An untamed world: Discovering the wild dreamscape of Antarctica

Jan 8, 2022

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Editor’s note: TPG’s Melanie Lieberman traveled to Antarctica on a free trip provided by Atlas Ocean Voyages. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the line.

As a writer, I am very rarely at a loss for words. But I have no adjectives or adverbs to adequately describe what I saw when staring out at the vast whiteness of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Instead, I found my mind kept drifting away like thick floes of sea ice, captivated by the silhouette of a whale off the starboard side of the ship — or maybe just the crest of a wave.

There are simply no words fit for capturing the icy expanse, a wildness too great to distill into logical sentences.

(Photo by Melanie Liberman/The Points Guy)

Perhaps that’s because Antarctica is a place of such extreme contrasts and contradictions. It is immense, inhospitable and particularly mutable. The katabatic winds can remake the view before your eyes, and ancient glaciers lament loudly as they calve into the sea. But it can also be perfectly still, impossibly quiet, a dreamscape drenched in that eerie, eternal light of the austral summer. This is the Antarctica I discovered — one of the last places on Earth that remains largely untouched and untamed — during a recent Antarctica Discovery sailing on board World Navigator, from the startup luxury expedition cruise line Atlas Ocean Voyages. 

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I spent the first days on board in what I can only describe as a sort of disbelieving stupor. We had been traveling for days, including a significant delay in Ushuaia, Argentina, that nearly upended the entire trip. (Traveling during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with the surge of the omicron variant, is not without risk. In fact, Atlas Ocean Voyages had to cancel its Jan. 6 Antarctica expedition.)

When we finally did board World Navigator late on Saturday evening, I fell almost immediately into a solid, dreamless sleep that clung to me for the following day and a half as we rocked along the Drake Passage.

We were lucky, I was told by members of the crew. It was so far one of the season’s smoothest sailings on the Drake, where three seas converge to make one of the world’s most violent bodies of water. As a result, we were making excellent time to what would be our first stop: Half Moon Island, a sickle-shaped spit of land in the South Shetland Islands that features dramatic rock formations and a rookery of chinstrap penguins that look, unquestionably, as though they’re wearing miniature jockey helmets.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)
(Photos by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

I was ecstatic, of course, but I also didn’t have much in the way of concrete expectations. Like so many people, I thought I’d visit Antarctica after I retired — when I had an empty schedule and a full savings account, and when it was the final, necessary continent on my to-do list (in fact, I still have Australia and Africa left now).

Between October of 2019 and April of 2020, approximately 74,400 tourists visited Antarctica. It was a record year, to be sure, but Antarctica simply does not exist in the collective consciousness of travelers the way other destinations do. It’s not as if you can simply travel there on a spontaneous weekend vacation.

To me, it seemed almost folkloric.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

It certainly didn’t feel like an actual place until I stood on a solid Antarctic island, my face whipped raw by the wind, with the pervasive smell of nesting penguins and marine life all around. 

Even then, I hadn’t technically reached continental Antarctica, just an island north of the Antarctic Peninsula. It wasn’t until the following day, when the ship slid into the serene, snow globe-like embayment of Paradise Harbour, that I could finally say I’d made it to the continent of Antarctica itself.

(Photos by Nikki C./@thecubancarrie and Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

That, I think, was when the reality of Antarctica truly hit me: When we saw a crabeater seal lounging merrily on an ice floe, watched penguins porpoise through the slushy sea ice and lost ourselves to childish whims during a snowball fight with thick fistfuls of pristine snow.

The voyage there

Traveling to Antarctica isn’t forgiving or easy.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Most trips to Antarctica begin at the so-called End of the World in the small port city of Ushuaia, Argentina. Atlas Ocean Voyages sailings are mostly all-inclusive, and this particular trip began with a nonstop flight on a private chartered Airbus 330 from Orlando International Airport (MCO) in Florida to Ushuaia (USH). This significantly cut down on the amount of travel on either end of the trip, but it is still a long journey from New York City, complicated by Argentine travel requirements (at the time of my trip, a negative COVID-19 PCR test, proof of vaccination, mind-boggling paperwork and travel insurance that specifically covers COVID-19) and the cruise line’s own precautions (a negative antigen test before boarding the charter flight and proof of vaccination).

Though there are trips to Antarctica that include a flight directly from the tip of Chile to the southernmost continent, I was here for the classic expedition: one that includes up to two days at sea each way on the infamous Drake Passage.

I envisioned myself as an intrepid explorer. Before the trip, I began reading “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,” and Antarctica seemed to be a prize you earned rather than a destination you visited on vacation.

Photo from the Drake Passage, taken on the same Atlas Ocean Voyages sailing. (Photo by Ceebz Gerard/DNC Media)

Everyone warned me about the rough seas, and even though I’m not prone to seasickness, I packed a small pharmacy in my suitcase (meclizine, ginger chews and plenty of lorazepam) just in case. I felt fine throughout the trip, though to be clear, we had a particularly easy crossing. For people who do find themselves turning green at sea, know that a rough sailing on the Drake could mean stomaching waves that frequently reach 20 to 40 feet in height for two whole days. 

Chilling out

Although I felt pretty well prepared for the voyage (I’m not new to camping and hiking on below-freezing winter days or backpacking and climbing in somewhat extreme conditions), Antarctica was somehow more challenging than I expected. 

Despite owning all the right gear long before this trip was booked, I still found myself chilled to the bone during some tours on the line’s fleet of custom-built Zodiac boats.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

I’m used to peeling off layers while climbing up mountains, not sitting, unmoving, for an hour or more on a small boat zipping around the harbor and stopping to watch penguins stumble ungracefully into the water.

One day, when the weather was exceptionally bad, icy salt water permeated even my best waterproof layers.

Sure, I had many relaxing moments on board World Navigator. There’s the luxury spa by L’Occitane, the first of its kind at sea (I had an excellent massage that was like being masterfully pulled apart and remade in 90 minutes). There were cocktails, endless wine and live piano music after dinner in the upstairs Dome observation lounge, while cozy nooks all over the vessel practically demand that you curl up with a book and a cappuccino.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

The rooms, too, were very comfortable; mine had a furnished balcony that is probably delightful when World Navigator repositions to warmer seas. The bathroom, particularly for a cruise ship, was impressive — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, anyone who has ever tried to shave the back of their legs knows the luxury of an in-shower bench.

(Photo by Ceebz Gerard/DNC Media)

There were other luxuries, too. Although both breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style, you could also order pretty much anything you craved.

One morning, I requested poached eggs with a side of avocado, and even though I can assure you there are no avocado trees growing along the Antarctic Peninsula, slices of perfectly ripe avocado appeared before me nonetheless.

Dinners came with extensive menus inspired by global cuisines — Russian, Portuguese, Japanese and French, to name a few. If I can give you one piece of advice, it’s this: Order the truffle fries.

And as you’d expect from a luxury cruise line, there’s also very friendly, intuitive service. After ordering the same drink on more than one occasion, I was simply asked on future evenings if I wanted my usual.

Yes, I did, thank you very much.

But experiencing Antarctica itself is something altogether different. It is an expedition, and I found myself entirely spent at the end of every day. 

Personally, this is the kind of travel I crave. If I’m not muddy, soggy and utterly exhausted at the end, I don’t feel like I have anything to show for my adventure.

That’s why when we had the opportunity to leap off the ship into the ice-filled waters off the coast of Pleneau Island, I couldn’t say no.

People will tout the health benefits of cold-water dips, but I doubt there’s really a point to a single polar plunge — you do it simply so you can say you did, so you can feel that rare thrill of knowing with absolute certainty that you are bold and fearless and very much alive. (The actual feeling is something between disbelief at yourself for volunteering for such a thing and the kind of cold that hurts like an elbow to the ribs.)

(Photo by Joaquin Beccar Varela/@polarexpeditions)

The itinerary, as it so often was, had to be shifted at the last minute, and suddenly I didn’t have a whole day to mentally prepare myself for the plunge — it was simply time.

I donned my swimsuit, cozy Atlas Ocean Voyages bathrobe and slippers and went down to the mudroom. Vodka shots were poured and music was playing. When it was your turn, you were strapped into a sort of harness — presumably, so you could be dragged back to the vessel if you suddenly forgot how to swim or slipped into shock. 

I was very nearly in the latter category. I was so fixated on how cold it would be that I swallowed a huge mouthful of saltwater when I jumped in. Back on board, when cruisers anticipating their own jump asked me how it was, all I could sputter out was “salty.”

How was it? The water was 29 degrees Fahrenheit. What do you think?

Would I do it again? Just point me to where I jump.

Waiting for penguins

OK, if I’m being honest, there was one thing I expected from my trip to Antarctica: penguins. Like everything else on this continent, they left me more or less speechless.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

You’re supposed to stay at least 5 meters (about 15 feet) away, but you’d often turn to find a penguin waddling in your direction.

More often than not, I’d simply drop to my knees to watch penguins doing penguin things, so the internet is now full of photos of me staring, gape-mouthed and grinning, at a penguin carrying a pebble in its beak as a token of affection; playfully chasing another penguin; or walking, stumbling, tripping and ultimately tobogganing down a snowy slope.

(Photo by John Roberts/In the Loop Travel)
(Photo by Joaquin Beccar Varela/@polarexpeditions)

Most of these sightings took place when conditions were favorable and we were able to leave World Navigator and take a Zodiac to shore for a proper landing.

Other times, when this wasn’t possible, we could still usually go on a Zodiac cruise to see wildlife and the dramatic Antarctic landscape from the water with a member of the expedition team. Their expertise included everything from kayaking and paddling to photography, mountaineering, history, geology, ornithology and marine biology. In addition to leading excursions, the team would also take turns hosting onboard lectures. On and off the ship we were regaled with tales of triumphant (and tragic) Antarctic expeditions, unexpected seabird facts and recollections of past adventures.

During our trip, we saw colonies of gentoo and chinstrap penguins as well as Adelie penguins and a number of other seabirds: black-browed albatross, skua and snowy sheathbills, which are also known as “poop chickens,” an objectively perfect nickname.

On one particular Zodiac cruise, our expedition guide found a leopard seal swimming in the water. It observed our boat with curiosity before opting to chase a group of frenzied penguins.

(Photo by Ceebz Gerard/DNC Media)

Humpback whales made frequent appearances alongside the cruise ship and while we were out on Zodiac tours, and it was not uncommon for an entire room of people to get up and press their faces against a window or brave the wind for a better look from the deck.

We didn’t see orcas, or killer whales, on our sailing. Nor did we see emperor or king penguins, which you’d typically only see on itineraries to other Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions. And no, there are no polar bears in Antarctica.

Go with the flow

You can’t really know what to expect on a trip to Antarctica. There may be a rough outline — a suggestion for the itinerary that might take shape — but depending on the weather, this plan can change multiple times in a single day. It’s a trip that requires patience and flexibility, even when everything is going according to plan (or intentional lack of one).

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

The itinerary for this particular voyage originally included three days of “Captain’s Choice” ports of call along the Antarctic Peninsula such as Danco Island, Neko Harbor and Cuverville Island.

You couldn’t plan any part of the day in advance, which could be both blissfully freeing or immensely frustrating.

It was not uncommon to wake up expecting to go kayaking around an iceberg-filled bay only to find that even a landing wasn’t possible. In a single day on our sailing, the landing sites could easily change two or three times.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Years ago, I saw punk rock frontman Henry Rollins during one of his spoken word tours, during which he talked at length about his trip to Antarctica. I remember him describing the stench of the penguins (“They’re covered in their own droppings and the droppings of their friends. It’s very pungent,” he told The Guardian in 2016) and the visceral experience he had while camping.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

So, when I found out camping was an option in Antarctica, I was elated. (I. Love. Sleeping. Outside.)

But because of weather and other circumstances, only one group had the opportunity to paddle and kayak during our Antarctica sailing, and camping overnight was scrapped from the playbook altogether.

Becoming an ambassador

As a writer, I sometimes find I get lost in the poetry of a string of words. But as a journalist, it’s my responsibility to seek out the truth — to experience the world firsthand and share what I’ve discovered.

Maybe that’s the real reason I’ve found myself so confounded by Antarctica. Its very existence defies logic.

(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

It is a desert covered in prehistoric ice, where my first steps on the continent were blurred by heavy snowfall.

It is a place dislodged from time itself. There is no official time zone in Antarctica, and all the lines of longitude that segment the planet intersect at the South Pole at a point that, you could argue, is every hour on Earth happening instantaneously.

(Photo by Ceebz Gerard/DNC Media)

In the summer, the sun never sets — a surreal and seriously disorienting phenomenon that contributed to my overall sense of becoming increasingly unmoored as the days went on. I’d find myself engrossed in an after-dinner conversation only to realize it was nearly time for breakfast.

And it is a place that does not belong to any one person or nation.

But they do say that visiting makes you an Antarctic Ambassador: a person who, among other things, “educates others by sharing their Antarctic experiences.”

My experience was deeply profound. Although I can say that I’ve been there — that I have traveled beyond the end of the world to some primordial snowscape — I do not believe Antarctica is truly knowable.

After all, approximately 98% of the continent is covered in ice.

(Photos by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy and Ceebz Gerard/DNC Media)
(Photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy)

Antarctica is a destination that demands absolute adaptability, not just from the few animals and plants that have evolved to survive the seemingly uninhabitable climate but also from the people who, for science or tourism, are willing to surrender any semblance of control. Because, beyond the wonder of the wildlife sightings, the humbling grandeur of the land and seascapes, and the ineffable sensation of timelessness you experience on a journey to the bottom of the world, it is that very sense of surrender that makes the journey to Antarctica so singular.

Personally? I’ve never felt more free.

Featured photo by Ceebz Gerard/DNC Media. 

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