I DIDN’T KNOW. That’s the one thought that I keep coming back to: I didn’t know. I thought Antarctica was just going to be a bunch of ice. I thought it’d be desolate and bleak and – if I’m being honest – maybe even a little monotonous. I thought that after spending a few days at the end of the world, I’d be excited to return to the comforts of home. I thought it’d be a nice travel story; a continent crossed off my bucket list; a chance to spend time with my mom, Brenda, in a new place. But here’s the thing: I DIDN’T KNOW. I didn’t know that I could see icebergs so big that they’d warp my understanding of scale. I didn’t know that I’d see new colors – glowing neon blues, crystal-clear turquoises, a yellow-meets-gray that I still don’t have words to describe – or that I’d witness seals and penguins inhabiting old wooden shipwrecks. I didn’t know that a mile could look like a few hundred feet, or that enormous mountains – tall enough to be shrouded in clouds – could rise straight from the ocean. I didn’t know that by the end of my trip, I’d end up on a tiny inflatable boat in the Southern Ocean, working alongside a team of research scientists. But more than anything, I just didn’t know how beautiful the whole world used to look. The big white continent blew my mind, y’all. And hopefully, by the end of this post, it’ll blow your mind a little bit, too. 🙂
From The Beginning
But wait – how’d I end up here, ogling an iceberg the size of the Empire State Building from half a mile away? (Yes, it is that far! I told you – the normal rules of scale and perception do not seem to apply in Antarctica. Scientists have actually found that time spent here is correlated with brain shrinkage in the area that controls spatial reasoning. They’re still debating the exact cause – monotony? Solitude? – but even our expert guides had to use special devices to measure distances. When I say it “blew my mind,” this is what I mean – it was so big that I still can’t comprehend it.)
ANYWAY. Some quick back story: Brenda (my mom, for those who aren’t familiar) and I have been traveling together for almost a decade. We started off with a few smaller trips – Vegas, Catalina Island, Hawaii – but in late 2022, we found ourselves sailing down the Danube from Germany to Hungary. One night, in Austria, we sat down for dinner with an older couple from the UK who regaled us with stories from their travels around the world. Their standout trip? Antarctica. “It was otherworldly,” they said, and our future was sealed. We started planning (read: “Brenda started planning,” if I’m being honest. Go Brenda!) in June of 2023 and we finally embarked in January of 2024, at the peak of the Antarctic summer.
First Stop: Buenos Aires
Since Antarctica isn’t known for its accommodations, most folks who’d like to spend a few days on the continent get there via expedition ship. The catch? You need to get yourself to Ushuaia, Argentina – the Southernmost city in the world – to board. We started our trek in Philadelphia, where we hopped on a 4-hour flight to Houston followed by a 12-hour red-eye to Buenos Aires. Pro tip: United has the best premium economy option. It’s thousands of dollars cheaper than the lie-flat seats up front, but the seats are BIG – they’re identical to the first-class seats on United’s domestic planes – and they’re really comfortable. I slept the entire time and woke up to breakfast being served 30 minutes before landing. By the time we landed in Argentina, made our way through passport control, boarded our bus, got our belongings, showered, and ate some lunch, it was about 3 PM.
We stayed across the street from the Casa Rosada – the pink (!!!) equivalent of the White House, for my fellow Americans – and the surrounding neighborhoods were charming and fascinating. Bonus: THIS IS A VINTAGE SHOPPING PARADISE. I found an antique mall about a mile from our hotel but on our way, we accidentally found so many more sweet antique shops owned by friendly, knowledgeable people. I can’t wait to go back!
Next Stop: The End Of The World
The next morning, we trekked an hour back to the airport to catch our charter flight to Ushuaia. This plane was much smaller and hadn’t been cleaned in a while; a few unused barf bags peeked out from seat-back pockets. We settled in for another 4-hour trek, during which I slept so deeply that I alarmed Brenda. The airport in Ushuaia is TINY – only 6 gates, with a petite parking lot – but the views directly outside were breathtaking. We spent some time back in town here at the tail end of our trip and I’ll have more to say, so read on..
The Drake Passage: It *Is* That Bad
We boarded our ship in the early afternoon and began to settle in, but I had a feeling that we might be in for a rough journey when our outdoor “sail away celebration” was canceled. The threat of an impending storm did not stop me from gorging myself at dinner – some crab legs! Some sushi! MULTIPLE DESSERTS! – because I figured it’d be the freshest food we’d have for the rest of our trip. I fell asleep that night to some gentle rocking and looked forward to the next 48 straight hours of sailing. (Because I am a hubristic idiot, I even wished for the “Drake Shake,” hoping to get a taste of what the original Antarctic travelers had to endure. It didn’t feel fair to get to a place like this without some discomfort, you know? I am sure you can guess where this is going.)
But a quick catch up, for those who aren’t familiar: the stretch of ocean that separates South America from Antarctica is called the Drake Passage. (For my oceanographers, you may also recognize it as the spot where the Atlantic and Pacific meet.) The Passage is home to both the most treacherous waters AND the strongest storms in the world – when the weather acts up, it’s no joke. More than 800 ships have sank here and over 20,000 sailors have perished trying to make the trek. It’s a terrifying, powerful body of water.
I grokked the severity of the Drake Shake when I woke up at 1 AM and became intimately reacquainted with the contents of my stomach. Brenda and I were staying at the very front of the ship – the third room back from the bow – and it was brutal. If hugging the toilet in a rocking room for 5 straight hours sounds like fun to you, then I HAD A BLAST. (Good thing I got all that sleep on the plane because I was very much awake for the sailing portion of the trip.)
I did feel a bit vindicated in the morning, though, when we attended our mandatory briefing. (Brenda and I sat in the back, lest we need to make an emergency exit.) Instead of reviewing the itinerary or the rules of the ship, our briefing actually began with a breakdown of the weather, which could be summed up as “green is good, red is bad, pink and purple are VERY bad.” Looks like this little dummy got her wish! (And according to the crew, our Drake Shake wasn’t even that bad! I did not agree, seeing as WAVES were hitting our THIRD STORY WINDOW, but I digress. Turns out these sea legs are far weaker than I thought!)
After 50 hours of vomiting and bargaining with the universe (“if you transport me home right now, I swear, I won’t be mad, I’ve made it far enough, I’m sorry I tempted fate!“), I spotted my first iceberg. Slowly – and I do mean slowly! About 20 MPH, to be exact – we continued to make our way closer and closer to our first landing spot. It was serene, silent, and absolutely stunning.
Our ship provided binoculars in every room, which I loved. A lot of the oceans in Antarctica still haven’t been mapped, so we had to keep a healthy distance from all mountains and icebergs, lest they tip or scrape the ship. At one point in time, we actually had to turn around – our captain could see more icebergs than expected in our path, and he wasn’t sure if the water would be deep enough to turn around if we kept going because there were NO MAPS of that part of the ocean floor! To that end, I loved that the binoculars could still give me a close-up view at the terrain we were passing. These trips aren’t cheap and you can bet I was going to see as much as I could!!!
AND SEE, WE DID. After dressing ourselves in our warmest layers, Brenda and I made our way to the embarkation area, where we stepped straight off the edge of the bouncing ship (a wild experience) and down into a zippy, inflatable boat, called a Zodiac. (PS. Your coat, pants, and boots are all provided – ours were waiting in our room when we arrived! – which makes packing much easier.)
Brenda actually spotted the humpback whales first, while our guide, Sandy, was giving safety instructions! Following her pointed finger, we zoomed over and witnessed a mother whale and her rambunctious, playful calf. I’d never seen a whale before (or a glacier, or even an iceberg!) and boy, seeing this sweet lil’ baby slappin’ their tail and wavin’ their lil’ fins at us felt like a dream come true. (I filmed a video of a this whale breaching and forgot to mute my excited yawps before sending to my friends, so they will confirm that I was SO happy.)
After the whales seemed to disperse, we took off towards an iceberg where Sandy had spotted a seal earlier. We approached to the left – no seal – and began to circle around. And then, as we approached the other side, we spotted him: a leopard seal, lounging lazily and happily patting his belly.
Every day, the ship sailed to a new location. We stopped at a few islands off the coast of the Antarctic peninsula, but we also got to step foot on the actual continent. Above are two of the only iPhone snaps I grabbed that came close to capturing some of the colors I was seeing in real-time – they were so rich and vibrant. When scientists in Antarctic documentaries say that it’s like another planet, BELIEVE THEM – I mistook their honest testimonials for enthusiasm and passion. It really IS like a whole other world.
I saw my first penguin on the second day. Our room had an operational window, and I’d opened it to enjoy the silence – I’ve never been anywhere so quiet in my life. I heard a little plop from below and grabbed my phone to film, assuming that a few fish were checking out the boat. When I showed the video to Brenda, we quickly realized that they were penguins – I had misunderstood the scale!
I can’t recommend January in Antarctica enough. The temperatures are reasonable and there are SO MANY BABIES! We saw enormous colonies penguins everywhere, all the time, but watching them never got old. They’re so curious and unbothered by humans – every interaction felt special. We kept a 15-foot distance, but that didn’t stop them from trying to get closer to us! (For what it’s worth, our ship investigated every piece of clothing that made landfall and we went through a full biosecurity process before stepping foot on land or returning to our cabins. There are a lot of measures in place that prevent tourists from accidentally tracking seeds or sicknesses onto the land, which made me feel more comfortable with our exploration.)
Seeing so much natural wildlife in such close proximity was special, but it was a little devastating, too. We were here, at the end of the earth – a place that only a fraction of humans have been lucky enough to see with their own two eyes – and we were watching it decay in real time. (More than that, I felt guilty for contributing to its decay!) I was surprised when other folks on our ship were delighted by the calving of glaciers – that’s the pro term that means “broke off an iceberg into the sea” – and was even more surprised that I felt a lot of grief, which I didn’t expect. The world is really beautiful and we’ve trashed it – our endless pursuit of comfort has placed this final near-pristine habitat in jeopardy.
Have you ever read The Giver? To me, experiencing Antarctica felt a bit like that – suddenly, I saw a layer of the world that I didn’t know existed. For the first time, I had a look at what a totally untouched, unspoiled landscape could have looked like. And I REALLY understood how destructive we’ve been to our own respective environments back home – it breaks my heart to know that this kind of beauty existed across the globe before we trampled and leveled it. I did not expect this trip to leave me feeling in a climate panic-induced spiral, but it has. (CAN YOU BELIEVE I THOUGHT IT MIGHT BE BORING???)
A break from the doom and gloom: here are some chinstrap penguins. I LOVE THEM!!!
Get To The Science, Girl
And a bright spot! This was hands down my favorite part of my Antarctic experience – I’m still pinching myself that it happened! Brenda and I sailed with Viking, which I would recommend – the interiors were very chic (white oak, lots of blues, thoughtful layouts – thumbs up) and the cabins were comfortable. That said, the clientele on Viking cruises tends to run a little older. According to a presentation on the final day, we had 359 guests on board. In total, there were 39 passengers under the age of 60. What’s a gal of 32 to do?
ANSWER: BEFRIEND THE SCIENCE TEAM! I was lucky enough to meet a group of women, all around my age, who are full-time scientists employed by Viking. I used to work at Red Bull Records, so I love this funding model – we were able to offer artists a ton of creative freedom because the record label wasn’t responsible for keeping the lights on! The same is true here – Viking’s invited a ton of scientists on board and uses some of the revenue from guests to fund their research. It’s a total win/win – scientists need funding and a ride down south, and Viking gets the cred of having a bunch of smart, interesting, kind geniuses on board to educate guests. (As an added bonus, we were on the only ship that doubles as a weather station! We got to help release a weather balloon! Biodegradable, of course – Viking let their scientists splurge on the good stuff.)
One night, I went to a presentation by Viking’s lead scientist, Brandi, and stuck around after to chat. She mentioned that they might have an extra spot on their boat where they’d be deploying BRUVS (“baited underwater research video systems” – basically, tools to see who’s at the bottom of the ocean in these parts!), but she presented it with a caveat: “It will be cold. We will be out there for hours. There’s no water, no bathroom, and it’s freezing. We will go out regardless of the weather conditions. It will smell like fish, and you will be shoving the fish guts into the BRUV.” (This isn’t a traditional “excursion” that you can book, so I was so unfazed by the pitch and excited for the opportunity!)
This may surprise you, but it was AWESOME. We’d sail around for about 3 hours, using a meter reader to find the appropriate depth – since again, the only maps of this area are almost 100 years old! – and then, we’d set up a BRUV by attaching poles, weights, bait, rope, and buoys (labeled only with “SCIENCE,” which was very charming) and tossing them overboard. After an hour, we’d circle back around and haul our BRUVS off the ocean floor so the team could transmit the footage to a researcher at the University of Western Australia. As it turns out, this is TOUGH WORK – the currents were strong and we were deploying BRUVS at 120 meters (about 400 feet) vs. the standard 30 meters. Yanking those 50-pound things back up from the ocean floor while your tiny boat rocks and sways in the swells is a challenge! It gave me a totally new appreciation for the hard work and sweat equity that goes into science. (PS. At one point in time, we discovered an underwater canyon that didn’t appear on ANY of our maps, which immediately ignited an obsession with bathymetry that has not waned in the weeks since my return. It made the world feel magical – I could finally understand the excitement that must have pumped through explorers’ veins before the world had been mapped.)
And Back Again
On our last day, we stopped by Edinburgh Hill. This was our ship’s first time ever checking out this spot, and it felt like a fitting end – I got to admire some of nature’s best brutalist architecture. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the electric blue water lapping against those black, hexagonal basalt columns (formed by an ancient lava flow – SO COOL).
As we sailed out, wildlife continued to surround our ship; our captain would make announcements when a pod of Orcas or a few Humpbacks had decided to hang out alongside us for a bit. With my binoculars, I could see seals lounging on icebergs. It was heartbreaking to leave it behind. (Coincidentally, the Drake Shake was actually worse on the way home, but the contents of my stomach remained firmly intact. Finally got those sea legs after all, I guess!)
Back To Ushuaia
After 50 hours of sailing, we made it back to Ushuaia, the home to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. I feel like I need to reiterate here: I have not, historically, been an outdoor gal. I like the inside! But this took my breath away. As we drove through winding roads and forests toward the entrance, we passed hundreds of wild horses and tons of vegetation I’d never seen before. The kicker?
Immediately after entering the park on foot, we stumbled upon this family of wild horses (with a baby in tow!). They were so calm and unbothered by our human presence, going as far as to lay down and rest in front of us. It was a final pull of the heartstrings: our world really could have looked so much different had our recent ancestors prioritized the collective over the self. We’re in so deep now – I literally saw our planet decaying in real time! – and these glimpses of a harmonious, peaceful world make our current reality all the more disheartening.
The Overview Effect
Astronauts talk a lot about this idea of the overview effect – the feeling they got when they saw the world from space the first time. It’s hard to describe. Some mention a sense of awe, or an understanding of infinity, or a feeling of connection with the planet. And I’m going to be real: I did not go into this trip expecting to come out with a fundamentally shifted view of the world – but that’s what happened. When we landed in Philadelphia, I felt a real sense of loss looking out the window at the brown water and refinery equipment – things I’ve never really absorbed until now, having written them off as realities of city living.
Joni Mitchell had the right idea when she penned Big Yellow Taxi: “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.” But honestly, I think I’d take that a step further – I didn’t know what I had until I saw it with my own two eyes. I couldn’t know – it was so much more spectacular than any video or photograph could have ever conveyed to me. But now, I’m so thankful that I do. In the weeks since my return, I’ve felt something similar to the overview effect – a newfound hyperawareness of my impacts on the world around me, as well as an increased appreciation for the small, beautiful parts of my neighborhood. Was it worth it? ABSO-FREAKIN’-LUTELY.
For any details on responsible, sanctioned, and monitored Antarctic tourism, please visit https://iaato.org/.