Expedition Snow Desert - An Antarctic Journey
Words and Photos by: Amanda Hiemstra
It takes time and dedication to travel to the end of the world, but the experience is completely worth it. From Toronto Ontario, total flight time is around 14.5 hours. This brings you to your point of disembarkation., and once you depart land it takes another two days to reach Antarctica.
The journey began at the southernmost tip of South America in a small town called Ushuaia. After boarding the expedition ship, we set sail into the calm waters of the Beagle Channel destined for the White Continent. Various species of seabirds circled the ship bidding us farewell and wishing us safe travels. The calmness didn't last for long, however, and nearing midnight we entered the infamous Drake Passage.
The Drake Passage can be fickle - the conditions can lie somewhere between smooth sailing and terrifying. During the two-day crossing, one can experience the 'Drake Lake' or the 'Drake Shake.' Safe to say, we experienced the Drake Shake in both directions. On the way back, we sailed through a force 10 storm, which according to the Beaufort scale is two steps below a hurricane. Our epic battle with the Drake is one I will always remember - the ship rocked and rolled, and so did we.
After a few rough days of sailing, we made it to Antarctica. What we saw over the next six days was life-changing. Colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, adélie and magellanic penguins, and even one lone macaroni penguin affectionately named Kevin. We encountered loads of Antarctic fur seals, a few weddell seals, crabeater seals, and even an elephant seal. Over 25 different species of seabirds including albatross, fulmars, petrels, shearwaters, prions, skuas, shags, gulls, terns, sheathbills, and oystercatchers. Dusky dolphins, a few orca and sei whales off in the distance, and many minke and humpback whales.
The landscapes and light were reminiscent of what you find in your dreams - this place really is a photographer's playground.
We crossed the Antarctic Circle and became the most southern expedition ship on the globe, which was quite lucky as many ships that attempt to go that far south are deterred by weather and ocean conditions. We saw icebergs that ranged in size from ice cubes fit for your drink to tabulars stretching four times the length of the ship. The landscapes and light were reminiscent of what you find in your dreams - this place really is a photographer's playground.
We also sailed into (and safely out of) Deception Island - one of Antarctica’s active volcanoes. Although the last eruption occurred in 1970, Deception Island holds some rich history. Once the site of an active whaling station at Whalers’ Bay, all that remains are some dilapidated buildings, rusted-out boiling vats and tanks, whale skeletons, and remnants of old wooden water-boats. This is one of the few places that we can see traces of human presence and industry in the Antarctic region.
Another highlight of the expedition was an evening exploring and taking in the beauty of Charlotte Bay. Cruising in zodiacs, we experienced the most amazing light dancing on the mountains surrounding us. We were in the company of humpback and minke whales and were treated to an endless show of whale flukes. Circling the zodiacs, these curious creatures seemed to enjoy our presence just as much as we enjoyed theirs. It was humbling to sit among these gentle giants.
This incredible adventure changed me. It’s given me a deeper awareness and appreciation for the environment and its fragility as I learned about the history and the first explorers who attempted to reach this brutal continent, and about the effects of climate change and the importance of conservation.
Antarctica is now a part of me. It’s no longer a place I dream about visiting but rather, a place that I have experienced first hand. The frigid air, the gale-force winds, the untamed wildlife, and the deafening silence - this journey proved to be one of the most incredible adventures of my life. I now feel a true connection with this wild place at the end of the world, this magnificent snow desert.
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