Outside GO's Laura Gerwin Explores Antarctica, GO Style
Outside GO's Laura Gerwin Explores Antarctica, GO Style
Our trip designer, Laura, has spent over 700 days in Antarctica. But this was her first time experiencing it with Outside GO.
At the bottom of the world there is an untouched land of incredible scenery and wildlife unlike anywhere else on the planet. This is Antarctica.
As a trip designer and Antarctic expert at Outside GO, I have just returned from the most epic journey of my life aboard the Ocean Nova on an expedition-style cruise. During this 12-day trip, our goal was to cross the Antarctic Circle while experiencing many wonders along the way. As someone who has traveled to all seven continents and over 50 countries, countless cities, towns, villages and far away islands scattered across the globe, I’m here to share with you the story of this wonderful land incomparable to anywhere else.
My love affair with the Antarctic began in 2009 as a dishwasher at McMurdo Station with the United States Antarctic Program. In support of science I washed pans big enough to crawl in and wash from the inside out. Then in 2013 I joined the logistical wheel of the shuttles department operating “Ivan” the terra bus, transporting passengers to the airfield on the ice shelf where they could connect with science stations and deep field camps around the continent. I’ve spent five seasons living life on the ice, working in the shuttles department, and guiding expeditions out and about the frozen ice shelves on the Ross Sea in the shadows of Mount Erebus and playgrounds made of pressure ridges.
Our journey began with 71 guests representing 14 nations across four continents boarding the BAE-146 aircraft with much anticipation. We were taking off for a two-hour flight (skipping sailing across the Drake Passage), landing at Frei Station on King George Island in the South Shetlands. With glowing smiles we arrived via zodiac and embarked on the luxury vessel built for ice and set sail for the far South. A toast from Captain Barrios and a delicious three-course meal accompanied by flowing wine sent us to our cozy cabins for our week ahead of wildlife and ice.
"As someone who has traveled to all seven continents and over 50 countries, I can honestly say that this was one of my most memorable adventures of all time."
After our expedition leader, Morten, greeted us good morning, we enjoyed our breakfast buffet and were off to play for the day. On our first disembarkation the weather was classic Antarctic—low visibility, blowing snow, and cold.
We lined up in the gangway with waterproof outer-layers, rubber boots, life-vests, and an eager sense of adventure. We loaded into the zodiacs and made our first landing on Petermann Island, home to an Adélie and gentoo penguin colonies. We felt nothing but delight as we were greeted by newly hatched penguin chicks and the mountainous landscape of Graham Land to the south. We wandered knee-deep in snow amongst the penguins and the icebergs in the bay in awe. I stood in paradise as snow fell on the sea, watching as two orcas swam by. What a day!
At 4:30 AM I woke to sounds of smashing, scratching, and waves breaking. I raised my window shade and dropped my jaw at the sight of an amazing field of ice. With little thought, I layered up and quickly went out on the deck. This was the icebreaker ride I had been dreaming about! Surrounded by my favorite pancake ice, pack ice, fast ice, icebergs, and surprised looking crabeater seals, we slowly made our way through the ice to continue our journey to the Antarctic Circle, farther south than any boat has been in about a year.
Later that day on a zodiac cruise in Crystal Sound as we zoomed past structures of ice formed by the magic wand of Mother Nature, our eyes reflected the brilliant blues of the landscape. Our guide Andre told us to hold on as he perfectly launched our boat onto a designated “parking spot” on an ice flow. We made snow angels, tossed snowballs, built snowmen, and sipped hot chocolate with an onlooking penguin. In the background, a giant iceberg calved breaking the sound of silence. Later on, a perfect afternoon lead to a polar plunge and New-Year’s-Eve-style countdown with a champagne toast as we crossed the Antarctic Circle exactly at midnight. It was so beautiful that I could not bring myself to shut my eyes, not wanting to miss a moment or let an amazing day pass away.
People travel to the Antarctic for many different reasons. For some it’s a bucket list item. For others it’s the pure passion of travel and place. And for others still it’s reliving the heroic stories of early Antarctic exploration. One afternoon we were able to set foot inside the British Historic Hut of 1956, left frozen and unaltered by time, and feel the history left behind from the early explorers and scientists of the Antarctic on Detaille Island. While the wildlife and the ice are my favorite parts of Antarctica, I can see how this adds to the already other-worldly feel of the place.
"We made snow angels, tossed snowballs, built snowmen, and sipped hot chocolate with an onlooking penguin."
On another sunny day with sky better than blue, we turned back North. In the Wilhelm Archipelago we made our way through the arched ice and sculptured formations to land at Yalour Island.
Surrounded by penguins and stunning scenery we wandered the island and watched the Adélies, totally amused by their excellent penguin-built highway system that stretched from shore to sea.
Back on board for lunch, I learned the afternoon would be spent at the Ukraine’s Akademik Vernadsky Station located on Galindez Island. Purchased from the United Kingdom for the price of one pound in 1996, this station was the setting for the discovery of the depletion in the ozone layer. It's also home to the Faraday Bar, where tradition has it that if a woman leaves behind her brazier to hang as décor, she receives a fresh-brewed vodka for free. I was honored at the opportunity to tour the station and meet the 12 Ukrainian men living there for a year with no re-supply and very few passing visitors, although I didn’t leave any clothing behind.
As someone who once lived at a science station in the Antarctic, I knew exactly what these men wanted. Fresh, juicy fruit. My “don’t be a banana hog” mentality from McMurdo Station instantly activated, I clipped my dry bag to my chair under the table during lunch and after numerous trips to the buffet filled it with fresh kiwis, pears, oranges, and apples. On the station tour when passing the kitchen, I found a bowl and filled it with the fresh fruit. Minutes later a man ran down the hallway, a half-eaten pear in his mouth, blessing me as the “Goddess of the Freshies.”
Back on board under the polar sun joined by the Ukrainians we had a barbecue outside on the top deck and danced the night away, old and young to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” Another perfect day in the final frozen frontier.
"It's also home to the Faraday Bar, where tradition has it that if a woman leaves behind her brazier to hang as décor, she receives a fresh-brewed vodka for free."
I have spent over 730 days on the ice, but only one of those days was spent on the actual continent of Antarctica. Today would be my second time.
As usual, I was first off the boat and thrilled to step foot on Orne Harbor on the northwest side of the Arctowski Peninsula. It was stunning. We made stair steps in the snow straight up a mountain to find a chinstrap penguin colony nestled amongst the peaks of the nearly untouched Antarctic Mountains. After descending the icy slopes, I sat on a rock in the bay inspired by the beauty of the world, completely infused with gratitude. Smiling, stepping off the continent and onto the zodiac, we cruised through the glacier-walled bay floating some 15-feet away from a napping leopard seal that was also enjoying the day.
Under the midnight sun we continued north, cruising beneath towering peaks in excess of 2000 feet through the Lemaire Channel, less than a half-mile wide in parts. This seven-mile passage runs from False Cape Renard to Cape Cloos, separating Booth Island from the Antarctic continent. I watched from the deck, utterly breathless from the beauty.
The Antarctic is owned by no one. It is shared by all and operated by the Antarctic Treaty—but it is strictly governed by Mother Nature. On the afternoon of our eighth day we had sailed 919 nautical miles of magic when we dropped anchor in the bay preparing to disembark the Ocean Nova and fly our way back across the Drake Passage before the storm on the horizon settled into King George Island.
There, our anchor remained in the bay much longer than expected, due to an epic and extremely rare weather delay that bonded us together on what was nearly the longest delay the Ocean Nova had ever experienced! Our bonus days on board were spent exploring the beauty of nearby islands, giving us an even more in-depth look and experience at the inspiring beauty of the Antarctic. We played ship-wide scavenger hunts, trivia games, gained knowledge from educational presentations, and enjoyed extra time with our new friends. If the Antarctic has taught me one thing, it’s that with humor you can survive anything.
"After descending the icy slopes, I sat on a rock in the bay inspired by the beauty of the world, completely infused with gratitude."
It has been said that the most interesting people in the world fall to the bottom of the earth. If you ask people who have the “Antarctic Virus,” as some like to call it, how they contracted this virus, more often than not the answer is: the people.
First it’s the adventure, wildlife, and scenery, or maybe the science and the texture of the ice that draw you south. But in the end it’s almost always the people you meet. This seems to hold true whether you’ve experienced years of friendship while working at a station or just an incredible 10-day adventure shared aboard the same ship.
Antarctica is a continent of frozen fun, adventure, and exploration. It will leave you inspired by the unique beauty of the most remote lands and fields of ice many miles away from ordinary. And so it was while watching a perfect sunset with tears frozen to my face that I said not “good-bye,” but “see you later,” to the Antarctic, the people, and the ice of this magical place.
On the way home to my surprise and delight I was able to spend one night in Patagonia. Staying at the Singular Patagonia, arguably one of the world's best hotels, I had a lamb shank with blue cheese polenta that steamed as I cut into it followed by an afternoon horseback ride. I giggled as I rode through the gorgeous mountains of Patagonia. The day before I had been on the beach of Antarctica with penguins and icebergs and there I was, taking bubble baths with a panoramic view. Its not magic. It's Outside GO!
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