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Chilling With Penguins

I have been exceptionally lucky in my life. I was a nanny for awesome people who traveled often, meaning I was given the chance to visit a ton of places in a style to which I had before been unaccustomed, not only for free, but while getting paid. A few years ago, a dear friend who, due to being a bit on in years and having some challenging health issues, needed a companion on the trip of a lifetime – Antarctica.

The trip was organized by my friend Gerry’s alumni organization from Georgetown. Many major cruise lines have cheaper packages to travel to Antarctica, but they are typically on huge ships with thousands of passengers, and they make up the difference in cost by charging for every excursion that takes you off the ship. Luckily, everything was included in the price for our trip, and there were only 200 passengers on the ship. They had more than ten planned events that took us off the ship and onto the land itself. Also, everyone on the boat was also with an alumni association, so the boat was packed with people who were super smart. Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia, Tulane, UCLA; the list goes on. Since there was a substantial amount of time aboard the ship with nothing to do, various passengers had prepared lectures for the rest of us. While some were a tad dry, others were fascinating. A professor from Berkeley gave the best global warming presentation I have ever seen; another gave detailed lessons on the various animals indigenous to the area. The crew’s decision to screen a film on Ernest Shackleton was questionable (if you are unfamiliar, he and his crew traveled to the South Pole only to wake up one morning completely trapped and they all died  and it was a crazy intense struggle to stay alive (Thanks, Kortney!). It is an amazing story and I highly recommend it, but it was unsettling), but all and all, it was incredible. But enough of the minutia, let’s get to pictures of penguins and pretty things!

Buenos Aires

The trip started in Buenos Aires. We had three days to explore, whether with the group or on our own. I did a substantial amount of shopping because the leather goods there are flipping awesome, and because I like to be able to, when people ask where I got an article of clothing, to be able to say, “Oh, this? Actually, I got it in Argentina,” because I am a vain asshole like that.

kym kissing a wooden tango dancer in Buenos Aires
I also spent time making out with handsome inanimate objects

We did a bus tour one day and got to see the Recoleta Cemetary, where Eva Peron’s tomb is located. There were a ton of cats roaming around, which I found both creepy and charming. We also went to the La Boca neighborhood, which is often used in articles about Buenos Aires because of its amazing brightly colored homes.

Photo of La Boca neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Homes are painted in vivid shades of blue, red, orange, yellow, and green
photo by Esther Inbar

Ushuaia

We then flew down to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. It is in the Tierra Del Fuego province, and looks like the exact opposite of what you would expect a South American town to look like. Nestled among some of the most amazing mountains I have ever seen, it more closely resembles a Swiss ski village than anything stereotypically South America.

Photo taken from a ship of the water and coastline of Ushuaia, Argentina. A small boat is visible in the foreground; mountains and homes in the background
From the balcony of my cabin on the ship

Fun Fact- on 29 December 2009, the first gay couple to marry in Argentina did so in Ushuaia. for more info, please see Ushuaia – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Off to Antarctica

We boarded the ship and embarked on our two day journey to Antarctica. One of the most terrifying parts of this journey is crossing Drake’s Passage. Drake’s Passage connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean, and it is known to have some of the roughest seas in the world. We were incredibly lucky on the way down; the weather was lovely and the seas were relatively calm. On the way back, the boat was rocking so violently that some of us had chair races in the bar area of the ship. We would sit in the chairs against one wall, the ship would tip sharply, and we would go flying across the room. Yes, it was childish and dangerous. We had been on a ship for ten days, what do you expect?

The morning of the third day at sea, I woke up to these:

45 square kilometers flat top iceberg, a piece of the Ross Ice Shelf that had broken off
This behemoth was 45 square kilometers. It was a piece broken off of the Ross Ice Shelf

awesome iceberg with pointy peaks and cloudy shaped piles of ice

Two pointed peaks on an iceberg that look like a stubby penis and a middle finger
Okay, try to tell me you don't see the stubby penis and someone flipping the bird in these two icebergs. Saucy little things!

I won’t lie to you all. It is disconcerting to tool along the ocean with icebergs on all sides of you. I have seen Titanic; I know how this can end. The worst came later on, when we were closer to land. We would plow through areas full of what they call “growlers” because of the noise they make as they scratch along the sides of the ship. It is not a comforting sound.

shot of icebergs from ship
Like these.

I could bore you all with lengthy descriptions of all the places we stopped, but I think you might be more appreciative if I just show you some cuteness.

baby Adelie penguin chick in foreground, adult penguins in back
How much do you want to tickle that belly?
tiny baby gentoo penguin standing on rocky ground
Like this. Dude. So cute.
Mother Gentoo penguin with two babies huddled in front of her, their heads forming the shape of a heart
COME ON with the cuteness. Little heads making heart shapes?
penguin standing on wet ground with flippers outstretched
Even the adults get in on the action.

Okay, the fact that all that muddy pink stuff you see is indeed penguin shit, it dampens the mood a little, but only a little. Sad story – since our ship was so small, all the staff worked multiple jobs. The gorgeous young ladies and men who were dancers on board for performances were the same folks who had to scrub penguin shit off our boots before getting back on the ship. Sequins and feathers by night, parka and toilet bowl brush by day. Poor things.

Kym in furry hat in front of mountains and clear blue sky
It was 50 degrees the day we got there. Hardly a cloud in the sky.
hundreds of penguins rushing to sea
Bailey Head Island is the largest chinstrap penguin colony, housing more than 250,000 penguins
wide shot of Bailey Head Island showing tens of thousands of penguins
No, seriously, 250,000 penguins. All those little dots? Penguins.
Kym and Mark kneeling in front of curious penguin
We were supposed to stay 5 meters away at all times, but on Bailey Head, it was impossible. Since penguins in Antarctica have no land predators, they aren't afraid of humans and were incredibly curious about us. This is me and an awesome friend I made on the trip, Mark, one of the 12 or so passengers under the age of 65.
Lone male penguin on a tall rock with arms outstretched and mouth open
This is known as an "ecstatic display." One penguin will start squawking, and pretty soon, they all join in and the sound is deafening.
penguin on a rock with his head thrown back
And another.

I literally have thousands of pictures of penguins. I could do this all day, but I think our fearless leader would kick my ass if I killed the server with my photo show. This trip was the most amazing adventure of my life. No photos or words can capture the majesty that is Antarctica. The silence, the isolation, the utter peace that can overcome you if you allow it to; it is breathtaking. Even after a hundred icebergs, you can still be amazed by the next one. When you think you’ve exhausted your camera’s ability to take yet another picture of a baby penguin, you find an adorable little shit-covered one that has to be captured. I know it is not an option for many of us; goodness knows there isn’t a chance in hell I would be able to make the trip at this point in my financial life. But if you have the slightest inclination, I highly recommend saving up to go at some point. I can say with almost 100% certainty that you will not be disappointed.

baby humpback whale breaching the water while zodiac boat sits closeby
This baby humpback whale put on an hour long performance for us. Half the ship was touring the area in Zodiacs (those are a couple of our crew on the one in the photo), while the rest of us watched him breach over and over and over from the ship.
Kym in red jacket standing at an active volcano on Telefon Bay
Not everything is covered in snow- this is an active volcano in Telefon Bay on Deception Island
long shot of hot springs on Deception Island. Steam rises from the water, snow can be seen in the background
There are even hot springs! The water is freezing as fuck, but the ground will burn your ass. Yes, I went swimming in Antarctica. Bucket list that!
large iceberg with crack running down the center
And last, but certainly not least, just a really freaking beautiful iceberg.

All photos, unless otherwise noted, were taken by me or my friend, Gerry Davis.

8 replies on “Chilling With Penguins”

Oy, I feel like such a dummy. I totally mixed him up with Scott (I think-off to google) Aha! Yes, Scott, which we were watching something about on TV recently. Thank you for catching that! Rookie move over here. Note to self, do not rely on memories from 4 years ago… Especially since it is such an amazing and heartwarming story of a leader’s bravery and determination. But it was still super creepy to watch while aboard the ship. I was very hesitant to peer out the window the morning after watching it, terrified that we would be surrounded by ice…

Good looking out, Kortney!

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