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Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in solo travel to Antarctica?

Hi, my name is Richard Coutinho, and I have worked for many years at the provincial government. My desire to travel stems from my dad. He loved to travel but he decided to put off the big travel adventures until his retirement. Unfortunately, before he could do this, cancer got him. This was a lesson for me. Fifteen years into my job, and not having travelled enough, I decided to take a year-long self-funded leave. As I needed to save up for four years before the leave, I decided to take some time to create my travel bucket list. I decided on some places I always wanted to visit – the pyramids in Egypt, Cambridge and Downton Abbey in England, Istanbul…..but Antarctica didn’t come up during the first few years.

One day, while looking at Facebook, I was drawn to photos my friend had posted of her trip to Antarctica. The photos were stunning. I decided to look more into this, and the more I learned, the more I became interested in experiencing Antarctica for myself. Tourists for obvious reasons can only go to Antarctica during its summer, and most tourists go between November to early March. I decided to go over New Year’s because that is the time when penguins are nesting their babies.

The problem I encountered was that none of my friends had the time or desire to go to Antarctica when I wanted. One of my friends could join me in South America after my trip to Antarctica, but not during. I could either postpone this or go solo. Remembering my dad, I decided I didn’t want to delay. Antarctica, here I come!

How did you prepare for such a unique and challenging adventure?

I prepared both physically and psychologically.  I spoke to my friend who had been there, bought or borrowed as many guidebooks as I could. This led me to start reading travelogues and accounts by explorers.  The courage and perseverance of luminaries such as Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen totally enthralled me and added to my anticipation of my trip! Closer to my journey, I followed the recommendations of others on what to wear for my journey.  I knew from my readings that Antarctica often involved walking on difficult terrain.  I started to hike more and make sure I was in physical shape.

How did you ensure your safety during the trip, given the remote and challenging environment?

Each vessel going to Antarctica must meet stringent and inflexible safety requirements. They are also obligated to ensure their passengers behave safely and responsibly. We had plenty of safety sessions on the ship.  The most important way I ensured my own safety was to always follow the directions of the crew and our guides.  We stayed on trails (a human highway imitating a penguin highway), stayed away from the wildlife, went at our own pace, and ensured we were always close to fellow humans (I wouldn’t want to get lost in Antarctica).

What was the itinerary for your trip, and how did you plan your daily activities?

I prepared both physically and psychologically.  I spoke to my friend who had been there, bought or borrowed as many guidebooks as I could. This led me to start reading travelogues and accounts by explorers.  The courage and perseverance of luminaries such as Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen totally enthralled me and added to my anticipation of my trip! Closer to my journey, I followed the recommendations of others on what to wear for my journey.  I knew from my readings that Antarctica often involved walking on difficult terrain.  I started to hike more and make sure I was in physical shape.

Can you walk us through the logistics of getting to Antarctica as a solo traveller?

Most tourists go to Antarctica via an expedition ship.  These are not cruises in the popular sense—they are more like explorer ships with limited luxuries.  Instead of Broadway musicals, for example, we had lectures from scientists or historians related to Antarctica.  I chose the same cruise line as my friend on a ship called Midnatsol or “Midnight Sun” in Norwegian since it was a Norwegian company.

I decided to travel over the 2020 New Year.  My trip began with a flight to Buenos Aires on December 26, 2019.  I chose to stay in Buenos Aires for a few days.  I loved exploring the city, its food, and particularly its beautiful French and Italian architecture.  I absolutely loved the Palermo neighbourhood, Recoleta Cemetery, and Casa Rosada—its balcony was made famous by Evita Peron.  On December 29th, I joined others on the ship, and we flew to the southern tip of Argentina to a small town called Ushuaia.  This port town is the capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego Province, and it is set against a beautiful backdrop–the Martial Glacier.  Many people refer to Ushuaia as the world’s southernmost city.  After briefly exploring the city, we visited the surrounding Tierra del Fuego National Park.  Deep in the park is a beautiful scenic 11-kilometre-long lake (Lago Roca) that straddles the border between Argentina and Chile.  Its stunningly crisp and clear waters are surrounded by beautiful mountains.  That same day, we embarked on our voyage on the Midnatsol.  We were on the ship until January 9, 2020.  I was back in Buenos Aires on the 9th and decided to join a friend in seeing more of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

What was the itinerary for your trip, and how did you plan your daily activities?

There is no firm itinerary in so much a lot of the landings take place only when the weather conditions permit. We left Ushuaia, Argentina on December 29th, and returned on January 9th. It takes approximately two to three days to get to the Antarctic Peninsula by ship from Ushuaia, but these days were some of the most exciting I had ever experienced since we had to sail through the Drake Passage. Because of its high waves and uncertain weather, the Drake Passage is considered one of the most treacherous passages for ships to cross and it almost guaranteed that seasickness would result. I still have vivid memories of lying in bed sucking on ginger candy while my room was spinning!  This was still a small price to pay to get to the continent!

Once we emerged from the passage, which was approximately at 5:30 a.m. on December 31, 1919, we were in ANTARCTICA!  Our first stop was Yankee Harbour in the South Shetland Islands. Yankee Harbour was a particularly popular place for sealers and whalers to land in the 1800s. Today it is a popular spot for gentoo penguins to breed and nest.

Before setting foot on Antarctica, we were required to take a short course.  It was emphasized that we were to leave Antarctica as pristine as we found it and that there were no washrooms etc. there (yes…things like this need to be told to people!). Some of the rules included not getting in the way between a seal and water, not stepping on any vegetation you may see, always staying 15 feet away from penguins, do not leave anything on the Continent, or remove anything from the Continent.  There was also a process for going to and from the continent in which boots were disinfected both before and after. We could only go to the continent on small klondikes which went to natural harbours. Before we went on land, some members of the crew would go and try to clear a rough path for us.

My first experience of Antarctica was amazing. I have only seen penguins in aquariums before: now I was experiencing them in their natural habitat.  I learned to distinguish between gentoos (orange bill, white band around head), chinstraps (eye surrounded by white colour and a strap around the chin) and Adelies (black strap around their eyes).  I loved every minute of the 60 minutes we spent on Antarctica.

The next day, January 1st, 2020, saw me at Deception Island, which is essentially a crater (or caldera) of an active volcano!   We decided to do a hike.  I have to admit, being on land is very physical work.  Everyone used poles to help.  Walking on snow could be challenging and, if you wander off the packed snow, you could be in very deep snow indeed.  Rocks were not a help to land on because they were often slippery.  On this hike in particular, there was a steep uphill climb and a walk on somewhat of a very narrow cliff edge.  I definitely found this both scary and challenging, and part of me wondered whether I could complete the hike.  Fortunately, I took a brief note of this in a journal:

Today was an incredibly memorable day in that, this New Year’s day, we cruised into a caldera of an active volcano in Antarctica.  There were times when the path over a cliff was very narrow, but I still forced myself to keep going forward (more because I didn’t want to turn back and have to go through sections of the narrow cliff again).  Given the nature of this hike, I was feeling quite hot and should have removed a layer (I don’t know how to do that on a cliff!!!).

I was hesitant about committing to do this, but I decided it was a once in a lifetime experience...

Antarctica is known for its breathtaking landscapes and unique wildlife. Can you share some memorable encounters or sights you experienced? 

Every landing in Antarctica was amazing.  I saw elephant seals, varieties of penguins, albatross, and humpback whales.  As this was nesting season, my many penguins all had baby penguins and all of them were unafraid of humans.  Perhaps the wildlife I most respected were the Antarctic krill.  They are at the bottom of the food chain but these tiny shrimp-like crustaceons are vital to sustaining so many animals.  Penguins love them!

Apart from the wildlife was the environment itself:  everything seemed so pristine and untouched by humans. The mountains seemed solitary, undiscovered. The cliffs were high and dramatic. Glaciers were massive, with penguins and birds playing on them and using them for diving boards. There were incredible natural sculptures on the icebergs with colours of light blue, white and silver all dancing in the sunlight.  The landscape was expansive and seemingly endless with nothing but snow.

My most enduring memories included snowshoeing at Danoy Point (I had only been on snowshoes once before in grade 5), eating with the crew at the captain’s table and learning about their lives, the anticipation of each and every landing, going on a klondike with whales three feet away, seeing a somewhat huge sleeping seal with birds landing on it, seeing countless mothers and baby penguins, working out on a treadmill on the ship and seeing, through the window in front of me, a majestic whale—the memories are countless.

What advice would you give to others who are considering travelling to Antarctica?

Do not delay!  Seize the moment and go.  Glaciers are disappearing, the continent is changing.  It is not an inexpensive trip, but it is a trip that will provide a lifetime of memories.  When you go, remember the reason most travellers go is to see a somewhat pristine environment.  Treat the continent accordingly—don’t leave a trace of yourself.  Respect the wildlife.