Antarctica and the polar regions have fascinated me since the age of 20. I read about Sir Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and others. I watched movies and documentaries about expeditions and penguins. I have collected Antarctica tour marketing material from dozens of companies at travel fairs. Yes, I was an Antarctic nerd.
The plan was to go there when I was 50. Well, 50 came and went. We ended up going to Easter Island and the Atacama Desert instead. Both are spectacular destinations, but they are not Antarctica.
Finally, when I retired from full-time work at age 57, it was time for Antarctic exploration. I booked at the very last minute — about 4 weeks before my departure date. Surprisingly, I had managed to get one of the limited kayaking slots for this trip. The stars continued to align during the trip – we had perfect weather for kayaking in Antarctica. It was more than I had hoped for.
Is it worth the cost to discover Antarctica?
Yes, yes and yes ! It’s very expensive to go to Antarctica. The kayak package was $1000 more. I have visited many incredible places – Angkor Wat, the pyramids and temples in Egypt, Easter Island, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army in China, Tibet, Petra in Jordan, the Colosseum, Borneo, the Ngorongoro Crater… You get the picture.
Antarctica is equally amazing but very different from these places.
The glaciers are huge and exquisitely beautiful. You can’t take your eyes off the wildlife – penguins, whales, seals and birds. To top it off, you are in a place where very few people have been and has a history of amazing explorers. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Kayaking in Antarctica is an amazing experience
I had three things on my bucket list for my trip to Antarctica – kayaking, camping overnight, and seeing lots of penguins. Since I was only able to do two of these three things, I may have to go back to camp another time.
I love kayaking because it gives me an intimate experience of the water and what’s going on around me. In Antarctica, that means having penguins swimming right beside you, seeing whales up close and feeling the impact of a glacier calving. It adds another dimension to the experience of being in Antarctica.
Be in the bay with penguins
I couldn’t help but smile and laugh as the penguins swam, dipped, splashed and generally made lots of noise. We were kayaking in a bay about 100 feet from shore. A whole school of Penguins had just entered the water. They had gone on a fishing trip. I don’t know who was having more fun – them or us.
Another time we observed penguins as they stood on a cliff deciding whether to enter the water. They were looking for seals. They spent 10 minutes going back and forth to the edge of the rocks. Eventually one took the plunge and the others followed, swimming straight towards us. Seeing it all from the perspective of a kayak in the water is a unique experience.
Feel the enormity of glacier calving
One day while kayaking we heard a huge boom and looked up to see a glacier calving in the distance. When this happens, it can cause a big wave that can overturn kayaks. Our leaders quickly grouped us into a safe formation. Luckily, this glacier didn’t cause a wave and we were safe. It gave us an intimate experience of what glacier calving means.
Watch a whale up close
Another of my favorite kayaking moments was when a young minke whale got curious and decided to swim in circles around our group. For 20 minutes we watched. Fortunately, the whale stayed far enough away from us so that we were in no danger.
Kayaking in the wind and the waves
We were very lucky on our trip as we had great weather and were able to kayak seven times during the trip. If there is too much wind or if the waves are too high, the kayak is canceled because it is too dangerous.
Our last kayak was the hardest. It took place at night because our itinerary had changed due to too many glaciers in the Lemaire Canal. It was windy, dark and waves when we went kayaking. I was tired and cold but happy to be in a tandem kayak with a partner.
Launching a Kayak on an Ice Shelf
An ice shelf is a shelf of ice that extends into the sea, sometimes for miles. Our expedition leader told us to start paddling quickly towards the pack ice and launch our kayaks onto the ice. It was scary but, low and behold, we found ourselves sitting in our kayaks on the ice sipping hot chocolate served to us by the ice crew. It is a very good memory for me.
Some cruises have different kayaking options
Some ships include kayaking for everyone, and on these trips you may only be able to kayak once. There are also all-inclusive expedition cruises with kayaking, hiking, snowshoeing, and other daily activities. During my trip with Quark Expeditionsyou had to buy the kayak package in advance and there were only 16 places.
What if you don’t kayak?
People who don’t kayak take zodiacs ashore and spend most of their time ashore. It is an equally wonderful experience. The kayak team had less time on land and more time in the water.
To kayak in Antarctica, you need to have some kayaking experience before you go. You don’t have to be an experienced kayaker, but you should know how to get out of your kayak if it capsizes. This is called a wet exit. You should also be able to kayak for 2-3 hours at a time.
What do you bring for kayaking in Antarctica?
The packaging for Antarctica is very delicate. There are weight limits for all baggage on charter flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Your cruise will let you know what they offer on board. Most provide parkas and rubber boots.
On our trip, Quark provided dry suits, flotation devices and booties for the kayakers. Generally, we wore several base layers under the drysuit. I brought neoprene gloves and our kayak leaders had dish gloves which we put on over our gloves to keep our hands dry. I also brought a waterproof case for my iPhone and a waterproof bag to take my camera on the kayak. I also had a small waterproof camera that I had brought as well. Lots of people had pros and other gear.
If you want to go kayaking, it is best to book your trip very early. Or find a company that offers kayaking for everyone. A reservation 18 months in advance is generally necessary to guarantee a kayaking space.
Prepare yourself physically
Make sure you are comfortable kayaking for 2-3 hours at a time. You want to be able to enjoy the experience and not feel exhausted, struggling to get your kayak moving. As I shared above, we had seven kayaking opportunities, which is more than the number of times they usually occur. If I wasn’t in good shape, I would have been completely exhausted by the third or fourth trip.
Familiarize yourself with your camera operations
Being in a kayak is a wonderful vantage point for taking great photos. You will need to be comfortable putting your camera gear in a waterproof bag and be very familiar with how it works. Your hands will be gloved and you will be in cold weather, so you need to be very prepared and knowledgeable about how your equipment works.
Be sure to follow your cruise’s packing instructions
Your cruise line will tell you exactly what you need to bring for kayaking. If they don’t tell you, ask them. You have limited luggage space and weight requirements to meet, so you don’t want to bring things you don’t need like a wetsuit, booties and other kayaking gear.
Kayaking in Antarctica has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. It’s a unique way to discover a unique destination. If you can do it, I highly recommend you do it.
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