From time to time, in the rarest of circumstances, we have the chance to stand between two windowpanes of existence. We have the opportunity to occupy a space, firmly planted between reality and a “pseudo reality” that we generally inhabit. Our lives are packed in comfy little containers most of the time, like a spice rack on your kitchen counter—this little part over here; this little function over there. But when we exfoliate the film of normality from our skin, we’re capable of discovering another dimension; that place where we feel genuinely awake in an honest reality. This is where filters no longer apply to the air you breathe or the space you inhabit. It evokes something special in us—something not to be ignored.
Standing on the ice of the Antarctic continent has brought on a new sensation. I’m pinned between the sublime and the magnificent, forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about scale and grandeur. My eyes are wide open here, and for the first time in a long time, I feel like a newborn; immersed in a Petri dish of naturalist discovery, awaiting the moment for reality to take hold, or to thrust me into a moment I cannot explain.
Concoct any definition of travel you’d like. Maybe you’re of the heady type and chose to attach its lore to the metaphysical underpinnings of your existence. On the other hand, maybe travel is simply a form of escapism for you. The gamut and spectrum between our reason and consequences are enormous, and rightfully so. There are at times, however, brilliant unifying factors that apply to us all. The White Continent—the last continent, has brought this to the fore, and, with a slight bit of unfounded assurance in my voice, I feel confident when I eek out the word, “awe.”
I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, after two days of travel from Denver, Colorado, via Buenos Aires. I was joining our Sailing Antarctica: The Ultimate Polar Expedition, starting in Ushuaia and sailing to Antarctica. Upon arrival in Ushuaia, I was promptly met by our team and taken to the Alto Andino Hotel in the center of the city to relax and freshen up. After having a great wander around the city, our group met and had an excellent welcome dinner and orientation at one of the best restaurants in town.
The following day, we drove out to Estancia de las Hijas in the Tierra del Fuego and spent the day learning about the various practices of sheep herding, farming and wool collection. Touring the gorgeous property consumed our interest before enjoying a typical parrilla (BBQ) of lamb, and then traveling the scenic highway back to Ushuaia. The following day would begin the heart of our Antarctica adventure and, so apply described, an adventure it was.
Our approach was to sail the mighty Drake Passage for a three-day crossing on our 75-foot motorized yacht before reaching the Antarctic Peninsula, where we would spend the remainder of the expedition exploring the nooks and crannies of the archipelago and continent. On our itinerary, we had allocated three days to cross the Drake Passage, one of the most formidable bodies of water on the planet. Seas converge in the Drake Passage with their unbridled winds, which makes the Drake a pinch point, creating epic swells and substantial weather. Our three crew members however, were time-hardened sailors that have made this passage many times and know exactly when to go and when to wait it out.
Three days on the Drake aboard a yacht is a unique experience that calls out to the intrepid traveler looking for a raw and riveting experience. Safety is assured throughout, however, there is a strong sense of discovery of the unknown as you pass through the Drake. Sections can be considered uncharted and turbulent and, more often than not, many passengers find themselves battling the challenges of time at sea in an unpredictable body of water.
Our days in the Drake Passage were spent reading, writing, listening to audio books and podcasts, or talking to our fellow travelers about the mysteries that abound on the seventh continent. While these are necessary days, they prime the internal pump with marked anticipation for what is to come. Upon crossing the 60 degree parallel, the energy once again ratchets up and a film of excitement falls like a warm cloak over the edges of the vessel. Everyone is excited and eager, and lingers on the verge of earning the privilege to visit this majestic continent. Crossing the Drake Passage is a just test to prove our worthiness. As eyes gather on the deck and first put sight to land, there is a moment where the veritable feeling of awe overwhelms the senses, inspires the explorer inside us and perches our excitement above an unprecedented tier.
Kayaks are placed into the water, Zodiacs are pulled from the rigging, and the exploration begins. Massive snow walls punctuate the distance on an unfathomable scale, while glacial terrain looms above the shoulders of the frozen continent. There is no other place on the planet like it. Lazy clichés apply, as it truly feels otherworldly.
As each day unfolds in the morning, we find ourselves piling into our Feathercraft kayaks, paddling through ice floats with seal, gentoo and chinstrap penguin colonies and from time to time, in the presence of a humpback whale family. The hidden scenes of Antarctica explode before our very eyes as it breaches the surface of an unknown sea. Fur seals playfully approach our paddles while doing barrel rolls and porpoising like oblong figures, showing off like catwalk models. Crab-eater seals steal the sun for hours on end, posting up on sea ice in a lethargic display of natural purpose. Weddell seals wiggle their way onto the shores edge to tan the day away, as if they had found their way to an exotic beach. Even the fearsome leopard seal finds his way into the brilliance of the Antarctic sun.
The afternoons are often punctuated with Zodiac rides, specifically for wildlife watching that may be sea- or land-based. Most landings offered us the incredible experience of walking within 15 feet or so of massive penguin colonies, often numbering in the thousands. As these charismatic critters poke and prod each other, they put on an excellent show with their strangely anthropomorphic behavior. It is sweet, charming and slightly absurd. We’d spend each landing with either gentoo and chinstrap penguins, capturing beautiful images of penguin chicks, communal behavior and their defensive techniques against the dreaded skua birds, all while the massive fjords stood watch like sentries over the landscape. It is simply remarkable.
While the continent draped us in surreal moments and absurd scale, the most incredible moment came as we were passing through Wilhemena Bay, on our way to the Gerlache Strait. The captain of our vessel, the SV Australis, observed a family of humpback whales bubble feeding in the distance. As we tacked the vessel in their direction, we noticed an additional family of humpbacks bubble feeding off the port side of the yacht. Before we were able to process this moment, two additional families of wild whales came to the surface, protruding in epic fashion, with mouths perched, to collect unfathomable amounts of krill. With eyes wide open and our minds in a state of utter confusion, we found ourselves encircled by the convergent parties of nature, with about 20 to 25 humpback whales within our periphery.
As we enjoyed this orchestral arrangement of viewing, a pod of orca whales was spotted in the distance, along with ice bound seal and leaping penguins. Our crew quickly suggested we jump in the Zodiac rafts and head toward a humpback whale family for a closer look. With burning excitement and a sense of muddled disbelief, we barreled towards these massive creatures as they brought a quarter of their bodies out of the water, only to slam back down, just a few simple feet from our small and somewhat insignificant raft. Barnacled lips protruded through the surface; eyes cracked and peered into the world above their watery home. Where they live and where we live; well, the water’s surface is what we share.
I speak of this moment in particular, as it offers a narrative experience of the sublime. In the same voice, within the same window, in one culminated moment, I felt the wake of an awestruck tsunami wash over my mind. As each whale would rise and crash back into the water, the spray from their breath would wash over our faces, as if nature was baptizing us with its raw power. We, for a moment, sat in the fourth dimension of space; that place between the reality of the observer and the action itself, taking in the exalted moment that nearly all adventure travelers attempt to envision. We were a part of nature, in its purest form and our proximity to it, was an ample reminder of its irrepressible strength. We were reintroduced to the ecosystem.
For an hour’s time, the experience that I am unable to properly convey in words unfolded like a ballet of amazement before our eyes. For the rest of my days, I will share that experience in its undiluted form with the other travelers aboard the Zodiac, and no one else. It is our hidden secret; our step into the unknown.
While the explorers of yesteryear lived in moments of massive discomfort in order to experience the brilliance of the White Continent, we are able to bypass their challenges due to the beautiful advancements in navigation, vessel construction and the modern comforts that we have at our fingertips. But what we do share with those early explorers, the men and women who courageously traversed unknown lands with their caustic edges, are the moments between our perceived reality that we cannot expect: the opportunity to feel the spray of a humpback whale upon my upper cheek, during a moment, hidden to the rest of the world.
Exploring Antarctica offers us a chance to revisit our existence from an elevated stance, where the function of isolation is fully intoxicating. To sit outside ourselves and recognize our literal position on the planet, knowing that many humans before you have dreamt of this land, provides an everlasting sense of fortune that you, unlike most, have had the chance to do something truly remarkable. Getting there by a motorized sailing yacht? Well, that only helps the cause for the sensational.
This guest post was written by Nat Hab Adventure Specialist John Holahan. All photos © John Holahan.