Punta Arenas is where you will wait for your weather window to fly down to Antarctica. Therefore, the amount of time you will be here really depends on the weather. I thought I would be here for two days but the weather gods spoke and my window came a bit faster than anticipated. I recommend just touring the town and spending the afternoon shopping in the main square. You can pick up some crafts before heading head over to Sotito's for some fish soup. This is a traditional dish so of course I had to try it. I will warn you that if you are not okay with an entire fish being in the bowl, yes including the bones, do not order it. That being said... IT WAS FANTASTIC!
The Journey to the Sea Adventurer
Getting to Antarctica is a pretty epic journey all on its own. You've spent countless hours getting to Punta Arenas and now you are just sitting around waiting for your ultimate weather window. If you travel with Quark this "down" time will be spent gathering your gear, repacking your bags and sitting through some safety briefings. I assure you this briefing does not last super long, but it lays out some ground rules that have been established by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). The idea behind this association and briefings is to preserve Antarctica for future visitors and the many fragile creatures who inhabit this wonderful place. At the end of this briefing you will have dinner with your travel mates and you should be given a time frame that you need to be packed to get to the airport. In my case that time was midnight for a 2:00 am flight. You will want to have your boots, parka, gloves, hat, scarf and waterproof pants on when you step off the plane in Antarctica. That being said, you don't want to overheat on the plane so do your best to keep most of that gear off until you are just about ready to land. The pilot will let you know when you are making your descent. This would be a really good time to start "gearing up." When you step off the plane you are officially in the South Shetland islands. Take it in! You are officially here! The trip you have been dreaming about is literally happening! I still remember that feeling and I am pretty sure I will never forget it. Next is the really fun part. You have to make a 2 km trek to the zodiacs waiting to pick you up and take you to your home. As you wait for your turn to get on a zodiac be sure to keep your eyes on the water. You might get lucky and have your very first penguin encounter.
The key to surviving your Antarctic trip…BE FLEXIBLE!! I cannot stress this enough. The weather in Antarctica is very unpredictable and plans WILL change at the last minute to accommodate the new conditions. Honestly, this makes the adventure that much more exciting. You are truly embarking on an expedition and can end up exploring some pretty remote and untouched places. The Quark expedition team did everything in their power to put us in really magnificent and hard to reach places, which just made the experience that much more awesome! It was greatly appreciated and I could not possibly thank them enough for it! I will go ahead and give you the rundown of the itinerary that our trip followed but I can 100% guarantee you that your itinerary will be different. Having said that I have no doubt that your expedition team will do everything they can to put you in the most amazing places depending on the wants of the group and the current weather patterns. I think it would be more beneficial to show you some of the experiences I had while traveling so I can either entice you to travel here or solidify your decision to travel here. This is such an absolutely breathtaking place for so many reasons and I know you are going to love it!
December 14 - Frei Station, Snow Hill Fast Ice Sunset Cruise, Erubus and Terror Gulf
It was our first day on the ship and we were all so excited to get out and experience Antarctica. However, everyone on board thought our first excursion would be the morning of day two but the expedition team had other plans. That first day we were able to head out for a sunset cruise where we spotted some of our very first penguins and got to experience a truly remarkable pink sunset!
December 15 - Paulet Island and Brown Bluff Continental Landing
Our first stop of the day was at Paulet Island where there were roughly 100,000 nesting pairs of Adele penguins. After landing we headed up the beach to explore. Our expedition leader had mentioned the word nesting and I took that to mean the penguins would be sitting on eggs. I was pleasantly surprised to not only find eggs but some very fluffy chicks! During this excursion we could move up and down the beach but I found that no matter where I stood I was surrounded by these adorable little penguins. It was truly an amazing experience!
Our afternoon excursion brought us to Brown Bluff, which would be our first and possibly only continental landing. I kayaked the first portion of this excursion and landed for the second half. I remember landing on the zodiac and stepping up onto the beach where this giant Antarctic sign was waiting for you to take a picture. The entire experience just seemed surreal. My family took our "we were here" shots and then started trekking down the beach to find some nesting chinstraps. On the trek down one of the guides was walking the opposite direction and told us that there were orcas passing the ship. I jokingly asked if we could jump in a zodiac to see them and her answer was "ya, get out there!" As if landing on Antarctica wasn't cool enough, now we had an opportunity to get up close and personal with some orcas! This day seriously could not get any better! We hurried back to the landing sight where one of the guides picked us up and we were off. We zipped through the ice hoping we would catch a glimpse of the orcas. For a brief moment we lost them and thought our viewing had come to an abrupt end. However, as luck would have it they popped up off the starboard side of our zodiac. We sat for a few minutes just watching them, said our farewells and then headed back to the ship.
December 16 - Gourdin Island and Astrolabe Island
As we approached the island we were informed that there were some leopard seals in the water hunting and that earlier in the morning some of the zodiacs had witnessed a penguin being killed. While we were staging, just waiting for our turn to land, we were graced by not one but two penguins in our zodiac. My mom had the pleasure of being smacked on the back of the head as the first penguin came flying out of the water, landing at our feet. He looked pretty stunned, probably as stunned as we were. While we were all busy looking at the first guy hanging out in the aft of the boot a second penguin jumped up on the bow. They hung out for a little while before making the leap back into the water. Come to find out this is a pretty rare occurrence so it became quite the talk of the ship.
Our afternoon excursion was a bit more like the Antarctica I was expecting. Our expedition leader came over the PA system to let us know the conditions outside were looking a little "sporty" and that of course our excursions were optional. There were about 60 very brave souls who decided to come along for the zodiac ride. As we stepped into the zodiac we were graced with howling winds, swells and snow. The plan was to circumnavigate Astrolaube island and that is exactly what we did. As rough as the conditions were there was something majestic about being able to experience it.
December 17 - Wilhelmina Bay, Enterprise Island and Bailey Head??
It was in the Gerlache Strait on the way to Wilhelmina Bay that we stumbled upon some feeding humpbacks. We spent about an hour watching them before moving on.
As we continued on we passed through Graham Passage, which held breathtaking views of glaciers. My mom and I just found a spot in the back of the ship away from the crowd and took in the spectacular view.
Eventually we made our way to enterprise island. Here we saw a bunch of crab eater seals, most of which were hanging out on the ice clearly resting after chowing down on some krill. We stopped by an old sunken ship that was used to store whale oil. It unfortunately caught fire and the crew sunk it hoping to save the prized cargo that was stored on board.
December 18 - Bailey Point, Whalers Bay and Livingston (Elephant) Island
Today we got super lucky and were able to take part in three different excursions. We woke up nice and early and headed out to Bailey Point, which is home to nesting chinstrap penguins. After grabbing some breakfast we headed back out to Whalers Bay. This was a beautiful area and I was so glad that we ended up kayaking the first portion of it. After landing we headed down the beach to see some whale bones and the areas that they used for processing whales for oil. We also made sure to dig our hands into the sand to feel the warm water being heated by the active volcano beneath our feet. I can attest that the water was hot! After finishing up we headed over to elephant island where we kayaked up the coast listening to the elephant seals on the shore make loud grunting noises. The sky was blue and the water was relatively calm; such a perfect day! After about an hour we headed to the beach where we stood in the center of a group of sub-alpha-males that were just resting on the beach. According to one guide an adult male could take up an entire zodiac and would probably spill over some. That is a pretty big seal! Elephant island was unfortunately our last excursion and so as we left the island by zodiac we said our silent goodbyes. It was a great way to end the trip!
I cannot stress this enough… kayaking is a MUST! Let me just repeat that in case you missed it. Kayaking is seriously a MUST! Signing up does not mean you have to paddle every morning and every afternoon. It just means you have the option to do so. Every morning we would meet to discuss what the kayak excursion and the zodiac excursion for the day would entail. Then you had the option to decide which trip you wanted to go on. I really enjoyed kayaking because we usually split the time, which gave us about an hour and half of kayaking plus 30-45 minutes on land. This way you get the best of both worlds. I think the major difference between the zodiacs and the kayaks is the intimacy you feel with the environment and the close encounters you can have with the wildlife. For example, I had a leopard seal swim over to my kayak and pop his head up to check my mom and I out. They certainly look big from the zodiac but I assure you they look way bigger when you are sitting in a kayak.
If you choose to partake in the kayaking you will be provided with a dry suit, life jacket, booties, dry bag and pogies (neoprene covers for your hand). I highly recommend bringing a carabiner to clip your waterproof point-and-shoot to your life jacket. You can stuff it inside your life jacket and use it for quick pictures. The kayaks do have bungees in front and behind your seat but it can be difficult to get your camera out of the dry bag since you need to be vigilante about your surroundings so you don’t end up floating into an iceberg. I was fortunate to be in a double kayak most of the time so my mom could paddle while I was taking pictures. If you are really into taking pictures it may benefit you to double up.
One of the many wonderful things about kayaking is that you are the first to leave the ship and usually the last to come back, giving you the most amount of time to explore. The kayakers were usually dressed and loading the zodiacs about 15 minutes before the rest of the ship was ready to embark. After loading up the zodiacs you take a short ride to a put in point. From here you will load your kayak from the zodiac with the help of one of your kayak guides as well as the guide on the zodiac that brought you out. The first time you tackle this task will be a little awkward but by the second and third time you will be a pro.
As far as weather goes they will not take you out if the winds, swell or both are bad. It was very apparent that safety is their number one priority. You also have a zodiac that follows you the entire time you are kayaking. They are there in case anything happens and/or if you want to get out early. This zodiac is also available for storing some extra gear that you may not want to carry on your kayak, but may want for the landing after your awesome paddle. Lastly, I just want to give a quick shout out to Tara and Sean, our kayak guides, for such an awesome time! They were fantastic and truly made the experience worthwhile!
I brought a fish eye, teleconverter, Nikkor 20-70 and Nikkor 70-200. I legitimately only used the 70-200. There is maybe one time where I contemplated switching to the 27-70. If I came again I don’t think I would cart all this gear here, especially with the 20-kilogram (~ 44 pounds) weight requirement. Instead I would bring a waterproof point and shoot and the Nikon with the long lens. A little caveat to this is that my biggest focus is wildlife photography as opposed to landscape shots. If you are all about landscapes you may want to pack differently. Also, I cannot guarantee you will be as up close and personal to wildlife as the passengers on our cruise were, so take my advice with a grain of salt. If you are worried and aren’t over your weight limit I would suggest bringing it. As always it is better to bring something and not need it then to not have it at all.
Penguins are very photogenic creatures so you shouldn’t have a hard time getting a great photo of them. I was so lucky to be there when they were nesting so I got some great shots of parents caring for their young and incubating eggs. Here are just a few tips for photographing penguins. First, be patient! The chicks need to be kept warm by the parents until they are fat enough (usually around three weeks) to insulate themselves. You will have to patiently wait for dad or mom to stand up so you can get a glimpse of that adorable little chick. Which brings me to my second tip, which is be ready! Once dad or mom stands up you will only have a few seconds to get your shot. They may rotate the egg or chick and then sit back down. If you are really lucky you may get to experience them feeding the chick. Third, if you shoot in manual mode take a few test shots before you see the chick. You can check your histogram before hand and not have to fiddle with adjustments when you only have a limited amount of time. Lastly, once you get your award winning shot just take a few moments to sit and watch without looking through the lens. This can be so hard for photographers but you are in one of the most remote places on the planet and you should just take a few moments to truly enjoy the experience.
As for other animals such as whales and seals, I feel like the majority of those interactions are a combination of being in the right place at the right time and a little bit of luck. Just remember that these are wild animals and so there are no guarantees about what you will see. My advice is just to be ready with your camera and willing to explore.
I just want to cover layering really quick before we get to the packing list. I cannot stress dressing in layers enough! You will absolutely want at least a base layer, insulating layer and windbreaker/waterproof layer. You can add more if you need it but I was nice and toasty with just that. If you are kayaking your wind breaker will be the dry suit and if you are doing day excursions it will be the yellow jacket provided by Quark plus whatever waterproof pants you bring.
Musto pants or other OFFSHORE WATERPROOF gear
You will get wet. This is not a question of if but when. You will want to have waterproof pants that can go over your boots. This may seem counterintuitive but this will actually keep you the driest as opposed to tucking your pants into your boots that Quark will provide. I don’t really recommend using rain gear or ski pants because those aren’t really waterproof but many people did use them and seemed okay.
If you go with Quark they will provide you with Muck Boots. If you have to purchase your own boots for the trip I highly recommend the arctic series from muck boots. I wore these the entire trip and felt that they keep my feet warm and dry, even when I was standing in the water after a shore landing. I thought they were comfortable and very easy to walk in.
Time is not a huge issue on the ship because the expedition leader will keep you posted about where you need to be and when. However, on land it was nice to know when you needed to be back by to make sure you had a ride on the last zodiac.
These are great for clipping gear to your bag. I also really recommend them for clipping your camera to your life jacket if you are kayaking.
If you are kayaking this will be provided to you, but I recommend it for everyone especially if you do not have a waterproof backpack. You will get wet during some of the landings so make sure that your gear is protected.
Base layer bottoms x3
I brought one pair of pants and just changed my base layers every day.
Fleeced lined pants
This will be your mid layer, which will insulate you and keep you warm. Don’t skimp on this layer.
I used Patagonia wicking shirts for my base layer. These dry really fast if they get wet, which is important. You really want to avoid anything with cotton here because it will take forever to dry.
There was only one excursion where I really could have used my ski goggles but for the most part I was fine with just using regular sunglasses. You definitely need them as it is super bright in Antarctica.
Closed toed shoes for the boat
I brought toms and worse those on the plane and on the boat. You don’t want to wear open toed shoes on the boat just in case the seas get rough. You will appreciate the added grip if you are experiencing some nice swells.
I brought two beanies in case one got wet and of course it did. The first one was not dry in time for the afternoon excursion so I was glad I had brought a second one.
Gloves and glove liners x2
I recommend two pairs in case one gets wet, which is very likely. Its better to have two and not need it then to have one soaking wet pair and spend the day freezing.
Kitchen cleaning gloves
I picked this up from the kayaking guides. They gave us plastic kitchen gloves to go over our liners or gloves. These kept your gloves from getting soaked, which in turn keeps you warmer.
Buff and/or fleece neck gator
I used this a lot on the boat so I didn’t have to wear my beanie while I was inside.
If you are looking to participate in the polar plunge and take a nice little dip in the ocean you will want to bring a bathing suite, rash guard or some other form of clothing you don't mind getting soaked.
One nice outfit for the last night
They will have a send off on the last night that consists of drinks and a slideshow with pictures from your trip.
I just brought one t-shirt and one pair of shorts and that was good for the entire week.
Fleece pullover x2
I only brought one Columbia pullover fleece and wish I had brought two so I could alternate them. I ended up getting water down my jacket during one excursion and it would have been nice to have a second fleece to change into.
Bra and/or sports bra
The sun in Antarctica is strong! Make sure you apply sunscreen before each excursion because it is so easy to get a sunburn here (especially on the face).
Since you will be making a 2 km (~1 mile) trek down to the ship I recommend a backpack that is waterproof as opposed to a rolling or hand-held bag. Depending on the weather you may find you are in the splash zone of a zodiac and you definitely want to keep those electronics safe. It would also make it a lot easier if you bring a small duffel bag with your clothing in it as opposed to a rolling bag. It’s just gravel and ice so wheels wont do you much good. If you want to bring extra items just to have in Punta Arenas you can do that and then leave them with the Chile based crew. Just make sure you have a spare bag to put those items in as that will not be provided.