A trip to Antarctica has long been at the top of the bucket list for Sophie Breitbart, former Staff Scientist at Princeton Hydro, and her father. Ultimately inspired by the extraordinary spirit of adventure in “South: The Endurance Expedition,” the story of British explorer Ernest Shackleton‘s 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole, the two decided that it was time to make the journey to the white continent. What they experienced was far more than a travel dream fulfilled.
This two-part blog series takes us on an adventure to the southernmost continent and explores how changes to Antarctica’s ecosystem have worldwide impacts.
Part One: Antarctic Adventure
The National Geographic Lindblad Expedition trip began with a flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Sophie and her father met up with the other travelers and an expedition crew that consisted of an exploration leader, eight veteran naturalists, a National Geographic photographer, a Lindblad-National Geographic certified photo instructor, an undersea specialist, a Global Perspectives guest speaker, and a video chronicler.
In Buenos Aires, the group, totaling approximately 140 people, boarded a private charter flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city. After taking in views of the Martial Mountains and the Beagle Channel, which is commonly referred to as The End of the World, the group climbed aboard the National Geographic Explorer ship and set sail for a 10-day Antarctic adventure.
The National Geographic Explorer is a 367-foot expedition ship that accommodates 148 guests in 81 cabins. The Explorer is uniquely equipped with an ice-strengthened hull, advanced navigation equipment, a variety of exploration tools, and vast expanses of windows that provided the ultimate vantage point for spotting dolphins and sea birds as the ship left the Beagle Channel.
Before reaching the Antarctic, the ship would have to pass through the infamous Drake Passage, the body of water between Cape Horn in South America and the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica, where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern seas converge. Because the currents in the Passage meet no resistance from any nearby landmass, they can be some of the choppiest waters in the world. Luckily for Sophie and the other Explorer travelers, the Drake Passage was cooperative for the most part and the journey through it was relatively smooth. (Editor’s Note: The journey back was another story.)
On day five of the journey, the ship arrived in the Antarctic Peninsula.
“The ice was so shocking and jaw-dropping,” said Sophie reflecting on her first impression of Antarctica. “I had never seen anything like it before. There were so many different shades of blues and whites and countless textures. It was truly incredible to see.”
With close to 24 hours of daylight, the exploration opportunities were endless. Sophie and her father participated in kayaking tours, expeditions on an 8-person zodiac boat, around the clock wildlife watching, and even a few hikes on the Antarctic Peninsula. There they saw indigenous rocks and artifacts, remnants of British research stations from the 1950s, and lots of wildlife, including nesting South Polar Skua Birds, penguins swimming and jumping out of the water, and a playful group of Leopard Seals.
Humpback and Killer whales skirted the ship as well. A Killer Whale research team aboard the Explorer took blow samples, which would be genetically sequenced, and shared with passengers their aerial imagery findings, which they captured in order to record the whales’ dimensions, family structures, and health. Sophie and her father enjoyed a variety of whale sightings. During one of their kayaking expeditions, a large Humpback Whale surfaced just 10 feet away from them, then swam right underneath the kayaks and resurfaced, showing lots of playfulness and curiosity.
Check out this incredible video showing a fascinating strategy that killer whales use to hunt seals:
While Sophie struggled to choose a favorite moment from the trip, she quickly recalled the memory of kayaking along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula among a field of stunning icebergs. “They each possess a unique mixture of color, density, shape, and size… like pieces of artwork, truly breathtaking in their composition and enormity.” Another easy highlight: “One day, the captain lodged our ship into an ice floe and we had a cookout complete with BBQ and lawn chairs. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Sophie described this journey as the “most amazing scientific field trip” she’s ever been on. It left her feeling inspired to continue her work as an environmental scientist and acted as a reminder about why it’s so important to continue to be involved with projects that conserve biodiversity and protect water resources.
Check out Part Two of this Princeton Hydro blog series.
Sophie Breitbart worked for Princeton Hydro from March 2016 until May 2018, first as an intern and then as a staff scientist. She is now pursuing her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, where she will study how urban development affects the ecology and evolution of interactions between the plant common milkweed, its herbivores, and pollinators.