Antarctica and the Traveler’s Ego

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I thought I would come back from Antarctica in triumph, my fists raised in exultation. Hey, I can say I’ve been to seven continents now! And you know the Polar Plunge? I did it WAY south of the Antarctic Circle! Also, here are dozens of adorable photos of me surrounded by penguins!

Instead, I’m returning from Antarctica in tears. No destination has ever made me feel more grateful, nor more insignificant. Everyone who has asked me about my trip as received the same response: “It’s the best place I’ve ever been.” 

I had no idea Antarctica would be the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. Nor did I expect this trip to be the most spiritual experience of my travels. Antarctica turned me inside out, changed my priorities, and turned me into a more thoughtful traveler and human being.

But first, here’s how it began.

Why do people want to travel to Antarctica, anyway?

I spent several days asking this question of my shipmates on Quark ExpeditionsOcean Diamond. Most of my fellow passengers came from Australia or North America; they ranged in age from teenagers to seniors, a great many of them over 55.

“Why are you here?” I asked. “Why did you take this trip? What made you choose to come to Antarctica?”

And strangely, everyone struggled a bit when answering, hemming and hawing before admitting the real reason.

“Because it’s my seventh continent,” was far and away the most popular answer. Just behind it? “Because I can. Because it’s there.” And the ever-popular, “Why not?”

It’s far from an unusual ethos — early 20th century French explorer Jean-Baptise Charcot named one of his ships the Pourquoi-Pas. He later gave an island the same name.

When I pressed my companions for more, I occasionally got a more detailed response — “Because I love penguins.” “Because climate change means it might not always be like this.” “Because I’m getting older and I want to do these adventure trips while I’m able.” But the vast majority of responses were rooted in Antarctica being their seventh continent, the ultimate achievement to check-off.

Everyone had a bit of ego in their response. People were traveling here because they wanted to feel more important, more experienced, more special. They didn’t just want to visit somewhere remarkable, they wanted to become more remarkable as a result of having visited.

I find that interesting.

Ask strangers why they’re visiting Italy and they’ll say, “Because I love Italian food.” Or “Because the Italian countryside is beautiful.” Or “Because my family comes from Italy and I want to explore my roots.” Or even “Because I grew up dreaming about taking a gondola ride through Venice and I want to have that experience.” The answers are far more concrete and specific than what I got about Antarctica.

For me, I came to Antarctica because I wanted to be impressed. One of the realities about travel is that the more you experience, the more difficult it gets to be impressed. Remember how excited you were to see cobblestone streets in Europe? Decades later, do you even notice cobblestones anymore? Or cathedrals? Or palm trees?

But everyone I know who has been to Antarctica told me that THIS would be the place to TRULY enchant me and leave me in wonder. It’s the kind of destination that is so big, so remote, so untouched, that nothing I had seen before would be able to compare.

So yes. I was here primarily to be blown away — but I have to admit that there’s ego behind my own answer as well. I did want to say that I’ve been to seven continents. For myself, but also for my career. I’ve always felt that in order to be taken seriously as a global travel expert, I need to have travel experience on all seven continents. I hate the phrase “on six continents,” even as it decorates my site and all my bios — it’s like an asterisk saying SHE’S GOOD, BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH!

And so I went to Antarctica for several reasons: to become a more experienced traveler and for the boost it would give to my career, but also for the landscape photography opportunities (particularly mountains and ice formations), the wildlife (and especially penguins), and the opportunity to work with Quark Expeditions (which I’ve wanted to do for years, as they’re the best in the polar expedition business), who invited me to join them on this trip as their hosted guest. All that, and to be blown away.

I could not have predicted just how powerful of a destination Antarctica is. It would change me, and it would change all of US.

Antarctica caused the death of my ego.

I thought I’d come back bragging that I jumped into the Southern Ocean beneath the Antarctic Circle, and instead, I’m becoming teary trying to describe the stillness of Paradise Harbour in a late afternoon.

I thought I’d return with so many beautiful photos of myself playing with penguins, and instead I have one good shot but mostly crappy selfies of myself with my face covered up to stay warm.

I thought Antarctica would be just another destination. It wasn’t. It was THE destination I’ve been waiting for my whole life. And as I write these words while crossing the Drake Passage, I’m bereft at the thought of Antarctica slipping away from me with every rise and fall of the swells.

Antarctica wasn’t there to serve me, and it won’t serve you, either. It’s not a national park with a friendly ranger stationed nearby. It’s not an Instagram backdrop just waiting for you to pop in for perfect selfies. It’s wild, unpredictable, and can change at a moment’s notice. It’s dangerous. It smells. Even the journey there pushes your body to its physical limits.

If you forget your sunscreen in Antarctica, you’ll be red and peeling the next day. If you dare to walk too close to a fur seal, it will charge you head-on. If you make yourself up and do your hair for perfect portraits, you’ll be wet and mascara-stained in minutes. If you don’t have your wide-angle lens on, of COURSE a fleeting double rainbow will suddenly appear and you’ll have to make do with your inferior lens or — god forbid — your smartphone.

Why visit Antarctica, then?

Reason #1: Because Antarctica is the most impressive, moving, devastating, beautiful, striking, and gratifying place I’ve ever visited.

I have no words to describe how much Antarctica shakes me to my core. I can make an attempt with photos, but even my best shots won’t remotely convey the beauty, the scale, the power of the seventh continent.

Every day, something happened that made me gasp. An immense glacier shaped like the bow of the Titanic. A seal catching a penguin in its mouth. A perfectly smooth bay filled with snapping, crackling ice forms. Whales surrounding us in every direction, their calls echoing in stereo.

Antarctica made me feel like I was traveling for the first time ever. It redefined what it was to explore.

Reason #2: Because Antarctica’s scale is times a million.

Have you been to Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina? I haven’t yet, but my friends have (check out Dave’s post on it here) and it’s famous for its size, beauty, and blue color. Most people visiting Patagonia make hiking Perito Moreno a priority.

Now, what if I told you that Antarctica has glaciers that look just like Perito Moreno — only they’re much bigger and LITERALLY IN EVERY DIRECTION YOU LOOK? Tens, hundreds, thousands of miles, all full of incredible and far better glaciers! There is no comparison to Antarctica!

Years ago, I hiked Sólheimajökull Glacier in Iceland. No offense to Iceland or the glacier…but comparing it to Antarctica’s glaciers is like comparing a child’s tricycle to a sports car. They’re not remotely in the same league.

Reason #3: Because Antarctica is the most isolated and pristine place I’ve ever been.

Antarctica has no indigenous human population, leaving it as a beacon of nature. (Side benefit: only in Antarctica do you get to enjoy the history of exploration without colonialism or exploitation of locals.)

Antarctica belongs to no country and the Antarctic Treaty is in place to protect it as a destination of peace, devoted to scientific exploration. Because of that, you don’t see any pollution. No trash. Expedition ships don’t even dump human waste in the ocean here — they bring it back to Ushuaia or wherever they came from.

(Chile did make an effort to strengthen its claim on Antarctica, though. How? They sent Chileans to get married there. Argentina upped the ante — they sent several pregnant women there to give birth! The first Antarctica baby was born in 1978.)

There are so few places on the planet where you can go and experience life at it was lived for thousands of years. Antarctica is one of them.

Reason #4: Because Antarctica’s wildlife is insane.

It’s not as abundant as it once was — the whaling industry did quite a number on the whale population, which has had an effect on other species as well — but going out wildlife-viewing in Antarctica will leave you spellbound. 

Imagine hundreds of penguins jumping in and out of the water, landing about two meters from your kayak before hovering underwater and “Nope-Nope-Nope-ing” as they jump away from you. Yes, that happened to me, and that was one of the best moments of my trip.

Or being out in a bay so resplendent with whales that it seems like every zodiac is watching a different pod. And then suddenly a giant humpback rises out of the water just meters in front of your kayak, rising and rising and looking like it’s going to flip over onto you. Yes, that happened to me as well, and I’m pretty sure you can pinpoint the moment when all the kayakers’ drysuits went from dry to not-so-dry.

Or coming around a corner of an iceberg on a zodiac and finding two seals popping up from a hidden corner. Both tossing their heads in such a human-like way that you feel like you’ve sneaked up on a couple that definitely shouldn’t have been doing what they had just been doing. That playful moment was something I personally experienced as well.

Those wildlife sightings are not exceptional for Antarctica. You know why? Because I saw all three of them in a single day, in Danco Island and Wilhelmina Bay. That’s pretty much a typical day — or, well, the closest thing you can get to a typical day in a place as wild as Antarctica.

Reason #5: Because Antarctica is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

I think about the most beautiful natural environments I’ve been lucky enough to visit. The Faroe Islands, raised up on cliffs on top of the sea. Wadi Rum in Jordan, its bright red-orange sands changing color by the minute. The riverfront villages in Laos, bright blue mountains rising in the background. Silfra in Iceland, the underwater rift exploding in shades of indigo, turquoise and everything in between. The land-before-time feel in Karijini National Park in Western Australia.

Antarctica is EVEN MORE BEAUTIFUL than those places. That’s high praise, but I mean every word of it. The Antarctic peninsula isn’t the slab of snow you may picture; instead, it’s nonstop mountains — jagged gray mountains springing up from the sea. There are fjords. There are the aforementioned glaciers, gargantuan and stacked like frosting, rivulets of azure running through the ice. Each land form peeks in and out of misty clouds, offering you tantalizing glimpses of the peaks.

And as we cruised through Lemaire Channel, one of few ships to make the passage in early 2018, I gasped as I saw something I never could have imagined — a waterfall made from gently falling snow, dry and sparkling.

Also, we were under a flat gray sky for nearly the entire trip, and STILL it was that beautiful. Tropical islands don’t look good in gray; Antarctica looks stunning under all circumstances.

Reason #6: Because Antarctica humbles you beyond measure.

Antarctica laughed in the face of my insignificance. 

Once on a zodiac cruise, we actually saw gentoo and chinstrap penguins hanging out together — a very unusual occurrence — and we were taking photos like crazy. Just then, a big wave sent us asunder, pushing us into the shoreline. Our guide quickly gunned the engine and reversed the zodiac. In a worse moment, that could have been fatal.

When we made our first landing near a penguin colony, at Port Charcot, my supposedly waterproof gloves had failed and my fingers were cold, wet, and on their way to freezing. Had I not had a warm ship (with a well-stocked gear shop, thank God) nearby, I would have lost my fingers within a day.

And there was a moment when a leopard seal began stalking the kayaks and we had to form a raft to scare it off. It easily could have attacked a solo kayaker, a drysuit no match for those teeth, sharp like a crocodile’s.

Moments like these were reminders of our fragility in this severe environment, as well as the professionalism of the Quark staff who kept these encounters from becoming deadly.

Antarctica Changed Us

My shipmates may have had ego-driven reasons to visit Antarctica, but after a full week on the continent, that went out the window. Almost nobody mentions the seventh continent anymore. Now, all anyone can talk about are the incredible whale sightings, the beauty of the glaciers and icebergs, and the feeling of being one with this unspoiled environment. And how they can’t wait to return. They MUST return.

Antarctica killed our egos. I didn’t even think that was possible. Over the course of a week here, we were taught the most valuable lessons — that we are insignificant, that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature, and that life will go on long after we’re dead.

Gone are my own worst impulses. For the first time, I kept my documentation obsession in check. I spent a good half hour sitting on a rock watching young penguins play in the water — because I enjoyed watching them. This was the definition of photographer’s gold, and I didn’t take a single shot. I had penguin shots already; I didn’t need more. I am grateful that I spent my time in Antarctica enjoying these moments, rather than chasing down the elusive perfect photo that was unlikely to materialize anyway.

As for dynamite selfies? HA. I have exactly one shot of me that I really like, the one at the top of this post, the one that looks like I’m lecturing a crowd of penguins. It’s quirky and unplanned and I think it represents my personality. Two or three other shots of me are decent, not great. The rest are terrible. AND THAT IS OKAY.

The travel blogging industry may have shifted in the direction of pretty-girls-posing-in-ballgowns-in-increasingly-exotic-places, and I do feel pressure to create content like that. But one reason why that’s never quite worked for me is because I sell reality — not fantasy. I always have. “You’re so honest” is the #1 comment I get from readers. That doesn’t exactly jive with unrealistic photo shoots.

Had I wasted my limited time trying to set up and pose for perfect shots of myself that would get lots of likes, I would have missed the best impromptu moments of life in Antarctica. I lived actual, real life in Antarctica, not an Instagram photoshoot with a little free time tacked on at the end. And for that reason, I couldn’t care less that I didn’t get those photos of myself with penguins.

I like the new version of me that Antarctica made. A quieter version of myself. A more inquisitive version of myself. More of an athlete, more of a scientist, less solipsistic, far less self-conscious. A traveler who let go of her expectations, only took what she was freely given, and was profoundly changed as a result.

I feel like nothing else will ever measure up to Antarctica. Have I ruined myself by experiencing the best place in the world at the tender age of 33? I sure hope not, but if I did, it was absolutely worth it.

The strangest thing? I keep catching glimpses in the mirror and not recognizing myself. Maybe it’s the Antarctic air, the lack of fluorescent lighting on this boat, or the fact that I took a dip in the near-frozen Southern Ocean, but I look so much younger. I’m Benjamin Buttoning before my own eyes.

Antarctica Will Change You, Too

If you enjoy travel in any small amount, you MUST visit Antarctica within your lifetime. You will get so much out of it. It IS an expensive trip — Quark’s Antarctica trips start at $6,695, though keep your eyes peeled for sales — but you receive SO much value in return. I recommend saving Antarctica for a milestone birthday or occasion. Book ahead, especially if you want to kayak — those slots go quickly. If you do decide to visit, I have some valuable advice for you.

Don’t try to control the trip. Antarctica is in charge, and Antarctica will be controlling YOU. Don’t fight what it gives you, whether it’s foggy weather, rough Drake seas, or if there are no adorable penguin chicks — accept it and work with it.

Dress for protection, not style. The climate will NOT be kind to you here. A beanie worn on top of a buff pulled over your mouth may be ugly as hell, but nothing keeps your head warmer. Don’t bring cute clothes; dressing improperly can put you and others at risk and there’s no such thing as sexy waterproof pants. Forget the makeup, too; the ocean spray will ruin it. I wrote a guide to packing for Antarctica here.

Don’t go crazy on the content creation. I guarantee that you’ll take tons of photos, but take time each day to relax, be quiet, and take it all in — without documenting it. I say this especially to my fellow photographers. I understand that your mind is constantly framing shots and that you have a but-what-if-this-moment-passes mindset. Turn off that part of your brain momentarily. Your trip will be SO much better for it.

Say yes to everything. There’s a humpback whale on the starboard side? Run up and go see it, because it could be the best sight of your trip. Feeling tired one afternoon? Don’t skip the excursion, because that’s the time your zodiac will witness a calving iceberg. Feeling cold and wanting to go back to the warm ship? Hike to the top of the hill anyway. This is not a place to choose the easier option.

Submit. Accept what Antarctica gives you, and don’t wish for something better. Everything you get will be a gift. You’ll soon learn its value.

Antarctica has changed my life more than any other destination.

And with that, this is not a one-and-done destination. I’m desperate to come back already. I need Antarctica. Would I go back next year? YES! Hell, would I go back every year and bring a different loved one with me each time? ABSOLUTELY!

It’s not about pride, or ego, or going there because it’s there. It’s because this place has the power to transform your life.

It’s Antarctica. Where the ice is blue against a steel-gray sky. Where paddle is a noun and porpoise is a verb. Where I finally learned to surrender.

More on Antarctica:

Essential Info: I traveled to Antarctica on Quark ExpeditionsCrossing the Circle: Southern Expedition in March 2018. The 2019 voyage starts at $8,995. The kayaking supplement is $995, which includes kayaking throughout the voyage, but starting this summer in the Arctic Quark is offering one-day “paddling excursions” that are better suited for people with less experience who don’t want to kayak every day.

Quark often has sales — I recommend following them on Facebook and checking out their website. Additionally, some people can get deals by flying down to Ushuaia and jumping on a last-minute discounted trip — though this is risky! You never know what will be available. If you’re looking to kayak, book as early as possible, as kayaking slots are limited and sell out quickly.

While Quark has Antarctica-specific evacuation coverage for emergencies, you need to have your own travel insurance as well. For my trip to Antarctica, I used World Nomads, which I highly recommend for both Antarctica and elsewhere.

This post is brought to you by Quark Expeditions, who hosted me in full on this trip and covered most of my expenses including the full cost of the expedition, kayaking supplement, two nights’ accommodation in Ushuaia, and round-trip airfare from New York. I paid for all incidentals, staff gratuities, gear excluding the Quark parka, and all expenses in Ushuaia excluding the hotel. All opinions, as always, are my own.

What destination changed your life?