In early November 2018, I joined a Road Scholar 13-day learning adventure to Antarctica aboard the 198-passenger ship Ocean Atlantic. Although it was never at the top of my list, I was thrilled about the prospect of participating in this expedition, as I’d recently taken up sailing and had developed a keen interest in ocean voyages and navigation. Antarctica and in particular, Drake’s Passage, has attracted explorers for centuries; it was thrilling to embark on a journey once covered by the likes of Darwin, Shackleton and other intrepid adventurers.
I became more and more excited as the departure date approached, especially after seeing the reaction of friends and family who expressed every emotion imaginable, from concern (“Isn’t it really cold there!?”) to amazement (“What a cool job you have!”) Because I’ve lived in a cold climate before (Road Scholar is based in Boston, Massachusetts), I already had all of the cold weather gear I needed. However, I found Road Scholar’s packing list very helpful. It included recommendations for sea sickness medication and requested shoe and parka sizes, as each participant would be outfitted with this very necessary gear once aboard the ship.
On the first Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday, I joined 28 other intrepid Road Scholar participants and staffers in Miami, Florida, to begin the long trek south to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we’d cross the storied Drake Passage. The Drake Passage is well know because it’s the body of water between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. It’s where the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern seas converge (hence the term ‘convergence’), and can have some of the roughest seas on the planet. Travelling to the tip of South America in a day makes you appreciate how much easier it is now compared to the days of the early explorers, who might take years attempting the voyage around Cape Horn.
The Road Scholar participants were a hearty group of experienced travelers, ranging in age from 48 to the early 80s. They came armed with binoculars (LOTs of birders in the group), pictures of grandchildren, books to read during the passage and Dramamine. Many had been on other Road Scholar programs, but for a few, it was their first adventure with Road Scholar. As we gathered together in the hotel over breakfast on our first full day together, the participants began to share their stories, and why touching the 7th continent was so important to them. For some, it was their 7th and final continent. For others, it was an item on their bucket list. For others still, they were there for one thing only—penguins. On to our first stop before crossing the Drake—Tierra Del Fuego.
Tierra del Fuego (“land of fire”) National Park is at the southern-most tip of Argentina. Throughout the short coach ride, the Road Scholar lecturer spoke about the city of Ushuaia, the park and its history. And what a spectacular day! Clear blue skies and mild temperatures. After several stops and lecturers in the park about the flora and fauna (and our first group photo!), we headed to lunch and then finally, the Atlantic Ocean!
The very detailed Road Scholar itinerary noted it would take three full days to cross the infamous Drake Passage . On our first day aboard the Ocean Atlantic, our expedition leader Shelli briefed us on what we could expect over the next three days. She advised those who were prone to seasickness to take the necessary precautions, as the seas were very unpredictable; on any given voyage, you can cross Drake “Lake” or Drake “Shake.”
Was it rough? Yes, it was. The boat pitched throughout the three-day crossing, though by the end of the three-day passage, most people got their sea legs and adjusted to the rough weather, with winds reaching up to 50 knots.
During the passage, the lecturers spoke on a variety of topics, including seabirds and whales. Those who were interested had the opportunity to observe both off the deck of the ship with experts and naturalists. In addition, all passengers were required to attend a biosecurity meeting. This was mandatory, as the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) had a series of rules that everyone fortunate enough to reach the continent was required to adhere to in order to keep the environment there as pristine as possible. This included sanitizing the ship-issued rubber boots, vacuuming all outer clothing in advance of boarding the zodiacs, and rules around engaging with the penguins.
Next stop, Antarctica!
December 1, 2018 was Antarctica Day AND the day our ship was scheduled to reach Antarctica. How serendipitous!
The morning began with our first zodiac ride to Wilhelmina Bay. I was struck by the expansiveness and beauty of the icebergs and surroundings. We were all so excited to get off the ship and walk on solid ground after three days aboard ship! Our first landing was Danco Island, an island off the coast of Antarctica. After a steep but short climb, we were rewarded with our first colony of Gentoo penguins. What a treat to just sit and observe these adorable birds, who showed no fear of humans. The IAATO rule was that we had to stay at least five feet away from the penguins. However, the penguins were able to approach us. And approach they did. Two penguins blocked our exit, and we simply had to sit and wait for them to pass, which allowed for some great photo opps.
The beauty of the icebergs and landscapes is really indescribable. From the freshness of the air, to the beautiful blues and greens of the icebergs, I was really surprised by how moved I was to simply be in this very special place. The reality is that photos can’t capture the beauty, the splendor, the quiet, the freshness, the wonder of Antarctica.
Antarctica is indeed a special place, but it is not an easy place to get to or an easy place to be in. Even though we were there at the end of spring/beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere, the weather sometimes made it difficult to experience every planned activity. However, we were advised in advance that our expedition wasn’t just about GOING to Antarctica; part of the experience was about BEING in Antarctica. That being said, there was a possibility that we would come all this way, and not actually be able to set foot on the continent because of the extreme weather. However, the expedition staff was dedicated to helping people fulfill their lifelong dream of touching the continent. We got our opportunity at the Almirante Brown Scientific Station. All 28 Road Scholars boarded the zodiacs and climbed the short hill to capture this glorious moment. Later, aboard the ship during our private cocktail hour, the seven Road Scholar participants who’d realized their 7th continent were feted, including Karen L. who was celebrating a birthday. In that moment, I realized how truly special this program was, and how special Road Scholar was, for creating this learning adventure for seniors to realize their dreams.
That’s right. A polar plunge. Water temperature: 30° F. Everyone was so thrilled to finally reach Antarctica that when we were offered the chance for a polar plunge, we collectively thought, why not? Of the 109 or so other passengers onboard, close to half opted in and accepted the challenge. Of the Road Scholars, three participants (all women, I might add!) and three staffers, including me, donned swimwear and made our way to the ship’s mudroom. Anxiety started to set in as we actually saw what we were getting into: standing for several minutes in freezing temperatures in swimsuits, as the expedition crew tethered each person to a very thin rope. This rope was necessary, because the water was so cold and the sea so rough, that it was simply safer to be able to pull people back to the ship, as opposed to having them try to swim back to the ship.
I don’t remember much about the actual plunge (perhaps mild shock?), but the vodka shot after made it all worthwhile, and for an added bonus, we got a plaque and a pen!
As the ship maneuvered to find additional landing spots, the expedition experts delivered presentations on a wide variety of topics, including photography (“How to Photograph Birds in Flight”), “A Historical Film of Antarctic Exploration,” “An Oceanographic Look at the Poles,” and my favorite lecture of the expedition, “Climate Change.” The lecturer was incredibly passionate about geology and explained the impact that humans were having on the earth’s climate. High winds prevented landings on Deception Island and Half Moon; however, the staff rose to the occasion once again, and we were rewarded with magnificent vistas, sea life, Minke Whales and seabirds.
As we prepared for the return trip across the Drake , we were already experienced seafarers. Many participants spent the time journaling about their experience, getting to know the other participants or simply watching the ocean as we sailed back toward civilization.
Once we returned to Ushuaia, we began the process of saying goodbye to our incredible group. It was an incredible journey, one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who wants an experience of a lifetime. And I can’t think of a better organization to do it with than Road Scholar.
See Road Scholar’s complete collection of voyages to Antarctica.
About the Author Stacie Fasola is Associate Vice President of Public and Media Relations at Road Scholar. In addition to sharing the incredible stories of the organization’s participants, she has explored some of the world’s more off-the-beaten path destinations with Road Scholar, including Hiking the Inca Trail in Machu Picchu, Cuba, and most recently, Antarctica.
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