We’re back from our voyage at the End of the World!

Last month, the husband and I had the great fortune of taking a last-minute trip to Antarctica with the luxury cruise line, Ponant. A life goal of ours has always been setting foot on all 7 continents, and Antarctica (obviously) is the most difficult one to reach, so this was really a dream-come-true for us.

How does one take a last-minute cruise to Antarctica?

Funny you should ask.  A lot of moving factors had to line up just-right for us to be able to do this.  We were actually looking for cruises for next year.  We’ve been researching different ways to get to Antarctica, but we always kept coming back to a cruise.  Surprisingly, that is generally the most affordable option that will actually get you to the mainland.  (FYI: Air-cruises are prohibitively expensive and generally only get you to the South Shetland Islands.) 

During our research, we came across a cruise for next year that was pretty no-frills and comparably affordable.  The catch?  We’d have to sleep in separate berths – with 3 other people in each room. 

The conversation went something like this:

D:  “I found a cruise, but we have to sleep in separate rooms.”
Me: “What?  Why can’t we just swap out with the other couple?”
D: “It’s 3 other people in each room.”
Me: “Uh…How much extra to just sleep in the same room?”
D: “About an extra $3500.”
Me: “See you in the morning.”


It just happened that my mom was already visiting us in Chile, so I told Dave to see if there was ANYTHING last-minute that we could hop on right away.  We didn’t expect there’d be anything – it was totally just a whim.  As it turned out – there were two!  The only problem, however, is that my mom’s flight needed to be changed to watch our kiddo, and all cruises leave from Ushuaia, Argentina… Not an easy flight to book last minute.  We grabbed the last flight available, and then hired our Nana to work every day while we were gone (she normally works 2 days a week) to provide extra help around the house.  We quickly got my Mom set up with all the documentation she’d need – which involved drawing up Wills, Powers of Attorney, and all the legalese that generally takes weeks.  Thank you to my Father-in-Law and the Embassy for getting that process done in, like, a day!

The Chinese Charter

We learned that the two cruises were both Chinese charters, and some berths either hadn’t sold or were recent cancelations.  Only about 11 rooms remained on the cruise we selected.  So we would have to move fast… and thus, we booked a last-minute luxury cruise to Antarctica… 2.5 weeks before it left.  (At 70% off!)  (Thank you, Freestyle Adventure Travel, for being so wonderful to work with!)  We were assured that there would still be programs in English (or Spanish) and there would still be Western food available…  Don’t laugh – it’s a valid concern when you’re on a ship for 2 weeks.

We don’t plan to fail.  We only fail to plan.  Or something.

As it turned out… among the other Westerners, Dave and I were the “planners” of the group.  We had a whole 2-weeks-notice before going!  Many of the Westerners on the trip arrived THAT DAY and went on an 11-night cruise to the Ice Continent with no more than the clothes on their backs.

Having been on major cruise lines before, we expected Formal Nights and “ship clothing” a la Royal Carribbean.  Generally, I’m very good at packing.  This time, I packed TWO EXTRA SUITCASES that we didn’t even open.  Apparently, for an expedition cruise, nobody needs a gown.  Noted.

Getting there.

So, turns out that last-minute flight to Ushuaia wasn’t exactly at an ideal time of day…  Who would have guessed?  We had to connect through Buenos Aires, except that we landed in one airport and had to take a bus across town to another airport.  In case you were wondering… a 1:00am bus in Buenos Aires isn’t terribly reliable. 

We DID make it in time, but we were also quite fortunate that we had a 4-hour connection. It was necessary. After sleeping in the airport in front of the Hard Rock Café… at 4:00am… with BLARING MUSIC even though the restaurant was closed… we boarded the plane to Ushuaia.

Setting Sail.

We were able to see our ship from the port in Ushuaia.  But upon boarding – Oh. My. God. 

We had seen photos, and even a documentary on Le Soleal, but in real life, the ship was breathtaking.  It had all the accoutrements one would imagine (pool, restaurant, sauna, shoppette…) – but every single room even had its own private balcony.  And world-class cuisine.  And leather-trimmed lounges with 360 views of the sea.

We had expected to set sail that night… Only, it was a charter ship.  The airline that had brought in the Charter passangers from China lost 30 rooms’ worth of luggage.  Normally a cruise would just leave without bags – but remember, there were only 100 rooms of guests (more or less).  30% of passengers not having pants is a pretty big deal.  So we waited. 14 hours.

As you may have guessed, 14 hours is a long time to make up on a cruise ship… particularly, when that ship has a two day crossing of the roughest seas in the world – the Drake Passage.  Understandably, people were upset.  But I felt pretty good when the ship staff told the “Westerners Group” that if we didn’t think we got our money’s worth, tell them once we reach Antarctica.  That’s a pretty tall order!  It was really nice to see they felt confident in their tour.

Two Days at Sea & Making New Friends

Once we set sail from Ushuaia, we began the long sea-crossing through the Drake Passage.  No joke – it’s the roughest water in the world. A continuous current with no land mass along that latitude to slow it down means GIANT swells, high winds, and all-around rough seas.  We had 15 meter (40′) waves coming up over the side of our 3rd deck balcony – and everyone was prohibited from going out on deck. While eating dinner on Deck Two, the swells were so high it appeared as though we were eating entirely underwater. Fortunately, the ship had great stabilizers.  YES, you felt it. It was not as bad as it could have been though. (Then again, yours truly has had inner ear vertigo for years, so… pretty much normal for me.  The ship, however, went through quite a supply of Dramamine in the first 48 hours.)

Turns out, once you’re trapped on a ship for 48 hours, even introverts like myself make quick friends.  (Related: all drinks on the ship were free. See: introvert.) We hit the jackpot as far as fellow travelers were concerned!  The other 19 English-speakers were all super-nice, hysterically funny, and all-around amazing company. (We even met up with some people we met in Antarctica this week, which is what reminded me I needed to write this blog post.)  So happy to have met all of you!


Paradise Bay

After two days of rough waters – mostly spent eating the amazing food and attending fascinating wildlife lectures – the waters suddenly calmed.  The ship pulled into Paradise Harbour and the water turned to glass. Moments later, one of the passengers ran inside to tell us there was a whale!  We all ran outside to get a look at these two humpbacks nearby the ship. Then more passed by. Then a float of penguins. Then a seal. There was wildlife as far as the eye could see.

We took our first zodiac tour that day through Paradise Bay.  Amazingly, we could pull right along side the wildlife without disturbing any of it.  See that leopard seal above? That’s at 150mm.

Remember those whales from this morning?  We came right along side a pod of feeding humpbacks – flipping their flukes, fishing for krill… all within meters of the zodiacs.


Lemaire Channel

That evening, the ship headed for the beautiful Lemaire Channel during sunset.  The landscape is beautiful – giant peaks and mountains jutting directly out of the water.  Although we couldn’t pass the entire way through (a giant iceberg blocked our way) we were able to enjoy a glass of champagne and watch the sun sink behind the icy crags.

Port Lockroy & Neko Harbour

The next day, we traveled to Port Lockroy. Port Lockroy is a penguin research base (operated solely by volunteers), which also boasts the southernmost Post Office & Gift Shops in the world.  The base itself is filled with Gentoo penguins, which had recently hatched and were these adorable little sleepy puffballs, approximately only 8 weeks old.

Dave found a bottle of Shackelton’s Whiskey which we purchased because – hey, if you can buy a bottle of whiskey on Antarctica, why wouldn’t you?

In the afternoon, the ship pulled into stunning Neko Harbour.  We took the zodiacs out through the ice to reach the glaciers, and then did a small hike to the lookout over the bay and the small Gentoo colony below.  I could describe the sight, or I could just show you some photos below…

Dave Finds a Chinstrap Colony

On the next zodiac tour, we had the chance to go out with a guide and do a little exploring.  Backing up a second, we bought a pair of binoculars in 2012.  They have been used exactly once until this trip.  On a whim, Dave decided to bring them for the zodiac cruise.  Thanks to the 10x zoom, he spotted an entire colony of Chinstrap penguins (apparently, the most elusive penguins!) diving off a rock.  The ship diverted all the zodiacs to check out his discovery. 

Snow Dome


The next morning, after our daily wildlife lecture (Penguins!) we took a short hike past some Weddell & Fur Seals up to the Snow Dome.  Honestly, DH and I were confused as to why we’d just be hiking up to see some snow, but it turned out to be a blast! Most of the English speakers on our tour were also checking off the same box we were – visiting all 7 continents.  So we took tons of group photos with our Antarctica flags, had some good ol’ Antarctic snowball fights, and a great time enjoying the beautiful scenery. The photo at the beginning of this post (7th continent flag) is from here.


There was no shortage of absolutely incredible sunsets in Antarctica.  Every single night, there was another majestic sky display. Unfortunately, I never changed the date in my camera, so I’m not particularly sure what night was what…  The one directly above, I believe, is the 7th night?

One night, however, was a sunset so incredible people were literally moved to tears.  From our balcony window, I saw an enormous (several stories tall) iceberg float by, set against a brilliant yellow and blue sky.  The light refracted into bright oranges and pinks against the surface of the ice, and the teal waters turned into gold-flecked sapphire.  Absolutely gorgeous.


As the iceberg floated away, the sunset turned deep purple… complete with breaching humpback whales playing in the distance. 

South Shetland Islands

We made a detour, North, to the South Shetland Islands – namely, Robert Point – to visit the seal colony there.  The island is home to hundreds of fur and elephant seals. 

Remember I mentioned we had lectures every day?  One such lecture was all about Pinnipeds.  Turns out, Fur Seals are “earred seals” – and of the same family as Sea Lions.  Their hip bones move in two directions.  True seals – such as the elephant seals – only have hips that move up and down, making it impossible for them to “walk” on land like sea lions.  Once you know this distinguishing factor, it’s pretty easy to tell them apart.  Earred Seals walk.  True Seals blob.

This fur seal is my buddy.  He was super-interested in my camera, and kept following me around.  We were warned against petting them, as their jaws can rip your hand off.  But they look (and act) just like sea puppies!  <3

I also found this neat rock.

And more Gentoos.

That evening, we passed this incredible iceberg that had entirely flipped over.  The part visible is normally what’s underneath the water.  The crew on the boat were ecstatic.  Some said that in more than 20 years in Antarctica, they’d never seen an iceberg this remarkable.  Looks just like a marble!

Sea Ice

The next morning, we went on a hunt for sea ice – which is way cooler than it sounds.  You’d think that “hunting” for something that doesn’t move would be… dull.  It is NOT! 

Interesting fact about sea ice…  It is salt water that has frozen.  The salt drips down back into the water through its own desalinization process.  Underneath the ice, this briney liquid is home to algaes.  Algae attach to the ice.  Krill eat the algae.  Whales & Penguins eat the krill.  Seals eat the penguins.  Without sea ice, which acts as a giant reflector, the entire ecosystem would cease to exist.

The Captain of the ship woke us up at 5:30am to announce we had a spectacular sunrise over sea ice – again, complete with frolicking humpback whales and swimming chinstrap penguins.  You know… from your bedroom balcony.

{On a related note – this is also why I travel to important places with two cameras.  Overnight, we had a little bit of rocky waters, and my camera got bounced around inside the drawer (couldn’t keep it on a flat surface, for fear of falling.)  I somehow damaged the light meter, and the above frame is a result of that.  Fortunately, the second camera held out.  Dave also realized the meter worked in P, but not Av or M… (and I only shoot in M & Av so…) As he was less emotional about a broken camera, he realized that a factory reset might fix the problem.  It did, by the way.}

Ice Party

Later that day, we headed out to find a BIG ice floe.  Like… really big.  So big, that the entire ship, staff, & crew could all disembark for a big champagne party.  And since it was a French ship, that champagne was served with some of the best macarons I’ve ever had. 

To quote Dave:  “These macarons taste like rosehips… and other things I never thought I’d say while standing on an iceberg.”

Adélie Penguins and the Weddell Sea

We headed over toward the Weddell Sea for our first look at Adélie penguins.  Turns out – I’m a big fan of these penguins in particular!  (As if that were a surprise to anyone.)  So, enjoy these 8 billion photos of little black pinguinos.

This penguin is my spirit animal.  She basically just screamed at all the baby penguins walking by for about an hour straight.  “Get off my lawn!”

The Gear

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  • Canon 5d Mark III
  • Canon 5d Mark II
  • 70-300 f/3.5-5.6 L (on the camera about 70% of the time)
  • 24-105 f/4.0 L
  • 24-70 f/2.8 L  (hardly used)
  • 15mm 2.8 fisheye
  • Tripod (used once?)

The Essential Packing List

  • Waterproof, lined ski pants (without suspenders)
  • Long thermal layers
  • Glove liners or fingerless gloves
  • Hat or Buff
  • Scarf and/or Buff
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunblock
  • Menthol Paste (for penguin colony)
  • Dry bag
  • “Adventure” clothes (hiking pants, fleeces) for the ship


Next question I get asked is what we packed to bring with us.  Answer: waaaay too much.  The cruise line actually gave us (really nice!) parkas to keep, and boots were loaned out.  Due to environmental reasons, it was required we only used the ship’s boots.

The first time we dressed to go outside it was a 30 minute process.  We eventually got that process down to about 90 seconds!

For some reason, if you STILL want to see more photos, they’re on my Facebook personal page. Enjoy!

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Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space. It’s like going to the moon.

Jon Krakauer

If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.

Andrew Denton