Neither a pandemic nor a Purple Monster could stop this solo Irish backpacker from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica
‘Everyone’s been asking about the weather,” she said to the waiting crowd. “Unfortunately...”
She was Sara, expedition leader of M/V Hondius, a specially built Dutch cruise ship that tours the polar regions — in normal times, at least, if you remember those. The crowd – 163 excited and nervous passengers – gathered on deck five, waiting with bated breath to hear the plan for the next 10 days.
Every one of the excited and nervous passengers had made a unique journey to Ushuaia, Argentina, the city at the end of the world. We had passed border controls, undergone Covid tests, experienced delayed flights and cancelled expeditions. The next few days would cost me as much as six months of normal backpacking. But there’s nothing normal about Antarctica.
It was December 2021, 240 passengers and crew were on board the eight-deck, 108-metre-long ship, and we were on our way south on a nature-focused cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula. At 30 years old, I was certainly in the younger demographic on the ship, but I wasn’t alone. There were plenty of others my age, and plenty of women — some solo, some with friends or partners.
I knew no one on board, but that wasn’t unusual for me. I’m most comfortable as a lone wolf; always have been. Back when I graduated from UCD, zoology degree gripped firmly in hand, I jumped on a plane to the other side of the world and never looked back. I travelled to six of the seven continents over the next eight years, worked in nine countries in hospitality (for money) or wildlife conservation (my passion), always looking for that next destination, that next adventure.
Putting down roots never appealed to me. As the only traveller in my family, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the bug came from. All I know is that I have a constant drive to see the world, to cross countries and experiences off my ever-growing bucket list.
And the biggest item on that list? To visit all seven continents by the age of 30. Antarctica was the end of that goal, my crowning travel achievement.
Despite all the difficulties, we had made it to Ushuaia, puffed up with pride at the negative antigen test we received immediately prior to boarding the Hondius. Though facemasks, distancing and hand sanitising were still in force, there was a possibility of these measures loosening as the expedition went on, as long as we all continued to test negative. As the first evening drew in, the Hondius motored east through the famous Beagle Channel, with the colours of sunset still painting the sky pink and gold near midnight.
Before reaching Antarctica, the Hondius would make its way across the Drake Passage, a vast swathe of ocean with a reputation as one of the most volatile in the world. Those lucky enough to make the journey in good weather find calm seas with nary a breeze, though most experience high waves and strong winds. And then there are those like us, who have to suffer through a Purple Monster.
As Sara spoke, a map flashed up on the projector screen. Between South America and the Antarctic was a huge swirl of purple (and I thought weather warnings only went as high as red). There was an air of celebration on board as our journey to Antarctica began, but we were warned to get an early night before the ship hit open water and the monster opened its jaws.
“It’ll be worth it,” I muttered to myself frequently over the next two days, most of which were spent lying in bed with a scopolamine patch placed carefully behind my ear to combat the nausea. Ten-metre waves and 60-knot winds battered the Hondius, making walking from the bed to the bathroom or even mandatory briefings a hazardous undertaking. The howling wind was just one step down from a hurricane. The outside decks of the Hondius were closed as it was too dangerous to set foot outside.
“One hand for you, one hand for the ship,” was the motto parroted by every member of crew.
Late on the third evening out from Ushuaia, I noticed a lessening in the swaying, and in the nausea. We were close. But there was one final test before we could step onto Antarctica. One by one, the passengers of the Hondius cringed at yet another nasal probe. But there wasn’t much worry; after all, hadn’t we all been negative when we boarded? The excitement became more tangible as each person around me was given the all-clear. Then, at 10.30pm, Sara’s voice sounded on the intercom.
“Dear passengers, I have some unfortunate news...”
Positive. Two cases. I could hear the disappointment and worry in her voice as she explained the new, tighter restrictions. The two unfortunates and their spouses were confined to their cabins for the duration of the trip, but the rest of us could still land. However, if any more of us tested positive during the now-daily tests, the Hondius might return to Argentina. I lay back down, praying that I would get just one day on Antarctica.
Being so far south during the Antarctic summer, we were almost at the time of the midnight sun. When I woke on that fourth day, pushing back the curtain, I saw patches of blue sky overhead. Below was pristine white ice and snow, reflecting the bright sun. Between the glaciers, sharp peaks of dark rock protruded skyward. I dressed hurriedly in many layers and pushed through the heavy doors to the outside decks.
I walked up to the bow, pointed straight at the land, and took a deep breath of the frozen air. Years of dreaming, wishing, hoping all culminated in this moment. I was actually here. No buildings, no other ships. We could have been the only humans in the world, watching icebergs newly calved from glaciers floating silently past in the waters of Orne Harbour.
I ate breakfast impatiently, my first proper meal in days. We got ready to board the zodiacs — smaller boats that would ferry us to shore. Due to strict Antarctic protocols as set out by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), only 100 people from a ship can set foot on Antarctica at once, in order to limit the environmental impact of tourism on the fragile polar landscape. So we were divided into two groups, with half to land and half going on a zodiac cruise around the bay, before swapping. Our zodiac driver only took five minutes to find our first penguins, a handful of Chinstraps and one lonely Gentoo. They stared at us curiously from shore, possibly the first humans these birds had seen in almost two years.
Sara herself was waiting on shore to help each of us off the zodiac. “Welcome to Antarctica!” she cried, arms spread wide. Trying not to fall over my heavy muckboots, I clambered (not as gracefully as I would have liked) out of the zodiac and onto the rocky shore.
It took me a moment and a few steps to fully realise the momentous thing I had just done.
I was in Antarctica. I was physically standing on the seventh continent. My dream had come true, my goal was complete. I started to make my way along the paths the expedition guides had dug in the knee-high snow to make sure we didn’t stumble into any hidden crevasses. Tears came to my eyes, though I couldn’t tell if they were from joy or the cold wind that was starting to pick up.
At the top of the hill, more penguins huddled in their nests, raising their beaks to the sky and emitting a rather painful squawking cry. A trio of Chinstraps waddled as gracefully as me exiting a zodiac down the hill to the water to feed.
I stared out over the bay below, the ice in clusters of white against blue, zodiacs zipping to and from the Hondius a little further out, the occasional puff of windblown snow from a mini avalanche on the opposite hill. It was surreal, the most pristine landscape I’d ever seen, almost completely untouched by human hands or feet.
As someone who’s worked with wildlife around the world, I assumed it would be the waddling penguins, the crabeater seals lounging on ice floes, the humpback whales blowing puffs of crystallised air and the swooping sea birds that would capture my attention. But as magical as each of those sightings were, the overarching impression was that of space. Wide, open space, from the soaring mountains and vast sky to the ocean all around. Room to breathe after what felt like years of holding my breath. Of course, I kept my facemask on, not because of a mandate, but because it was so damn cold.
At the end of that first day, at Cuverville Island, wearing nothing but togs and shoes, I ran into the freezing water with dozens of other crazies for the Polar Plunge. I only spent enough time in the zero-degree water to dunk down to my shoulders and immediately turn tail for the shore, but it still felt like my whole body was on fire. I asked one of the guides how long it would take to get hypothermia in that water. “I don’t know about hypothermia,” he said, “but it would only take six minutes to kill you.”
Thankfully, no more passengers tested positive for Covid, and over the next three days, only once did bad weather prevent us from leaving the ship. I got to experience four landings, five zodiac cruises and two kayak excursions. At Base Brown, a small Argentinian research base in aptly named Paradise Bay, I marvelled at the idea of spending months in those cabins with just a handful of humans and a whole lot of penguins for company.
Time loses a lot of meaning in Antarctica. Maybe it’s the almost-constant daylight. Maybe it’s the strange life of living on a cruise ship, each day scheduled down to the minute. But while those four days were far too short, they were also like living in a timeless bubble. During our final landing at Portal Point, on a surprisingly warm day that had us all stripping off our top layers (a worrying sign of climate change, despite the pleasant experience), I sat in the deep snow at the top of the hill overlooking Charlotte Bay and just took it in. I hadn’t looked at my phone in hours; I couldn’t have guessed the time. The bright blue sky above me didn’t hold any clues.
As I watched other passengers being ferried back to the Hondius, one thought rose above all others.
I didn’t want to leave.
But bubbles only last so long before bursting.
After a few more days of journeying back across the Drake Passage (thankfully not through another Purple Monster), reality would set back in. In all likelihood, I will never again stand on Antarctica, which makes me cherish the memories all the more.
The definition of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Oceanwide Expeditions offers cruises ranging from the classic nine-night Discovery and Learning expedition to a 19-night Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica cruise. Prices start at €5,900pp for a shared quadruple cabin. Flights are not included. Visitors must first fly to Buenos Aires before continuing to Ushuaia. oceanwide-expeditions.com
The Antarctic cruise season runs from late October to March. Oceanwide has closed its 2021-2022 season, but will recommence in October 2022.
Visitors from the EU do not need a visa to enter Argentina, but must fill out a declaration form before arriving and exiting the country and provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination. More information can be found at argentina.gob.ar/salud/coronavirus-covid-19
Read more about Dearbhaile’s travel adventures on her blog, thiswildlifeofmine.com.