Antarctica: Extremes of Earth

We’re often venturing to the hottest places on Earth. But this time we’ve traded lava lakes for icebergs and journeying to Antarctica. 

On March 14, 2008 we departed Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world) for a ten day expedition to Antarctica. Led by Dr. Alex Cowan, our voyage would take us across the Drake Passage, towards the South Shetland Islands, and then onto the Antarctic Peninsula.

After a muster drill, we met key members of our expedition staff then prepped for the roughest stretch of water in the world. This washing machine is known as the Drake Passage and marks the convergence of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans. The waves, winds, and currents all seemingly coming together, conspiring against any intrepid adventure. We were warned of either the Drake Shake or Drake Lake. What we had was somewhere in between.

On-board our ice strengthened expedition vessel (about 2°C here, and one brave soul in shorts and t-shirt!)

The next couple of days were crossing open ocean. There was a prize for whoever caught the first glimpse of Antarctica…or at least an iceberg.

Upon awaking on Day 3, we had anchored near the Aitcho Islands (part of the South Shetland Islands), ready for our first landing on Antarctica (woohoo!).

Cecilia Island – our second landing spot

Landing on Antarctica is not as simple as you may think. There are a number of pre-briefings to attend and very strict rules to follow. First up is a thorough cleaning of all gear and I mean thorough – removing any seeds, soil etc and disinfecting footwear, tripod legs etc. Next was the careful layering of clothing. Thermals, woolen jumpers, heavy jackets and more. From here, we had to sign off when leaving the ship. A zodiac would finally take us to our landing spot.

Our first landing (on Barientos Island) was surreal. We were surrounded by penguins. Hundreds of them. The landscape incredibly spectacular and bitterly cold. Within minutes of landing, a leopard seal emerged from the waves, grabbing a penguin in what was a gruesome death. It was like watching a David Attenborough documentary unfolding in front of us. Our second landing was Cecilia Island where we managed to hike to the summit (interesting experience in your wellies!)

Curious penguins on Barientos Island

Hiking down from Cecilia Island

Day 4 had us arriving into Neko Harbour for a landing on Cuverville Island. Neko Harbour was perhaps my favorite location of the trip. Huge glaciers and icebergs that dwarfed our ship. Before boarding the zodiacs, we had a tsunami briefing. Perhaps a little out-of-place for Antarctica, but sure enough, a tsunami came after bearing witness to large chunks of ice, calving from nearby glaciers.

Still with us? Good! Day 5 was the most special day of all. Below is Susan Adie, one of our Antarctica Expedition leaders. In recognition of her work as a polar conservationist, a cove on the continent’s western coast was named after her. Better still, our expedition leader decided we would set sail for “Adie’s Cove” and with a small zodiac dodging house-sized icebergs, we made landfall – becoming the first ever humans to explore this part of the world. What a privilege!

Adie’s Cove

Pancake ice, Adie’s cove – not long until the ocean will be completely frozen over.

Our next landing was on Petermann Island. We were lucky to see a few Adélie Penguins intermixed with a large Gentoo colony.

The penguins are a curious type. Because they have no natural land predators, they seem unfazed by our presence. There are 17 species of Penguins, 7 of which can be found here in Antarctica

We continued north bound on Day 6, eventually arriving at Port Charcot for a landing on Booth Island. The weather turned and was snowing hard. We managed a short and slippery hike to a high vantage point.

Come the afternoon we landed at Palmer Station. Palmer Station is a US research station on Anvers Island. It was fantastic to meet the scientists and find out more about their work…and of course sample some of their famous brownies…yum!

Our final Antarctic landing was Deception Island. This island is the caldera of an active volcano, last erupting in 1969. The weather prevented us climbing to the “Nipple” (a high point on the Island), but we did manage to get to Neptune’s window.

And with the excitement of my first Antarctic volcano. I have one more thing to tick off the list. The polar plunge.

I’ll always remember the world’s southernmost continent as a place of extremes, of wonder and with a strong desire to return. But there’s no time to relax. In three days time, we’re headed to the hottest place on the planet – inside one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, Mt. Yasur.