by Kim Eighmy
This past December, my lifelong dream to visit Antarctica finally came true. My husband John, niece Bethany and I embarked on an epic adventure of whale watching, visiting penguin colonies and exploring one of the world’s last true wildernesses.
Passenger Bethany Eighmy, Quark Expeditions team member/ornithologist Santiago de la Vega, and passenger Kim Eighmy hiking and exploring Antarctica on a shore landing. Photo: Kim Eighmy
Our Antarctic Express: Fly the Drake expedition was full of surprises--seals popping up by our Zodiac to say hello, incredibly calm weather that enabled us to access rarely visited landing sites, and so much more.
But there were 4 things about our expedition that really stand out in my mind now as the elements that made the entire trip as spectacular as it was. We initially had some concerns about crossing the Drake Passage, our safety in such an extreme destination, and whether staff would be able to accommodate my strict gluten-free diet.
Here’s what we actually found and experienced on our Antarctic Fly-Cruise.
I’d been researching Antarctic cruises for a number of years before discovering that a Fly-Cruise was an option. At first, John had no interest in traveling to the 7th continent, largely because of the time needed to sail the Drake Passage, so Bethany said she would join me. However, the high price tag on the options we were seeing prevented us from going ahead and booking.
Fly-cruise expedition passengers disembark their charter flight at King George Island, where they are transported by Zodiac cruiser to their expedition ship bound for the Antarctic Peninsula.
When Bethany discovered Quark Expeditions, we were pleased to see they offered expedition options within our budget. Once we learned about the option to fly over the Drake Passage, John decided to come, too! It then became a matter of findings dates that worked for all 3 of us.
We talked to our Polar Travel Adviser, Cara, several times as we worked out the best itinerary and got ready for the trip. I don’t think we could have gotten away with 12 or 14 days away, but the 8-day departure on December 13th fit right into our budget and timeline.
Cara helped us prepare and understand what to expect, but in the back of my mind, I was still thinking, expedition travel means we’re really going to be roughing it! It was such a pleasant surprise (and a relief!) to find that the amenities and atmosphere on board were so comfortable. In fact, the food was fantastic (more on that later) and Sea Adventurer (now the Ocean Adventurer) was the perfect homebase for our daily Zodiac cruises and shore landings.
The lectures given by expedition team members onboard were just incredible. There really wasn’t a lot of downtime onboard; when we weren’t out on excursions, we were up on deck taking photos and watching for wildlife, or visiting the bridge, or getting these amazing lectures and presentations from the guides. Some are scientists, others have been guiding expeditions for years, but all were incredibly knowledgeable.
A seal pops its head above halcyon aquamarine waters, to the delight of Zodiac passengers on an Antarctic Fly-Cruise expedition. Photo: Kim Eighmy
That part of the experience was so valuable for us, especially in the condensed timeframe of the Fly-Cruise expedition. It helped us understand why the animals we were seeing behaved in the ways they did, how the spectacular landscape around us formed and was shaped over the years, etc. Traveling with these experts just added such important context that made the experience that much more valuable.
Planning a trip to such an extreme destination brings up all kinds of safety concerns. One of my greatest worries was that the kitchen may not be able to accommodate my very strict gluten-free diet, as “getting glutened” could put me out of commission for days.
Cara assured me the Chef and his team were incredibly conscientious and would take good care of me, but I was still blown away by the measures they took. At snack times, they’d prepared gluten-free cookies and bagged them up separately to avoid cross-contamination. Each mealtime, as I entered the dining room, the head waiter reviewed the menu with me to ensure I knew all of my safe options. The variety was incredible, and the food quality was akin to a fine restaurant. When there was no gluten-free dessert planned, the Chef prepared something and brought it right to my table!
“A gluten-free dessert delivered to our table by the Chef, just for me!” ~ Kim Eighmy
Physical safety is obviously a concern, as well, when you’re doing these adventurous things like Zodiac cruising. In our safety briefings, we learned that the guides are certified Zodiac drivers, and we reviewed the key safety policies that all onboard staff and passengers adhere to. Each time we transferred from the ship to the Zodiacs, for example, two crew members had a hand on each of us at all times--one on each arm. The expedition team member driving the Zodiac then took my arm in a firm sailor’s grip, until I was safely seated. This process was repeated for each and every passenger, on every transfer.
Not having to worry about these things really freed our minds to just enjoy the rest of the experience.
When we heard those announcements onboard that a whale or a seal had been spotted, we’d run to the decks, camera in hand, to take in the show. I remember standing on the starboard bow as a humpback glided by the ship and an expedition team member joined our group. She explained that the whales we were seeing are conscious breathers (unlike us humans, who breath as a subconscious act--we don’t have to think about it), so they have half their brain working all the time.
Adelie penguins play amidst great chunks of ice on a frigid Antarctic beach, the mountains of the peninsula on the horizon. Photo: Kim Eighmy
As we watched the whale breach and swim some more, our guide pointed out the different parts of its anatomy and I just felt like I must be in a dream! We had our own private expert right there, sharing this experience with us. It was incredible.
I am passionate about recycling and the environment at home, but when you’re actually there in this prehistoric, preserved place, it’s so helpful to have these experts who truly care alongside you.
On shore landings, they marked out areas we could explore without disturbing this fragile ecosystem and while they aren’t cranky about it, they were strict about those boundaries. The expedition team loves Antarctica, and know that it can take decades or even hundreds of years for things to regrow. You really get a sense through their guidance of how fragile it is, but it wasn’t only on guided outings. They had meals with us, joined us in the lounge and on deck, and were literally by our side throughout the entire expedition.
We left the Antarctic with a very deep sense of how what we do back home affects the world as a whole. Those penguins, seals and whales have been going there for eons, and we’re so privileged to be able to live in a few brief moments of that existence as visitors.
Our Fly-Cruise left me with a profound appreciation for Antarctica, in a way I couldn’t have gained otherwise. If we had the opportunity to do it all over again, the only thing I would change is that I’d take a better camera!
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