Shridhar is probably one of the most well-travelled people I have met – he has travelled to more than 107 countries across all 7 continents. He is a backpacker for life and has been inspiring many travellers through his journeys.
He has also managed to achieve a perfect “work-life balance” in pursuing a career in private equity post his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. Shridhar visited Antarctica in 2016 after planning it for years and he says he was impacted more with spiritual learning than by its sheer metaphysical beauty. Here are some highlights of my conversation with him that are sure to give you Antarctica travel inspiration.
Its tough to describe this phenomenon in words and the best way it has been described is probably by Andre Denton –
“If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it”
Most of the people on the expedition were visiting their 7th and last continent. It takes more than money to get there – requires tons of fortitude, mental, and physical fitness, curiosity for the unknown and most importantly, time and patience.
Some interesting facts
- Only 5000 tourists land on Antarctica every year. So, one has to be really divinely blessed to set foot here.
- It is a desert – there is little snowfall here and even less rain. It’s also the driest place on earth with just 200 mm (8 in) of rain a year
- It is the coldest continent. The moisture is all tied up in frigid seawater and ice
- It has 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of our fresh water
- It was discovered as late as 1820 by the Russian expedition of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.
- However, the term meaning “opposite the poles” appeared as early as 350 B.C. in Aristotle’s Meteorology. Ancient cultures have long believed there was a large land mass at the bottom of the world to balance out all other continents.
In the wee hours of the day, I left to tick off my last unfulfilled childhood fantasy with a series of firsts. The first time on the 7th of 7 continents; My first time sailing on an ice-class expedition ship; The first trip where I slept in the same bed for 2 weeks, and my first crossing of the Dreaded Drake Passage. It connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and is the roughest water on earth, with waves between 10 and 30 meters and winds of Force 12. Luckily its just 800 km but ships take one and a half to two days to conquer it.
Arriving in Antarctica
It does take a lot to really arrive in Antarctica, you have to fly all the way to Argentina, reach its Southernmost tip of Ushuaia to board the expedition, be on the ship for anywhere between 2-3 days with no sight of any land or habitation. After all this and hours of endless peering at the horizon to see any signs of Antarctica, it is surreal as suddenly some broken pieces of icebergs start showing up, one odd albatross flies across the ship, you can see some whales having a good time and that first sighting of penguins is priceless.
After the long ordeal of reaching there with lots of solo time to contemplate about life and my blessings, I had to literally pinch myself to believe I was there. As the ship moved closer, the ice-laden land starts appearing. I got into a zodiac and floated towards the land and finally put my foot on the last continent. I was so exhilarated, I cannot express it in words. But to be honest, the pain of reaching there is completely worth it. It was super cool to discover on our return that Roald Amundsen became the first human to reach the South Pole on the same day I set foot (on December 14th) 105 years ago.
Antarctica is more spectacular than you ever imagined
As a traveller, I had done my research on Antarctica for many years & thought I had a good idea of what to expect, but as it happens often enough, I was proven wrong. All the photos, videos, documentaries on Antarctica tell you as much as they can, but the reality is that no video or article or snap can describe the majestic sights and experience of Antarctica.
Like any other memorable trip, Antarctica gives you lifelong memories. However, the big difference is that unlike other places, there is no local culture, people, architecture and food. All the memories you take from Antarctica are your personal experiences in this majestic and wild continent far far away from any human adulteration and any signs of civilization. Observing how difficult it is for the wildlife to survive there, how this massive land still exists in its ecosystem, made me feel so small and insignificant in the world and made me realize the problems we humans struggle within our everyday lives are so irrelevant.
The Landscapes of Antarctica
It is amazing how much variety of landscapes Antarctica has to offer. 90% of the land is covered by thick ice as deep as 2450m at an average. It has the glaciers, icebergs, the Southern sea, two active volcanoes, mountains and its unique environment provides us with spectacular landscapes and natural phenomenon.
The best way to explore these is by the Zodiac boats that float through the glaciers and give you a chance to hop off on a few of the many islands to see the landscapes and wildlife up close and personal. Traversing the Antarctic icebergs on a zodiac is a sure shot way to make even the most narcissistic human feel insignificant impotent and ironically connected to the universe.
Icebergs are made of freshwater ice that used to be part of an ice-shelf or glacier, they flow down to the sea and fall off the end, they then spend months or years floating around the seas of Antarctica eroding and repeatedly tipping up, showing all sorts of blue shades in the process. As a thumb rule, close to 91% of an iceberg is below the surface of the water. So, their real height is 10 times what you can see protruding out in the waters. Amazing to see and hear these giants in perpetual motion.
The other way if you are physically fit to do it is to do a trek. Trekking in Antarctica is an amazing spiritual and sensual experience. It’s a true test of your mental and physical strength and your ability to absorb the astounding beauty of this continent.
The skies of Antarctica are surreal and its an experience in itself to observe its many avatars and changing hues as the day passes and colours change. You get it all here – all shades of blue, grey, green, orange, white. It’s like an artist is creating patterns in the sky to complement the mind-boggling beauty on the ground.
As writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer said –
“Antarctica is a very alien environment, and you can’t survive here more than minutes if you’re not equipped properly and doing the right thing all the time.”
Glad above only applies to humans and not the wildlife. The Antarctic wildlife are ‘extremophiles’, having to adapt to the dryness, low temperatures, and high exposure common in Antarctica. There is relatively little diversity compared to much of the rest of the world. However, the lack of abundance of diversity is ethereal. Its marvelous to internalize the circle of life and the astounding depth of survival instincts of each species that lives there.
The adorable Penguins –
They are as cute as they look in pictures, and its impossible to keep taking their pictures. They are not only the most adorable Antarctic species to watch but also are a magnificently engineered species. One can spend ages just watching the antics of a penguin breeding nest.
There are 17 different sub-species of Penguins. In most species of penguins, the male and female share the incubation duties. These incubation shifts can last days and even weeks as one member of the pair feeds at sea.
Penguins also have a unique way of showing love or affection to each other. When a special penguin catches their eye, they present the penguin of their affection with a stone. The penguin pair continues to gather stones for their nest, looking for stones in the frozen ground. Instances of penguins stealing stones from each others nest are quite prevalent and a comical treat to watch.
The smelly Seals –
Antarctic seals are truly a fascinating species of the region. Only 6 of the 35 species of seals live in Antarctica, however, they make up a majority of the world’s seal population. They can weigh anywhere from 150 kg to 4000 kg.
They use sonar to detect food and their whiskers as a radar to detect food and they can actually find food in complete darkness better than in the light. A seal can stay underwater for 15 minutes to 30 minutes. The discovery of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is thanks to these seals – it was the search for their fur and oil that lead to the Russian exploration. Today, seals in the Antarctic are protected by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals.
The fascinating Humpback Whales –
Whale spotting is one of the most exciting activities I have done in my travel. The sheer Adrenalin of spotting a 12–16 m long animal weighing 36,000 kg (Equivalent of 5 elephants!) hidden in the waters is a blissful reward for all the persistence and patience, especially when they decide to breathe or breach or lob-tail.
They hunt using a unique hunting technique known as bubble net fishing which involves a group of whales swimming around their prey in a circle and blowing bubbles to herd the fish into a tight ball. The whales also create loud vocal sounds to scare the fish to the surface of the water and slap their fins against the water to stun the fish and immobilize them. Once the fish are unable to move the whales swim up and lunge at the fish with an open mouth. Catching this in action is extremely rare and only a few lucky get to see this extravaganza.
Some tips for planning travel
- The most important part of planning is to choose your expedition cruise because your entire experience will depend on this. There are big ships and small ships carrying anywhere between 100 and 1,000 passengers per ship. My recommendation would be to take small ships, even if they will be a little more expensive. You don’t want to go all the way and not get to even make a landing which is very highly possible with big ships due to the restrictions on areas they can go to as well as the number of people allowed to land in one go.
- Cruse timing makes a big difference as well. There is most snow in November and December but most penguins will be in their nests. The late and shoulder season cruises are cheaper and the weather is warmer, but some wildlife may still be visible. Take a call on what is more important to you.
- Pack smartly, Antarctica is cold of course, but not as cold as you would expect. It’s the wind factor that is the critical thing to protect yourself from. So, take a few things and use them every day instead of carrying a supersize bag full of warm clothes.
- Carry lots of sunscreen! Remember – the sun is really strong at the poles.
Overall experience summarized
Antarctica has affected me, more with spiritual learning, than by its sheer metaphysical beauty. Life is such a brilliant interlinked equilibrium of energy in motion. Everything in life (including seemingly lifeless ice and rock) is in motion, clashing with or aiding each other.
Even temperatures are in motion to act as a signal to many species to start breeding. Interestingly Prey and Predator have synchronized breeding seasons & locations to ensure equilibrium. And as everyone else who has visited Antarctica will also say, I truly am divinely blessed to have actually been there.
After this conversation, I’ve definitely set myself a goal to go to Antarctica soon. So time to save some money, get some Antarctica travel inspiration, get fitter and hope for some divine blessing!