Wiencke Island, Antarctica

Photo: Georges Nijs [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Georges Nijs [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bound for Antarctica. After years of talking about it, you’re heading to the southernmost continent. Though you’ve been to all the others, you weren’t quite sure you’d make it to the seventh. The long travel time and the unpredictable weather were deterrents. But you’re finally doing it.

First, make your way to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. It’s the southernmost city, not just in Argentina, but the whole world. Some people come here to see glaciers and the beautiful Patagonia landscape, though most use it as a departure point for the Southern Ocean. It’s cold and windy along the Beagle Channel; a preview of what’s to come.

Board Oceanwide Expeditions’ Ortelius vessel. Yes, a vessel. You can’t call this a cruise ship. Comfort comes second to being able to maneuver through the ice. You may not appreciate this upon departure, but within a few days you’ll start to understand. Spend three days at sea. After passing Cape Horn, Chile, the tip of South America, enter the Drake Passage. The 500-mile-wide passage is dangerous; many ships have disappeared here. When the rough seas aren’t upsetting your stomach, keep an eye out for dolphins, whales, and Southern Giant Petrels.

Photo: Snowshoeing in Antarctica © Elke Lindner-Oceanwide Expeditions - See more at: http://www.oceanwide-expeditions.com/trips/interest/hiking-snowshoeing/#sthash.N5P3BrE2.dpuf
Photo: Snowshoeing in Antarctica © Elke Lindner-Oceanwide Expeditions – See more at: http://www.oceanwide-expeditions.com/trips/interest/hiking-snowshoeing/#sthash.N5P3BrE2.dpuf

After staring at the endless sea for hours and hours, you think you’re seeing things when you spot your first icebergs. Small pieces of ice, which broke off glaciers, become bigger and bigger. Then the South Shetland Islands come into view. The islands are home to research stations, seals, and seabirds. The Ortelius continues past the Melchior Islands, through the Schollaert Channel, between Brabant Island and Anvers Island, and into the Neumayer Channel. It’s here, in the protected waters near Wiencke Island, that the vessel anchors, and you prepare to deboard for the first time in days.

Strap on snowshoes and add extra layers to begin exploring. Wiencke Island is a rocky island with three mountain peaks. It’s easy to walk along the shore. Gentoo penguins congregate around the water. When you start to get close, one of them throws back his head and calls out to alert the others. Imperial Shags stay close to the rocks. And the two enormous mounds? They’re leopard seals.

Feeling more comfortable—and not quite as cold—the second day, climb up Jougla Point on your snowshoes. You pass a pod of smaller crabeater seals along the way. From the peak, you have a view of the Palmer Archipelago, the endless glacier, and the choppy sea. A minke whale breaches the water. You breathe in the crisp air. You’ve never felt so tiny. You’re really in Antarctica.

The trip continues. You sail farther into the icy fjords. You see Adélie Penguins, blue-eyed shags, and humpback whales. Your camera’s memory card is nearly full. And you deboard in Neko Harbor to officially put your feet on the Antarctic continent, in case the islands didn’t count. Eventually, it’s time to leave. You take Dramamine again, and you sail back through the Drake Passage to Ushuaia. The trip of a lifetime was so much more rewarding than you ever could have imagined it would be.

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