With a veritable cast of characters aboard, the Ocean Atlantic sailed us from Ushuaia to Antarctica, amidst trials and tribulations, bumps and mishaps, the Drake Passage both directions, and a lot of fool-hearty adventure. She is a beast of an icebreaker, Polish-built and Russian-owned, and has a wild twisted history throughout her years at sea. Mostly known as a naval support vessel, the Ocean Atlantic has also been a smuggler, a brothel, and a mobster haven. There’s rumors of murder and hidden gold. Mirrored ceilings were throughout the vessel, surely to give the impression of expanse yet giving off that strip club vibe. Yo, that bitch even got a pool and a sauna. Currently, she’s joined the Danish company Albatros Expeditions’ fleet. She is indeed one of the strongest ships down south today, newly renovated in 2016, sturdy and stoic.
I had never experienced ship life for more than 5 days prior to this excursion. My Antarctic adventure was double that, and twice across one of the most treacherous passages in the world. I knew it was going to be nothing short of an epic journey, and it did not disappoint. It was nothing like I had expected, but I had no idea what to expect. I was challenged emotionally in many ways - experiencing the sheer size and beauty of the White Continent is overwhelming. The insane magnitude of completing a long-term life goal is still hitting me, and I suspect I will be processing it for quite some time yet. Seeing hundreds of penguins waddling around, whales fluking like it ain’t nobody’s business, and seals straight chillin’ was exhilarating. At times it was lonely, being in the middle of the Southern Ocean (with limited English speakers), and I ended up getting all existential, true to form. We weren’t able to complete half of our scheduled landings, forcing everyone to accept the shitty weather and inevitably leading to disappointment. There was almost a goddamn riot when the Chinese were told we couldn’t land at the Great Wall Station. Eating Chinese food every day affected my mood as well. I started my period. Oh, and Mercury was retrograde. It was a huge, incomprehensible, unfathomable, indescribable venture into the unknown. It was incredible. It was too short. It kinda felt like a dream.
So let’s talk about who was with me.
Behold! as I unfold the colorful cast of characters, with *most* of the names changed:
Did I mention I was on a Chinese charter? The Ocean Atlantic can hold up to 198 passengers, and about 95% of them were Mandarin speakers. They were a colorful bunch, ranging from a 7 (almost 8!) year old little girl named Beauty to a 68 year old dood with thick blocky tattooed eyebrows. Most were friendly and acknowledged my existence, and others exhibited a varied range of behavior and listening skills. One guy almost severed a thumb clear off in an act of defiance/ignorance, as we were warned (only) at least 200 times not to put a hand in the doorjamb. There were genuine concerns when passengers would wave their flags or shove their stuffed penguins in the real guys’ faces. Or when they would bury plastic trinkets or steal rocks. And yeah, it was sometimes tricky to get the shot I wanted, and definitely never found the “quiet spot” we were romantically lied to about in our orientation. The landings were somewhat frantic, as only 100 passengers could be on land at any point. So the other half would zip around in zodiacs, then the groups would swap. No one really listened to the expedition crew who seemed to just be continuously screaming, “ZOLA!” or something like that. I’m not sure what it means in Mandarin but I’m guessing something like “we gotta go” or “hurry the fuck up”. One of the expedition crew was an ex-hockey goalie, and she found sadistic pleasure in checking passengers, including me at one point. Weirdly aggressive.
The Chinese also really loved karaoke. They sang their hearts out. For hours and hours. Some were pretty good, but most sounded a bit like mating cats or dying animals. For one evening’s events, I sang and danced to ‘Billie Jean’ while 50 Chinese people filmed me on their phones. I’m famous now. On another evening, I dressed up as the Penguin for their entertainment, and battled The Giant who was portraying the Seal. I called our team the ‘Gorgeous Gentoos’ and the little girl, Beauty, screamed for like 2 minutes into the mic, thus securing our win. Apparently, whichever side was louder won. 🤷🏼♀️ She also bit the Seal, which was totally against the rules, but no one knew until afterwards. She took Penguin loyalty to a new level. I also taught her how to wink. From that point forward she was my shadow and gave me random Chinese candies and the shitty reused chocolate mints the stewards put on everyone’s pillow. It’s the thought that counts.
I was surprised at how many of the Chinese got motion sick - it was like a ghost town once got out of the Beagle Channel. There were sick bags everywhere, and a few accidents that some unlucky crew member had to mop up. The dining room was desolate for the crossing days. And my roommate was afflicted the worst. Which brings me to…
Yu + me were roommates for what felt like a million years and a fleeting moment all at the same time. She was a lovely 50-something Chinese woman, traveling solo and seemed a bit nervous about it. Her English was way better than my Mandarin, and we found it easy to be kind to each other. When we first met, she was fresh out of the shower and super surprised to have a foreign roomie (or maybe anyone at all).
For the first evening, she was pretty chill. Then as soon as we hit the Drake, Yu went down. She was violently ill, weak, and unable to eat or move for days. The only times she got out of bed were to go to the bathroom or to attend the mandatory meetings held by the crew. She had a little collection of barf bags around her bed, and the room took on an acrid odor. It was rough. So I just stayed away, getting up at 7AM to go to breakfast and then returning around midnight to sleep.
On Day 3, Yu asked me to get her something from the breakfast buffet. As she lay dying in her bed, she wearily requested I bring her a “sheep horn”. She emphasized this by miming a horn coming out of her head. I had no idea what she was talking about, but once in front of the bread selection, realized she meant a croissant. I brought her 2 and she was overjoyed. She took 3 bites then promptly puked it up.
Although she was incredibly lovely, I was really starting to be bummed about the arrangements. I requested a move (twice) - as well as a welfare check on Yu from the ship’s doctor. I found salvation via the Jamaican receptionist, Karen, who granted my request and gave me MY OWN ROOM for the remaining 6 days. What a hero.
When I gathered my belongings and left Yu’s room, she was eternally grateful. She told me then (as well as again upon our final port back in Ushuaia) that she loved me and will never forget me. Ah, Yu. Ditto, babe.
For those of you worrying about Yu’s experience, once we got over the Antarctic Convergence and cleared the rough seas, she was a new woman. Dancin’ around like Happy Feet. And on the return trip, she took better drugs and was all smiles on our departure. She insisted on a selfie together. I hope her tales of me are just as fond.
Actually a Portuguese doctor, we only called him French as a joke and *fortunately* he had a wicked sense of humor. He and I instantly became friends while exchanging eye-rolls during some of the orientation and later over further idiocies. Solid dood, quick witted, genuine and easy to be around. Became my next door neighbor after I swapped rooms. Hung with him and his girlfriend back in Ushuaia for a minute.
A dynamic and kind couple, he has the name of a king and she has the name of my mother. They mostly stuck to themselves and were the wisest for it. On the first crossing, I saw his yogurt fly off a table when the ship lurched in the Drake Shake. They were part of the kayaking team, extremely courteous and quite lovely.
A 32-year old Michigan native taking a break from his engineering gig on a lengthy solo world tour. Logical and literal, he reminded me a bit of my brother-in-law. Also a complete genius, and was able to quickly and accurately solve a majority of Herry’s brain games. He was generous enough to share his super cheap shitty whiskey and boxed wine.
This Chinese-American woman is already retired from Google at the age of 24. She’s moving on to bigger things. We met while both rushing for the ship, her not talking. Gotta watch those smart quiet ones. She translated Mandarin for all of us internationals and gave us the scoop on what the Chinese were upset about and other dramas. She fell ill with a cold for a majority of the expedition, but somehow burst into Gangnam Style alongside me when I was dressed as the Penguin. She also hacked the karaoke machine and found like 300 English songs which we sang until 2AM on our last night aboard with Rose for her birthday. That chick is going far.
I met the Giant the night before we departed, outside of the crab place. He stood out at 6’5” and 300 lbs. Anyone that knows me understands my affinity for giants, and we were quickly friends. He is American as well, and we had some things in common to chat about. As the days went on, I felt that he was hitting on me but I wasn’t going there. We had a snafu when I asked to use his computer to back up my images onto my hard drive - and he deleted everything off my cards. I was freaking out! Fortunately, the hard drive wasn’t corrupted, but I couldn’t read them until I got back to BK. It put a weird pall on our communication, and he never said much after, or even goodbye. 🤔
Ah, this bitch. A Russian self-proclaimed “blogger”, it turned out that she was just another basic Instagram “influencer”. Sure, she’s got some followers, but c’mon - that look is tired. I was wary from the beginning, but really lost that loving feeling once she began body shaming other women and being straight up offensive. I had to verbally bitch slap her at dinner (don’t worry, I was very articulate) and let her know that as an “influencer” her words and expressions need to be more open-minded and woke. Needless to say, she didn’t talk to me after that. Byeeeeeeee
These two were for sure the most secluded from the rest of the internationals. They met in Doctors Without Borders, he from Czech Republic and her from Fiji/New Zealand, and have traveled together throughout the world. He proposed to her at the Brown Station landing in Paradise Harbor, and The Engineer was there to snap candid photos. They weirdly kept it secret but everyone found out anyhow. Very private and a bit odd.
A married couple from Calgary, the Canadians were on a world-tour as bloggers and photographers. They were both very intelligent and strangely competitive. She was fairly racist. We hung a bit, did some sauna-ing, had a few drinks and laughs. They were also around in Ushuaia after the trip, so we connected a couple of times again.
From Los Angeles, he too was a Chinese-American, although he spoke Cantonese so couldn’t quite translate as well as Lil’ Googs. We didn’t get to know each other that well, but he was kind enough. He definitely had a sarcastic side, which I appreciate.
The Ship Crew
This includes everyone who kept that baby running, from the captain to the maintenance crew to the engineers, most of who stayed hidden behind the scenes or slipped around like thieves in the night. I’m guessing they just didn’t want to deal with client relations at all. The captain was a serious Russian, who came out only when required to address the passengers. He was stoic, no nonsense, and straight up did not pull put up with anyone’s bullshit. It was almost comical. And all the captains stayed to their own little table, never mingling with the peons. But they didn’t crash us, put out the stabilizers on the return Drake crossing, and overall kept the dream alive. Thanks, y’all.
The Expedition Crew
This was a tight group of 22 people who were comprised of expedition leaders, historians, marine biologists, translators, a photographer, an ornithologist and general seafarers. All were very interesting and intelligent, and some were friendlier than others. The expedition leader was extremely capable and experienced, yet seemed to be lacking in a sense of humor. She awoke us every day at 7AM with the obnoxiously loud announcement system, which had a bell chime and every word was then translated into Mandarin. Although her voice was pleasant, the daily greeting of “good morning, good morning” and “welcome to the day” began to take on the tone of Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games. Slightly disturbing.
I actually knew one guy from guiding in Alaska, and another woman was a former colleague of some friends of mine. Small world! Others engaged with me in diverse conversations, ranging from writing a book on sex education for youth to the differences in Chinese/international tourists (they prefer the obedience of the Chinese) to a tour of the ship’s hospital. I am hoping to return and be part of this (or another ship’s) crew at the end of the year. I feel like I’m better working vs being a tourist - plus, I’ll never be able to afford to go there again unless I’m employed!
The Hotel Staff
An international group of professionals, both boisterous and jolly as well as sullen and potentially kept in indentured servitude. Many said they were on 5-9 month contracts, and missed their families and lives in their home countries. They were overall extremely hard workers, and made sure that the rooms were impeccable, the omelet station was on point, the diners were sang to, and the seasickness drugs were administered. Lovely lot.
*Herry - our assigned waiter, who we all though was called “Henry” at first. He was hilarious, kind, efficient and witty. Almost every day he offered us a brain game, which were interesting and challenging.
*Hannah - not our assigned waiter, but she was in the section. She somehow latched on to me, and kept telling me that if she were a boy she would marry me. She made me folded napkin art, usually some type of bird. At first I was a little overwhelmed, but truthfully it was lovely to have someone be so kind, especially since the energy of the boat was kinda weird.
At the end of it all, I wouldn’t change a thing - because I can’t. It is what it is. All I can hope for is to be able to return and continue creating imagery and memories before climate change inevitably wipes out humanity. Dramatic? Not really. Studies show that the ice is melting at an alarmingly fast rate. Not only that, but the Antarctic Treaty (now consisting of 53 countries) is set to expire in 2048, when the White Continent will once again be “up for grabs” and could potentially end in mining of this precious and pristine land. It’s more important than ever that we ALL are ambassadors for this unique and magical place, in hopes that our current generations and those to come will still be able to visit in whatever capacity, to have undeniable adventures, and to continue the legacy of exploration.
LONG LIVE ANTARCTICA XO