Antarctica Expedition part 1 - feature photo - pair of Gentoo penguins in the snow with icy water next to them and snowy mountains in the background - Croft Bay on James Ross Island

Antarctica Expedition Part 1 | Weddell Sea

It’s still so crazy that I can say I’ve been to Antarctica! Yes, you are reading this correctly. Wild, right? It wasn’t even really on my bucket list because it’s not somewhere I ever thought I’d get the chance (and be able to afford to go to). But last summer, my work gave us the opportunity to apply for a sales consultant position onboard one of our Antarctica Expedition voyages. And somehow I was lucky enough to be chosen! I had a role to work in while onboard, but I still got to go on most of the excursions and the whole trip was free. It was a 2-week voyage over New Year, with 7 days of excursions, so I’m splitting it into two posts. So anyways, what exactly is an Antarctica expedition like?

Antarctica Expedition Part 1 - 2nd feature photo - Ocean Endeavour cruise ship docked in Ushuaia harbour

The Ocean Endeavour

Funnily enough, there are no hotels in Antarctica. Unless you are working on a science research base or just doing a flyover visit from the skies, you have to visit by boat. We did spot a few sailing yachts around the Antarctica peninsula, but our vessel was a cruise ship, the Ocean Endeavour. Though a pretty small one as cruise ships go, hosting about 200 passengers. Then of course, there is the ship crew who sail the vessel, the hospitality team and our expedition crew, who led the excursions. The ships has various amenities, including a spa and sauna, a small library, a gift shop, yoga classes, the dining room and bar, and a couple of lounges. Roaming the outer decks, looking for wildlife or admiring the scenery is also a great way to pass some time!

It’s called an ‘expedition’ because they can’t plan the itinerary in advance. We knew we were splitting our time between the Eastern and Western peninsulas, but not much more detail beyond that. This is because the weather and sea conditions can change so quickly down there, it’s impossible to plan more than a day or two in advance. Some of our excursions even changed on the day itself! But as long as you’re ok to go with the flow, it’s a pretty fun way to travel really. The OE has a fleet of 20 zodiacs, our method of transport off of the ship for either cruises or to ferry us to shore for landings. Landings would also mean a shorter cruise alongside, as only half the passengers can be on shore at once, due to IAATO regulations for managing tourism in Antarctica.

The Drake Passage

Our Antarctica expedition began in Ushuaia, the end of the world, at the very bottom of Argentina. It took me a day and a half to fly down from Vancouver! Then, I had a spare day to visit Tierra del Fuego National Park for some hiking and paddling. We boarded the OE late the next evening, as the weather kept her from docking on time! So we set sail very late at night, to begin our 2-day journey across the Drake Passage. The Drake is a notoriously choppy stretch of ocean, nicknamed the Drake Shakes! Along with many other passengers, I was pretty seasick on the first day. Fortunately, we got Drake Lake on day two, and things were much calmer from there.

I had a sales desk to man on those days, but was also able to attend a few of the wildlife lectures the expedition crew were giving. They had evening activities after dinner every night too, which ranged from lectures to quizzes to music performances. As we journeyed further south, towards the great, white continent, we started keeping our eyes peeled from the decks. Sure enough, halfway through the second day, we saw our first iceberg drift by, with dozens of penguins atop it! They began to appear thick and fast after that, as we headed around to the eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula. This is the lesser-frequented side of the peninsula, so I felt especially lucky to get to go. This is our only voyage of the season that visits the Weddell Sea!

Day One

Heroina Island

After two slightly lazy days onboard the ship, we woke up early on 31st December, raring to go for our first excursion! Most excursion days were 6 or 7am starts. We had arrived at the Danger Islands for our first zodiac cruise around Heroina Island. It was an incredible cruise to kick off the trip, as there was so much wildlife!

Hundreds of Adèlie penguins nest on the island, turning the small, brown rock into a mass of black and white feathered figures. I was expecting to see penguins of course, but the sheer quantity here was staggering! Even more were swimming through the ocean in a motion called “porpoising” as they jump from the water every few seconds. And yet more dotted the ice floating around the island. Most of these bergs were fairly small, but on the horizon we saw a much larger, tabular one, very impressive in its size!

Nature is wild and dangerous, though, as we were swiftly reminded of upon sighting a leopard seal, one of Antarctica’s most vicious predators. I only glimpsed the seal briefly, but some other passengers saw it skinning a penguin it had successfully caught! We also came across a Weddell seal lounging on the ice, which had the cutest, feline-like face.

Then, as we rounded the far side of Heroina Island, we came upon our first humpback whale! Following it from a careful distance, its dorsal fin and hump popped up every couple of minutes, then eventually we saw the fluke (its tail). I saw humpbacks up in California this year, but none fluked during that cruise! Considering it was the first morning, I was blown away by how much we had seen already and it ended up being one of the most memorable cruises of the trip!

New Year’s Eve Party

Sadly, I didn’t get to go out in the afternoon, another zodiac cruise around Paulet Island to see more Adèlie penguins. Since I was technically staff, I helped with biosecurity and loading zodiacs first, then hopped in the last one. Due to a counting error, there wasn’t enough space this time. I was pretty disappointed, especially when I heard they saw an elephant seal! A few other expedition crew members also had to stay back and we hung out in the gangway with the ABs (able-bodied seamen) watching the seabirds.

Anyways, once everyone was back onboard, after dinner it was time to party! Yes, our Antarctica expedition voyage took place over New Year, so they had arranged a party to celebrate. This will definitely go down as one of my most unique New Years ever! Several of the expedition crew are talented musicians, so they performed a few songs in the lounge. Then the party moved to an upper lounge (to not disturb the cabins below, for those not staying up later) where the dancing began.

At midnight, we got complimentary prosseco and ran out to the decks to cheers to the New Year. It was pretty surreal, because being so far south during summer, meant that it didn’t really ever get dark. We were celebrating midnight and it looked like early evening still! We had seen the sunset a couple of hours prior, but the sky was still aglow with the oranges and pinks of dusk. Add in the huge, tabular icebergs drifting past us and it was a truly beautiful scene! People began to peel off and head to bed after midnight. Yet somehow, unintentionally, I ended up being one of the last still standing at around 3am…

Day Two

New Year’s Day Polar Plunge

Luckily, we could sleep in the next morning until around 9am. No zodiacs required today – instead, we were jumping straight into 2024 with the polar plunge! Yes, it is what it sounds like. You jump off the ship and into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. We were moored near Cockburn Island and it was beautifully clear and sunny. The waters were very blue and looked quite inviting! Until they informed us that the water temperature was 1°C… Yet 157 out of 198 guests still braved the plunge, which they think was a new record!

The staff jump last, so I spent the morning watching everyone else, first from the upper decks, and later from the gangway. It was really fun down there, as they have music playing and the bar staff bring down hot chocolate and vodka shots for after your plunge. A couple of zodiacs are in the water, for safety and for the photographers there to snap your perfect mid-air leap. Well, maybe not-so-perfect; we saw a few accidental belly flops!

When my turn came, I slipped on the mandatory safety belt, wincing at the cold, damp fabric. Stepping out onto the ladder, I got a quick pep talk from the crew member holding the safety rope. Opting to face forwards instead of looking at the camera, I braced myself and jumped! The water was cold, for sure, but not actually as bad as I’d expected. It definitely washed off any sleepiness or hangover! I climbed out again as quickly as I could, slinging back my shot and getting wrapped in a towel. I stuck around while the other staff, including the ABs took their turns, before dashing upstairs for a warm shower!

Barbecue Dinner & Icebergs

The afternoon excursion was a landing on Seymour Island, to look for some mysterious mummified seals. Unfortunately, during the scouting that morning, a zodiac got beached, and being one short meant there was no space for me. It was pretty weird being alone on the decks, wandering around like it was a ghost ship! I spent some time on the upper decks looking at the views of the ice floating along the horizon and the mountain of Cockburn Island next to us.

We had a pretty memorable New Year’s Day evening though. With such ideal weather (Antarctica is usually overcast), dinner was served outside on the rear decks, with a barbecue. We were all bundled up for the cold, but with sunglasses on in the brilliant sunshine! They had music playing too, and the ice had started moving in, surrounding us with incredible views as it drifted by. Plus, watching the rescued zodiac finally get craned back onboard was kind of funny…

As we sailed out the bay for the night, the scenery was no less stunning. The weather was on our side, treating us to breathtaking pink and purple skies, with huge icebergs floating past us. This was by far the most beautiful evening of the trip, everyone lingering on deck until late. The shot of the ship below was taken by our expedition photographer using the drone he flew that night!

And then, as if it couldn’t get better, they spotted an Emperor penguin on an ice sheet (also a drone photo). They don’t live anywhere near this part of Antarctica! The ornithologist had already told us that we wouldn’t see one on this voyage. So to happen upon one, on such a stunning evening, on New Year’s Day no less… how could the year start any better?

Day Three

Croft Bay, James Ross Island

The third morning of our Antarctica expedition was finally our first landing! Yes, we were getting out of the zodiacs and actually setting foot on the seventh continent. Luckily, I didn’t have to skip any other excursions for the rest of the trip either. Since I was always in the last zodiac, I always did the cruise first and the landing second on these days. I actually ended up cruising with only staff, no guests in ours. This allowed some of the less-experienced zodiac drivers not yet cleared to take guests to get some practice.

We were exploring Croft Bay, at James Ross Island, and the bay had a thick sheet of ice protruding from the shore. It was broken up into smaller bergs along the edge that we cruised between. We even cut across a thin sheet of grease ice, that shattered around us as the zodiac effortlessly carved a path through it. We came across a Weddell seal and then a fur seal lounging on the ice and lingered to watch them a while. Arctic terns also flitted overhead as we made our way to shore.

Stepping on to Antarctica was an exciting moment! The expedition crew set out a trail to follow at each landing. In this case, it allowed us to walk along the shore and back, enjoying the views of Croft Bay. It was actually mostly rocks and dirt underfoot, with not much snow here. About halfway along the trail, a pair of Gentoo penguins were sat nearby, another species sighted! At the end, there was a wider area to explore, with interesting mosses and winkles on the ground to carefully step around and admire. We had plenty of time to slowly wander, before returning to the ship.

Devil’s Island

The afternoon brought another landing – yes, two in one day! This time, we were off to Devil’s Island, home to one of the world’s largest Adèlie penguin colonies. Again, I had the zodiac cruise first which took us over to some cliff faces with waterfalls tumbling over them. Not a sight I expected to see in Antarctica to be honest! We then drifted through the sea ice, past sheets and bergs glowing blue atop the water’s surface.

There was an Antarctic shag hanging around, and a few giant petrels swooped overhead with their massive wingspans. Then we started spotting Adèlies, which are one of the smallest penguin species! I love some of the photos I got, as they were so cute and comical and photogenic. Like the three atop a very tall iceberg looking like they were contemplating whether to dive or not!

Soon, it was our turn to land ashore. The penguin colony lives along the beach and we had a trail marked out along the water’s edge. It’s very important to give wildlife enough space, so we had to walk at penguin pace and give them right of way. While some were hanging out on the beach, many were higher up inland, where their nests are safer from seals.

But no matter which way you looked, there were penguins. Hundreds and hundreds of them, squawking, waddling, swimming, sleeping. It was even the right time of year to see chicks, hard to spot at first since their fluffy grey plumage blends in with the rocks, but we soon started to recognise them. Penguins are so hardy and resilient to live down here, and it was just incredible to watch them go about their days, so un-phased by our presence. An incredible first penguin colony visit!

Day Four

View Point, Duse Bay

For our final day in the Weddell Sea, we were making another landing. This one was a little more special since it wasn’t an island. No, this time we were setting foot on the mainland of the continent! Our destination was Duse Bay, where we could walk to View Point to see an old Chilean refuge. Naturally, it was meant to be a split landing and cruise again, but the weather had other plans. In typical Antarctica expedition fashion, the wind picked up and made the waves pretty choppy. So, we actually held back half the passengers until there was a calm enough moment for the changeover! I hopped in the last zodiac again, and we whizzed off through the brash ice headed straight for shore. Although we did get a quick Weddell seal sighting along the way!

We landed by a small beach and climbed the quick ascent to the top of the outcrop. It was a short walk out to the refuge and back, as Southern petrels and kelp gulls flew overhead. The refuge was built and used by Chile mainly in the 1950s, with no one there anymore. The door is unlocked, so we took turns looking inside at the tiny bunks and kitchen where they lived. It must have been a very remote, isolated experience! Around the refuge, seal bones littered the ground, remnants of the Chilean hunts for food. They also erected a small cross at the end of the outcrop. It was interesting to see these signs of human life on what is largely an untouched continent! Then just as we were leaving, a Gentoo penguin came to watch us boarding the zodiacs on the beach.

Afternoon Onboard

Our journey back to the ship was a lot bumpier than the way out, as the wind picked up even more. Being in the last zodiac meant I had to wait ages, our little boat rocking and rolling in the large waves. Our driver was very calm and in control about it, but I was definitely somewhat nervous. As well as completely soaked as the waves splashed around us! They actually had to close one gangway, so all four of the ABs could help on the same one, practically hauling everyone back on the ship. It took longer of course, but they did incredible work that day that we were all super grateful for!

The weather wasn’t looking any better for the afternoon though. So again, as is the nature of an Antarctica expedition, our plans had to change. They didn’t want to risk everyone in the zodiacs on rough waters again. Plus I think many passengers would have opted out anyways! Instead, we remained onboard the ship for the afternoon, which for me meant manning the sales desk again. The captain got some headway on our journey around the top of the peninsula, as we headed on to the Western side for the second half of our expedition.

Antarctica Expedition – Weddell Sea

I’ll gush more about my entire Antarctica expedition at the end of my part two post. But the Weddell Sea was definitely a special experience. Knowing that it’s an area visited even less than the Western shore and seeing how excited even the expedition crew were about it made you realise what a rare place we got to see. Spending New Year here was especially amazing!

Aside from that last day, the weather helped us a lot, with fantastically sunny days leading into magical evening light and colours. Watching those huge icebergs of all shapes drift around us, including massive tabular ones, that you don’t find as often on the Western shore. And of course, the array of beautiful wildlife we got to witness, from whales to seals to penguins and other birds. We would end up seeing several of the same species on the Western side as well, but the Adèlie penguins are a little more unique to the East. And that unexpected Emperor penguin sighting too! It was a stunning start to our expedition, with several more days still to go!