Kayaking: How About Paddling Through Cold Antarctica Waters?

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Kayaking up onto fast ice

“Kayakers meet in the library in 5 minutes.” Echoed through the intercom system. My dad looked at me with his ‘you better get moving’ look and I froze in fear and excitement. Immediately I closed my laptop, pack up my things, told dad I’d be back in a bit and hurriedly raced to the library. Three minutes had gone by, but by the time I entered the library 12 of the 16 of us were already in the room. I let out a sigh of relief realizing that I was not the last one to show up.

kayak antarctica

First rule of ‘Kayak Club’ in Antarctica is that you are not late to kayak club meetings. The second rule of kayak club is that you ARE NOT late to kayak club meetings.

Of course I say this somewhat sarcastically – but the honest truth is that kayaking in Antarctica is pretty serious and our fearless leader, Ian, ran a tight ship. He had us trained well and I was impressed with how quickly a whole bunch of strangers who were on vacation fell in line and followed instructions!

The first two days on the ship I think I went to at least 5 kayak meetings; safety briefings, mud room loading and unloading, gear fittings, and a ‘weeding out’ meeting. The first meeting was all about telling us what we had all gotten ourselves into, what was expected of us and our skills – and then we were kindly given a chance to back out. I must admit – I didn’t have the experience required  and I was ready to back out.  The last time I had done real sea kayaking was about 8 years ago, I had no real training or experience and had never done a wet exit.  But Ian took pity on me and allowed me to still participate as long as I was in his kayak.

Ian's white board of the various dangers that awaited a inexperienced kayaker in Antarctica

After we got through the weeding out process, Ian lightened up and we all became a pretty tight knit group. The first time we went out I was excited and nervous, but the moment I got in the kayak I realized why it was so special – you were at a whole different perspective – at water level. Immediately I felt more one with my environment. As we paddled away from the ship my senses were heightened as it felt like my whole view of the landscape had changed. One of the most beautiful things about kayaking was the fact that it was quiet – super quiet. You were able to get close to the shore and cliffs where the other boats couldn’t go and it was then when you realized just how massive the icebergs, glaciers, and mountains were. I felt small. But I felt wonderful.

Gear

We used 2 people kayaks that were extremely sturdy for sea kayaking. The rear person did the steering with pedals and the front person (me) simply had to paddle. We were also provided with waterproof suits, booties, pogies (waterproof hand covers), a skirt, and lifejackets. Since you were working pretty hard paddling, it didn’t take long to generate heat in that waterproof suit and you were quickly sweating! So you didn’t really need many layers under your suit. Sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat are also an excellent idea to bring with you. Granted, I don’t know a ton about kayaking – but I do know that we did have top notch gear.

Outings

Each day we’d have a meeting and Ian would discuss the kayaking plan for the day weather conditions permitting. This is sort of what makes the kayak program a bit of a difficult sell since you are at the mercy of weather and you may sign up for it and only go out 3 times if weather conditions don’t cooperate. However we were really lucky – we went out a total of 8 times – which made it a great value. However each morning we were able to decide if we wanted to go kayaking or if we wanted to skip it and do a zodiac landing instead. I typically did one kayaking outing a day and one zodiac landing with my father.

As soon as we got in the water, Ian would take us in the opposite direction of the other non-kayaking zodiacs and people. We’d soon be in complete silence and the ship would no longer be in sight. It really did feel like you were at the end of the world.

At the end we received a paddling log that had every outing, describing the area, the distance we paddled, the weather conditions, and a reminder of things that we saw. The group as a whole paddled 33.38 nautical miles and was out on the water for 15 hours and 4 minutes.

Far away from the civilization

How Much Kayaking Can you Do

We luckily had the opportunity to go out 8 times during the trip thanks to cooperative weather. We would go out at the same time as the zodiac landings occurred, however we would load out of a different door. We generally stayed out the whole time during the landing – totaling about 2 to 3 hours an outing.

Kayaking back to the ship after a long paddle

 Loading

Ian would get all of the kayaks stacked by the door of the mudroom and we were responsible for getting them out the door and in the water. We always had a dedicated zodiac following us in case anyone capsized and it also helped us load into and out of the kayaks. When we returned we’d have to get out of the kayak, onto the zodiac, walk up to the mudroom and then pull the kayak up at a steep angle through the door and stack them again.

Loading a kayak in the water

Getting in a kayak from the ship

What was the paddling like?

Gorgeous – but challenging. It was rougher than I had anticipated, but the little kayaks were sturdy and could get through lots of obstacles – more than I ever imagined. We paddled through many, many long patches of brash ice which was hard work and made life a bit wobbly. We would also be able to paddle up onto fast ice (a thin layer of flat ice that has ‘fastened’ itself to coasts), where often times seals were napping. The winds come up fast – but we were lucky and never got caught in really bad weather. Ian and Mark our guides were really professional and knowledgeable about the area and wildlife. They could answer any questions and made sure that we were supported at all times.

Brash ice that we had to paddle through

 

What did you see?

Penguins practically jumped in our kayak at times! In the shallow water it was so clear you could see them swim under the water. We saw many seals napping on icebergs, and we did even see a whale. Actually – we first heard the whale breathing and then it came up around our kayaks. It was a bit of a shock as that’s about as close as you’ll ever want to get to a whale! Everyone was so startled though no photos were captured.  You were also treated to some of the most pristine views possible.  Since our kayaks didn’t create a lot of disturbance in the water the glass like conditions created some amazing reflections.

Penguins jumping around our kayaks

Getting close to icebergs

A beautiful reflection on mirror like water

Crystal clear waters

Recognition

We all received a Certificate of Completion and photo that was slightly tongue-n-cheek.

Disclosure: Expedition Trips and G Adventures hosted my Antarctic Peninsula Cruise. However, all of the opinions expressed here are my own – as you know how I love to speak my mind!

Sherry Ott
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice.

Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld.com.com.
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