My brain was so busy anticipating penguins and landscapes. Yet throughout both of my Antarctica cruises, I realized that there was much more to Antarctica than I originally thought. Some of the things you could do there were quite surprising!
Here are 7 things to do in Antarctica that surprisingly don’t involve wildlife!
1. Go Shopping in Antarctica
“Welcome to Antarctica!” the voice in front of me boomed. Surprised to hear the sentence verbalized for me, a wave of excitement rolled through my body.
A hand was extended out to me, and I instinctively grabbed it in the ‘sailor grip’ that we were taught on the ship. It felt like I was moving in slow motion when I looked up at the face of my greeter to the 7th continent – all I could do was smile at this Antarctica inhabitant.
Never had I once considered human life on Antarctica. But there are research bases all over the continent and its surrounding islands, and boy do they love their visitors, and they do whatever they can to bring them in.
One of the ways they do so is with gift shops!
Port Lockroy provided the most extensive shopping experience with a large gift shop full of Antarctica and base souvenirs. I even dropped some money there caught up in the excitement of capitalism on all continents.
The base at Port Lockroy conducts penguin research and was one of the only bases which employed women. Young British women actually volunteer to work there year around to research penguins.
But Port Lockroy wasn’t the only one offering a gift shop experience – other bases also had gift shops.
In fact dad and I purchased a bottle of Chilean wine at Gabriel Gonzalez Videla Station to take back to the ship and enjoy with dinner.
And not to be outdone – Vernadsky, the Ukrainian base, boasted the Southernmost Souvenir Shop in the world!
2. Tour the research bases
Antarctica is the globe’s only continent without a native human population.
I think this is what draws me to the region – it belongs to no one – it’s a free spirit and a somewhat unwelcome one at that.
However even though there is no native population, it still has people manning research bases from a wide variety of countries. The population of people doing and supporting science on the continent and nearby islands varies from approximately 4,000 during the summer season to 1,000 during winter.
Theses bases are filled with primarily men who are quite isolated (which left me wondering what they did in their home countries that got them sent here!). Some bases run only in the summer and some run year around.
Tour The living Quarters
As we wandered around the Chilean base, which is inhabited only in the summer, we were invited inside into their living quarters for an open house walk through.
I walked into their simple looking hut surrounded by penguin rookeries and was surprised to find a flat screen TV, a big dining room table, leather couches, and a Christmas tree.
It was like a little bachelor pad in Antarctica.
Get Your Passport Stamped
Most bases also offer a way to permanently record your visit to Antarctica. Each had a passport stamp – typically with a cute penguin and the base name on it.
Since Antarctica doesn’t really belong to any country, and therefore no customs or immigration processing is required, this was a just nice way to get a record of your visit in your passport.
3. Visit the ghost town that is Deception Island, Antarctica
You’re probably thinking, “Ghost town? How on earth is there a ghost town in Antarctica?? I thought it was all penguins!” So did I! So I did a little research:
The Origins of Deception Island, the Only Town in Antarctica
Whale Oil was a growing industry in the early 1900’s. The oil was used in oil lamps and to make soap and margarine. Because of the demand, whaling ‘stations’ were popping up in Antarctica and one of the booming ones was at Deception Island.
Deception Island was the perfect place to set up a whaling operation since it’s unique horseshoe shape provided great shelter for the ships, and because it was volcanic it actually had the chance of being warm at times.
According to Deception Island History, in 1912, the Hektor Whaling Company was issued with a license to establish a shore-based whaling station. Approximately 150 people worked at the station during the austral summer, producing over 140,000 barrels of whale oil. The station did not actually process whale blubber, which was done on the ships, but instead took the carcasses and boiled them down to extract additional whale oil, using large iron boilers, and storing the results in iron tanks.
Progress leads to Abandonment
With the discovery of substitutes for whale oil such as kerosene and vegetable oils, the use of whale oils declined considerably. With most countries having banned whaling, the sale and use of whale oil today is almost non-existent.
Whale oil prices dropped during the Great Depression of the 1920s, and the factory ships were abandoned.
All that remains of the whaling station at Whalers Bay in Deception Island are some rusted out buildings, and whale skeletons. It’s strange to walk around the buildings and imagine what the area was like in it’s height of operation. Big boiling vats have since sunken into the ground, machinery has rusted, buildings are buckling, and a ‘memorial’ cemetery was erected to honor the cemetery that was destroyed in a 1969 volcanic eruption.
The perfect place to take photos.
4. Go Kayaking in Antarctica
I think I can pretty safely say that Antarctica must be one of the most beautiful places to kayak in the world.
If you’re planning on cruising to Antarctica and you want to be active and see a completely different perspective, then definitely sign up for the kayaking if it’s offered.
I was able to participate in the kayaking program on my trip with Expedition Trips and G Adventures, and it was easily my favorite thing I did in Antarctica!
It’s not as if you really needed any reasons – but just for the fun of it – 10 reasons to kayak in Antarctica.
Kayaking in Antarctica is Serious Stuff
The honest truth is that kayaking in Antarctica is pretty serious and our fearless leader on the MS Expedition, Ian, ran a tight ship. He had us trained well, and I was impressed with how quickly a whole bunch of strangers who were on vacation fell in line and followed instructions!
The first two days on the ship I think I went to at least 5 kayak meetings; safety briefings, mud room loading and unloading, gear fittings, and a ‘weeding out’ meeting.
The first meeting was all about telling us what we had all gotten ourselves into, what was expected of us and our skills – and then we were kindly given a chance to back out.
I must admit – I didn’t have the experience required and I was ready to back out. The last time I had done real sea kayaking was about 8 years ago, I had no real training or experience, and had never done a wet exit. But Ian took pity on me and allowed me to still participate as long as I was in his kayak. And thanks to his kindness – I was able to experience the best thing about a cruise to Antarctica – kayaking.
But It’s Also Seriously Special
After we got through the weeding out process, Ian lightened up and we all became a pretty tight knit group.
The first time we went out I was excited and nervous, but the moment I got in the kayak, I realized why it was so special – you were at a whole different perspective – at water level.
Immediately I felt more one with my environment.
As we paddled away from the ship, my senses were heightened as it felt like my whole view of the landscape had changed.
One of the most beautiful things about kayaking is the fact that it’as quiet – super quiet.
You’re able to get close to the shore and cliffs where the other boats couldn’t go and it’s then when you realize just how massive the icebergs, glaciers, and mountains are.
I felt small. But I felt wonderful.
That first day out on the water, I told Ian that even though I really love my job and what I do, that he may just have the best job in the world.
Gear You’ll Use Kayaking
On my trip, we used 2-person kayaks that were extremely sturdy for sea kayaking.
The rear person did the steering with pedals and the front person (me) simply had to paddle.
We were also provided with waterproof suits, booties, pogies (waterproof hand covers), a skirt, and lifejackets.
Since you work pretty hard paddling, it doesn’t take long to generate heat in that waterproof suit and you’ll be sweating pretty quickly! So you don’t really need many layers under your suit.
Sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat are an excellent idea to bring with you, though.
Now, I don’t know a ton about kayaking – but I do know that we did have top notch gear.
The Kayaking Outings
Each day, the kayaking group would have a meeting, and Ian would discuss the kayaking plan for the day, weather conditions permitting.
This is sort of what makes the kayak program a bit of a difficult sell. Since you are at the mercy of weather, you may sign up for it and only go out 3 times if weather conditions don’t cooperate.
However, on my trip we were really lucky – we went out a total of 8 times – which made it a great value. But each morning we were able to decide if we wanted to go kayaking or if we wanted to skip it and do a zodiac landing instead. I typically did one kayaking outing a day and one zodiac landing with my father.
As soon as we got in the water, Ian would take us in the opposite direction of the other non-kayaking zodiacs and people. We’d soon be in complete silence and the ship would no longer be in sight.
It really did feel like you were at the end of the world.
How Much Kayaking You Get to Do
At the end, we received a paddling log that had every outing, describing the area, the distance we paddled, the weather conditions, and a reminder of things that we saw.
The group as a whole paddled 33.38 nautical miles and was out on the water for 15 hours and 4 minutes.
We generally stayed out the whole time during the zodiac landing – totaling about 2 to 3 hours an outing.
Loading Kayaks From the Boat
We would go out at the same time as the zodiac landings occurred, however we would load out of a different door.
Ian would get all of the kayaks stacked by the door of the mudroom and we were responsible for getting them out the door and in the water.
We always had a dedicated zodiac following us in case anyone capsized, and it also helped us load into and out of the kayaks.
When we returned, we’d have to get out of the kayak, onto the zodiac, walk up to the mudroom and then pull the kayak up at a steep angle through the door and stack them again.
Paddling In the Icy Waters
The paddling was gorgeous – but challenging. It was rougher than I had anticipated, but the little kayaks were sturdy and could get through lots of obstacles – more than I ever imagined.
We paddled through many, many long patches of brash ice which was hard work and made life a bit wobbly.
We were also able to paddle up onto fast ice (a thin layer of flat ice that has ‘fastened’ itself to coasts), where often times seals were napping.
The winds come up fast – but we were lucky and never got caught in really bad weather.
Ian and Mark, our guides, were really professional and knowledgeable about the area and wildlife. They could answer any questions and made sure that we were supported at all times.
You’ll See Incredible Things
Penguins practically jumped in our kayak at times! In the shallow water, it was so clear you could see them swim under the water.
We saw many seals napping on icebergs, and we even saw a whale.
Actually – we first heard the whale breathing and then it came up around our kayaks.
It was a bit of a shock as that’s about as close as you’ll ever want to get to a whale! Everyone was so startled that no photos were captured!
You’re also treated to some of the most pristine views possible.
Since our kayaks didn’t create a lot of disturbance in the water, the glass-like conditions created some amazing reflections.
We all received a Certificate of Completion and photo that was slightly tongue-n-cheek – stating:
“Sherry Ott was among the adventurers to ply the frigid waters of Antarctica in a sea kayak. Amidst brash ice and icebergs, among seals and penguins, through wind and swell, under cloud and sun, she has paddled in a true polar wilderness, and is entitled to all the bragging rights thereof. This document hereby certifies that the above named is among the rare few on the planet who can claim to be an Antarctic Sea Kayaker!”
My Advice for Kayaking in Antarctica:
First of all, if you have the opportunity – DO IT! And if you don’t have a lot of experience in kayaking then do yourself a favor and take a few lessons before you go as this is really an opportunity that you don’t want to miss out on.
5. Go Swimming in Antarctica (yes, seriously!)
Taking a dip in the Antarctic ocean is… well… it’s one of a kind. They call it The Polar Plunge.
This particular Antarctic experience was one I wasn’t going to do. I had made up my mind. Nope. Not doing it. I was feeling slightly guilty, but dammit it was cold outside. I’m old, and maybe I should just be ok with acting my age for once – I don’t need to prove anything.
The wind was howling, and the fact that once you actually plunged yourself into the freezing cold water then you had to run back to the beach, dry off – OUTSIDE, put all of your warm clothes back on over your freezing wet ones, and finally take a zodiac back to the boat, was just a bit too daunting.
It’s Antarctica for God sakes – no one really need to expose themselves that long to the elements all for a silly challenge and bragging rights. Damn bragging rights.
I had made up my mind. I was going to sit back and watch. Maybe take a few photos, but stay in my warm Canada Goose jacket snug and surrounded by feathers.
I had decided to officially ignore the Facebook comment by my friend Warren who when he saw I was at Deception Island said “ I hope you are planning to swim. We’ll need pictures to brighten our day.”
Damn you, Warren. I will say that the internet connection was down and that I never saw that . Poof – it’s out of my mind.
But then I made the mistake of eating lunch with her and that’s when she said it…
She innocently polled the table of people to see who was planning on doing the polar plunge later that afternoon on our 2nd landing at Deception Island.
I was sitting with people my age or older, and every one of them said they were going to pass.
I felt a little anxiety drift into my body, and as I swallowed hard before I replied, “No, I don’t think I’m going to do it.”
“Reeeaaally?!” she replied in an astonished voice. “I thought of all the people on the boat that you would do it for your writing!” she quipped.
I smiled. I sat silent – but my brain was going in overdrive. .
This morning I had forgotten that I was a writer, a blogger – here to cover things. I had started to believe that I was just like everyone else on the cruise – having a vacation – carefree.
But dammit, she had a point. She somehow tapped directly into my weak spot – work, obligation, and responsibility. I actually should do it I thought to myself. Stupid ‘should’.
The guilt was starting to tug harder and harder at my brain. I was mad. I was weak. I decided to wear my running clothes under my landing apparel just in case.
But honestly I already knew. My whole body slumped in the surrender – I had to do it.
And I did.
Here’s a video of the experience so you can see exactly what it’s like:
6. Visit a Museum of Human Life on Antarctica
Antarctica is full of fascinating history, and nothing is more fascinating to me than how people actually lived in Antarctica years ago.
Luckily there are a few museums that give you a glimpse into what life was like in this remote area.
The most extensive museum is Port Lockroy’s museum, which has all of the old rooms set up and recreated as they used to be, including a plethora of old, rusty, canned food that had been rationed but never used.
The bedrooms and workrooms are all recreated too, complete with girlie pinup paintings.
The Chiliean base also has a small museum, full of old photography of what it was like to live there years ago.
It’s a fascinating look into the hard lives that these hearty people lived.
7. Have a Drink at the Bottom of the World
Yes – that’s right, there’s a bar on Antarctica!
This was such a surprise to me on my first trip! Of course there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to buy and consume booze on all 7 continents, and to my surprise my father was more into this goal than I was!
At the Vernadsky base, they boasted a bar complete with vodka shots and various bar games.
I looked around the bar and couldn’t help but wonder what it was like here when there wasn’t an expedition ship in the harbor. I bet they had some pretty wild nights at this base, considering there’s not much else for 11 men to do year ‘round in Antarctica but drink.
Since it was before noon, I was happy to share my vodka shot with my dad, but he insisted that we each have our own – gotta love that.
While the wildlife is incredible, there are more things to do in Antarctica than you might expect!
The bases really provide an interesting insight into Antarctica that I wasn’t expecting, but they are a big part of the history and the experience – just as much as the wildlife.
So if you are planning a trip to Antarctica, don’t forget to pack US dollars for souvenirs, your sense of adventure (or insanity!) for kayaking and the Polar Plunge, your curiosity for Deception Island and the museums – and be prepared for a hangover.
More About Antarctica Travel:
- How to Travel to Antarctica: The Ultimate Guide
- Outnumbered on Macquarie Island
- How to Pack for an Antarctica Cruise
- 4 (Subantarctic) New Zealand Islands You’ve Never Heard Of But Should Explore
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