A young alum of a 2041 Foundation expedition shares tales from her environmental trip to the Seventh Continent.
Interview by Maryann Jones Thompson / Photos by Xenia Rangaswami and 2041 alumni
Imagine reaching the ultimate travel goal when you’re still in high school.
Xenia Rangaswami visited Antarctica at just 18 years old – but she didn’t go just to tick off a box on her travel bucket list. The San Francisco native was part of a 2041 Foundation expedition led by polar explorer Robert Swan, a UK advocate for climate science, renewable energy and the protection of Antarctica. He was also the first man to walk to both the north and south pole.
ROAM spoke to Xenia about her journey to the Seventh Continent – from Drake’s Passage to icebergs to ice camping to her polar plunge!
ROAM: What is Antarctica like?
Xenia: I’ll never forget how vast it was. I’d never experienced anything like it. Just ocean and ice and sky and you can’t see anything else, no people aside from your co-travelers. It looks infinite.
ROAM: How did you become part of the expedition?
Xenia: I first read Swan’s book, Antarctica 2041 and then saw him speak in 2012. I talked to him after the presentation and he said I could come on the expedition someday. I wasn’t sure if he was serious but in 2015, I went! The 2041 Foundation expeditions include participants from all over the world, in different fields and disciplines. I was 18 but I wasn’t the youngest passenger – there was also a 12 and 14 year-old on board.
2041 is named for the expiration date of the Antarctic Treaty that maintains international cooperation on the continent. If not renewed, the land will be up for grabs for countries and companies to exploit and develop. Right now, no one can mine or extract oil from the area and destroy its ecosystem.
The 2041 group advocates preservation of Antarctica’s natural environment for science and peace by promoting sustainable practices and renewable energy. Its delegation has made 22 expeditions to Antarctica with the mission that the 3,500 alumni from the trips will share their experiences in a way that inspires others to protect the continent. 2041 is conscious that the trip has a large carbon footprint but they hope that its alumni will offset those emissions by the passengers’ future efforts to save the poles.
On the boat, Rob Swan often reminded us that this was not a vacation or a cruise. He told us that to preserve Antarctica, we must “listen to it and love it.”
ROAM: Tell us about the logistics of the trip.
Xenia: Our trip took place in March because that’s when conditions are most ideal in terms of ice and the ship can get through. We started from Ushuaia, the southernmost port in Argentina. The boat used to be a cruise ship but not a massive one. We had 80 participants plus crew.
In total, it was a two-week trip from San Francisco. We were on the ship for 10 days. It took three days each way to get from Argentina to Antarctica which left 4 days for going around Antarctica.
ROAM: We hear the journey across Drake’s Passage is tough.
Xenia: Yes, it’s the hardest and most notorious part of the journey. It is the point where the Atlantic and Pacific meet so the water is very rough. Our steward told us to “Drake proof” our cabins – make sure everything is secure – before we hit the passage. And it was a very rocky trip. They had told us to bring an anti-nausea ear patch and the crew gave us a few seasickness pills, which helped. If I started to feel queasy, I would go lay down in my cabin. But there was a lot to do to pass the time. The boat had a large common room where we could hang out together and hear presentations from scientists about the polar climate, environment and wildlife.
ROAM: Tell us about your time on the continent.
Xenia: We spent our time on the islands and coast but we didn’t go to the South Pole – that’s a common misconception about visiting Antarctica. Every night the ship would move and we would wake up in a new place.
We took zodiacs out every day to cruise or land. To board them, we walked down to the bottom deck of the ship to the loading zone at the stern. Before getting into the boat, we had to vacuum our gear and step into a disinfectant solution to prevent Antarctica from being contaminated by mainland organisms. To get on and off, we’re supposed to use the “swing and slide” method, where we swing our legs over the rim of the boat and slide down to our seats.
Our first zodiac trip was through the Iceberg Graveyard. The tops of the icebergs were white, but the bottoms and cracks in the sides were a range of colors: mint, teal, turquoise, and blue.
They’re blue because as snow lands on top of the ice over thousands of years, the ice becomes compressed. The density of the ice causes it to reflect blue light and absorb all other colors of light.
We noticed that there a few different kinds of sea ice – ice that’s formed when the sea freezes. One piece was translucent, because it had air bubbles in it, and the other was clear – the clear ice is less common. Our zodiac guide told us that the salt is pushed out of the ice when it freezes.
Icebergs weren’t the only things we saw in the Iceberg Graveyard – there was also lots of wildlife. I saw several crabeater seals (their name is misleading because they actually eat krill, not crabs). There was a group of Gentoo penguins porpoising through the water (swimming in and out, like dolphins). My zodiac also saw a small group of humpback whales! Later on the trip, we saw sea lions and orcas, too.
Whenever we landed, there were small orange flags that tell us where to/not to walk in order to literally minimize our footprint. A single flag means that there’s a safe path, two crossed flags tell us not to enter, and two flags close together indicate a “penguin highway.”
One tourist spot that we visited was Whaler’s Bay. They think a million whales where killed here and the tanks where they kept the oil still stand.
ROAM: How did you deal with the cold?
Xenia: Staying warm was really just about layering. At first, I overlayered and ended up getting hot and taking off a layer. They lend you warm, dry muck boots to wear. The weather changed a lot. It was sunny then cloudy – one day it snowed a bit. The clouds kept it warmer than on clear days. One night we camped on the ice. That was VERY cold!
ROAM: Whoa, tell us about that!
Xenia: We made our own camp by tracing out an area in the snow for our sleeping bags to determine how large an area we needed to carve out. Then, we dug out some snow using spades, and flattened it out using our boots. We piled up the snow that we dug out around the boarder of the plateau to protect ourselves from the wind.
After a few hours, it started to get really cold, so my group decided to lie down in our sleeping bags. Earlier in the evening, one of the team leaders had given us a hilarious demo for how to take off our outer layers and get into our sleeping bags. He showed us how to take off our outer pants while keeping them connected to our boots so that it would be easy to put them back on in the morning, but I wasn’t very successful at it.
It probably took around half an hour to get situated in my sleeping bag, because I had put everything I needed for the night inside of it, and had to find everything with my flashlight. I put hand warmers in my socks, gloves, and pockets, and had a neck warmer, balaclava, and hat on my head. I also wore a pair of ski goggles because it started snowing. The view of the stars was really nice – I could see them intermittently, when they weren’t covered by the clouds.
ROAM: And we heard you went swimming?! You swim in San Francisco Bay so you know cold water. How did it compare?
Xenia: I can’t really describe the feeling. You sort of lose all feeling. I took the “polar plunge” on the final day before we headed back to Argentina. We got to jump into the ocean and swim out a little way to a Zodiac. Almost everyone did it! You actually can’t stay in the water for more than a few seconds because the water temperature is actually below freezing because it is saline and in motion. The boat has a hot tub and you get to jump in after your swim to warm up.
ROAM: Do you have any advice for travelers hoping to follow in your footsteps and visit Antarctica someday?
Xenia: If you go, be sure you evaluate the tour company and that they are traveling sustainably and responsibly with minimal impact. We can’t put out any more waste on Antarctica. It is the last great wilderness on earth.
Maryann Jones Thompson – November 2020
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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