Photo Credit : Becky Kagan Schott
I spent from Mar 11 – Mar 28, 2023 on a trip to Antarctica on board the M/V Hondius with Becky Kagan Schott from Liquid Productions and Faith Ortins from Blue Green Expeditions. I don’t really believe in “bucket lists” but it was definitely a “trip of a lifetime” that I had been wanting to take for a very long time.
I will provide a quick overview of the trip in this post along with some of the logistics and then will write posts for each of the major locations we visited.
I have always been fascinated by Antartica and had seen photos from Becky in the past that were stunning. There was only one problem: these trips have very limited availability and book up years in advance. I had reached out to Becky a while ago and asked to be put on a waiting list. While I was in Palau in Aug 2022, she reached out to me and let me know that a spot had opened up and I quickly (well, as quick as communications in Palau would allow) snapped up the spot.
Of course, this was not my “normal” trip by any means. Yes, there would be diving. But, no wrecks planned.
Travel to Antarctica
Getting to Antarctica is definitely a challenge.
For me, it involved three flights, a short stay at Ushuaia at “the end of the world” and then 2-2.5 days on board the boat to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. This is what my travel looked like to actually finally “see” Antartica with my own eyes:
Day 1 : Sat, Mar 11 – Fly SNA-DFW (3 hours) + 2 hour layover + Fly DFW-EZE (10 hours)
Day 2 : Sun, Mar 12 – 8 hour layover + EZE-USH (3.5 hours)
Day 3 : Mon, Mar 13 – Buffer day
Day 4 : Tue, Mar 14 – Tierra Del Fuego Visit + Board M/V Hondius @ 5pm + Navigate through the Beagle Chanel
Day 5 : Wed, Mar 15 – Cross the Drake Passage
Day 6 : Thu, Mar 16 – Cross the Drake Passage
Day 7 : Fri, Mar 17 – Arrive @ Elephant Island (which is still not part of the Antarctica Peninsula!)
Day 8 : Sat, Mar 18 – Arrive @ Devil Island In the Weddell Sea
The M/V Hondius is a modern, purpose built Polar Class 6 vessel designed for Polar Expeditions. She is about 350 feet long with a beam of 58 feet and has a capacity of 170 passengers with 57 crew, 13 guides, and a doctor. Compared to most live aboard dive vessels I’ve been on, she is very luxurious and spacious (of course, I’m usually on a boat with 12-16 divers and not luxury cruise ships).
I was in a twin porthole room which is on the third deck.
The “concept” behind the Hondius is that it is used to get passengers to remote polar locations and then use RIBs to take them to shore for excursions. The vessel has 16 RIBs that are used for this purpose.
The food was very good. Most meals were buffet but they did have a couple “special meals” that were plated.
One thing that I found very interesting is that the expedition guides on board the Hondius are all experts in a specific field. Every day, depending upon the schedule, they would give “seminars” on a wide range of topics germane to Antarctica. This included topics such as whales, geology, glaciology, etc. Most were about an hour with time for Q&A at the end. I attended about 3/4ths of the them and found them interesting and insightful.
Many people asked what kind of clothing I needed to bring to Antarctica. After all, Antartica is the most remote, coldest, windiest place on earth! The Antarctic is (obviously) in the southern hemisphere so the seasons are the opposite of the northern hemisphere and we visited in the “fall” season during my trip. It was the last trip of the season for the Hondius.
Most days, the temperature was right around 0C / 32F in the air but that doesn’t account for the wind and rain, snow, etc. Also, in order to go ashore in the RIBs, you are required to have waterproof jackets and pants (for good reason). Many times, I’m glad I was in a drysuit during our RIB rides as they can get very wet.
I brought layers of clothes both for diving and for being outside in the Antarctic. I would wear a thin baselayer and then insulated waterproof pants and then for my top I would wear a thin base layer, a thicker layer and then Faith / Blue Green Expeditions had given us a really nice Fourth Element insulated jacket. I also had gloves, a wool beanie my wife had made me, and a “buff” to keep my neck & face shielded a bit. The ship supplied waterproof boots for everybody (you can see them in the picture above of my cabin).
There were about twenty divers on board the ship. We had quite a few dives canceled due to conditions (which is to be expected) but I did manage to do quite a few dives in the Antarctic. Below is a summary of what I brought for diving in the harsh conditions of the Antarctic.
In addition to my Sony a7rIV camera setup (Nauticam housing, Retra Strobes, Keldan Lights, Nauticam WWL1-B), I had to also bring all my own dive gear. This consisted of a steel backplate and harness, fins, masks, etc. and then, of course, a drysuit and dry gloves. For this trip, I brought the Dive Rite 901 drysuit and the Fourth Element Halo 3D for my outer undergarment. I had two sets of thin undergarments and my Venture Heat heated vest and a Bare 9mm hood. Needless to say, it was a lot of insulation and gear and I wasn’t even diving a rebreather.
Given the depths and typical runtimes (60 feet max, 30 minutes), there is no point in bringing a rebreather. We were diving on a single steel 12L tank with “H valves” for redundancy.
The limiting factor on the dives is your fingers. I was plenty warm in my core, feet, etc. but your fingers really start to ache shortly after entering the water. Your head also gets cold, but it pretty much just goes numb. 🙂
I’ve considered heated gloves in the past but they don’t seem worth the effort. Some people on the trip had them and the still were ready to get out of the water after 30 minutes or so. You need to get out before your fingers get totally numb and useless since you need to be able to remove your gear, help a buddy, etc.
Here is what I ended up wearing for my hands:
As mentioned above, the excursions are all done aboard RIBs. The typical dive operation was a lot of “hurry up and wait” operations as follows : (1) put all your gear in your RIB on the 4th deck, (2) get all suited up and ready to go, (3) wait for your RIB driver / dive master to pull up to the “door” on the starboard side of the ship, (4) board the RIB and get to the dive location, (5) put all your gear on in the RIB and do a backroll into the ocean, (6) hand up all your gear, photo equipment, weight belt, etc. to the RIB driver and then (7) pull yourself up and into the RIB in a “belly flop” move.
Needed to say, it requires some physical strength and endurance and is not for the “faint of heart” or tropical-only diver. If you aren’t used to drysuits, dry gloves, diving off of RIBs, etc. then this is probably a bit much.
I plan to write detailed posts for each of the locations we visited. Here was a map of our planned route. We had to deviate a bit due to weather, conditions, etc. but it was pretty close. They also posted a map with our actual path and I’m expecting a trip log via email soon.
The primary landing & dive sites that we visited are listed below. I will link them to the posts as I publish them
- 17 Mar : Elephant Island
- 18 Mar : Devil Island
- 19 Mar : Brown Bluff
- 20 Mar : Mikkleson Harbor
- 21 Mar : Lemaire Channel & Port Charcot
- 22 Mar : Crossing into the Antarctic Circle & Detaille Island
- 23 Mar : Fournier Bay
- 24 Mar : Deception Island
The Drake Passage is infamous for good reason. We had a pretty easy crossing on the way down to Antarctica but we were in for quite a haul for the 2-2.5 days it takes to get back. The forecast was pretty grim but we had to get back. The seas were 15-20 feet and it was greatly compounded by winds up to 100 knots.
When I got to my room and saw the portholes closed, I knew we were in for a rough crossing.
Here was our forecasted travel back to the safety of the Beagle Channel:
We got back into port around 7am on March 27th and then the second part of the journey home started. Below are a couple videos.
The ship has a steel hull (for obvious reason) but every time it would crest a big swell, there would be a massive reverberation and clanging sound that would echo throughout the ship. Luckily, I don’t get seasick so the crossing was a bit of a fun ride for me.
Once we got back to the dock, we collected our bags and loaded them on the bus to the Ushuaia airport. From there, my flights looked like the following:
Mar 27 : Fly USH-EZE (3.5 hours) + 3.5 hour layover + EZE-JFK (10.5 hours)
Mar, 28 : Land in JFK, 2.5 hour layover + JFK-SNA (6 hours)
Because my flight to Buenos Aires (EZE) was on Aerolineas Argentinas and I had booked the flight on a separate itinerary, I needed to get all my bags at EZE, wait for the American Airlines counter to open and then re-check them. And, of course, after landing at my first port of entry at JFK, I had to clear immigration and customs and, once again, collect all my bags and re-check them.
For me, Antarctica was (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The 7th continent is absolutely stunning and I probably only saw less than 5% of it.
I would highly recommend the M/V Hondius and booking your dive trip with Becky at Liquid Productions. Becky does a really good job ensuring that you have the proper gear, that you are prepared for the diving, and that your trip goes smoothly. And she is one heck of a photographer and can help increase your underwater photography acumen.
If you like adventure, remote untouched spaces, and wildlife, you owe it to yourself to see Antarctica. I will be posting about each of the places we visited with plenty of pictures of penguins, seals, whales, orcas, and of course underwater images.