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Travel à la Mode: Study Abroad in Antarctica

Travel à la Mode: Study Abroad in Antarctica

I mentioned here that I had studied abroad in Antarctica during college, and many of you were asking for some details. I decided I'd do a brief overview of my time there and show you guys what it was like! For those TL;DR readers, I'll just say it was the best experience of my life so far. Nothing compares to being where no one else is or lives, hanging out with penguins and the 100 other people on your boat, and the craziness of no cell service/internet/etc. I have thousands of photos I could post, but I want to keep it brief so some details may be left out. Feel free to ask any questions!! If you want to see even more photos, I sell some on my Etsy account.


To get to Antarctica, you have to make a pit stop in Ushuaia, Argentina - the southernmost city in the world. Most ships leave from Ushuaia. Our particular ship was the Akademik Ioffe through One Ocean, with our trip being Dec 2012 to Jan 2013 and a total of about 3 weeks. But man, do I wish it were longer.

Ushuaia, Argentina - Maggie a la Mode

We stayed here for a few days before our ship left port and did some hiking and general exploration. We did a hike one day to Laguna Esmeralda which was absolutely stunning. It's a glacier lake in the middle of the Andes Mountains and it takes about 2-3 hours of hiking to get there. Completely worth it, though. We had a quick lunch and (cold) swim before heading back. Note the attractive (and muddy) hiking pants!

We did a cruise of the Beagle Channel to see some South American sea lions and landmarks. It was incredibly cool to see them so close and in such high numbers! 


After our short stay in Ushuaia, we boarded the Akademik Ioffe to set sail for Antarctica! This was definitely not a cruise ship, but actually an old Russian polar research vessel. The ship crew was all Russian while the One Ocean crew were from all over the world, as well as all the passengers. The variety of people there was cool - all ages, lots of nationalities, and different purposes. We had a wake-up call every morning for breakfast, and we all ate meals in the cafeteria together every day. There were not a lot of choices for food, but almost everything I ate was good! The rooms were tiny and bathrooms even tinier -  you can see my bed in one of the photos below. I found it interesting that there weren't locks on the bedroom doors, either. But it wasn't a problem at all. 

It takes about 3 days of straight sailing to get to Antartica, and you cross what's called the Drake Passage where the Pacific, Southern, and Antarctic oceans meet. It's a pretty choppy ride and a few people spent most of that time in their bathrooms. If you go, lots of Phenergan is recommended! For those of us who weren't seasick, it was a lot of sight seeing for whales, birds, and whatever else we saw.

Fin whale, Drake Passage, Antarctica - Maggie a la Mode

Our first day in Antarctica was breathtaking and a pinch-me moment.  One thing I really appreciated is that while there were a few different ships doing cruises down in Antarctica, they all work together to make sure they aren't at the same place at the same time, and to hopefully never even see each other. This gives all of us travelers a further sense of isolation and awe about Antarctica. You have no cell service and no internet, so you really feel so alone. There's an eerie tranquility about it.

We took 1 or 2 excursions a day on Zodiacs (shown below) either to shore or just to cruise around looking for wildlife. The amount of birds, seals, whales, and penguins we saw was kind of staggering. We even got to see two Emperor penguins, which is pretty rare because they live inland of Antarctica. One thing I didn't realize before I went there is just how good of swimmers penguins are. While they can't fly, they are extremely fast and deep swimmers. They porpoise as well (shallow jumps above water as they swim) - which you can see in some photos below.

The weather the majority of the time wasn't actually too bad. We were there during their summer, and it felt really similar to Michigan winters (where home was) so I wasn't too unbearable. Some days we would just be in fleece jackets outside on the ship. However, there were a few days where it was pretty unbearable (at least for me haha). The below photo with the penguins was taken on Brown Bluff, and it was snowy and windy and seriously cold. I had multiple pairs of wool socks on and I still couldn't feel my toes. And the photo below that is one of my favorites, taken by one of our professors. We were on a Zodiac cruise going on a few hours and with the combination of the cold and the wind and the speed of the Zodiac, I was pretty miserable. Apparently it showed haha.

Falkland Islands 

Our last stop was the Falkland Islands! Port Stanley was where the ship left us all, and most people left from there. Our group stayed for about another week in the Falklands to do some more exploring. This is the first place we saw King penguins (seen in the first photo at the very very top of this post!). It had some stunning views as well, with cliffs and waterfalls galore. I found it funny seeing penguins hanging around on beaches, but that just made it much more interesting. A lot of the Falkland Islands is actually roped off due to uncleared minefields from the Falklands War, but penguins are so light that they won't set them off. 

We took a trip to Saunder's Island to watch where Rockhopper penguins and Black-browed Albatrosses (with a wingspan of up to 8 feet!) "live". They use the same rocky area as a breeding ground for their young. It was amazing how close we were able to get to them. We spent nearly a day here just observing and exploring. The island basically is uninhabited but is run as a sheep farm. 

All in all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime, out of this world experience. I met so many new friends, got to experience so many new things, and see penguins!! What's better than that? A few more highlights that I didn't mention above:

  • We got the opportunity to camp out on Antarctica for a night, but that particular night was so windy and cold the crew didn't want us to. Instead, we slept on the top deck of the ship but only a few made it through the whole night.
  • We got to swim in Antarctic waters! Deception Island is a caldera of an active volcano, so the water right by the ground is actually super warm. Standing in the water wasn't terrible, but getting further in and dunking was literally ice cold. Still, I would do it again!
  • On our first day in Antarctica, a few of us got up early to do yoga on the top deck and the sights of icebergs was amazing. However, minutes after we started a large pod of orcas came swimming by the ship. It was an amazing welcome!
  • Some days were only spent at sea, so we got to know the bartenders pretty well. I had the best Long Island of my life here and was introduced to the amazing caipiroska!
  • Christmas day was actually really fun onboard the ship! We had a barbecue on deck and a dance party. One of my favorite memories is sitting in the hot tub during sunset of Christmas day, and watching humpback whales in the distance. 
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