Jacada Travel Journal: Discovering Antarctica
If you've ever dreamed of discovering Antarctica , you wouldn't be alone. The white continent is enchanting, mythical and stunningly untouched.
Home to magnificent and pristine wilderness in an otherwise modern world, Antarctica is an incredible place.
Here, Ciara Owens - Jacada's own Latin America and polar travel expert - writes about her life-changing trip to the white continent.
“It’s like being on another planet. You don’t see anybody else the whole time you’re down there. You’re completely disconnected from everything. You really feel like you’ve left civilisation, and you’re entering a whole new world.”
As I lay in my hand-built snow-bunker and bivvy bag with nothing between me and the twinkling stars, I heard a far-off rumble. I sat bolt upright and watched as, in the distance and gleaming through the dark, an avalanche of snow tumbled down a cliff and into the sea with a faint roar that carried across the deserted landscape. I sat alone, gazing out into the darkness, as my fellow expeditioners from our boat slept peacefully through the polar night.
"That night spent camping on the ice was one of the highlights of my trip to Antarctica."
I’d chosen to sail across the Drake Passage to reach Antarctica. You can fly in, but for me, the journey was all part of the adventure. On our trip towards the peninsula, we were blessed with excellent conditions. The passage is known as the ‘Drake Lake’ when it’s this placid.
Lectures prepared us for what we were about to see, from the wildlife to the environment. We read about explorers, such as Shackleton, whose stories inspired our own – somewhat easier – travels. Following in their wake, the long, two-day journey eased us into this new world, adding to the spirit of exploration and travel. The first time we saw an iceberg was as exciting as you’d expect, though by the end of the trip our memory cards were full of much more dramatic scenes.
"Capturing the moment"
Camping on the ice for a night was one way in which to maximise my one-on-one time with this otherworldly destination. In a slightly more dramatic effort to throw myself into the experience, I had to take the ‘polar plunge’.
The hardiest members of our team raced down the black-sand beach and hurled ourselves into the water for a few flesh-numbing seconds – though seriously icy, the sea temperature wasn’t quite as shocking as I was anticipating, perhaps because the volcanic sand absorbed some of the sun’s heat. Getting out of the water to be faced with the biting wind was quite another matter.
We were in Antarctica during the penguins’ nesting season, so we got to watch them engaging in their courtship rituals, the males presenting the females with pebbles, and the pair carefully transferring their egg between one another. As we watched mini dramas unfold and spats rectified, it felt like watching a penguin soap opera.
"On a clear day, I felt like I’d stumbled into a painting, so surreal was the landscape."
Other moments were much simpler. Our zodiac drivers would kill the engines as we journeyed to land for our next tour, so we could just sit and take in the surroundings, absorbing the silence. The water was like a mirror, perfectly reflecting the giant snowy cliffs, the ice glittering in the sunlight. It felt like being on a different planet.
At times like these, I would try and soak it up as much as I could. I started writing down my thoughts in an effort to put that feeling of being somewhere so seemingly unearthly into words, but it’s difficult to express. Before I travelled to Antarctica, I didn’t have any solid expectations. I certainly did not expect to be so moved by my experiences there.
"A sense of responsibility"
Aside from the sheer awe I felt, I couldn’t stop thinking about how everything we do up in ‘the real world’ impacts on these areas of wilderness. I was left feeling a sense of responsibility I hadn’t really felt so keenly before. This seemed like much more than a tourist destination – it was a lesson.
The guides on our boat (one of whom was amongst the first women to ski to the South Pole) were like guardians of Antarctica, educating us, encouraging us to become ambassadors for the planet and ensuring we left with more than just a tick on our bucket list.
Perhaps because it’s a land that is collectively owned, there is a shared feeling of responsibility when it comes to Antarctica. I really did feel like a changed person when I returned home, and it took me a while to absorb everything I’d seen and experienced. I felt so incredibly lucky, but I also felt humbled.
"When I say it is a destination like no other, I really do mean it."
I wasn’t alone in this. Most of my fellow travellers were just as well-travelled as me – if not more so – and for most, this was their seventh continent. A lot of travelling, whilst immensely rewarding, can leave you a little jaded and difficult to impress – yet, without fail, every single one of my shipmates was left bedazzled by Antarctica.
On board, we were able to help with the research efforts of the Citizen Science Project. The boat works with universities and research facilities to record water temperatures and monitor changes, taking advantage of their regular access to the continent. This too helped bring home how minute changes in the world (a global temperature change of just 2°C, for example) can impact this region.
Contrasting with the sense of solitude I experienced in the White Continent, there was also a great camaraderie amongst all of us on the boat, perhaps as a result of sharing such a special experience. We bonded quickly, as the only people notably present in this remote corner of the world. Our phones had no signal; there was no wi-fi. Instead, we were forced to plug into the present, to our immediate surroundings.
"A fragile environment"
My biggest tip for anyone about to travel to Antarctica is to make sure you take the time to put down your camera and simply be in the moment.
At first, the glass-like water and iceberg-strewn scenery seems completely still and silent – but then you start to notice the subtle noises that fill the chilly air: the faint growl of a blanket of snow falling a few miles away; air bubbles making the ice crackle; the murmuring of a nearby colony of penguins.
It’s an unpredictable terrain. A sunny day can turn into a snow storm in an instant. Glaciers rise up like skyscrapers, but suddenly snap, shattering the glassy surface of the water below. One time we watched from the safety of the boat as an enormous section of ice fell away from a glacier, causing a mammoth wave that rushed towards us.
Giant icebergs seemed solid and unmovable, but as the water slowly makes the bottom lighter, they eventually flip right over, rocking in the frigid sea. You start to realise that this continent, that appears so strong, is actually extraordinarily fragile.