My trip to Antarctica was like grown-up summer camp at sea 

written by Jonny Braun May 10, 2024

After his solo trip to Antarctica, Jonny says the best part isn’t really the wildlife. Well, it is, in a way, but when you finally spot that whale, the best part will be the people who share that ‘superglue’ moment with you.  

It was just an average day en route to the bottom of the earth. You know, being out on a deck sailing farther south than most people had ever been on the planet, chit-chatting with your newfound shipmates while trying to spot whales in a sea of mist.  

As you can probably imagine, chit-chat in this part of the world sounds a little different. Everyone wants to know why the hell you’re on your way down to the bottom of the earth, so people share their stories about why they’re there and what they’re feeling.  

I had decided to go on this trip alone, and even though I’d never been on a trip by myself, chit-chatting with the 190-or-so-strangers was a lot easier than you might think. Everyone is so open to talking about their feelings about Antarctica and what they’re experiencing in the moment that you just kind of like instantly mesh. 

It was day two of our journey towards Antartica on Intrepid’s Ocean Endeavour. Nearly all of us were out on the deck at that moment because Sydney had announced over the ship’s PA system there was a chance to spot whales in this stretch of the ocean.  

I was standing there with some newfound friends Gavin, one of the kayak leaders on board, and his friend Bea from Nova Scotia and Mel from Australia. 

I had befriended them the night before during an impromptu jam session behind closed curtains on a stage in the ship’s Nautilus Lounge. And just for the record, these people are musical geniuses. That was one of the first moments on this trip where I thought okay, here are my people, I hope this doesn’t end. 

That afternoon on deck, there was another small group of people around our age from Canada, England and Australia. Maybe it’s the ship’s constant swaying and tilting, but you kind of organically start walking towards other people and converging. So this handful of people joined myself, Gavin, Bea and Mel to spot whales.  

Maybe it’s the ship’s constant swaying and tilting, but you kind of organically start walking towards other people and converging.

We stood out there for hours as the chit-chat between us dwindled. With no sign of whales, our own little pods of strangers which had formed started to disperse as passengers headed back inside to warm up and grab food. We had a week left in our trip, surely the whales – and then some – would come. 

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little tail in the water. 

‘Whaaaaaaale!’ I yelled, and pointed my finger like I was accusing this whale of something. Dawdlers from our little pod who hadn’t yet made it inside turned their heads and ran to the bow of the ship where I was standing. 

Not far off the starboard side of the ship, three whales began breaching and blowing. Instantly, we were like six-year-olds again. Geeking out over this whale. It’s hard not to bond in a moment like that. It’s almost like superglue. 

There’s no shortage of superglue moments in Antarctica, and those were the most meaningful parts of my trip. Heading down there, I was in it for the wildlife, the icebergs and setting foot in a place so remote and far away. I got all that, but I had no idea just how much who I shared those moments with would mean to me and come to define my time in Antarctica.  

a whale tale

My trip was only ten days and while that’s a short amount of time, the days felt long. It’s such a different pace. I’d wake up in the morning and immediately plot out how quickly I could shower (two minutes), brush my teeth (one and a half minutes), get dressed (35 seconds) and head out for the day’s activities. I didn’t want to miss a second of experiencing Antarctica with the people I’d met.  

It wasn’t anything like FOMO. I just knew every single day there were memories to be made throughout the day and I wanted to live every moment like I wouldn’t experience it again. Especially in a place like Antarctica when you have 20-something other people that you really connect with who just happen to be there at the same time as you. There was a serendipity to it all that I didn’t want to miss out on.  

On day two, Laura (another person from Australia who I struck up a conversation with at breakfast) and I spent the day exploring Charlotte’s Bay and Danco Island. Stepping foot on the continent is like standing on a mountain you just climbed, even though you’ve just hopped off a Zodiac. You can hear penguins calling out to each other and ice cracking and you can also hear your own breath.   

As our small group followed the trail on Danco Island’s snow-laden landscape, I held out my hand to help a woman with her step and she thanked me.  

‘Tack,’ she said in Swedish.  

‘Välkommen,’ I replied instinctively. 

We locked our eyes and paused. I was just as surprised as she was. No, I hadn’t also magically become a polyglot on the trip, but my half-Swedish roots had surfaced without a second thought. More superglue. We spent the rest of the day together, hiking up to the lookout spot on the island and then spotting whales together on Zodiac excursion, chit-chatting about our lives. She had lived in four or five different countries, and I learned about the small Swedish community in Sydney, Australia where she now lives. And of course, we spoke about whales and even spotted some. 

a man and a woman on Zodiac in Antarctica

Back on the ship after our excursions, it feels like summer camp, where you can be yourself and make friends with anyone because of the tiniest moments of connection and camaraderie, like sharing a pencil or having the same lunch box. For the first time in a long time, I found myself introducing myself as just me, not as my job title. 

Maybe we are all just still kids, who do a mental high five when we spot someone with the same lunch box – or homeland – as us. And who squeal when we see whales.  

It feels like summer camp, where you can be yourself and make friends with anyone because of the tiniest moments of connection and camaraderie, like sharing a pencil or having the same lunch box.

Maybe it had to do with our camp counsellors, I mean our expedition crew. It takes a big crew to pull off a trip to the bottom of the earth, and it takes a special person to join that crew. Every single one of them was just so cool and so smart. They’re researchers, scientists and explorers not just managing the logistics of such a journey, but also managing the reactions of hundreds of six-year-olds in grown-up bodies who just saw a whale in Antarctica. 

The spirit of adventure on the ship, which is so expertly shaped by the crew, makes you feel like you don’t need to be shy or reserved about expressing whatever reactions bubble up. No wildlife spotting or first glimpse is too small for the biggest reactions.  

Antartica is always going to be an incredible experience but I’m so thankful I met people and was able to share all these feelings with them. It really sinks in that human beings are just human beings wherever you go.  

There was one night when we were sitting in the lounge and two of our leaders just started playing the guitar and singing songs and we’re all just sitting on a long couch dancing and singing along. I was with Kathy, another friend from Australia. She turned to me and said, ‘It’s so crazy that we’re in the middle of the ocean on one of the roughest seas down to Antarctica. This ship is swaying, but it just feels like we’re in a bar and everyone wants to meet each other, and it’s just like human beings being human beings.’  

a man standing on white snow in Antarctica

In the beginning, I was terrified of going to Antarctica, not because I thought anything bad could happen. I was scared that I wouldn’t experience the same as what other people have told me about their trips and how it blows away any expectation you have. So much of it has to do with factors that just aren’t guaranteed – like whether or not the wildlife decides to show up, or how the weather shapes up or who else happens to have picked the same trip as you. 

On the second night, we had a barbecue out on the deck, and I got to sit with a big group of friends. It was freezing out there, but the ship’s vibrations were soothing, and we were playing music. Because of all these sounds there were whales like you’ve never seen before, the number of them just swarming the ship and just vibing with the music. There was a sunset on one side and a super moon on the other. It looked like they’re both at the same level on the horizon. I’m sure they weren’t but it looked that way.  

We stayed out until two in the morning. No one was talking and it was just this moment of pure reflection and pure silence. It blew away every expectation I had. Straight-up superglue.  

Jonny travelled on the 12-day Best of Antarctica: Whale Discovery trip. Find superglue moments on a small group adventure Antarctica.

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