High Expectations Exceeded (Antarctica 2/3)

High Expectations Exceeded (Antarctica 2/3)

May 01, 2018


(PART 2)
On-Board Experience
By: Christina Zerfas


Despite my best efforts to let things unfold, I could not help setting expectations for this trip.  I expected to see wildlife unparalleled to anywhere else in the world, have time to reflect deeply on my life in the most desolate place on Earth, and experience the cold like I had never before.  In fact, despite my best efforts, the only things really preventing me from laying out what every moment should look like, were the demands of packing, preparing for my leave at work, and securing the needed sponsorship of finances and equipment.  Luckily for me, Antarctica exceed the highest expectations I could have set and left me feeling that I was walking in a dream.

Taken by: Stan Muraczewski

In many ways, reality never did set in.  I expected it to when the plane took off from Indianapolis as it had in past trips or when I had to bring out my Spanish upon landing in Buenos Aires.  However, by the time I was meeting my expedition team in Ushuaia for our first activity (planting trees with Woodchuck, as Ben, the founder and CEO was also on the expedition), I felt the out of body experience begin.  I set my bag down and quickly pulled out my camera. A participant next to me immediately asked if I was on a documentary team because of my bag.  Needless to say, Nya-Evo had me looking professional and I realized in that moment, I could be whoever I wanted on this trip. I chose to be myself and fessed up to working for a tech start-up.

Less than a day later, when the ship was pulling away from the dock, my mind had registered that there was no going back, but I still could not comprehend what was ahead.  Simultaneously, every cell in my body was alert and awake as the six-year-old inside rejoiced living out a childhood dream.

A typical day on the boat would include 4 main categories: eating, exploring, discussing, and socializing.  The day would always start out with a breakfast at varying times before 8:30am before our first excursion of the day.  Due to the fact that you need extra permission to land on Antarctica for more 3 hours at a time, we would typically have one zodiac (black motor boats used to transferring passengers for sightseeing in and around the antarctic islands) excursion and one landing per day.  The boat rides were exciting and bumpy so the security of my bag on my back gave me comfort that my equipment would stay safe. The first excursion would take place before lunch, we would return to the boat to eat and have a climate change lecture, and promptly gear up again for our second daily excursion.  Lectures, dinner, and dancing would follow our return to the ship for as long as we dared knowing we had to get up early again the next day.

I was one of the lucky few who signed up fast enough to rent a kayak while on the trip.  This meant that if the weather permitted, anytime the group went out, I was one of the fortunate few who kayaked instead of rode in the zodiac.  The water was so clear that you could stick your entire paddle in the water and see the other end. The perspective of being on water-level with the animals and autonomy to steer the vessel where you wanted to go was an entirely different experience than being in a boat.  Penguins swam under the kayak. Dense brash ice forced you to engage your core to avoid tipping from a caught paddle. Curious seals popped up to observe you from just five meters away, even splashing one of the other paddlers. Whales seemed to take no notice of us (but we still gave them space) as we traveled through what appeared to be nature’s iceberg art gallery, with artwork standing dramatically against the sky, each piece unique.  In summation, kayaking in Antarctica was one of the coolest things I have ever done.

The Coolest Thing I Have Ever Done

Taken By: Quark Expeditions

Nature’s Art Gallery: Exhibit One, The First Iceberg  

Taken by: Christina Zerfas

But kayaking was not the highest point of adrenaline on the trip.  Before leaving Indiana, there were three main threats that family and friends (who often sounded as if they thought I may never make it back) highlighted as top concerns:

  1. Extreme Temperatures,
  2. Injury (without access to healthcare), and
  3. Animals.  

In turn, I would encounter each of these while there, just luckily at a safe distance and in a manner that allowed me to return unscathed.  


The most common question I have been asked upon my return is, “was it cold?” To which, depending on how close I am to the person asking, I respond with, “what do you think?” or “yes, but I had the proper equipment so it was never too bad.”  Being in the southern hemisphere, it was summer in Antarctica at the time of my trip meaning the temperatures ranged from 10 to 34 degrees fahrenheit. At first glance, this might not seem that cold, but this calculation does not factor in wind chill and precipitation which brought the “real feel” down below zero.  Ladies and gentlemen, it was cold but I was pleasantly surprised with how well my equipment was protected in my bag.

However, nothing was as cold as the fateful day of the Polar Plunge.  As is tradition, if you are going to Antarctica, you must swim in the Antarctic waters.  So Quark Expeditions, the company running the ship, waited until the water was a freezing 27.6 degrees fahrenheit and then announced that it was time to get our swimsuits on.  We all funneled down to the lower deck and one by one were harnessed up (to pull you back in if your body went into shock) and jumped into the salty water.

I was so cold just waiting that as soon as I was asked if I was ready, I said “Yes!” and flipped in.  Unfortunately, jumping the gun resulted in me receiving an award for “The Most Dangerous Polar Plunge” at the end of the trip as just outside of the photo was the safety zodiac, not yet in position.  I would enter the water less than 5 feet away from the propeller. Though I was unaware of the danger I was in during my jump, the guide pulled me aside afterwards suggesting, “next time, make sure the boat is out of the way before you leap.”  I enjoyed the idea that there would be a next time.

The water had immediately given me a headache as it shocked my body, but the hot tub and whiskey afterwards made up for the cold!

“Geronimo!!”: Me Learning to Look before I Leap  

Taken By: Quark Expeditions


Unfortunately, 6 weeks before leaving for my trip, I had to be carried off a soccer field with an ankle sprain that put me in crutches for two weeks.  After going down, the first thing I told my teammate was “I WILL be going to Antarctica.” With the launch of my friend’s efforts, “Operation Put Tina on the Antarctic” was born and they collectively worked to ensure all of my activities from the ankle sprain to the trip were dubbed as “safe” by one of the committee members as I was believed to have too much of an inclination for risky behavior, such as dancing, that could re-injure me.  

Their efforts were not only appreciated, but successful!  I boarded the boat without even needing a brace and this allowed me to kayak, dance, and play sports while on the trip.  One of the best memories would be the massive snowball fight that ensued on the continental landing. As you can see based on the photo evidence, I really get invested in activities such as these.  In many ways, it was a small miracle that I didn’t re-injure myself, but no helicopter was needed to get me back. Aside from a brief round of seasickness, I was as healthy as ever on the trip, much to the satisfaction of those back home.  

In Case You Were Wondering, I Successfully Protected My Fort

Taken By: Ben Pullen


My vision of Antarctica as a barren wasteland did not prove correct for the area that I visited.  Penguins are the most prolific animal I have ever seen. While graceful in water, they are gregarious and clumsy on land, often knocking each other over leaving the viewer to doubt if it was an intentional trip or not.  They also have a healthy digestive system that leaves its mark all over the ground of their colonies so that when they trip, you know about it until they go swimming again.

A Penguin’s Badge for Falling

Taken By: Christina Zerfas

The seals were especially unafraid of humans as high testosterone levels left them quite seriously ready to fight.  If they caught a glimpse of you coming too close or crossing between them and the ocean, they would stop their internal bickering and chase you instead.  Fur seals are surprisingly fast and rather than running, you are instructed to look them in the eye, make yourself big, and yell back at them to get them to stop.  On the last landing of our trip, I was walking next to a guide who had been on site all day and clearly seen too many seals chasing expedition members. As the seal approached us, he turned, stomped, and said calmly yet forcibly, “do you really want to do this right now?”  The seal immediately stopped and backed up.  That is what you call a seasoned visitor.

A Seal Dispute

Taken By: Christina Zerfas

Before arriving, I thought whales would be the most spectacular species we would encounter.  While they were quite impressive, especially when they fed as they would flip in and out of the water and birds would circle them to enjoy the remnants, the most shocking thing I saw was a leopard seal eating a penguin.  Leopard seals are one of two top predators in the Antarctic, they will kill you on site if given the chance, and they can easily eat 25 penguins a day. They do so by killing the penguin and then flipping it inside-out to eat it piece-by-piece.  While watching this happen my eyes were wide, stuck in one of those moments where you do not want to see what is happening, but you cannot tear your view away.

Much Less Horrific to Watch Than A Leopard Seal, A Whale’s Feast is Always a Party

Taken By: Quark Expeditions

It was undeniable that everything I saw and experienced on the continent left an impression on me.  However, it would take some time after the trip to really process what the experience meant. As early as day two in the trip, I had written in my journal that hearing of the amazing work of others on the trip “made me feel that I wasn’t dreaming big enough.  These were my kind of people.” That was even before experiencing the awe-inspiring continent as we had just boarded the boat! Since returning my perspective on many things has changed just enough to make the world seem just a little bigger. More adventure awaits!

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