Destinations

The End of the World as We Know It

Follow our editor's journey to Antarctica.
IMAGE LARA FERNANDEZ BARRIOS
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It’s a big birthday for me this year. Next month I’ll be turning the big 5-0. Half a century. And so earlier this year, when my uncles decided to head to Antarctica for a bucket list trip, I figured, why not? I must say it was a spur of the moment decision, and so I signed up without knowing much about it. Perhaps if I had taken the time to think about how it would take four and half days to get there from Manila and another four and a half days to get back, I would’ve had second thoughts.

Our flight route started from Manila to Dubai to Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of civilization. From there we boarded the Silver Explorer, a Silversea Expeditions vessel, for a ten-day voyage at sea. The first two and a half days were at sea, with more than a day traveling through the treacherous Drake Passage—where the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans meet—with turbulent waters like a giant washing machine, and swells up to 15 feet high.


The Silver Explorer, a Silversea Expeditions boat

Ignorance is bliss, and so I didn’t realize how bad it could be till I woke up in the middle of the night to the ship lurching to and fro, with the clothes drawers in the cabin sliding open and shut, and our toiletries falling from the bathroom shelves, resulting in a mess of broken glass on the floor.

“One hand for you, one hand for the ship,” we were reminded by the crew, as we teetered through the hallways lined with seasickness bags to get to the half empty dining room for lunch. (Half the passengers apparently stayed in bed.) And this was a gentle crossing, we were told.  More like a mild Drake Shake, or a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 would’ve been what they called a Drake Lake.

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But all that discomfort was immediately filed in the archives of forgotten memories as soon as we spotted the first sign of land. Snow-capped rocks jutting out of the inky sea beneath a cloudy gray sky. A panorama in black, white, and gray. Picture perfect. The start of five full days of spectacular scenery.


Our voyage included two trips a day on motorized rubber Zodiac boats, usually one that docked on land, and the other, a cruise at sea. We wore bright-colored red orange parkas to be spotted easily from a distance and knee-high boots that we disinfected each time we got on and off the ship to prevent contamination from island to island.

The scientists and researchers who gave lectures on board the ship acted as guides on the Zodiacs as well, making sure we understood the Antarctic Treaty, so that we would help take part in the conservation and preservation of the continent and its wildlife.

Magnificent sunsets of pinks, oranges, purples, and violets over pristine white glaciers and blue seas. Otherworldly scenes of icebergs in all shapes and sizes floating by on calm, mirror-like waters till they got trapped in coves that looked like iceberg graveyards.

From birds to fish to mammals, they introduced us to the various extremophiles of the world’s last frontier, that is, wildlife that could adapt to the low temperatures and high exposure of the continent, as well as the oceans and islands around Antarctica.

 And while we spotted albatrosses, petrels, cormorants, skuas, terns, and all sorts of gulls all throughout our expedition, the birds that made my heart soar were the penguins, of course.


The tail of a humpback whale; and A Weddell seal

The laid-back Gentoos, with their black faces and orange beaks, the aggressive Chinstraps, with their black beaks and white faces with a thin black line running from cheek to cheek, and the raucous Adelies, which look like they’re wearing tuxedos.

I sat happily among them for hours, ignoring the stink of their guano, watching them molt with annoyance, waddle about or porpoise in the water, listening to the trumpeting sounds of their ecstatic displays. 

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And oh, those adorable chicks! Plump, fluffy chicks that waddled up to us thinking we were their parents. We had been warned to stay at least 15 feet away from the wildlife, but hey, if they came over to us to peck on our boots, could we help it?


A Gentoo penguin chick


A colony of molting penguins and remnants of an old whaling boat in Mikkelsen Harbor

Then there were the seals—crabeater, Weddell, and fur— those blobs of blubber lazing around the wreckage of old whaling boats, or on the pebbly beach. On one island we came cross groups of baby fur seals that wanted to play. We had been warned that they could turn aggressive if we turned our backs on them, so we were advised to back off slowly while locking eyes with them. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a swimming seal as I turned away from the beach and got chased by a barking seal for a few feet. Not charming at all.

We spotted a much more dangerous leopard seal, lean and mean, floating past us on an ice floe, enjoying a postprandial nap, perhaps after munching on some hapless penguins, or even a small fur seal pup.  Canine-toothed leopard seals come in second to the killer whale, on the list of Antarctica’s top predators, but they are a threatened species and an uncommon sight. Mean seal, check.

Plump, fluffy chicks that waddled up to us thinking we were their parents. We had been warned to stay at least 15 feet away from the wildlife, but hey, if they came over to us to peck on our boots, could we help it?

There was quite a commotion when the guides spotted the first humpback whale blows—sprays of water breaking the surface as the whales below expelled air from their blowholes. Likely all 120 guests, except Mom who chose to nap, rushed out on deck waiting for those whales to breach.  We stood there entranced as they showed us their humps and their majestic tails. When they had gone, I headed back downstairs to tell Mom the tale of what she had missed.

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You mean those? she asked, pointing at the window in front of her bed. And sure enough, the pod of whales gave Mom her own private show.

Mom claims she brings the sunshine wherever she goes. And Antarctica, the seventh continent she has visited in her lifetime, didn’t prove her wrong. Every day our guides said they were floored to see another sunny day. Most of the time the weather in Antarctica is overcast, we were told, with a sunny day perhaps once every 30 or so days. Perhaps it was Mom, perhaps it was that terrible global warming, but we had pleasant weather pretty much all throughout our voyage.


The weather was so pleasant, in fact, that when Dom del Rosario, the Filipino assistant expedition director, challenged us to do the Polar Plunge at Deception Island, my sister and I took it. It wasn’t too bad, just a few degrees below zero, and we only spent a few seconds in the water. Still, it took a sauna, a long, hot shower, and finally, a glass of wine, to finally warm us up and make us stop worrying that our toes might just fall off.

“…  a splendid display of both shivery gooseflesh and courageous determination…” said our official Polar Plunge certificate. From the way our uncles shook their heads, we knew they would’ve used other choice words instead.  The rest of our trip was nothing short of spectacular. Magnificent sunsets of pinks, oranges, purples, and violets over pristine white glaciers and blue seas. Otherworldly scenes of icebergs in all shapes and sizes floating by on calm, mirror-like waters till they got trapped in coves that looked like iceberg graveyards. Flat round lenticular clouds resembling flying saucers, formed when cold moist air blows over the top of a mountain.

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Lenticular clouds over Neko Harbor

A special treat was when Dmitri, our historian from Russia, managed to get special permission for an unplanned visit to Vernadsky Research Base, the Ukrainian Antarctic station. We went farther south than most private ships to reach the station, which is noted for being the first to discover the hole in the ozone layer. It is home to 13 researchers, all of them male, some of them who had not shaved in the 11 months they had been there that season. Aside from the technical equipment in their laboratories, they had a pantry well stocked with canned goods, and a lounge with shelves of books, a billiard table, and a bar that served homemade moonshine they called “antifreeze.” The lounge has been unofficially called the southernmost bar in the world.

And after five days on and around the white continent, it was back through the looking glass, and up the rabbit hole of a Drake Passage that led us back to the real world where I am almost 50.

This wasn’t a fairy tale, I promise.

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Yvette Fernandez
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