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antarctic gentoo penguins standing in front of iceberg-filled waters with hurtigruten cruise ship in the background
Jamie Ditaranto

Antarctica: Cruising to the Bottom of the World

Antarctica. Most of us know it as the blank part of the map, a white continent stretched out along the bottom of the page … and it wasn’t until 200 years ago that any human beings had ever laid eyes on it. Today, it’s still one of the most mysterious and difficult-to-reach places in the world.

But just because it’s hard to get to doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I boarded the M.S. Midnatsol for a Hurtigruten expedition cruise to the white continent at the bottom of the world. It would take two days of sailing from Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, and it would be a rocky journey ahead on the rough seas of the Drake Passage.

Getting There

Hurtigruten midnatsol cruise ship in antarctica
Jamie Ditaranto

But as Antarctica grew closer, the ocean settled and the world transformed around us. Seemingly out of nowhere, an iceberg as large as an apartment building crossed our path, glowing a shade of blue I had never seen before. And on the horizon, white snow-covered islands began to come into focus. Some people think that Antarctica is a frozen wasteland, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I soon found out, Antarctica is bursting with life.

Amid the beautiful scenery of a world stuck in the ice age, delight quickly spread throughout the ship as passengers spotted black spots moving across the white landscape. Penguins. Hundreds of penguins. We could hardly wait to get closer and below deck, the Hurtigruten expedition team was already taking out the zodiacs, preparing for the first landing.

 A Day in Antarctica

Boat in front of pack ice sheet antarctica
Jamie Ditaranto
Once in Antarctica, the ship’s Expedition Team organized landing and cruising opportunities daily to get close to wildlife. On Cuverville Island, we walked among the penguins and in Paradise Bay, we kept our eyes peeled for humpback whales as they surfaced among the icebergs.

Despite the beautiful scenery, Antarctica wasn’t always the most welcoming destination; the weather sometimes changed quickly, and when that happened, the crew of the Midnatsol would change course and implement a ‘plan b’ for our daily activity. But on the ship, we were never disconnected from our destination. Whether we were attending lectures given by the onboard scientists, working up a sweat in the gym, or soaking up the view in the hot tub, Antarctica was all around us and we couldn’t take our eyes off her.

Early one morning, an urgent voice came over the ship’s PA system. “Ladies and gentlemen we are sorry to disturb you, but if you are not currently outside or standing by a window, we strongly recommend you get outside right now.”

The Midnatsol had just passed through the Lemaire Channel and had arrived as far south as we would travel on this trip—for many of the passengers aboard, the farthest south they’d ever be. In front of the ship, a field of ice spread out as far as we could see. Rolling with the waves, the ice sparkled in the morning light and from the deck, we spotted seals sleeping like enormous boulders on the ice. From then on, we’d begin our return journey, but the adventure wasn’t over yet. For a few lucky passengers, they still had a night on the ice ahead.

More Adventures at the Bottom of the World

Penguins standing outside tents in antarctica
Jamie Ditaranto

Once per cruise, Hurtigruten offers passengers the chance to become campers and spend one night sleeping on Antarctica. On this trip, they’d be camping on Danco Island, but they wouldn’t be alone. I got to check out the campsite before nightfall, and as they set up their tents, hundreds of Gentoo penguins were hopping ashore. They’d turn out to make quite noisy neighbors, but the campers didn’t mind.

On the last day before turning back for South America, I got even closer to Antarctica with a morning kayak in Wilhelmina Bay. Kayaking in Antarctica requires many layers of specialized dry suits and preparation; from start to finish, it took about an hour and a half before we were even on the water. After a quick briefing from our kayak guides, we were free to glide through the pristine waters in our nimble kayaks. With icebergs towering over us, we set off towards an old shipwreck and kept our eyes peeled for penguins popping their heads out of the water.

As the Midnatsol returned to the Drake, it felt impossible to look away. I had come so far and, compared to the vastness of the continent, had seen so little. But every moment felt bigger than the last—immense and endlessly beautiful. A trip of a lifetime.

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Jamie Ditaranto traveled to Antarctica as a guest of cruise operator Hurtigruten. Follow her travel adventures on Instagram @jamieditaranto.

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