Some travel moments forever change who we are—listening to the sighs of dreaming lions as they sleep in the South African bush, feeling the gentle bump of a stingray against my leg in Moorea’s tropical waters, watching the sun’s first warm rays as it turns Mesa Arch into a fiery, orange glow of sandstone. Stepping foot onto Half Moon Island in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands more than qualifies. I’m humbled by the grandeur of the frozen landscape, astounded at the remoteness and captivated by wildlife that is oblivious to my existence.
After a surprisingly calm crossing of the Drake Passage, Seabourn Quest, like many ships arriving in Antarctica, begins the adventure at Half Moon Island. This slip of crescent-shaped volcanic land is considered one of the most beautiful spots in the South Shetland Islands. It’s been attracting humans since whalers and sealers arrived in the early 1800’s.
Along with most of the other Quest passengers, Alan and I are here to walk among the chinstrap penguins, take way too many photos, and marvel at the fact that we’re really in Antarctica. It’s one of those “pinch me, I’m really here” kind of days.
The morning begins with a peek through the balcony window where fog and a light snowfall partially obliterates the black and white spectacle of snow on top of volcanic peaks. Since our slot for going ashore isn’t until 12:30 p.m., Alan and I put on warm clothes after breakfast to wander the outside decks practicing photography techniques we’ve been learning in workshops led by Pat and Rosemarie Keough.
While standing at the bow on Deck 6, two staff members pop out the door offering us hot chocolate and croissants. How did they know we were here?
We need lots of time to don all of the cold weather paraphernalia that’s been recommended by Seabourn—base layer for top and bottom, safari pants, rain pants, moderate layer for up top followed by full parka, hat, glove liner, gloves and two pair of thick socks. We soon discover that putting on this many clothes is going to require a system so that it doesn’t take all day to dress and undress for Antarctica adventures.
Of course we’re ready too early, which means sitting around burning up before our number is called and we troop down to the boot room to put on waterproof boots and grab the hiking poles stored in our assigned locker. Frequent Seabourn cruisers might be surprised to learn that the Quest has turned the lounging deck with pool and hot tub area on Deck 5, just off The Club, into a staging zone for adventure. The entire area is covered, bench seats have been added for putting on boots and small heaters keep us warm.
From here, we follow the penguin footprints pasted on the outdoor deck, back inside to the stairway and down to the Zodiac platform. After stepping into a footbath to make sure that boots are clean of any invasive species, guests board the Zodiac one by one. From directing guests to the boot room, to helping put on boots, to a gentle hold until it’s time to step onto the Zodiac, Seabourn’s staff has taken care of us the entire way.
The early morning fog and snow has morphed into a partly sunny afternoon as we motor toward Half Moon Island. Our first of many Antarctica rides is uneventful and we ace the wet landing.
Once on shore, Alan and I quickly discover that we’re overdressed for the temperature and over-equipped for this excursion. Although we appreciate the water resistant backpack that Seabourn has given us, it’s too cumbersome to dig out cameras and lenses. Next time, unless the weather is truly bad, we’re leaving the backpack in the cabin, along with a layer of clothing. Instead, we’ll arrive onshore with the cameras tucked underneath our parkas. Luckily, my iphone—yes I used it to photograph without any problems with damage from Antarctica weather—can be zipped into one of the parka pockets, as can sunscreen, lip balm, and other small needs.
Once hiking poles have been extended and cameras pulled out from the backpack, we’re finally ready to follow the slightly icy, bumpy path that’s been laid out by members of the expedition staff. A right turn takes us along a trail to a scenic view that includes a glimpse of Livingston Island. Then we retrace our steps before joining an uphill trail to a colony of chinstrap penguins.
The penguins—part of over 3,000 breeding pairs to live at Half Moon Island—seem oblivious to our presence as they nest or stand on an outcropping in front of us. Some throw heads back to squawk a high-pitched call into the air, hoping a mate will relieve them soon of nest duty. Others waddle tipsily down trails or toboggan down the path to the water, where they become sleek swimming machines moving at up to 20 mph.
After about an hour, we gather near the beach to wait for the Zodiac ride back to the Quest. By now Alan and I are dripping in sweat. It’s obvious to us that wardrobe adjustments will be made before tomorrow’s excursion.
Back on the ship, we peel off outwear before hurrying to the pool deck for a late lunch. With champagne in hand, Alan and I toast to our first Antarctica excursion and to many more in the days ahead.
See all of the articles from this cruise at Cruising to Antarctica.