The 7th Continent
From the upper deck of Hebridean Sky, the winds are gusting from all directions. The ship drifts along the Beagle Channel, a strait in Tierra del Fuego Archipelago on the extreme southern tip of South America, sandwiched between Chile and Argentina. The temperature reads 46°F, far warmer than where we’d just been, but it is chillier than expected. With a firm grasp on anything within reach, we try to keep balance as we tilt our heads back, eyes up to the star-studded night sky. I’d been gazing with awe at the constellations’ celestial formations, and hope to see the International Space Station move across the sky once again, just as I had on a clear night earlier in the week. It’s rounding about midnight, and with just one more day to call this ship home, I can’t help but reflect on the beauty of the last fifteen days. Mourning a loss in a sense because I know the end is near, I’m at a crossroads with time. To think I’d once thought two weeks was too long, in this moment, I am certain it wasn’t long enough. I wonder if this voyage will forever be the pinnacle of my travels; the one by which all my future journeys will be measured against. Something in me has changed; I am different today than I was before I came here. None the wiser to her mysticism, all I can conclude at this point is that I have laid my heart down and surrendered myself to the immortal beauty of Antarctica. She holds a part of me, and with me, I hold a piece of her.
Admittedly, I had been naïve. In all the years of my life that I have pondered the places my innate wanderlust would take me, Antarctica was never one to cross my mind. Not for lack of interest or intrigue, it had simply been that travel to such a pristine environment seemed about as likely as casual holiday space exploration. I was ignorant to the prospect that a ‘regular’ person such as myself could venture off to the southernmost region of this planet without serious commitment to a drastic career and lifestyle change. That was pre-Antarctica me. Now I live life on the other side of the divide, enlightened enough to know that life and travels as I’d once known it, will never be the same. If love were a tangible piece of matter, its habitat would live in irony, laid upon the coldest climate known to man.
In my pursuits to uncover the most profound places in the world to honeymoon or say “I do,” I must confess I’d had my doubts whether any engaged couple could actually be swayed to take their celebration 9,000 miles from home. Surely, I thought, that was a bit… outlandish. Imagining a save-the-date inviting someone to witness an exchange of vows at the great white continent, it inspires a chuckle. Once Uncle Bob realizes that “Antarctica” isn’t just some hipster downtown venue, the rumble of his eyes rolling into the back of his head would be felt as far as Vietnam. A honeymoon seemed far more within the realm of possibility, although likely reserved for the adventurous couple on the chase for something wild, extraordinary, wholly unique, and profoundly wonderful. A pair that appreciates an experience that introduces entirely new meaning to the idiom, ‘off the beaten path’. As for the rest, that remained to be seen.
With these facets in mind and the possibilities presented before me, I’d caught the red-eye from New York down to the brilliant capital city of Argentina. At this given moment one late February day, the Buenos Aires climate is fairly warm and the skies are clear. It is a welcomed respite between the bitter cold winter up north, and the frigid climates that await further south. It is just another late summer day at the flipside of the seasonal calendar in the southern hemisphere. The parks are flowery and fragrant as ever, and a stroll through the local streets begets vibrant cultural encounters, where could-be lovers dramatically dance the tango at any given corner. I spend a day here as a transient spectator, and appreciate the setting for its extended layover potential before moving forward with my journey.
On to Ushuaia, a place widely regarded as the southernmost city in the world, I land at the bottom tip of Argentina for a one night’s stay at Arakur Resort and Spa prior to embarkation day. Perched 800 feet above sea level and surrounded by stunning panoramic views, its environment strikes the perfect balance of serenity and adventure in Tierra del Fuego. Up to two nights accommodations at this Leading Hotels of the World member is provided at gratis by Polar Latitudes, the small ship voyage company that will be heading off this Antarctic expedition, operating the exquisite vessel known as Hebridean Sky. The hotel is luxurious and tranquil, and one cannot go wrong whether reflecting on the journey ahead from within the resort’s spa facilities, or exploring the region’s hiking trails and shops of downtown Ushuaia. That evening there is an optional briefing at Arakur, which lends the opportunity to meet fellow passengers, make any pre-boarding inquiries, and conveniently collect rental gear reserved ahead of time.
Mere minutes from the time I’d arrived in Ushuaia, I’d begun to meet the peripheral characters that would enhance this odyssey. My first encounter was with a man by the name of Hani. Impossibly buoyant by nature, he is quizzically a Mr. Bean of sorts. His enthusiasm strikes me as almost childlike, racing excitedly at a mile a minute. I will come to learn in the days that follow that there is no extinguishing Hani’s beaming positivity; he is always on, day and night, and I will wonder if he’s ever spent a moment of his life not sporting a smile. Almost immediately, Hani engages me in conversation, dispelling any room for shyness; we’re in this together it would seem, brothers and sisters of the passage. I learn that he has been a wildlife photographer for National Geographic for more than 20 years, but what brings him here is the plight of personal interest, separate from his occupational commission. Nonetheless, with him he carries a camera lens so gargantuan in size, he actually had to stow it in his checked luggage. Like so many of the passengers I come to meet, Hani has come for the divine glory and pleasure of witnessing Antarctica, a bucket list destination for all. Next, I meet Ariane, a French Canadian author and travel agent in from Montreal. My first impression of her is one of a calming presence, but in the time we will share together, she never ceases to make me laugh, and in due course she becomes one of my closest confidents on the boat. Throughout the expedition, I meet an eclectic and interesting mix of people that represent a diverse range of nationalities and backgrounds, and we come together held by one commonality: a genuine desire to come face-to-face with Antarctica, and revel the wisdom of her splendors.
On embarkation day, I take advantage of the hearty breakfast spread at Arakur, and spend the day at leisure prior to the time I am due at the port. I opt to peruse the local shops on San Martin, the main shopping district in downtown Ushuaia, collecting an assortment of postcards and souvenirs I suspect will not otherwise be found with ease at the frosty continent which the South Pole calls home.
Aboard Hebridean Sky, I am instantly taken aback by the friendliness of the Polar Latitudes crew and expedition team, and furthermore impressed by the lofty accommodations before me. A modestly sized state-of-the-art ship with robust capabilities, Heb Sky hosts a comfortable maximum of 114 passengers across 58 beautifully appointed suites. Common areas include lounges, sitting areas, a library, bar, dining room, reception desk, and multi-level outdoor observation decks. The Polar Latitudes team keeps an Open Bridge Policy, meaning passengers are free to visit the central command of navigation as they please.
My Promenade Suite on Deck 4 extends generous living quarters of about 220 square feet, rivaling much of the land-based accommodations I’ve stayed in. Two large windows overlook the exterior terrain, and a walk-in closet with more stowage space than I know what to do with awaits me as I settle in. The en-suite bathroom is fully stocked with Molton Brown toiletries and essentials, and I am offered ample space in my furnished cabin to relax and unwind between my plush sofa, vanity dresser, and queen-sized bed. An assortment of goodies decorate the room with champagne, chocolates, fruit, and Polar Latitudes souvenirs among them. Beside my welcome packet rests my very own Helly Hansen expedition jacket, and I will sport this gear long after my return back home.
It’s not long before a chime sounds over the PA loudspeaker, and a friendly voice welcomes us to head down to the lounge on Deck 3 for canapés and cocktails, where guests are encouraged to mix and mingle with crew and fellow passengers. Following this mixer, we engage in a concise safety orientation and drill, and it’s not at all the boring routine one might expect; it is organized and highly efficient, yet at the same time, the Polar Latitudes team seems to have a way of keeping it all in good fun.
Setting sail at just about suppertime, the inaugural evening is kicked off with a Captain’s Welcome Dinner. Fine wines are flowing, and meal choices are abundant, with course after course of gourmet delights. Open seating for every meal invites the opportunity to meet a vast variety of like-minded travelers whose origins span across the globe. As I was traveling solo on this trip, I’d initially held a certain degree of concern that I would spend my next 38 meals crashing in on the company of others, but my anxiety surrounding this quickly dissipates, and I find my place in this community in no time. At each table, which seats as little as two guests or as many as ten, for every meal, at least one member of the expedition team joins us. I quickly come to learn how integral this seemingly minor facet in the voyage’s design is; it serves as an invaluable opportunity to gain insight into their experiences, and allows us to know each other on a personal and professional level, blurring the lines of formality. Never at any point do I feel like just another passenger- one that comes and goes like the many they’ve encountered before me. Although the relationship between the team and guests rarely feels affected by a separation of hierarchy and authority, the troupe runs a tight ship, always with safety at the forefront of priority, and a comfortable, seamless flow to the day’s events.
At the welcoming feast, our table is joined by Mariela Cornejo, our designated Assistant Expedition Team Leader. An Ushuaia native with a penchant for adventure, Maru, as she likes to go by, clearly loves what she does. Her warm smile and genuine energy is a brilliant source of positivity and enthusiasm. During this meal, we share a bit about ourselves, discuss the days ahead, and become fast friends, a kinship I eventually establish with most of the crew.
Each member of the expedition team brings some unique facet to the table, enriching the experience as a whole in a greater capacity than I could have anticipated. Bob Gilmore, the onboard glaciologist (and if I may say, a total geek in the absolute best sense), unearths new understanding to the very ground we will set foot on. Jeff Reynolds, our resident marine biology expert, is always on the look out for whales and wildlife, alerting us to sightings of orcas and humpbacks alongside the ship. Lisa LaPointe is an ornithologist (which I’d learned basically means she’s a bird aficionado) that can tell us everything we could ever need or want to know about penguins and countless other winged animals. Seb Coulthard is more than a historian with a vast knowledge of all things related to the Antarctic’s mystical past; an award winning sailor and aeronautical engineer with fifteen years of service in the British Royal Navy under his belt, he was one of six men to have taken part in an audacious and faithful reenactment of Ernest Shackleton’s exploration to the Antarctic. A one-time attorney turned wildlife photographer, our photography coach assists us in achieving our dream captures no matter the medium, and it is because of Dean Tatooles that I now know what “aperture” means. Navigating us through the Antarctic, Captain Henrik Karlsson not only utilizes his expertise to safely guide us through some of the world’s choppiest waters, he even looks the commander part in his nautically Nordic stature, white beard and all. I even come to cherish my time with the hotel staff that goes above and beyond to see that I am always comfortable and cared for. Gleena, the chambermaid that assists with keeping my cabin stocked and spotless, holds a presence like sunshine, and Leo down in the dining room regularly brightens my day with gifts of creative handmade origami flowers, butterflies, and more. There are many members of the team whom I come in close encounters with, whether onboard the Zodiac boats which cruise around glaciers and transport us to landing sites, or in the evenings at our friendly ‘neighborhood’ bar, complemented by Randy “Music Man”’ Bulicka’s rhythmic talents that lend familiar tunes from his piano and guitar, to which he accepts requests from a wide breadth of catalog selections. It is in the evenings I find myself reuniting with my fellow band of adventurers, recapping our daily feats over a smooth gin and tonic, best chilled with 30,000 year old ice, collected by yours truly earlier in the day. Whether coming together for karaoke or simply sharing stories from land and sea, crew and passengers merge as one tightly knit group of friends. In a matter of days, a ship which represents 15 countries around the world, we unite as comrades, and it begins to feel as though we’ve known each other all our lives, sharing in an experience that is unlike any other.
Now, there’s something you should know about Antarctica. She is exquisite and enigmatic, but you have to earn her love. Home to the most inhospitable and unpredictable location on this earth, a rendezvous with Annie does not come by an exact science where everything adheres to plan. Once you can accept to expect the unexpected, she will grab command of your adoration and never let go. In spite of her unpredictable ways, no one knows how to tango with Antarctica like Polar Latitudes, whose expeditions are exclusive to regions of the extreme south. With current operations aboard two nearly identical sisters ships- Hebridean Sky and Island Sky- Polar Latitudes will welcome a third vessel known as Seaventure to the fleet in November 2021. Equipped with an expert crew that eats, sleeps, and breathes polar exploration, it was without hesitation I’d laid my life to rest in their hands as we approached a latitude of 66°33’S.
A prevailing hot topic on board quickly sets its sights to the notorious Drake Passage. Infamous for its raging turbulent waters, it is the geographical point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans merge, causing quite the literal stir. The question always prevails: will we encounter Drake Lake or Drake Shake? It’s nearly impossible to know ahead of time what will be, and we’re at the mercy of the forces of nature, and guidance of our sea captain. Our first full day at sea, I begin to notice a certain degree of rocking, and while I don’t quite feel catastrophically unwell, I find myself mildly ailing as I adjust to new sensations and develop my ‘sea legs’. “So, would you say this is a Drake Shake?” I’d asked Marc Jansen, Polar Latitude’s sweet and remarkably competent Passenger Service Manager. He then let out a lighthearted laugh, and replied, “Oh no, this is most definitely Drake Lake. I would say this is quite tame!” This factoid took me by surprise, and I’d then realized that the Drake’s reputation is not understated. Yet still, crossing the Drake comes like a rite of passage; you instantly feel a little more badass having sailed through it, and there is something to be said for strapping together with fellow passengers and braving the natural elements that be. It makes you feel as though you’ve really had to work for the privilege of stepping foot on Antarctica’s landmass. Frankly, I’d argue to say it is an essential point of the experience. The good news is that it’s possible to get ahead of seasickness by preparing for it; you don’t want to wait to take Dramamine tablets or apply a prescriptive motion patch, because once it’s hit you, it’s already too late. For those that did not come prepared for the high tide, there was comfort to be found with Dr. Rick Mendelssohn, the ship’s friendly and accessible doctor, always on call to those in need.
Days at sea are anything but a bore, with plenty of opportunity to sit for informative lectures, and participate in Citizen Science programs where passengers may aid scientific research by tracking salinity, taking phytoplankton samples, reporting data for NASA’s GLOBE Observer Program, and more. While participation and sign-up is voluntary and welcomes all passengers to get involved, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t wish to leave their mark in such a remarkable capacity. Fun and engaging, involvement in any one of the numerous programs leaves a lasting feeling of pride and enrichment, having contributed something of higher purpose to the planet. Nothing quite compares to this sense of satisfaction.
There are also more laid back ways to pass the tide of time, whether reading from any number of books in the library’s collection, nibbles and tea with a side of conversation, or catching up on email’s from the ship’s desktop computers. The Wi-Fi bandwidth, although not the high speed one might know from home, is not as tragic as I’d anticipated, and while I’ll admit that I was a bit panicked by the prospect of being disconnected from my world, I’d unexpectedly found myself grateful for the opportunity to unplug and simply be present in this time and place. Maybe it’s the clean air, perhaps it’s those adorable penguins- all I know is, by the time I’d reached Antarctica, never in my life have I felt so wholly present in the moment.
Once across the Drake Passage, it is smooth sailing throughout. Weather conditions along the Antarctic Peninsula shift geographical plans at times, but you go in prepared to be adaptable, and there’s really no wrong way to see or be in Antarctica. Each day at the seventh continent generally presents a morning and afternoon landing opportunity. It is during these times we board a Zodiac boat carrying about ten passengers each, and get up close and personal with the greatest beauty I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. During my first Zodiac cruise, we’d zipped around massive glaciers that in fact reside 90% beneath the water, becoming honorary glaciologists ourselves as we learn to identify the age of the ice which surrounds us. Antarctic fur seals gather in small groups to ostensibly bask the Antarctic summer, laid on their sides without a care. We are in their living room, and considerate guests we will be. As such, substantial measures are taken to preserve this unsullied earth, seeing that it is left just as it was when we’d come to it, and this conscious effort quickly becomes second nature. Although taking or leaving anything from the continent is strictly forbidden, I am permitted to collect a sampling of crystal clear glacial ice, estimated to be about 30,000 years old, to carry back to my cabin. Naturally, it melts in the ice bucket where I’d lovingly nursed it, but I do make sure to bottle up my own personal collection of the ancient element to bring back home.
Amidst all of the landing experiences, from visiting Vernadsky Station, an active Ukrainian science base on the continent which hosts no permanent residents, to the historically significant Wordie House, a British hut located on Winter Island, it becomes evident that Antarctica isn’t just one big block of ice full of penguins to see; there are fascinating discoveries to be made all around, with numerous sites lending monumental snippets in time in the Antarctic’s 200 young years of human exploration. Pair that with incalculable opportunities for absurd amounts of fun, and you’ll find yourself doing some pretty wild, brave, and arguably daft things in the name of Antarctica. One of the fondest memories for me in this passage was the ceremonial polar plunge. In nothing but a two-piece bikini, I’d lined up with my ship pals to take the leap into the frightfully cold Antarctic waters (.7 °C to be precise), and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again. Beach music played aloud, and a nice stiff glass of vodka awaited those that had taken the plunge. It was an afternoon of laughs, not to mention an epic photographic moment, followed by a bountiful barbeque lunch on the Lido Deck.
One could clearly see what makes Antarctica a scintillating place on this earth with boundless parts to relish, but in the course of my junket, I’d found myself continually brought back to its peak romantic splendors. I was prepared to meet at least a few pairs of honeymooners on board, but what I hadn’t foreseen was serving as a first-hand witness to the most brilliant marriage proposal I’d ever heard of. Early on in the voyage, I’d met Ali and Lina, a young professional couple from China residing in the cabin beside my own. Ali was set to celebrate his 30th birthday that week, and the lovely couple had booked the expedition to celebrate this milestone occasion. At least that is what Lina believed to be the case. In reality, Ali had been planning to propose to her for the last eight months, patiently waiting until he could bring her to the most impossibly beautiful place in the world to pop the question. He didn’t know where that exact location would be beyond narrowing it down to one continent, and he didn’t know how it would go down. He’d left the details to the magic makers at Polar Latitudes, packing along with him one exquisite diamond ring. One day as I was in the library, Ali shared his intentions with me, and I was immediately overwhelmed with excitement. In the days that followed, any time I saw Ali where Lina was out of earshot, he’d nervously ask me if I thought she would say yes. I had never been more certain of anything in my life, I told him, and I’d earnestly meant it. When the big day and the perfect opportunity had finally presented itself, I was humbled and honored that Ali had invited me to be witness to this magical chapter in their love story. With a ring tucked inside his pocket, I’d boarded a Zodiac along Useful Island with Ali, Lina, our Expedition Leader Pablo Brandeman, resident photography coach, and a couple of other members from the team. The crowd might’ve looked a bit conspicuous to Lina, if not for my decoy role as an ordinary passenger, where I’ve never been happier to be a third wheel. Moments later, Pablo had identified the perfect standing rock in a bay to drop off the happy couple, as we looked on with bated breath not meters away. So nervous he almost forgot where he’d placed the ring, Ali got down on one knee and professed his love for Lina in the most romantic setting imaginable. Taken completely by surprise, and overcome by happiness, her response was one of poetry: “Why not?” she said with a sly grin and a tear run down her cheek. What happened next, I’m afraid I may never be able to explain, but scout’s honor, I stand by the truth of this story. In the second that followed Lina’s acceptance of Ali’s proposal, the hundreds of penguins situated behind them in the bay went absolutely wild, spontaneously flapping and calling out vehemently, as though they were cheering on the elated lovebirds. Even for the Antarctic veterans aboard the Zodiac, it was an astonishing moment none of us had ever seen before. Back at the ship, the passengers and crew toasted to the newly engaged couple, and a joyous celebration ensued.
Revisiting the concept that Antarctica is a feasible or even appropriate setting for love’s eminent moments, my consensus is in. A marriage proposal: No question- hard yes. A honeymoon: Undoubtedly so. A destination wedding: Perhaps the most brilliant idea yet. While this isn’t the place to bring down 100 of one’s closest friends and family (unless they’re a really cool bunch, and in which case, I want to go to Thanksgiving at your house), it doesn’t get much more romantic than this. Think Titanic without that whole iceberg/capsizing situation. Together you brave the elements, and surrounded by white ancient earth, the ship’s captain that has navigated you to such a time and a place, intimately pronounces you as forever belonging to one another. Just the thought of it gives me the chills (in a good way). And we can’t forget the bonus perk here: penguins bring their own tuxedo-like formal attire.
For those not yet about to take the marital leap, there’s a place in Antarctica too. It has been said that in order to determine whether two people can stand the test of time, they should spend a few hours sat together in traffic, and everything one needs to know will readily emerge. I say we make it interesting. Cross the Drake Passage with that special someone, and reap the rewards at the other side. Worst-case scenario, you come home as ambassadors of Antarctica, and by extension, the planet. It’s not half bad.
Welcome to the end of the earth. It is here you will find love, peace, wisdom, beauty, and purpose. I have seen the clearest crystal waters in the Caribbean, and immersed myself in the cultural splendors of the Orient. I’ve trekked beside the gorillas through the thickets of East Africa, and have frolicked the dreamiest landscape in the French countryside. I feel well traveled enough to say that there isn’t a place more purifying, inspirational, and romantic within the confines of our global reach. There is nothing anyone can say that will make you the kind of person or couple to take this journey. You’ve either got a spark for adventure or you don’t, but if you can identify even a glimmer of curiosity or intrigue for such a quest, what awaits is the most incredible encounter you will ever face. I’ve come to realize something about Antarctica; she is a tender lady. Treat her with gentleness and care, and I promise she will reciprocate in ways you couldn’t begin to imagine. What you take home with you is the memory of an experience that is truly priceless, and for all other intents and purposes, a love story that serves as the ultimate conversational icebreaker.