Across the icy waters of Antarctica

Chunks of ice bob around your yellow kayak. Mountains covered white and as tall as the Rockies jut to the sky from the near-frozen water. You feel small. In the distance is your ship - an old Russian sonar ship, the Akademik Ioffe - and as you look at it you realize just how far you are from everything. You think you appreciate your smallness among the towering Antarctic environment, but then you think, what if it were only me here? No ship, no zodiacs, just a fleshy creature standing on the shore. The creature would be very small indeed. You pause on that thought, but picturing yourself alone on the shore still doesn’t do the scope of the place justice. The landscape is too enormous and too remote for the human mind to grasp fully.

You're brought back to scale when you hear the kayakers around you shouting. They’re pointing. There was a whale a moment before. You didn't see it, but you know it was there because of the fishy stench lingering in the crisp air. A moment later the whale resurfaces. Your grip tightens on the paddle. The whale is so close you can see the scars on its back. When you look to your compatriots they look back to you. They’re all beaming. You haven't had such a strong hit of dopamine since that night with that festival girl. You’re in Antarctica. You’re in fucking Antarctica and the whale is swimming directly beneath your kayak. Yes, you’re scared, but you’ve also sort of accepted the fear. There are things bigger than you. If you're going in, you're going in.

This is my week in Antarctica.

Pssh, big deal.

After a two day crossing of the Drake Passage, our first landing in Antarctica was at Neko Harbor among a colony of Gentoo penguins. Since the seasons are turning over on the white continent the penguins are molting. For a few weeks the birds sacrifice their vanity to shed their worn feathers for new ones. Not only will the new feathers keep them warmer and more hydrodynamic, but once the molting process is over they'll look as fresh as a pair of '96 Jordans.

Young Bull
I feel ya, buddy.
Clean yourself up, it's time to pick up some chicks.

After our brief landing, sixteen of us took to the sea. The first day of kayaking was incredible. There were no whales breaching or penguins leaping from the water, but who needs that when there are views like this?

There are no crabs in Antarctica. Crabeater seals eat krill.

Our second morning we were scheduled to pass through the Lemaire Channel, but found our path blocked by an iceberg. We turned around and headed for Palmer Station.

Iceberg in our way.

Palmer Station is the only American base above the Antarctic Circle. At the peak of summer there can be forty people residing there. Through the winter that falls to about ten. There's a gift store on base (naturally, it's American), and after our tour I bought myself a Palmer Station zippo. I've always wanted a zippo and an American gift store in Antarctica seemed like the place to get one.

The jerks at Palmer Station wouldn't let us use their wifi to update our Instagram accounts.
The day after Palmer Station things started getting crazy. There were whales, lots of whales.

A little before nine I slipped into my dry suit and stepped outside with the other of the kayakers. I expected everyone to be milling about as they waited to board the zodiak, but instead they were whooping and shouting along the railing. Something was happening. Three humpbacks were weaving between zodiaks. I found a spot on the railing to watch. We hadn't been so near to such playful whales before.

The whales left for a moment and we were able to board the zodiac. A minute later the whales returned to continue their show.
With the whales behind me and being one of the first people on the water, I had a quiet moment to take in the beauty of Antarctica while it snowed.
The iceberg from the previous photo. Kayakers for scale.
A few harpoons and some kayaks to bring this baby in, right?
Ice on the kayak before sun broke through in the afternoon.
Lucky number seven.

Following a day of adventurous kayaking I was hoping for a little R&R when we landed next morning at an Argentinian Refugio, but frankly there was none to be found. Granted, the bravery in building on such inhospitable terrain is notable and the views of the glaciers across the bay are to die for, but who paints their shelters orange anymore? It's an assault to the senses. And where's the central heating? Or the DirectTV? I cannot in good conscious recommend this place to anyone. You'd have to be stranded in Antarctica to stay here more than a few hours. One out of five stars.

Well the penguins like the refugio just fine.
One more bad review and this AirBnb experiment is over.

After the refugio it was back to the Ioffe. I was exhausted from yet another night of excessive Guinness and endless card games so after lunch I fell into a dreamless, hangover-induced sleep. I slept through the announcements (which are as loud as a bullhorn) and was only awoken when our kayak guide Ehren knocked on my door. Not only was Ehren suited up, but so was everyone else and they were waiting for me by the gangway. I jumped out of bed, pulled on my base layers, and ran downstairs. Thank the good spaghetti monster in sky everyone waited for me, because if they hadn't I would have missed some of the most magical moments in my life.

We spent a peaceful hour kayaking around an island of chinstrap penguins then boarded our zodiak to return to the Ioffe. As we were on our way back we were radioed about a whale breaching. When we reached the other zodiacs, we were greeted by a humpback swimming directly under us and pushing up. Our zodiak tilted. Everyone turned to Ehren and by the look on his face we knew our fate was up to the whale.

The humpback set us down though, and rather than tipping us into the water put on a show. The humpback rubbed against the zodiak, turned over, sprayed people, and poked its head out of the water. At times the humpback was so close I could have touched it. The humpback went from zodiak to zodiak, giving each group of yipping adventurers their fair share. Soon a second humpback joined in. Together they circled our zodiaks with more maneuverability than a shark. After twenty minutes the humpbacks separated themselves from the zodiaks and rose their dorsal fins high above the water in preparation for a deep dive. Then they dove and their tails slipped fully out of the water, put on full display against the setting sun. The closure was so perfect I nearly knocked an Irishman from the zodiak as I hit him on the back in adrenaline fueled bliss.

I'm not going to rate my life experiences in percentages of greatness, but if I did this half an hour would be in the top one percent.

What could top being within touching distance of two humpback whales? Probably nothing. But the next day was still pretty damn cool. We went to the old whaling station on Deception Island, harassed some fur seals and took a polar plunge.

Deception Island is actually the caldera of an active volcano. Steam rises as the cold ocean water hits the warm sand. The island is a great natural harbor and was used for an array of purposes until an eruption in 1967. It's since been designated a historical site.
Ruins of old endeavors.

Our last stop was on the South Shetland Islands. We bummed around with the elephant seals for a bit then started our two day journey back to Ushuaia. It was strange being back on the Ioffe knowing I'd probably never return to Antarctica. The whole week was more a dream than any other week of my life. There wasn't a normal thing about the place. For seven days I didn't see a single piece of trash. When was the last time that happened?

A group of alcoholic elephant seals.



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