The ride back across the Drake Passage from Antarctica was much much worse
Day 4: There’s only 2 places in the world where you can sail directly into a volcano. The first one is Santorini, Greece (yawn), the second one is Deception Island in Antarctica:
And we got exactly the kind of epic weather we had been hoping for:
We first landed by a colony of Chinstrap Penguins:
Chinese vs. Penguins
Then hiked up the volcano’s mouth of Deception Island:
And just took it all in:
What better way to spend your last day in Antarctica:
Expedition leaders FTW
Then a brief rest on the ship with rum and hot chocolate by the bridge:
Later in the afternoon as if some bookended epilogue, we visited the serene Half-Moon Island — home to one of the largest colonies of Chinstrap Penguins:
We found a lone Macaroni Penguin, totally out of place at this part of the Antarctic:
After about an hour walking around the island, we took one last breath of Antarctic air before setting foot back on our ship. This was to be our last stop before sailing home.
Our last sight of Antarctica
And for the next 2 days we took on the Drake Passage one more time before arriving back to civilization:
"Icebergs, right ahead!"
Things got really rough sailing home. The “Drake Lake” suddenly became the “Drake Shake” at around 5am of Day 2. Some people stayed in bed all day, while others headed to the bridge to catch some epic waves:
Never ever step outside a ship when there's a storm outside!
After enduring the Drake Passage, we caught sight of dolphins playfully following our ship. By then we knew we were nearing the mouth of the Beagle Channel:
The first signs of civilization began to encroach upon the horizon:
And by evening we were slowly being towed towards Ushuaia.
We docked 7am the next morning:
When there weren't penguins to take photos of, the Chinese took photos with Tabitha instead
Back in Ushuaia
After a few housekeeping formalities, we were eventually allowed to disembark at 9am, approximately 210 hours after we first boarded the m/v Ortelius for Antarctica:
Our group disembarking
In the flurry of handshakes and hugs, the goodbyes began to set in:
And before I knew it, we were already forging ahead . . . more places to see, more people to meet; Antarctica was already becoming a memory for all of us: A dream that became too real to believe, a trip too unbelievable to be true.
I caught the 5:45pm flight for El Calafate.
...And a new adventure...
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac
- At time of posting in Deception Island, it was -5 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 25km/hr | Cloud Cover: blizzard
Antarctica Day 3 in a nutshell:
We first woke up for a quick hike up Neko Harbor:
More panoramas of Neko Harbor:
After lunch we then headed to Cuverville Island to see some Gentoo penguins:
…but more importantly, take on the ship’s traditional Polar Plunge dare (aka Antarctic skinny dipping):
There was no debate: my entire group had overwhelmingly expressed interest in this before our expedition even began. For many, this would be the highlight of our trip.
I went in first (amusingly to the gaggle of giggling middle aged Chinese mainlanders all eager with their cameras ready):
Do you see the penguin to my left also about to take a dive with me?
All the way in the water or else it doesn't count!
Then came the nudity:
Usually when I do dares like these (like running into the snow after a long time in the sauna), it’s “oh the hardest part was doing it in the first place…in the end the whole thing wasn’t so bad.”
But this…this was an immediate “this is REALLY cold.” Then: “Oh god, my toes.” And: “This definitely was not a good idea”:
Then finally came our collective “AHHHHH we need to get out of here” moment:
We could only stand a handful of seconds because it felt like our toes were literally going to fall off; the only miserable part of skinny dipping in Antarctica is that your toes immediately lock up and become numb. In other words, walking becomes nearly impossible after a few seconds.
So if you ever find yourself doing the Polar Plunge, we highly recommend that you go in with flip flops or watershoes so you can stay out there for longer. Because it really is a once in a lifetime experience…so relish it all you can.
After an express zodiac ride back to the ship and some really hot showers, we rewarded ourselves with humpback whale watching on the bridge:
And an amazing Antarctic sunset:
- At time of posting in Cuverville Island, Antarctica, it was -5 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: overcast
Video of our sailing through the Lemaire Channel:
And cruising around our zodiacs afterwards:
We woke up the next morning near the British-operated Fort Lockroy. There we got the much-coveted passport stamps for Antarctica:
We also finally saw our first sunlight in days:
Everytime we thought we saw something pretty, something else would catch our attention:
Icebergs, sea ice, pack ice — in shapes of every imaginable form:
We sounded the blowhorn to nearby ships just to say hi:
And we kept sailing north:
We then landed at Paradise Harbor of the main Antarctic continent, where we hiked up to its highest point:
Took in the views:
Paradise Harbor just got served
Most of us chose to slide — or sled (if you brought a plastic garbage bag) — down afterwards:
Witnessed epic avalanches and glaciers calving:
And cruised around in our zodiacs in the harbor:
We were treated to an outdoor subzero BBQ on the ship’s deck upon our return:
But to put a bizarre twist to the celebrations, the Chinese side of the ship asked me to write American wedding vows for a Chinese mainlander couple who wanted to get married on the ship’s deck, with the vows delivered by our Russian captain.
It was pretty weird:
Our group then caught the bouquet, apparently to the Chinese passengers’ dismay:
And with said bouquet, posed for more group photos after the BBQ-Wedding Ceremony:
That night, we got even weirder at the bar when the rest of the ship went to sleep. One of the customers from the Chinese side of the ship stole a chunk of glacier ice from Antarctica and was trying to make me make drinks with it. Inappropriate.
Then he and Gareth started dancing on the bar. Okay.
And finally, one of our customers — he who shall not be named — decided to get drunker than all of us. Fine. But when he disappeared for a bit too long, we feared he went overboard. When I opened the door to the stairwell to look for him, it was like witnessing the Elevator of Blood scene from The Shining: the entire hallway leading to the stairwell was covered in red vomit, and last night’s half-digested dinner extended all the way down the stairwell from the bar’s 5th deck to the bottom deck quarters. I walked into a scene of an Antarctica horror movie and I realized we had made a terrible mistake letting this guy drink more than the rest of us.
We eventually found him wandering about the hallway denying that he did anything. So we played it diplomatically: “It doesn’t matter whether you did it or not. Either way we need to clean this place up.”
God, it stank. And I definitely slept in that night.
And speaking of NSFW, the next day we do the polar plunge (aka skinny dipping)…you have been doubly warned!
- At time of posting in Paradise Harbor, it was n/a -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
Video of our first sighting of Antarctica:
So many preview photos for an entry this time… simply because our first day in Antarctica just that stunning:
Antarctica just got served
We caught our first glimpse of Antarctica and its pack ice at around 10pm on our 2nd day of sailing:
By 4am we were sailing through the photogenic Lemaire Channel:
At 9am we got in our zodiacs:
Off for our first landing in Antarctica…
We initially landed at a Gentoo penguin colony at Pleneau’s, seeing hundreds of female penguins nursing their eggs and males stealing pebbles from other nests for their own. For the males, the ability to make a nest is a measure of your desirability as a mate.
After about an hour, we cruised more around the area in our zodiacs:
Then we had lunch back on the ship before setting out again for Peterman’s, another part of Antarctica. Upon landing, we did a trek up a ridge to get some great views:
Antarctica just got served, again
Took a few panoramas:
Nearby, a couple were taking advantage of the backdrop:
We then hiked back down to the zodiacs:
Then it was back to the ship and some sightseeing on the bow:
Our ship sailed back through Lemaire’s Channel, the mountainous passage over a sea of ice scattered like Parmesan Cheese:
- At time of posting in Lemaire Channel, it was -1 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: overcast
Don’t get too seasick watching this! An epic wave occurs around the 0:26 mark:
The Drake Passage
Today we boarded for Antarctica by sailing through what has been known as the most dangerous seas on Earth, The Drake Passage.
My group first gathered at 4:10pm at the docks to board our ice-strengthened ship, the m/v Ortelius. Everyone pought booze and food to share for the long journey:
The boarding process was fairly straightforward, beginning with showing your passports at the office:
Then walking down the pier to the m/v Ortelius:
We then board the gangway:
Checking in at reception:
And checking out our digs:
After settling in, we gathered for a 6pm orientation in the Lecture Hall as the ship began to leave the docks:
We turned around for one last glimpse of civilization behind us:
As the ship sailed through the Beagle Channel, we rehearsed a mandatory “abandon ship” drill to the lifeboats:
After the drill, we were presented with a welcome champagne toast in the ship’s bar where my group of nineteen 20-30-somethings got acquainted with the other side of the boat: a group of 50-60 Chinese mainlanders and old timers at least in their 50s. To say we barely got along is an understatement.
If Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, then there’s Puerto Williams in Chile, which is the southernmost town in the world.
A nearby glacier graveyard:
We appreciate a late 10pm sunset:
And we take our first group photo on the helipad:
Later on, we watch as the moon comes up behind us:
We spend our late nights at the bar:
And I woke up the next morning to this outside my window:
By the way, the worst thing you can do on a ship during the middle of a storm is to go outside!
It takes about a total of 2 days to sail from Ushuaia to Antarctica via the Drake Passage. On Day 1 all we could do is hang out all day and eat. There were a few optional lectures offered on the ship: “The Feeding Cycle of the Southern Ocean,” “The International Assoscation of Antarctica Tour Operators Treaty,” and “Ice” on Day 1, “Penguins” and “Zodiac Safety” on Day 2.
I otherwise spent the rest of the day playing music at the bar, hanging out with my group, napping, eating, and reading. There’s absolutely zero internet access, so I was making the best of my newfound freedom.
That means lots of eating:
Especially if osso bucco is served buffet style:
And more sunsets:
It was around sunset on Day 2 where we crossed the 60 S latitude, putting us officially in the Antarctic region and where the confluence of two different oceans — with their disparate temperatures and densities — causes plankton, algae and other small “foods” to rise to the surface and lead animals such as birds and whales to come out and feed.
We spent some of our free time hanging out at the bridge:
And vacuuming our clothing to get rid of seeds and prevent introducing new species to this protected continent:
Then, after 2 days of sailing at around 10pm:
Our first sighting of Antarctica
- At time of posting in Southern Ocean, it was -1 °C -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 109km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast
Gareth discusses the itinerary during the orientation
Walking along the docks
The San Christopher -- an abandoned ship beached on Ushuaia -- and the southernmost city in the world just got served.
We sail in less than 3 hours. Anyone worried that it’s also the Friday the 13th?
As we wait for our ship to be prepped, I look back on 3 years of travel and coincidences, how we got this trip off the ground and how at the age of 27 and within 3 years since my first trip abroad we are leading 19 strangers on our very own expedition to Antarctica.
July 2010: Bangalore, India — I’m hanging out by myself in southern India when I get a message from a friend whom I haven’t heard from in ages. He refers me to a friend of his from Bangalore who might be able to show me around. I meet up with Vineet Deviaiah a few hours later and he takes me out for a quick 30min dinner right before I have to run to catch my onward bus to Chennai. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again.
July 2011: Dhaka, Bangladesh — I meet probably the only other backpacker in the entire country while staying at my guesthouse. His name is Alex Lang from Australia and we hang out for 2 days in Dhaka. He talks to me about my upcoming trip to North Korea and how he had done it a few months earlier with a group called YPT, run by a guy named Gareth.
August 2011: Pyongyang, North Korea — I meet a guy named Gareth Johnson, who leads my tour to North Korea. We quickly become friends and for the next 2 years we lead groups to Iran and Chernobyl together.
August 2012: New York, USA — My girlfriend introduces me to her friend from Hawaii, Tabitha Shook. We hang out for the night and she tells me how she loves to travel.
December 2012: Chernobyl, Ukraine — Of the 18 people who came along on this epic trip to Ukraine and Poland — including Gareth Johnson — an old friend whom I’ve known since 6th grade also tags along. His name is Simon Lu and we had only run into each other in Times Square a few weeks prior. We hadn’t spoken in years before then.
January 2013: New York, USA — I look through Alex Lang’s photos and saw that he had just been to Antarctica. I casually ask about that trip and he tells me to speak with a friend he met on the trip named Serena Yuan.
I speak to Serena Yuan with Gareth Johnson and within days we make a deal for a December trip to Antarctica: Gareth and I are to find 16 willing travelers for Antarctica by the end of the year, assuming the responsibility of filling up these cabins while the ship company can focus on other expeditions. In return, we are allowed to sell at a lower cost than the publicly listed price while we go for free as the expedition leaders.
Over the next few months I get 11 people and Gareth’s company gets 6. By late November we’re confirmed for Antarctica.
December 2013: Ushuaia, Argentina — It’s only been 3 years since my first trip abroad and Vineet Deviaiah, Tabitha Shook, Gareth Johnson, Simon Lu, Serena Yuan are now all here together with me about to board m/v Ortelius for Antarctica. 14 others hailing from 11 countries — including mutual friends, acquaintances, people I just met, and participants on Gareth’s previous tours to North Korea — also join us for this trip.
And while there’s this backstory that led to this trip, there’s also the many future trips that will be made possible because of the people I will meet and get to know this week. Looking forward to this expedition and many more to come.
And speaking of “coincidences,” the band Metallica is still on our ship, the m/v Ortelius, for their concert in Antarctica. We’re boarding on the m/v Ortelius right after they disembark, actually, so there’s a high chance of running into them!
An abandoned looking nightclub in Ushuaia
Bags packed. Readers, prepare for the possibility of radio silence for the next 9 days; if that’s the case, see you when we return on December 22nd with (hopefully) lots of unreal photographs.
Let’s board. See you in Antarctica…
The m/v Ortelius, one of the strongest ice-strengthened vessel sailing in the Antarctic. Photo credit: Serena Yuan
- At time of posting in Ushuaia Aerodrome, it was 8 °C -
Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: broken clouds