mine for more than 20 years. I researched online, spoke to travel agents, read about global warming. I researched Quark, National Geographic, Expedition Trips, Lindblad, Silverseas. I looked at small ships, large ships, expedition ships, icebreakers, luxury trips and adventure trips. I saw penguins in South Africa and the Galapagos and thought that would abate my penguin fascination. I watched the Frozen Planet on Netflix. I got closer and closer—reserving trips, but never managed to finalize.
One Saturday night in November, I was doing my usual searching and saw that Quark had a trip over the holidays that had one single cabin with no single supplement and one kayaking space left. I booked it as soon as the office opened the next morning. It is highly unusual to have a kayaking space available that late in the process. Since I was booking last minute (most people book a year in advance), I received 25% off on the price. My fare also included the charter flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia (you need to check on this as many companies charge additional for the charter) and the mandatory medical evacuation insurance which can cost upwards of $1,000 (again, most companies don’t include this).
The Trip: Voyage to the 7th Continent-11 Days, Starting in Buenos Aires
My trip started in Buenos Aires. I elected to arrive a day early as I did not want to cut it close in case of weather delays. My flight from the US arrived around noon on Wednesday. Bag weigh-in was on Thursday between noon and 8 pm (the charter flight is very strict about the weight limit for bags—44 pounds (20 kg) for checked bags and 11 pounds (5 kg) for cabin baggage). You also receive your boarding pass at this time.
We left early Friday morning for the charter flight to Ushuaia. After landing, we had 2 hours in town before we boarded the ship. They also had told me to request a window seat on the charter when I arrived (said they could not do that from the home office), but that was wrong as all seats were already assigned. It turns out that I had a window seat on the flight down but not on the way back.
The Ship & Company
Quark specializes in Arctic and Antarctic travel. They have been going to Antarctica for 40+ years and were one of the first cruise operators. Quark’s Ocean Endeavor carries up to 199 passengers. This was larger than I wanted. Similar to the Galapagos, only 100 people can be on land at one time. On the larger ships, passengers rotate one-hour zodiac cruising and one hour on land to observe this rule. The zodiac cruises are very good, so this may not be a concern of yours. The kayaking group is the first off the ship, so it did not make a difference on this trip.
Quark is an excellent company. Food was good and they were very careful about specific dietary needs. I asked for dairy-free meals and they were very accommodating. They have a spa, gym, library, sauna, smoothie bar and a small heated pool. There are three lounges: Nautilus (used for most of the lectures), Aurora and Meridian (on the top deck). The expedition staff was excellent. They eat with the passengers and that makes them very accessible and personable. Adventure options included kayaking, camping and stand up paddle boarding.
My single cabin was comfortable and large enough. Some of the double cabins were smaller than my single and did not have enough storage space for 2 people. All of the single cabins are inside cabins. There is no single supplement for these cabins (most cruises charge 1.5 to 1.7 additional as a single supplement). This can be advantage on several fronts: it was darker (sunset in the summer is very late), there was less rocking during the Drake Passage and it was quieter. There are also twin cabins that many solo travelers can elect to share. There are larger cabins as well with windows and portholes. All cabins have TVs and private showers.
The Drake Passage (2 days down and 2 days back) is notoriously turbulent. We were fortunate to have the “Drake Lake” in both directions. I thought that I would be relaxing and slower during the passage, but there were nonstop lectures and briefing during these days. There was also time for massages, spa treatments, yoga (yes, I did do yoga during the crossing) and hanging out with new found friends.
Kayaking made this trip even more spectacular. Kayakers were always the first off and the last ones back to the boat. We had a very intimate experience with the penguins and whales as they swam near us frequently. And, the expedition staff were fantastic. Sharon, Bella and Kaitlyn were knowledgeable, supportive and very safety conscious. Most trips have at least 3-4 kayaking excursions. We had 7 due to the excellent weather. I have already done posts about kayaking (In the Water with Penguins, Whales and Seals—Kayaking in the Antarctic and Kayaking in Antarctica-Tips & Recommendations). They provide dry suits, dry bags, life jackets and booties. We had to wear 3-4 layers underneath to stay warm.
I was nervous about traveling solo. I had asked Quark if they would help me meet some of my fellow travelers before boarding but they don’t do this. It would have been nice to have company for the two nights I was in Buenos Aires. Onboard the ship, there were many people traveling solo and I found most people very friendly and willing to talk and meet new people. There were people of every age from teenagers to in their 70/80s. The kayakers also bonded.
January is summertime in South America. Buenos Aires was 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), Ushuaia was 50 degrees (10 Celsius) and Antarctica was mainly around 30 degrees (0 Celsius). Antarctica weather is very changeable. We had snow and wind at various times. The itinerary changes based on the weather—don’t get too attached to any one island or location. For instance, it was snowing when we approached the entrance to the Lemaire Channel and it was not passable due to being blocked by icebergs. We ended up having a marvelous adventure at Jougla Point.
The expedition staff were friendly, dedicated and knowledgeable. They had a lot of experience in Antarctica and were always available for questions. They ate every meal with us which made for many wonderful conversations. The lectures were very good with the right balance of information. If you want extensive lectures, National Geographic might be more your style. Nat Geo travelers, however, tend to spend less time on excursions. For me, the balance on Quark’s Ocean Endeavor was perfect.
If I had one critique about this trip, it was the trip home. Once we disembarked, we have a two-hour tour of Tierra del Fuego and then were dropped off at the airport. At the airport, we received no direction or support from the Quark staff. The line for the departure gates was very long and it was almost 2 hours before we made it to the departure gates. The plane was more than 1 hour late even though it was a charter. When we arrived in Buenos Aires, we waited an hour to get our bags. Those of us taking 9 pm flights home (we were told that we would be back in BA between 5 and 6 pm) had to pick up our bags and run to the gate in order to make our flights. Once again, there was very little direction or support from the Quark team, particularly during the wait for our bags.
Tips & Recommendations
- Don’t be afraid to go solo. You’ll make new friends and have lots of interesting conversations
- Booking very early or very late can help you to cut costs. If adventure options are the priority, then make sure to book early.
- The trip is expensive, but don’t make every decision based on price. This is probably the only time that you will go to Antarctica so make sure it meets your expectations. If lectures are most important, make sure to find a ship that prioritizes that. If excursions are a priority, then ask about that.
- All ships require medical evacuation insurance. This coverage is very expensive. Quark trips include this in the fee.
Types of Ships
- Decide on the size and type of the ship you prefer. Ship capacity ranges from 50 people to 500. Only 100 people are allowed on land at a time. On the larger ships (more than 200 people), passengers rotate (1 hour spent zodiac cruising and 1 hour on land). The zodiac cruises are excellent so this might not be too much of a tradeoff.
- Types of ships include: Luxury Expedition, Expedition, Research, Scenic Exploration and Icebreakers. The largest 500 passenger ships are Scenic Exploration ships and have limited excursions. Research Ships are usually 50-120 passengers and have simpler accommodations. There is a type of ship for every type of traveler.
Baggage Allowance and Packing
- The charter operators are very strict about the baggage allowance on the way down. They will not allow any bags that are over the weight limit (20 kg/44 lbs. for checked bags and 5kg/11 lbs. for carry on). They don’t seem to weigh the bags on the return trip, so don’t worry about being overweight at the end.
- It can be less stressful to have a night in Buenos Aires on the back end of the trip. That way, you can have the hotel store an extra bag for you while you are on the cruise. It will also make the trip home less stressful.
- As far as packing, layers, layers, layers. Many operators provide rubber boots and parkas but ask before you book. The Quark parka is very warm. Waterproof pants are required. You will not be allowed on the zodiac without them. Hats, gloves, face-covering—all are essential. You won’t enjoy the trip if you are not properly dress. Quark gives everyone a warm parka and loans every passenger a pair of rubber boots. Other ships do similar things, but don’t assume. And, don’t forget your bathing suit for the polar plunge!
- If you are flying home on the same day as you disembark, book your return flight at 10 pm or later. I booked my return flight from Buenos Aires to the US at 9 pm and had to run to catch my flight.
Kayaking in Antarctica is a very intimate experience with the Ocean and the sea life. You’ll be paddling in the ocean with the penguins, whales, seal and icebergs. You need to have had some kayaking experience and the pre-expedition instructions say that you must be able to do a wet exit. We had varying levels of experience in our group. On the Quark trip, the kayakers were the first off the ship and often the last to return. We generally paddled for 90 minutes and were on land for about 45-60 minutes. There were one and two-person kayaks. The two-person kayaks were very stable.
Most ships have a limited number of kayaking spots available. These slots sell out quickly. If kayaking is a must-do for you, you’ll want to book 10-12 months in advance to guarantee your spot. There are some trips called base camp trips where there are more opportunities to Kayak. The base camp trips spend more time in an area and offer many more adventure opportunities.
Tips for Kayakers
- Kayaking is expensive—it’s generally about $1,000 additional. It was worth it.
- Quark provided dry suits, booties, life jackets, a dry bag and a skirt for the Kayak. You need to add several layers underneath the dry suit to stay warm. I usually had on three layers. Some of my fellow paddlers wore as many as six layers. Since you need to be able to move, a good base layer followed by thin layers works best.
- Hands need to stay dry or you’ll not enjoy the paddle. I had neoprene gloves and the expedition leaders gave us dishwashing gloves to put on top. This combination worked very well.
- Your feet will stay dry in the wet suit. You’ll have booties over the wet suit and these will get very wet. Make sure not to make a hole in your dry suit when you put it on and your feet will stay nice and dry. The booties were not so great on land—you will feel the rocks under your feet.
- Many of my fellow paddler brought their DSL cameras on the kayak and there were no camera catastrophes. I brought a Lumix underwater camera because I did not want to worry about getting my camera wet. The downside was that I did not have my better camera for my pictures. Many people also brought GoPros.
- We had seven kayak excursions. The expedition leaders told us that they try to guarantee 3-4. It was wonderful to have that much time on the water. Being on land offers a different kind of experience with the penguins and especially the chicks. Don’t be afraid to opt out of a kayaking session if you want to have some concentrated time on land.
- For the first few paddles, it will take you a while to get on all of the gear. Make sure to leave enough time. If you are not ready on time, it will delay the off-boarding of the rest of the ship.
- Have fun.
For more on the experience of Kayaking, see the previous post: In the Water with Penguins, Whales and Seals—Kayaking in the Antarctic
The seas were calm with a light wind as we transferred from the zodiac to our kayaks for our first ever kayak trip in Antarctica near Barrientos and Cecilia Islands in the Southern Atlantic ocean. While in the zodiac, Shaz, our expedition leader, reminded us that we should keep 300 meters from glaciers, 100 meters from whales and not to touch any penguins. We were excited and eager to get our first paddle under our belt.
I slid off the zodiac into my kayak with my partner Jeanine as the navigator. We began to paddle and get a feel for the kayak, the water, our teamwork. Suddenly someone shouted and pointed. We saw the spout of a whale just a few meters away. Wait. There are TWO hump back whales. We grabbed whatever cameras we had to try to capture the moment. Cameras were not really necessary. The experience itself was amazing—to be in the water with a whale.
The first twenty minutes was to be followed by countless other experiences. More humpbacks. The elusive Minke Whales in Cierra Cove. At Errara Channel near Danco Island, a curious Minke circled us. We excitedly watched, guessing where the whale would come up again and wondering how close it would come.
We didn’t need to guess how close the penguins would come. They were everywhere. Right next to us—under the water, over the water, swimming, diving, splashing, jumping on and off icebergs, hoping unto the land. It was as if we were part of the family. This was one of the most exquisite experience of kayaking in Antarctica—being intimately connected to the water and the life of the sea. We had amazing views of the penguin colonies from the sea. We saw Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie, often staring at the water, deciding whether it was safe to enter. Sometimes they stood for 20 minutes, at the water’s edge, seeming to talk amongst themselves.
We paddled in the snow (a first for me), brash ice, in the wind, in waves and in stillness. We saw a Glacier calve in a distance. The sound was thundering. We were awestruck by the size and beauty of the glaciers. Being in the water with them was a humbling experience.
The seals were also in our “living room.” Rather, we were in theirs. On our first day, we saw Elephant seals lying on an island going through catastrophic moult. They cannot go in the ocean during that process and these massive animals were lying on the rocky island. Wendell seals greeted us in Mikkelsen Harbour and a crabeater seal lounged on a small iceberg near Danco Island. Penguins tried to get on the iceberg before noticing the seal and quickly departing.
Near Jougla Point, we started paddling at 9 pm after our unsuccessful attempt to sail through the Lemaire Channel (it was blocked by icebergs see my previous post). We saw massive chains on rocks from old whaling stations. We paddled by Port Lockroy. We saw Shaz paddle fast and launch her kayak onto the fast ice. Fast ice is ocean water that has frozen and extends out from the land. We all soon followed and were rewarded with hot chocolate—a great treat for a cold evening. There was much laughter. Soon enough, the expedition team pushed us back into the water to continue our evening paddle.
The next day, the weather was too rough for kayaking and Jougla Point turned out to be our last kayak. We left with a few sore muscles, the memory of the sea, the penguins, the ice and the joy of having been a part of it.
Does this make you want to go to Antarctica and kayak? Come back tomorrow for Tips on Kayaking in Antarctica.
The snow was coming down steadily. The thermometer read 0 degrees Celsius and the wild was blowing. The ship traveled slowly–only 5-7 knots. Visibility from the bow of the ship was about 100 meters—enough to see a series of icebergs spaced throughout the Lemaire Channel.
The Lemaire Channel—one of the most scenic channels in Antarctica—is a seven mile stretch of water that at its narrowest point is only half a mile wide. It was discovered in 1873, but not navigated until 1898 by Adrien de Gerlach, a Belgium explorer.
Inside, in the Bridge, Captain Denis Radja was in quiet conversation with his officers. The ship slowed down even more. Will we be able to make it through the channel? Not sure. Hope we do, but it doesn’t seem likely. The ship slowed down even further. It seemed like it’s moving to the right (starboard if you’re a sailor). Yes. We’re definitely turning around. We won’t be going through the Lemaire Channel.
I step into the Bridge and hear the announcement from expedition leader Laurie. We are turning around. There are too many icebergs in the Channel. We are now setting sail for Jougla Point where we will have an evening excursion.
So it goes on an Antarctic cruise. The weather and ocean conditions determine the activities. The good news is that wherever you go is spectacular.