Antarctica with Kids
When my oldest daughter Evelyn was three and in Pre-K, her class studied penguins. She came home excited and said that she wanted to go to Antarctica to see penguins in real life. So I did some research and decided that eight was a good age for Antarctica. Why eight? At that point kids can entertain themselves on the ship, they can appreciate where they are in the world, and they’ll be interested in some of the trip’s educational elements. So I promised her that when she was eight we would go. She turned eight on December 16th and we departed on December 26th.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
We started in Buenos Aires for three days, walking a lot, visiting El Ateneo bookstore (my daughter loved the large children’s section and picked out some Spanish versions of books she had back home), the Recoleta cemetery to see Eva Peron’s tomb (she liked the cats that wandered around more than the tombs), the area around the cemetery, and La Boca neighborhood, home of the tango. The highlight for her was the empanadas. We ate at El Sanjuanino twice in two nights. This also turned out to be a good lesson in Argentine inflation. The first night the empanadas were 14 pesos each. Literally the next night when we went back the entire menu had been updated to reflect a new price of 15 pesos each. It was worth every inflating peso though – the empanadas were great. Very kid-friendly as well. My daughter’s not an overly picky eater, but still food in a new country is always a little bit of a gamble. The ham/cheese and the basil/tomato/cheese empanadas, followed by ice cream nightly at Freddo, meant that at least she wasn’t starving under my watch.
We then flew down to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to do a quick trip through Tierra del Fuego National Park before boarding the ship. There’s really not much to say about Ushuaia – there’s an airport, it’s near the national park, and it’s relatively close to Antarctica. I’ll return someday to see more of Tierra del Fuego – a few hours there definitely whetted my appetite.
The Drake Passage
We arrived at the ship (the National Geographic Explorer) and set sail for Antarctica. It’s only a day and a half or so across the Drake Passage to the outer islands and the continent, but that day and a half was rough. Very rough. In both directions. Heading down, the waves were 22 feet or so. Evelyn stayed in bed. I stayed in bed most of the time, other than heading out to get meals and bring them back to the cabin. If you think it sounds difficult to walk while carrying plates of food while the ship is heading into 22-foot waves, you would be correct. But that was just a precursor to the 30-foot waves that we would encounter on the trip back. iPods loaded with movies are a very good thing. There’s not much else you want to do in big seas other than lay in bed and watch movies. The Drake Passage definitely isn’t a reason to avoid Antarctica, but it’s not a fun few days.
This was our first view of Antarctica – the South Shetland Islands. It meant that rough seas were behind us. And it meant that an amazing week was about to begin.
Before we could go onshore, we were taught the rules. You can’t approach within five meters of penguins or other wildlife. If they came up to you, though, it’s fine. You can’t leave anything onshore or take anything from there. If you step onto the snow and sink in, fill up the hole so that penguins don’t fall in and get stuck. Basically, leave everything like you found it.
Because no more than 100 people can be onshore at any one time and there were 145 people on the ship, everyone was divided into one of six groups. Your group would be called 15 minutes before departure time, which meant finishing getting dressed, putting on life jackets, putting on snow boots, grabbing camera gear and hiking poles, and heading down to the Zodiac departure area. Then we would hop into the Zodiacs, eight people or so at a time, and go to shore. Once arriving on shore we would take off our life jackets and head off to explore. It became a pattern twice a day or so going through that process – it sounds like more of a hassle than it was, but it wasn’t much different than getting dressed to go skiing and then going to the slopes (other than the Zodiacs of course, and the decontamination fluid that they would apply to our boots both leaving the ship and coming back on-board).
Wherever we anchored, the ship’s staff would go onshore first and mark out (with cones) rough pathways to interesting areas – mainly penguin colonies, beaches and overlooks. The nice thing about the paths is that eventually they would get packed down a little and you would stop sinking two feet into the snow. The really nice thing about being a kid weighing 45 pounds in Antarctica is that you never sink in.
Half Moon Island
The first trip onshore was at Half Moon Island on New Years Eve. Chinstrap penguins awaited. After taking off our life jackets, we simply wandered around for a couple of hours. It’s easy to spot the penguin paths between the rookeries and fishing spots since they’re packed down and not quite as white as the pristine snow elsewhere. We spent a lot of time just sitting next to the paths and watching the local traffic – lots of waddling and belly sliding penguins. No babies were on the paths – they were all just hatching and being protected by the parents at the rookeries. But there were a lot of adult penguins going to and fro and it was just a really fun experience. Anyone going to Antarctica will mention the sounds and the smells. The sound of all of the penguins, mixed in with some other seabirds, was extraordinary. The smell wasn’t nearly as strong as I had thought it would be – penguin poop isn’t that pungent, at least not where we were.
Evelyn’s last comment before heading back to the ship: “I wish I could belly slide like a penguin.”
Celebrating the New Year in Antarctica
Antarctica geographically has 24 time zones, so we probably could have celebrated the new year any time the ship staff wanted. We stayed on Argentinean time though, meaning at least we got to celebrate a couple of hours before the east coast of the US. That made it a little easier to stay up, since we hadn’t even completely adjusted to Argentinean time yet, and Evelyn got to experience her first countdown and clinking of glasses as the clock struck midnight. On the ship they have the oldest and youngest passengers literally ring in the near year, with a large ship’s bell. Evelyn was the second-youngest, just missing out to a German five-month-old. For the record, there were around 10 kids on the ship under 18. There should have been more – it was an incredibly child-friendly trip, with not only the sites and adventures that everyone was experiencing, but also dedicated kid dinners, movie nights and activities on the ship. But that’s the point of this blog – to encourage you to take your kids somewhere new.
New Years Day started with kayaking. The water was smooth with no wind and just a light snowfall – absolutely ideal. We went near shore, not getting too close in case glaciers calved, and circled icebergs, not getting too close in case they tipped over. A really fun experience for both of us.
Then the day got even better. We sailed over to Cuverville Island and spent the afternoon with Gentoo penguins. It was very similar to the first day with the Chinstraps on Half Moon Island, but the scenery was even more stunning (icebergs), and the Gentoos were fun to watch, going about their business and tending to their eggs and chicks. Evelyn never complained about all the walking – she was just taking it in, sitting and waiting for Gentoos to approach her, photographing some, and starting snowball fights with an 11-year-old from the ship. Totally in her element.
January 2nd brought the highlight of the trip for Evelyn. We anchored at Neko Harbor on the continental mainland and hiked for a while. Hundreds more Gentoos. Weddell seals. Amazing vistas of glaciers and icebergs in various hues of blue and white. But then we neared an upper ridge and one of the ship’s naturalists asked if anyone wanted to slide down the hill. Sliding like a penguin? In Antarctica? Bring it on. Not only did Evelyn jump right over the edge and slide down to the bottom of the mountain, but she ran back up and did it two more times. Again, one of the advantages of going places like this when you’re young (and have good knees)! She was exhausted but ecstatic at the end of the day.
Petermann Island and Icebergs
By January 3rd we were well below the Antarctic Circle. A stop at Petermann Island brought more hiking, more Gentoos, more icebergs, more stunning vistas and more snowball fights. It never came close to getting old or repetitive. When we weren’t on land and were sailing south, every time we looked out the window we would see new towering mountains and new towering icebergs. The ship went around the larger icebergs but went straight through the smaller bergs and the sea ice. The dull scraping sound of the ice against the hull became background noise, reminding us exactly where we were in the world.
Then came January 4th – my highlight. The ship’s captain located a large frozen fjord and plowed several hundred feet right into it. Then we got off the ship and played. There were footballs, frisbees and beach balls. There were snowmen and snow angels. The ship’s crew set up a hot chocolate stand (with Bailey’s or schnapps for adults) on the ice.
When we were there, there was a Russian/Australian ship stuck in Antarctic sea ice that was getting international coverage. Not many of us would have complained if we had gotten stuck in the sea ice and been there for an extra week. Alas, the ship was able to back right out with no problems.
We then turned around and headed back north through the Inside Passage. Icebergs the size of small towns? Check. Minke whales? Check. Rare Ross seals? Check. Amazing reflections? Check. More stops with hiking, penguins and snowballs? Check. Again, it never got old. The ship’s staff were constantly updating everyone on our position, on our plans and on our backup plans in case ice scuttled the initial plans. I was impressed by the adventurousness of the crew. They wanted to deliver the absolute best, most unique trip for all of us, and they were constantly adjusting course based on weather and what they thought would be the most fun. We rarely saw signs at any landings of previous/recent visitors, and only saw one ship far in the distance the entire trip. It was truly our own private (summer) wonderland for a week.
The photos below are from a landing at Dorian Bay. Everywhere we went we would see the Scua birds trying to steal penguin eggs and babies. When we first got to Antarctica we thought of the Scuas as the bad guys. But throughout the trip there were educational sessions on board, including some on the natural balance and how the Scuas were necessary to keep the penguin populations in check. It was funny to see people go from rooting for the penguins to rooting for the Scuas. Except for Evelyn – she was pretty addicted to the penguins and their chicks.
So at this point the only thing missing was whales. We had seen some Minke whales, but nothing up close. Bring on the Gerlache Strait. We were sailing slowly while the naturalists looked for whales. And then they found them. So amazing to watch a pod of killer whales for half an hour.
The next day brought a Zodiac cruise around Danco Island. This was one of the only things in the trip that wasn’t very kid-friendly. When we were onshore every day, we could go back to the ship at any time. When you’re on a Zodiac, though, and going around an island, you’re kind of stuck until you get back to the ship an hour later, no matter how cold you get. I loved it – the photography opportunities with the tabular icebergs, penguins, sea ice and towering peaks were extraordinary. Evelyn wasn’t miserable by any stretch, but she stopped having fun about 20 minutes into the tour.
Heading back up the Gerlache Straight, we didn’t encounter any more killer whales. Instead, we saw well over a hundred humpback whales. As with the killer whales, the captain positioned us optimally based on the location of all of the whales and then we just waited for pods to approach the ship. Pretty amazing. It was cold up on deck, so Evelyn hung out in the room while I was taking photos like this. But she was still able to see whales right outside the window. A room with a view indeed.
The Post Office
The last day in Antarctica took us to Port Lockroy. This is an old British base that now has a gift store and a post office. We bought t-shirts, magnets, stuffed penguins and more. We were warned that the postcards we mailed may not arrive for a couple of months, but they actually took only three weeks to get from Antarctica to California via the Falkland Islands and the UK. Impressive. Plus there were a lot of penguins around Port Lockroy, which we never got tired of.
Overall it was an absolutely amazing trip and one I would recommend to anyone. Eight was a good age.
The ship was great, and very safe – as close as one can get to an icebreaker without actually being an icebreaker. The food was excellent. I’m partial to Scandinavian cuisine anyway, so I fully appreciated the Nordic touches that the Swedish chef brought to some of the dishes. Evelyn ate the food from the standard menu about half the time. The other half, when she just couldn’t get excited about the fish or reindeer or polenta or other options, she was always able to request pasta or a steak and baked potato from the kitchen. And when Evelyn wasn’t feeling well in the cabin on the trip back across the Drake Passage, Leizl, our cabin attendant, went to the bar and mixed her a special ginger-infused drink to help her. The staff and service were outstanding throughout. The internet was slow, but at least there was internet – even if it was $0.40/minute. The key was to get on early in the morning or when most people were ashore. If everyone else was accessing it in the evening, it was so slow it wasn’t worth even trying to log on.
No complaints about the weather – it was far warmer in Antarctica than most of the US that same week. Temperatures were rarely below 28F, unless you were on deck while the ship was moving. Our packing list included most of what we would take on a ski trip – lots of layers, gloves, hats, boots, etc… It was 95F in Buenos Aires for those few days so it necessitated a little over-packing, but everyone was in the same boat (literally) with a couple large suitcases per cabin.
Evelyn’s Favorite Things
1. Sledding on my belly like a penguin.
2. How I could order anything for dinner on the ship.
3. The kid-oriented activities, especially the scavenger hunt.
4. Seeing the penguins.
5. Throwing snowballs at my dad and Matt.
6. The gift store on the ship.
7. Riding on the Zodiacs every day, but not the long Zodiac tour.
8. Ice cream, hot cocoa and mints anytime.
9. That I did not fall into the snow like everyone else.
10. Seeing the movie Frozen in Spanish when the airline cancelled our flight and we were in Buenos Aires for an extra day at the end of the trip.
Evelyn’s Least-Favorite Things
1. The Drake Passage.
2. The observation deck and library. It made me feel sick to be there, and there were no kid books.
3. The catamaran trip through the national park in Argentina.
4. Getting snow in my boots when I was sledding.
5. When my dad hit me with a snowball and it went down my jacket and made me cold.
Kid Friendly: Extremely
Level of Difficulty: Easy
Trip: National Geographic Expeditions Journey to Antarctica
Airline/Routing: United via Houston to Buenos Aires
Hotel in Buenos Aires: Caesar Park
Total Trip Length: 16 Days
Days of School Missed: Three days (it was supposed to be two days, but United cancelled our flight and we had one extra day in Buenos Aires at the end)
Ways I Brought the Cost Down: We flew United in Business. It’s the first time I’ve actually purchased Business Class (that Conde Nast wasn’t subsidizing). The conventional wisdom is to purchase international plane tickets four months or so in advance, but I start looking at fares as soon as I know I’m taking a trip. In this case a full nine months before we were depart I noticed that business class was barely more expensive than economy. The routing was terrible, but I grabbed it. I was hoping that United would change the flight times, thus giving me an opportunity to reroute for free. But they did me one better – they cancelled the route. So we had paid a lot less to fly via Newark, but then they did away with their Newark-Buenos Aires flights so I switched us to the optimal flights via Houston. That happens more often that not when I buy far in advance. I’m sure the flight changes annoy people who already have the perfect routing and flight times, but I always look at it as an opportunity to make the flights better and/or it gives me the chance to cancel with no penalties.
The other thing that saved us money is that National Geographic Expeditions gives you a nice discount on their ship trips if you’ve traveled with them at least three times before, which I had. As with the airlines, loyalty pays. And I highly recommend not getting one of the more expensive rooms with balconies. A balcony is great if you’re in the Mediterranean in the summer. In Antarctica, not so much. Whenever I spotted something amazing outside, I would run up a deck, head outside and snap some photos. A balcony would have been slightly more convenient for that, but we wouldn’t have spent any time out there given how cold it was outside when the ship was moving.