Plancius, Antarctica’s moving basecamp
It was New Year’s Eve, and I was dressed in a full-body penguin suit, making my way to the buffet. We were three days into our cruise aboard the Plancius, and everyone on the ship was celebrating our first day in Antarctica, as well as New Year’s Eve, with a barbecue on the back of the ship.
I got to the buffet line and was planning to give each person in line an explanation of my tardiness in hopes that people might let me skip ahead, as I had to rush for my evening excursion. But when I got there, everybody waved me forward. Apparently wearing a penguin suit was enough to get me to the front of the line without even asking. It makes sense – the rules in Antarctica specify that penguins always have the right of way.
I sat down with some of my newly-made friends and scarfed down a hamburger, a baked potato, and half a cob of corn as quickly as I could. I looked at the time and, seeing that I had ten minutes before I needed to be at the gangway, I ate a quick piece of cake and obliged my fellow passengers who wanted photos with the giant penguin.
I ran downstairs, put on a waterproof outer layer of clothing, headed down to the gangway, climbed into the Zodiac boat, and got excited for my night of camping. I was over the moon when I learned that I would get to spend New Year’s Eve camping in Antarctica, but it was even more exciting to climb out of the Zodiac boat and head ashore to our campsite on Rongé Island.
I wandered around the campsite for a while, taking photos of the handful of Antarctic fur seals lying about, and then I set up my sleeping bag in the tent. I was surprised to find out that about two thirds of the group went straight to bed, even though it was only about 10:00 PM and still completely bright outside.
The rest of us hung out on the rocky beach, sharing travel stories and enjoying our surroundings. We watched a few penguins waddle around the beach, occasionally going into the water for a swim. I was back in my penguin suit, and every once in a while the penguins looked up at me curiously.
At one point somebody spotted a humpback whale off in the bay. We watched it swim around, occasionally blowing water out of its blowhole, probably hoping that a seal would get in the water and become its dinner.
And the whole time we were out there, about every fifteen minutes or so we would hear the thunder of an avalanche happening somewhere off in the distance. It was all so incredible; watching the whale and hearing the avalanches gave the very distinct impression that this was no normal camping trip.
As the New Year approached, we celebrated with a countdown and a few more photos with the penguin suit, and then we climbed into our tents to try and get a few hours of sleep.
We were woken up at 5:30 AM. We packed up our camping gear and rode the Zodiacs back to the ship. When I got back to my cabin, my cabin-mates were still asleep, so I quietly unpacked all of my camping gear to air it out and let it dry, and then I climbed into bed for a quick nap.
After breakfast, my first excursion of the day was kayaking. It took a minute or two to get used to the kayak, but once I got the hang of it, I was able to focus on enjoying the scenery. As we paddled around, we saw immense white and blue icebergs, which were gorgeous against the grey, overcast sky.
They were all different shapes, and some were bigger than houses, so we had to keep our distance in case they were to flip over. We passed a couple of icebergs with little penguins waddling around on them, and then we even saw a crabeater seal napping on an iceberg, hogging the whole thing for his fat, lazy self.
As we continued, the icebergs got smaller but there were more and more of them, and eventually we got to a point where we were surrounded by little pieces of brash ice. While we had originally tried to paddle between the pieces of ice, it got to a point where we were essentially in a field of ice, having to paddle straight through it.
It felt as though we were the first people on the moon: We were in this amazing landscape that I had never even known existed, isolated from the rest of humanity, with no evidence that anyone else had ever been there. It was one of the most spectacular moments of the trip, and getting to experience it was priceless.
Eventually our guide Shelli spotted a minke whale off in the distance. We paddled through the ice as quickly as we could, trying to catch up to the whale, but every time we thought we were close, it would pop up in a different part of the bay. Even so, it was still cool to have gone kayaking with a whale!
After about an hour and a half or paddling, we took the Zodiac back, boarded the ship, and headed straight to lunch. I was actually hoping to take a short nap after lunch, but I looked at the clock and saw that it was almost time to get mountaineering gear for the afternoon excursion. I enjoyed ten minutes of relaxing in bed, grabbed my harness, and then went back to the gangway to catch a Zodiac ashore.
Once we landed, we got our snowshoes on, grabbed ice axes, and clipped into the rope. And just as we were ready to go, we heard an avalanche off in the distance. It was a bit creepy, but we trusted our guides. At least, that’s what we told ourselves.
Cube and Andreas, our guides, explained to us the very basics of mountaineering. They had taken a long rope and tied knots into it every 15-20 feet or so. Each climber was wearing a harness and clipped into one of the knots via a carabiner. We were all wearing snowshoes because the snow was so soft; for icier conditions, we would have had crampons.
As we ascended, we were to walk up so that the rope between us and the person in front of us was just barely touching the ground. If we let it go too loose, we were walking too close together. And if we let the rope get tight enough to become completely suspended, we were walking too far apart.
The goal was to have it at just the right place so that we could all walk independently, but if somebody fell into a crevasse, the rope would quickly catch them.
We started up the steep slope from the beach, and the soft snow made it quite difficult. Every twenty or so steps I sank into the snow far enough that I had to practically climb out. Within minutes I was exhausted, but I was determined to give it my all, and I didn’t want to let down the others.
The guides did their best to pack down the snow as we continued, and we eventually made it to a flatter part, both of which made things a bit easier for me.
As we continued upward, the path got steeper again, but I became better at using my snowshoes, so the difficulty level had balanced out. And eventually I got to a point where I was able to look around and enjoy the scenery, which was stunning.
It was also a bit creepy, as we could still hear the occasional avalanche every ten to fifteen minutes. Every time we heard that thundering sound, we looked around to try and see where it came from, but they were all outside of our line of sight. On one hand, it would be cool to actually see an avalanche as we trekked. But on the other hand, getting caught in an avalanche could be deadly.
My mind suddenly flashed back to the minutes before we boarded the Zodiac; I had seen Cube pointing our planned route to our expedition leader Andrew, but I hadn’t realized at the time that he was doing that in case we got caught in an avalanche. The effort that goes into keeping guests happy and safe is extraordinary.
After an hour and a half of walking, Cube announced that we had reached our turnaround point. We had been hoping to summit one of the peaks, but the path was too steep, the snow was too soft, and we were running short on time. So we all rested for a few minutes and enjoyed the spectacular views. We were about 700 or 800 feet above sea level, and from our perch we had a clear view of Paradise Bay and its surroundings.
Looking across the bay, we could see the snowcapped peaks and rocky outcrops on Lemaire and Bryde Islands, standing out against the grey sky. Looking down, we could see the glassy surface of the bay, pierced only by a few icebergs and the Plancius, which looked tiny all the way down below us.
I thought about how lucky I was; there aren’t that many people who get to travel to Antarctica, and even fewer get the chance to admire it from above.
Going downhill presented its own difficulties, but we learned quickly and were soon making our way back down to the beach. And at the very bottom, we sat down and slid down the final stretch, laughing the whole time.
When we arrived at the rocky beach, we started to take our snowshoes off, but we became distracted by a thunderous sound. We turned around, looked up, and saw an avalanche come crashing down just a few hundred feet away from the turnaround point from our trek!
Yikes! It was a real reminder that we were truly out in the wilderness of Antarctica.
As we rode in the Zodiac back to the ship, I reflected on how eventful the past 24 hours had been. It was surely the most exciting day of my life.