Suramya's Blog : Welcome to my crazy life…

December 27, 2019

Trip of a Lifetime: Antarctica!

Filed under: My Life,Travel/Trips — Suramya @ 12:28 PM

Earlier this month I completed a trip that I had been thinking about and planning on and off since 2007. Me, Jani and parents did a 9 day expedition trip to Antarctica! With this trip I have successfully traveled to all 7 continents on earth. Me and dad first started talking about going to Antarctica back in 2007, we explored the options and due to various constraints we didn’t travel at that time.

Then over the following years we would revisit the topic from time to time but again something or other would come up and we never seriously planned the Trip. I mentioned this to Jani and this year we started exploring the options to find out the costing etc. A few weeks later we were hanging out with Gaurang and Kangan and somehow the topic of Antarctica came up again. I mentioned that I had wanted to travel to Antarctica for a while and told the backstory. Kangan mentioned that one of her friends had a company that specializes in exotic trips etc and connected us to the owner. Jani connected with Prabhat Verma from Offbeat Travels and got us the details of the options available and the next time we were in Delhi I checked with dad and mom about them joining the trip. Dad immediately agreed but mom was initially quite hesitant but we all managed to convince her. I also checked with Surabhi & Vinit and they straight off refused. In Surabhi’s words “You want to travel where? Are you Insane?” Vir (my nephew) on the other hand was very upset that he couldn’t join us and kept trying to convince everyone that he should be allowed to join us.

Jani is writing a post focusing on the process, logistics, approvals visa etc for the trip so I am not going to go in much detail about that here so as not to duplicate the effort and reduce the amount of typing I will have to do. (This is going to be a long post as it covers 15 days of travel).

If you just want to see the highlights, George & Neill from Oceanic Expeditions made a video giving the highlights of the entire trip and you can view it here: Highlights Video.

The preparation for the trip took us a few months as it required us to get a lot of winter clothes, visa’s etc. The main item we had to work on was the Argentinian Visa as the ship departure was from Ushuaia in Argentina. You have two options for the Visa application, if you have a valid US visa or a Schengen visa valid for more than 6 months at the time of application (this will become important later in the story) you can apply online for an e-visa. Else you have to visit the Embassy either in Delhi or in Mumbai and apply there. If you apply in person, the visa application is free but when you apply online there is a cost involved. For folks in south India you have to apply in Mumbai and the rest of the country can apply in Delhi. Since both me and Jani had valid US visa’s and I had a valid Schengen visa as well we applied online as going to Mumbai was not really convenient and the cost we were saving by not paying the online processing fees was more than offset by the flight costs to-and-fro from Mumbai. For mom and dad, they didn’t have an option and had to apply in person, which wasn’t that big a deal as they were in Delhi itself.

Me and Jani, filled out the online form and submitted copies of the US Visa for her and the Schengen visa for me. What we didn’t realize was that my visa was valid only till April which put it at less than 6 months of validity from our travel dates. The online processing took 20 days and that is the standard ETA so you need to ensure you are applying well in advance just in case you hit issues. After 20 days Jani got a confirmation email and I got a note saying that I wasn’t eligible for online application and should apply at the consulate. Calls to the consulate didn’t give any additional details. I applied again online using my US visa but since by this time it was already Nov 1, I didn’t have any buffer in case the online application got denied again so Jani went to Mumbai to apply in person. The experience was not as good here as it was for mom and Dad in Delhi and they have this funny requirement that every applicant has to come for an in person interview. This meant that I would have had to fly to Mumbai for the interview, thankfully in some cases they do have the option to do a whatsapp interview instead and they agreed that I could give the interview virtually.

After all the formalities were completed and the day my interview was scheduled I woke up to find an approval email for the e-visa waiting in my mailbox and immediately notified the consulate about the same and asked them to cancel the application which they did and now all of us had the required documents to travel to Argentina.

Finally it was time to start, me and Jani started the trip from Bangalore on the 29th Nov by flying over to Delhi. We got there early in the morning, finished a little last min shopping for winter clothes etc and then headed home. Our flight was late at night so we reached the airport around 11pm and checked in. We were flying Ethiopian Airlines and the lady who checked us in didn’t know what she was doing and during the check in she didn’t allocate seats for the second leg of the trip (from Addis Ababa to Buenos Aires). Instead our boarding passes said we were on Standby. As per her this was because the booking system for the second leg wasn’t open and they would assign the seats in Addis Ababa. This was the first time I had heard of this but since we didn’t have any options we accepted and started the trip.

When we reached Addis Ababa I went to the transfer desk who told us that the flight was overbooked and since it also involved another airline (we were going from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia via a local airline) she couldn’t assign seats. When the boarding started the gate staff would allocate the seats if they had any space on the plane. As you can imagine it was a big surprise and there were 3 other folks with the same problem. The staff wasn’t really friendly and so we had to wait for the boarding to start. Thankfully we got seats allocated once boarding started but all of us were seated separately for the 16 hour flight.

In total we had 29 hours of flight (excluding layovers) to get to Ushuaia. When we finally reached there we found out that they only had 1 room ready for us as the checkin time was 12 and we had reached there at 9am. But the owner of the B&B was very friendly and accommodating so we got the room and rested while the other room was cleaned & prepared for us. We didn’t do much the first day and just recovered from the marathon flight duration.


Us at the Ushuaia End of the World landmark


Family pic at Ushuaia

The next day we walked around a bit and then went and deposited our luggage for loading to the ship as you are not allowed to take it onboard yourself due to local regulations. After that was done, we had a few hours to kill as the boarding was starting in the evening at 4pm. So we explored the city, did a bit of shopping and had lunch. This helped us pass time and soon it was time to board the Hondius. The boarding was quite easy and smooth possibly because we boarded a bit before the official boarding time and there was very little crowd at that time. The ship left port at around 6pm and we had a great view from the cabins as we had splurged for two of the more expensive cabins. Mom & Dad’s cabin had a balcony and ours had a huge window giving us a spectacular view of the ocean and outside. We started the journey with a bit of movement in the ship and were warned to ensure that we took motion sickness tablets before going to bed as the sea would get more rough overnight. Jani, mom and Dad all took tablets and then crashed early after exploring the ship. As this was an expedition ship it was quite small and had limited facilities (no swimming pools, gym etc etc). Though they did have a great bar/lounge and a decent library.

The next day started early with the breakfast served at 8am and by this time the ship was in the Drake passage which is notorious for rough seas as this is where the cold water from the Antarctic meets the warm current from further north. The weather outside was pretty lousy as well at it was overcast and raining intermittently. Over the day we went through the required tasks for ensuring we were ready for the arrival in the Antarctic like attending mandatory briefings and several interesting lectures.

As it was my birthday the staff at Hondius made a cake for me and also decorated the room with a towel cake and some balloons. We cut the cake in the balcony in the parents cabin, and because it was soo cold the cake cutting finished in under a minute and then we were all back in the cabin warming up.



This is where I celebrated my Birthday (GPS Location)


Room Decorations for the Birthday


Cake Cutting in the Balcony

Since the weather in Antarctic is very fickle all schedules and planned activities were subject to change due to weather not cooperating. We ended the day with a briefing from Ben on the Camping we were planning to do the next day. (more on that later).

On the 4th, we were out of the Drake passage much to the relief of most of the passengers as the ship motion smoothed out and people stopped feeling motion sick as much as earlier. After breakfast the first thing we had to do was head down to the mandatory Bio-Security check for all our external gear and clothes. This is done so that to avoid introducing any foreign contaminants/seeds etc to the Antarctic which is a very fragile eco-system. It wasn’t too complicated and basically made us check all the pockets/seams of the clothes and vacuum our bags and clothes. After the check, we had some free time followed by a very interesting lecture on the Imperial Transantarctic Antarctic expedition by Sir Ernest Shackleton. Hearing about what those people endured while trying to explore the Antarctic was an eye opener. Here we were in a modern ship with all the anemities possible including heated baths, internet, great food etc and these folks were on ships burning coal not able to contact anyone and depending on each other for survival. At one point they were frozen in ice for months during the Antarctic winter which meant that the sun never rose for those long months and all they could do was hope that the frozen ice shelf was floating in the direction they needed to go. If you are interested in reading more about this amazing trip, I recommend that you check out ‘South: The Endurance Expedition by Sir Ernest Shackleton’. This was followed by a session on how Photography & Videography in the Antarctic by Neil & George and then dinner. I read quite a lot during these two days as there wasn’t much to do and Jani & parents were on sea sickness meds which made them all quite sleepy for the most part.


Jani’s first time seeing Snow/Ice

The 5th morning started early morning with the wakeup call at 6:45am followed by breakfast at 7am. The agenda for the first day in the Antarctic was quite packed with 2 landings lasting about 3-4 hours each and the overnight camping at night. The first stop was a very small island called ‘Useful Island’ which was named so because it was useful to the whalers who had setup an outpost on the island to spot whales for the whaling industry. As the Antarctic treaty limits the number of people who could go on-shore at the same time, all the passengers were split into 4 groups (Red, Blue, Green and Yellow) and the landings were split with red & blue groups landing together and the Green/Yellow groups were grouped together. The groups departed from the ship within 15 mins of each other but the first batch would land and explore while the second batch would do a Zodiac cruise which was basically riding the zodiac around the island looking at the scenery and trying to spot marine life like whales, penguins, seals etc.


Jani getting ready for the first landing in our Cabin

We were in the red group and so were in the first landing for the our trip to the Useful island. The weather for the landing was phenomenal and the sky was crystal clear with a few clouds scattered around to give us a spectacular view. When we landed on the island the first thing that hit us was the smell. The landing side was near a penguin colony and you won’t believe how much it stank. For the first few mins I was afraid that I might actually throw-up from the smell. Thankfully I didn’t throw up and after depositing the life-jackets we started the climb up to the top of the island. The guides had marked a trail out and it was a little slippery but was a good hike. When we reached the top there was another colony of Penguins at the top but due to the strong wind it didn’t smell that bad. We took a few photos and recovered from the hike. The island was basically rock with a very little sand/mud. There was absolutely no vegetation except for a few small colonies of moss & lichen.


Us at the first landing with a penguin nest in the background


Claiming the top of Useful Island for India 🙂


View from the top of the island

Once we got back to the zodiac for the cruise we found out that the reason the nests stink so much is that the digestive systems of the penguins is quite inefficient and they only digest ~60% of the food they eat, the rest is passed out as waste and when it decomposes it creates the lovely aroma we were welcomed with when we landed. In fact there is a species of bird that has evolved to eat penguin shit and I don’t really remember the actual name of the species but they are called ‘shit eaters’ in the common tongue.


Scenic shot of a cliff I really liked

The cruise was very cool (no pun intended) and we saw a couple of seals just relaxing, one of them was a tiger seal and I don’t remember the name of the other species. The first one was relaxing on the ice right off the island and we spotted the second one in the water swimming around the boat. After a few minutes it jumped out of the water and on to an iceberg about 5-10 feet away from our boat. We hung around for a bit taking some amazing pics and then roamed around the bay looking at icebergs, some really intimidating cliffs and the awesome scenery. The drive around was about 1 ½ hours and post the completion we were back on the ship to defrost before heading down for lunch. The lunch on the ship was quite decent with a good variety of food available and the staff was super friendly and helpful.

Post lunch we got to rest for about 2 hours before heading out for the second landing of the day in ‘Orne Harbor’. This was a continental landing meaning we were going to land on the actual continent of Antarctica. Not many expeditions are able to do this due to the difficulty in landing and getting to the continent but thanks to the skill of our captain we were able to land on the continent. This was the only continental landing of the expedition as the rest were island landings.


Orne Harbor landing site on Continental Antarctica. We climbed all the way to the top after landing

For this section of the landing we took the zodiac cruise first and saw some truly spectacular icebergs and scenery. Soon it was time for us to set foot on the continent and we soon took our first steps on Antarctica. With this landing I have officially traveled to all 7 continents. This landing was a bit different than the previous one as we had to climb a hill to get to the top of the cliff to see the nesting sites Gentoo penguins and this hike was a longer one that the previous attempt. Mom decided not to climb to the top and just relaxed at the foot of the hill while me, Jani and dad climbed to the top. It took us a while because the path was slippery but it wasn’t too hard. Once we got to the top the views were phenomenal and definitely worth the climb. With this hike I have now hiked on all 7 continents😊 I wasn’t looking forward to climbing down as I knew from experience it was going to be painful and hard. Thankfully we didn’t have to climb down as they gave us the permission to slide down the hill and it was a lot of fun. Infact I was tempted to climb back up and do it again, but we didn’t have the time or the energy to do that. So we took a few more photos and then headed back to the ship to defrost and have dinner.


Us at the Continent of Antarctica


Sliding down the hill in Antarctica was quite fun

The last activity of the day was the overnight camping and we back headed out from the ship around 8:30pm. This camping was especially fun because we were not using tents. All we had was a hole in the ground (that we had to dig) and a sleeping bag (it had a lot of layers). Digging the hole wasn’t that hard as the snow was fresh and easy to dig in. So we dug a hole about 8 inches deep and about 6 feet long. We could have slept without hole in the open but this helped get us out from the wind making it more comfortable. After setting up our sleeping bags we just relaxed and enjoyed the view. Initially when we had planned the camping I was expecting to be able to do a bit of sky watching and there was a meteor shower which was peaking that I was looking forward to observing as there wouldn’t be any light pollution in Antarctica. What I had forgotten was that we have almost 24 hours of light in the Antarctic at this time of the year so at 10pm it was light enough to be around 5 or 6pm in India. This dashed my hopes for observing the stars but gave me enough light to watch the penguins nesting near our camp site.


This is how we camped in Antarctica, without Tents

I was quite comfortable in the night due to ensuring that my sleeping bag was closed correctly and ensuring that I didn’t open it multiple times. Unfortunately Jani wasn’t that lucky as she was quite cold (in her words, she froze) mostly because she kept sitting up to blow her nose and didn’t close the sleeping bag correctly after that. Dad also wasn’t super comfortable but wasn’t as miserable as Jani. The temperature wasn’t that bad either at about -10 with a windchill of another 5-10 degrees. I was woken up in the morning by the sound of whales clearing their blow holes and when I looked around I saw 3 whales just swimming around in the bay in clear sight. They were visible for almost 15 mins but I didn’t feel like coming out of the sleeping bag to take photos.


View I had from my sleeping bag.

At 5am our ride back to the ship arrived and we had to fill the holes we had dug. It was a lot more difficult to fill the holes than to dig them as the snow had frozen solid overnight into ice and digging it was hard with the shovel we had. After we finally managed to fill the holes we boarded the Zodiacs and were back onboard the ship. The first thing we did after we got back was have a nice hot shower to heat our bodies back to the normal temperature range for humans and then had hot chocolate followed by a nice breakfast.

The agenda for the 6th again had 2 landings but since we had a pretty packed first day and Jani had developed a slight cold we decided not to do any landings so that we all could recover and this ensured that we would all be ready for the rest of the voyage without falling sick. We spent the day relaxing and sleeping for the most part. (I read some more). For dinner we had a special surprise. Since the weather was nice and sunny the galley team had setup a barbecue on the deck. We had nice hot food and drinks outside in the open and it was quite nice. Dinner was followed by lots of dancing and drinks.


Outdoor barbeque at sub-zero temperatures is fun (This is about 8:30pm)

The 7th morning dawned with a cruise through the famous Lemaire Channel which has been identified as the most photographed part of the Antarctic as the channel is narrow and the cliffs/ice on both sides of the passage combined with icebergs in the water make for some spectacular photos. We got up early to take some photos followed by breakfast.


Some amazing scenery on the way


Icebreaker in action. This is from the rear of the ship as we weren’t allowed at the Bow during this time

After breakfast we got to visit the ‘Vernadsky Station’ which is the permanent Ukrainian research station in Antarctica. The scientists at the base were quite happy to see us as they don’t get many visitors and as this was right after the winter ended we were the first new faces they had seen in over 6 months. Looking at the way they live I have to say that they deserve a big round of applause and credit as it is not an easy job. There are only 6 people who stay there all year round and most of the time they meet each other only during the meal times, the remaining time they are working on their own projects without interacting with each other. Now at least they have very limited internet connectivity ~1.5 GB per person per month but before that became possible they were completely cut off from the rest of humanity.


Vernadsky Station

The base is well supplied and has its own library, bar, souvenir shop and post office. We bought a couple of small souvenirs from the shop and also got our passports stamped with the Antarctica Entry stamp. This is not an official stamp but it is cool and something we had wanted to get since we started planning the trip. If we had not been able to visit the station we couldn’t have gotten the stamp so in a way we were lucky that the station was accessible and the base commander was amiable for us to visit.


Dad at the bar in Vernadsky Station, Antarctica

After the station tour we took another Zodiac cruise and had the good fortune to see a whole raft (group of penguins in water) of Penguins swimming around our boat and fishing. We even got to help our Acoustic scientist with taking sound recordings of their interactions. The best part of the outing was the whale that swam around our boat and surfaced not more than 20 mts from the boat. Whales are majestic creatures and this one was no different.


Raft (group) of Penguins fishing in water


A majestic seal just chilling on an Iceberg


A flock of sea-birds fishing with the Vernadsky Station in the background

After we got back we had our lunch and in the afternoon we were supposed to visit another island but couldn’t do so because the entire island was locked in ice and even though the ship we were on was an icebreaker it was too thick for us to go through so Adam (the expedition leader) took the call to not risk it and instead we started sailing back towards Argentina and instead of having just one landing the next day we now had two planned.


Jani and me at the Aft deck

On 8th Morning we again woke up early to watch the ship sail through the entrance to Deception Island, the narrow Neptune’s Bellow’s which was quite picturesque. We landed on Deception island in the Whalers bay which is located in the middle of an active volcano on it. In fact it had erupted in the early 60’s killing one person and causing the base on the island to be abandoned. The island has a rich history and it was a humbling experience to walk around the island to see all the works of man destroyed by the volcano. The island is designated as a historic site so apart from removing any equipment that could be hazardous to the environment it was left as is. We got to see the location from where the first powered flight in Antarctica had taken place along with the remains of the Aircraft hanger.


Historic hanger located at Deception Island where the first powered flight in Antarctic was held

After a walk around the island it was time for the most important part of the voyage: The Polar Dip. Basically we striped to our swimwear and took a dip in the Antarctic water. The volcano raised the temperature of the sand a few degrees so it wasn’t as freezing to walk on but it was still very cold. A majority of the passengers took the plunge and it was amazing. Jani and mom took a single dip while me and Dad went back for a second dip.



Polar Dip, in Antarctica
(Click to view the Video on FB. Message if you can’t access)

As soon as we got out from the water and finished dressing, we were rushed back to the ship where we jumped in the hot shower immediately. The water was cold enough that my body temperature was lowered by a few degrees just from a quick dip. If I had stayed in the water for about 2 mins I could easily develop hypothermia. But the risk was worth it, and the video came out very nicely.

Once we warmed up and were no longer in danger of hypothermia we had lunch and soon it was time for the last landing of the expedition to ‘Walkers Bay’ which is famous for ‘Elephant seals’. Elephant seals are the largest as the largest extant marine mammals and the males can weigh between 2,200 to 4,000 kg each. The bay was very small and we saw about 20-30 seals each of which was just chilling. The island also had some petrified wood and whale remains and a few different varieties of lichen and moss.
After spending about an hour on the island we started the last Zodiac cruise of the trip and it was interrupted in the middle with the galley team serving us a nice hot drink in the middle of the ocean which was quite great. We watched the seals playing with each other and had a drink. Actually now that I think of it, I have now also had a drink on all 7 continents on earth 😊 . Once we got back to the ship we changed and headed down dinner. After dinner we were advised to have the motion sickness tablets before sleeping as we were entering the Drake passage overnight and it was back to choppy sea’s again. Jani, mom and dad all took the tablets and crashed for the night while I read some more and watched movies.


At Walkers Bay with elephant seals in the background

The next day we relaxed (as much as possible due to the choppy sea) and returned the boots etc. There were a few lectures planned and we attended a few when we felt like it but for the most part we were in the room watching movies or sleeping. On 9th night our ship received a distress call and was asked to help search for a Chilean military plane which had lost contact near our location. Hondius was one of two ships in the region and immediately started search and rescue in a grid pattern. We didn’t know the details at night as the call had come quite late and we only got an announcement about the distress call and that we were starting S&R. The entire expedition staff and the crew was awake all-night watching the seas for any sign of the aircraft, lifeboats or debris from the crash. We still hadn’t found any signs of the craft next day when we were given more details about the situation. The Chilean navy had dispatched 4 destroyers to help with the search but they were still 24 hours away (the passage is ~500kms from land) so we were asked to extend the voyage by another day to help with the search. This was a bad experience as we had to sail against the waves due to the grid pattern of the search making the rocking of the boat even worse increasing the sea-sickness in the passengers. Plus the delay meant that all the folks who were flying back the day we were supposed to reach would miss their flights and had to rebook. Our flight back was the next day so we didn’t have to worry about that but it was a sober 24 hours.
The Chilean ship reached the passage 10th evening and we were released but till then we hadn’t found any trace of the plane and all 38 passengers on board were now presumed dead. The remains of the plane were not found till 11th night and it was confirmed all 38 folks on board had not survived. It was a sad way to end the trip, but that’s life. You never know when its your time.


Group shot of the Oceanic Expeditions staff who made the trip really memorable

We reached Ushuaia in the evening and immediately went to the B&B and checked in. Mom and dad were tired so immediately crashed for the night but me and Jani walked around the city to check out the views and pick up some food. It was quite nice the walk was fun.


Passport Stamp for Antarctica

The next day we had an early start as we were starting the first leg of the return journey at 9am. When we got to the airport the guy at the check-in counter told us that there was a later flight available that would mean not having to change airports in Buenos Aires. Our original flight would have required us to take a 1 hour drive to the other airport from where we would board the Ethiopian Airlines flight. Since we had time and this change would save us from having to move from one airport to the other we changed the flight and flew out at 11:30. This detour required us to do a halt on the way, where we had to exit the airport and then check in again but it was still more convenient compared to the original option.

Once we reached Buenos Aires we had a bit of time to kill before we were able to check in. During check in we ensured that we got seats allocated for the entire leg and the return journey was uneventful but quite long. We finally reached Delhi almost 40 hours after we started from Ushuaia and had a day to recover before boarding the flight back to Bangalore.

Reaching home was a relief and with the marathon flights ended we had completed the trip of a lifetime.

Well this is all for now. Will write more later.

– Suramya

3 Comments »

  1. Experience well expressed. Keep travelling and inspiring us, my friend!!!

    Comment by Sumathi — December 28, 2019 @ 9:24 AM

  2. My God! I didn’t know Tomar Uncle was such a travel enthusiast!! This is some incredible levels achieved!!

    Comment by Dr Varshaa Ashish — January 2, 2020 @ 1:50 PM

  3. […] Antarctica! (Dec 2019) […]

    Pingback by Happy World Tourism Day 2020! « Suramya's Blog — September 28, 2020 @ 3:16 PM

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