For Travel Writers Tales

By Chris McBeath

It’s not every day there’s a seal in your bedroom. Unless you’re in the Antarctic where the bed is on ice beside near frozen waters and beneath a starry sky. The experience may not be of Shackleton proportions, but with a bit of planning, an extraordinary adventure still awaits.

End of the World

First stop is Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America. Aptly nicknamed the “End of the World”, this small, windswept town is the capital of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in the Argentine Patagonia, and it is the gateway to Antarctica, one of the most pristine, awe-inspiring destinations on earth.

From Ushuaia, National Geographic and other expedition vessels venture to Antarctic’s fragile environs, nearly always with a team of naturalists and other experts – many are Canadian – who spend much of their year between the northern Arctic and these southern waters. Leading on-board lectures and zodiac excursions affords them the opportunity to study their specialty in what free time they can find. These polar trips are their Nirvana — as they may well become yours.

The 7th Continent

As the most northerly part of the continent, the Antarctic Peninsula has the region’s mildest climates. In January/February – the height of summer – temperatures hover just over zero degrees, and is when sighting wildlife and glacial carvings are at their best. Getting there, however, entails a 2-day crossing of the notoriously unpredictable Drake Passage. If you’re lucky, the swells will feel like a lullaby. But since the weather here can change in minutes, forewarned is forearmed. Think of it as a rite of passage to find the Holy Grail of our planet.

While the frozen north might boast polar bears, arctic fox, and walrus, its southern counterpart delivers a much more intimate experience: penguins in their thousands – vast colonies of Adelies, Gentoos, Chinstraps, Kings and other species all waddling their haphazard gait across your pathway, along rocky precipices, and seemingly kissing your ankles with enthusiastic curiosity. Their antics, courtship rituals and characterizations are mesmerizing. And hilarious.

Getting Out and About

Zodiac outings ensure that getting up close and personal with these colonies is a daily event. Snag a spot with a kayaking group and you’ll be like a Star Trek adventurer, going to where few paddlers have gone while coming eye to eye with enormous Leopard seals and Minke whales. Watching juvenile penguins learn to swim off an ice-floe and over the nose of your kayak is a non-stop comedy act.

Excursions also include a sea-faring roam around an ice-berg gallery that showcases sapphire grottos and iridescent statues the size of houses. Some resemble action figures, or jungle creatures such as lions with magnificent manes, while others are rocking or slowly somersaulting into the water.

Nearly all ship itineraries include a visit to Lockroy Station, a former British research station from World War II. Today it operates as a ‘living museum’, with a small shop (proceeds fund other heritage sites in Antarctica) and the world’s southernmost post office, affectionately called the Penguin Post Office.

Taking the Plunge

If the Antarctic is on your bucket list then the Polar Splash is one for the books. Leaping into the frigid water is not for the feint-of-heart yet surprisingly, has as wide appeal to teens as to octogenarians. Passengers are clipped to a rope so they can be pulled back on board in a relative flash where the medical team rewards plungers with a shot of vodka. The whole event generates zealous excitement let alone rather unique bragging rights.

Similar rights are also earned by sleeping in an icy bedroom. Spaces are limited to the number of available sleeping bags. Crew members will help you dig a pit into the snow (unnervingly like a coffin) as protection against any surface wind, and outside of a single medical-emergency tent, sleepers look like orange seals basking under the darkish sky where the sun never really sets.

In the silence, you’ll hear ice cracking, probably the call of a black crowned night heron or the surfacing of a humpback whale and, with patience, the flippered exertion of a Ross or Weddell seal staking claim on a snow-crusted patch near your own. And if you’re awake at 3am when the sun starts to shimmer its first morning light across the snowscape, The Antarctic’s surreal magic is complete. Welcome to the most isolated continent in the world.

Photos: by Chris McBeath