As I sat down to write this piece I struggled with how to convey the incredible experience I had with Oceanwide Expeditions to the bottom of the world on their Ross Sea itinerary. I’ve traveled the world since my parents threw me in the back of our 1969 Buick station wagon to discover America and had many “once in a lifetime” experiences –watched a lion kill, got stuck in enemy tunnels, danced in a tent with 5000 lederhosen clad men, doing my best to keep up, stared into the midnight black eyes and razor sharp smile of a Great White, lingered in the blown out caldera of an active volcano, walked the Red Carpet with Hollywood legends, found myself in front rooms, back rooms and secret rooms, felt the cold steal of a machine gun against my back in one desert and been smothered in unconditional love in the another. I've been to Antarctica twice before and this is by far the most memorable experience of my life. I’m rarely at a loss for words and yet I struggle to find just the right way describe it.
The Ross Sea itinerary is a 32 day odyssey, from Middle Earth across the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Circle to 78° S into the mysterious Ross Sea, a mere 720 miles from the South Pole, circumnavigating the Great White Continent, along the Ross Ice Shelf and through ice strewn seas that maybe a few hundred of the most bravest souls have ever sailed, up the peninsula and along sailing routes established by legendary explorers with names like Drake, Darwin and Magellan, to ‘round the horn and our final destination, half a world away, in Patagonia.
This expedition had everything – jaw dropping landscapes, whales galore, volcanoes, ice, ice and more ice of all kinds, berg, fast, sea, pancake, brash… forever sunsets, heroes, huts and of course, penguins….and I swear to God, the only thing missing was a unicorn. It’s big and sublime and magical and spiritual and superlative. It’s beyond “Once in a lifetime”. It’s more than a vacation, a trip or even expedition. It’s a journey that replenished my mal-nourished soul, that I know I will never, ever be able to top or repeat as Oceanwide Expeditions is the ONLY expedition company in the world to make this journey - and it won’t be offered again until at least 2020.
There is only one word to describe the Ross Sea Itinerary: EPIC!
Top 10 moments
1. The Royals of Campbell Island
After a 2 day sail we arrived at New Zealand’s fog shrouded, windswept, Sub-Antarctic Campbell Island. As mv Ortelius sailed slowly, cautiously, towards the inlet of Perseverance Bay, the sun burned through, revealing the grassy, rolling hills flanking the gateway to this mysterious, island, reminding me of home, near that Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay. We dropped anchor and hopped zodiacs to our landing point, for a hike across Campbell Island’s primordial green space, to its windswept 1500 foot island summit in hopes of getting a glimpse of its notable inhabitants.
After a 45 minute hike up the weather bleached boardwalk floating above the indigenous, giant herbs that blanket the island, I rounded a 5 foot tall clump of beige-green tussock grass and suddenly found myself staring at a pair of Royal albatross, silently nuzzling each other. They were HUGE, roughly the size of a miniature horse or small pony. Regal, they remained completely unfazed by my presence. How can it possible get any better? And then one stood up… revealing a hungry, young chick hidden in the nest beneath them.
2. Sailing The Southern Ocean
On day two of a four day sail across the sun drenched Southern Ocean from Campbell Island to the Ross Sea, a gale force began to blow through clear blue skies that sent strong, freezing winds and rising seas at Ortelius. I forced my way into the wind swept deck and shuffled aft, clinging to the railing to find a space to wedge myself into to take pictures of nature in action. Huge, beautiful mountains of indigo and turquois waves rose up, swelling 2x, 3x, 5x in mass, right before my eyes, nothing between them and me except the railing.
I watched for well over an hour, smiling, rejoicing in this once in a lifetime moment as the Southern Ocean flexed her muscle. A few of the most hearty shipmates joined me on deck to snap their own pictures and marvel at this magnificent sight before us, in this adventure which had just barely begun. I will probably never get to see this show again and I felt like a true sailor, explorer – pirate - riding the mountainous waives of Screaming 60’s.
3. Cape Adare
I awoke to the call to breakfast and as I began to pull myself from my daily morning fog with thoughts of coffee I realized the ship was still. Were we at anchor?! I sprung from the blanks and peered out the porthole over my bunk to lay eyes upon Cape Adare and my first view of Antarctica herself, at the very edge of The Ross Sea! I scrambled into my gear and raced for the deck – to hell with breakfast, I’m headed outside, camera in hand! I burst through the deck 4 hatch and there it was, in the middle of a large Adélie penguin colony, on a broad, triangular spit of land known as Ridley Beach, under ice topped, towering cliffs, the very first building in Antarctica, built in 1899 for Carsten Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross Expedition and the first men to endure the long, dark, Antarctic winter.
The hut was incredibly well preserved due to Antarctica’s dry climate and I was anxious to get ashore. However, as one of the windiest locations on the continent, sea ice had stacked up against the beach, making a Zodiac landing difficult. I pointed my long lens across the sea ice gathering between Ortelius and the shore for a snap. Over the next hour the ice continued to blow in, crushing any hopes of a landing. While disappointed, I took comfort knowing that Borchgrevink and his men were also delayed by the sea ice and wind, preventing them from initially unloading their ship. In a way, it made for a truly authentic expedition experience.
4. You never forget your first Emperor
Overnight we had gone 62 miles into the Ross Sea and spent a windy and foggy, grey morning sailing through the rocky black and white outcroppings of The Possession Islands, on your way to Cape Hallett to mount another attempt to land on the Antarctic Continent proper and walk amongst the inhabitants of a large Adélie penguin colony. By afternoon we were in sight of the cape but, like Cape Adare the day before, we were unable to land due the large amount of sea ice the wind and swell had thrown up against the beach. In the Zodiacs, we slowly squeezed through a literal sea of blue and white ice, fringed with long needles of sharp turquois icicles, hanging hungry and dangerous and beautiful.
For an hour we meandered through this frozen sculpture garden and just as we were about to head back to the ship, there she was, a lone Emperor, regal and statuesque, standing at 4 feet tall! We shut down the motor and coasted up to the edge of the ice she seemed to own. I laid down low across the bow of the Zodiac to try capture an ice-level portrait of her majesty, worried all the while that I might spook her and suffer the wrath of my shipmates. I was utterly star-struck as she seemed to preen and pose like a Hollywood star, basking in the attention yet remaining indifferent to her Antarctic Paparazzi.
5. The ice at 2:00am
I was jostled awake at 2:00am by a sharp jolt and loud grinding on the hull as we sailed deeper into the Ross Sea. It could only mean one thing: We had hit the pack ice! I dressed as quickly as possible, grabbed my gear and raced for the bow. Jaw dropped. No words. There was only one other on deck at this hour to bear witness to this seeming mirage, an emergence from our world, through a tear in the very fabric of space, into an alien, grey scale world of ice and water. How else could this be explained?
We slowly sailed through dim grey light and giant slabs of geometric ice, askew in leads the color of steel. I found myself engulfed in unimaginable beauty that my mind struggled to comprehend. I wondered if I must still be asleep, bundled warm and dreaming in my cabin. In heart aching wonder, my eyes welled with tears that froze before they hit my cheeks. This moment alone made the journey worthwhile……and there were more yet to come.
6. Feeling like Bond
Antarctica is a desert – a giant white desert, with very low humidity and precipitation and we were headed to the driest spot within that desert, that maybe 100 people in all of time have ever been: The Dry Valleys. It’s an expedition and that’s what you do when you have your own private helicopters to fly you over the ice pack and 40 miles inland from your ship to the most extreme desert on the planet! Feeling like James Bond I marched across the deck, hopped my ride and ZOOMED across shattered ice pack as that famous movie score played in your head and I wished to god I had brought my tux!
Flying over frozen ocean and then landing in a vast, barren, ice-free valley, when the rest of the continent is entombed under hundreds of meters of ancient ice was an experience of extremes. I stepped down from the helicopter and felt small next to nature’s silent enormity, taking in as much of this landscape as I could imprint on my soul before our short visit was over.
When it was time to leave, I slipped back into the helicopter and we sped away across the mars-scape, swooping low and fast around icebergs trapped in the frozen ocean. Back on Ortelius, as I jumped from my ride with a new swagger and sudden craving for a martini.
7. Time travel At Terra Nova
It was one of the coldest days we would have on our expedition. A strong wind swooped down off the volcano, freezing the ocean spray as we bounced over white caps, headed towards Cape Evans and the holy of holies, Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, at the foot of Mount Erebus. The weather was questionable for a landing, but thankfully the ice had been blown out to sea, not piled up on the shore like we had at Cape Adare.
I slipped from the zodiac, stepped ashore onto the black sand of Home Beach and made my way up the icy slope to the small door of the 100 year old hut, in reverence for the men who spent 2 winters here, who lived and died here, in preparation for their futile race to the South Pole. I held my breath as I stepped into history and the half light of 1911. As my eyes adjusted, I caught the fish oil scent of slabs of seal blubber stacked on the porch and the interior came into focus. To the right, cooking utensils lay on a kitchen counter. To the left, bunk beds, a deerskin sleeping bag, fur boots… pictures of home. Crates of supplies divide rooms, an empty coffee cup left on the dining table. Everything was incredibly well preserved, as if the men just stepped outside and will be back in a moment. There was so much life there. So much to see, to feel and so I lingered, almost hoping for their return.
When it was time to leave, I took one more walk through this sanctum of Antarctic exploration, thinking of the men, the hardships they endured and the history they made. I stopped to scrawl my name on a blank page in the book by the door, to record my presence with the men and then stepped outside and back into 2017.
8. A dream comes true at McMurdo Station
I dreamed of the legendary base, McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea, at the bottom of the world, at nearly 78° South, a mere 720 miles from the South Pole for as long as I can remember, but not being a scientist never hoped to get there. McMurdo Station is half a world away and very difficult to get to due to the permanent sea ice, so I set my dream aside, forgetting about it, until I stumbled across Oceanwide Expeditions Ross Sea itinerary that included a visit to McMurdo – in helicopters - and a few months later I found myself riding copilot, once again speeding low, across thick, solid sheet of ice, headed to the mysterious McMurdo Station.
My heart raced as we got closer and closer, flying up McMurdo Sound, past the legendary Mount Erebus, headed for “Town”, as the locals simply call it. What would it be like? I had read that it’s an architecturally uninteresting industrial town, more about function than form, a town of Quonset huts and cargo containers, often called “McMudhole” when summer temperatures can break 50°, but I didn’t care, it felt like was heading to OZ. After an 8 minute flight my helicopter touched down on a beautiful, warm, windless day, onto a landscape of black and grey terra firm, surrounded by a sea of white and mountains of icy blue. A day earlier the Katabatics swooped off the continent making a visit impossible. Luckily, we had a day to wait and finally, in a literal leap of faith I jumped from the helicopter and my dream came true.
9. Floating with an Emperor
We were semi-circumnavigating the continent, somewhere between The Ross Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula in some of the most remote waters on earth, rarely visited by man. Over the course of the last 300 years only a handful of ships have sailed the Amundsen Sea, which lies completely below the Antarctic Circle, and I was incredibly excited to join the elite group of explorers who have ever sailed her waters and laid eyes on the massive ice flows along the western side of the continent. On a rarefied day of warm sunshine and calm seas we hopped zodiacs for a cruise among the ice.
We spent an hour and half snapping pics in and around the ice, with the usual suspects for subjects bathing in the warm summer sun – Weddell seals, crabeaters, Adélie penguins and even a lounging leopard seal, who gave us a small adrenaline rush when he caught our scent and quick belly-flopped across the ice thinking we might make for a good snack!
And then it happened: Someone in the zodiac yelled “Emperor!” and pointed to a flow not far away, followed by the click, click, click staccato of shutters firing. The Zodiac driver flipped us around and we sped across the water. As we hit the three foot high ice flow I thought “this is completely solid” and knew an opportunity had just presented itself, one I knew I had to take it! “Can I jump out?” I yelled to the driver and before he could answer I sprung from the Zodiac and onto the ice! Life seemed to be running in slow motion as I saw myself jumping from the Zodiac as a tourist and landing on the other side a seasoned Antarctic explorer, standing firm-footed on a large piece of ice floating in the Amundsen Sea, off the coast of Antarctica, with a 4 foot tall Emperor penguin - one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.
10. Finding Neverland
This is the night I will carry with me to my end of days - the night I spent in an ever changing word of light and magic, at the edge of the icepack in the Ross Sea. I stood quietly on deck in soft light and still air of a warm Austral Summer night. There was no wind, no sound, only the low hum of Ortelius creeping thru dead calm waters of McMurdo Sound, with newly formed pancake ice shimmering like gold coins across the oceanscape.
Amber light bounced off the volcano in the horizon, pouring through a rift in the sky, setting the large tabular bergs aglow like giant embers in burnt yellow and hot pink and violet-blue. And just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any more beautiful, I heard the faint ripples of water and a quiet whoosh, whoosh, whoosh as a pod of orcas surfaced at the ice edge near the ship. In the distance a group of Emperor penguins waddled across a frozen sea of pink, to the edge of the ice, keeping a safe distance from the hungry killers below.
McMurdo Sound was a glittery, sparkling landscape, as if fairy dust had been strewn across the sky. I quietly snapped the shutter of my camera to capture the scene, disbelieving what I was seeing and feeling like I had slipped into another world, a world where anything was possible if you just believed.
Unable to tear myself away, I remained on deck through the long sunset and lingering twilight of the Antarctic night, my heart aching, like a lost boy just who’d just found Neverland.
Several dreams came true
As I documented this unimaginable 32 day Ross Sea odyssey I realize how fortunate - how incredibly privileged - I was to have this immersive opportunity in Antarctica, to experience her in ways that very few ever have, thanks to Oceanwide Expeditions.
Several dreams came true for me on this journey - to go to The Other Side and sail into the ice pack in the Ross Sea; to visit the interior in the Dry Valleys; to lay eyes on the fabled active volcano, Mount Erebus; to visit the men at Terra Nova; to step from a helicopter at McMurdo Station; and to be able to, in some small way, follow the path of the men of the Heroic Age. This expedition has been life changing and I know that I will never have another life experience anywhere near it’s equal.
I will continue to travel the world, see amazing places, but they will not touch my soul like the Ross Sea Antarctica cruise has, and if I’m lucky I’ll return to The Great White Continent some day. Until then, I’ll have the memories of my time there on The Most Epic Journey In The World.