Frequently Asked Questions about Elonka's trip to Antarctica with the Planetary Society

How cold was it?
The temperature could vary drastically from moment to moment because of the sudden winds, but in general was much warmer than I expected.  In a calm sheltered harbor, with the sun shining brightly, the temperature actually got up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  But then a few minutes later some 60-knot winds could come sweeping through, and the temperature would drop 30 degrees.  I think that the coldest it got was 0 degrees Celsius, with a 60-knot windchill on top of that, which I think knocks it down to -10 degrees Fahrenheit...  Add to that the chill from being on a Zodiac raft that's navigating through the wind to see some icebergs, and it feels considerably colder...  I distinctly remember times that I'd be hanging onto the raft as it flew over the waves, and then when it came down with a splash, the spray from the ocean would fly up through the air, freeze in transit, and then hit my face with a *Whap!* that really brought home the fact that I was traveling someplace *cold* <chuckle>.  It was worth it though.  :)

Why go to Antarctica?
Well, the quick answer is, "I hadn't been there yet!" <grin>
The longer answer is that I'd been all the way around the world, and been to every other continent *but* Antarctica, so I knew that I was going to have to go there someday, just for completeness' sake.  Also, this particular expedition was appealing to me because it was being sponsored by the Planetary Society, and I knew there would be some interesting co-travelers...  Plus I liked that the invitation came from Dr. Louis Friedman, the Society's Executive Director, who was also going on this trip, and I wanted to meet him.  Plus I just needed a vacation that would get my mind off work for awhile, and Antarctica fit the bill.  Plus it was a good price for this particular trip, about $7,000 including airfare from St. Louis.  Plus I figured I'd better go now, in 1999, before everything breaks in Y2K! <grin>

What's the Planetary Society?
It's a group that was founded by Carl Sagan and Dr. Louis Friedman in 1980, with the goal of promoting public education, awareness, and support of planetary exploration and other space programs.  I became a member of it because I was originally a member of a group called the L-5 Society in the late 1970s, which eventually joined forces with another Space advocacy group, and then when I saw some mail for the Planetary Society, I joined it too.  The Planetary Society currently boasts over 100,000 members, and has been instrumental in obtaining funding and support for several space-related missions.  Also, as a member, I get some cool benefits, for example my name was placed on a microchip which was launched aboard the "StarDust" probe.  The probe's mission is to go meet a comet, gather some material, and then return to Earth for analysis.  The Planetary Society is also involved with the SETI@home project, where people all over the world can tap their computers into the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, by downloading data from space which their computer can help process when its screensaver is activated, and see if there's any coherent/intelligent signal in all the static.  For more information on the Planetary Society, you can visit their website at:

Did you see any penguins?
Thousands and thousands and thousands!  There are several different types of penguins, and we had hoped to see adelie (the most common), gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni penguins on this trip.  Unfortunately, several of our scheduled landings were cancelled or changed due to bad weather, which is quite common on these sorts of expeditions, and so we never got a chance to see adelie or macaroni penguins.  As for the gentoo and chinstrap variety though, it got to be quite commonplace for us to make landfall on a particular island, and see "yet another" colony of 4000 gentoo penguins hopping around.  We were supposed to stay at least 15 feet away from them at all times, but there are so many, and they're so busy going back and forth from the colony to the ocean, that it's nearly impossible to avoid them sometimes.  Plus, if you stop and have a seat on a rock or an iceberg, and remain very still, they'll come to investigate you, and sometimes even nibble on your boots to see if you're edible <grin>.  They're very cute, and sometimes we'd get an urge to reach out and pet them when they got so close, but we were given strict warnings *not* to touch them at all.  Partially this is for conservation reasons, and partially for health reasons, because we were so far from hospitals or any other kind of formal medical attention.  We were told the story of one tourist who had reached out to a penguin, and gotten his fingers bitten.  It was a minor bite, but the unusual bacteria from the penguin caused a major infection.  It took days for a medical evacuation team to get him back to a hospital on the mainland, and by the time they did, there was no choice but to amputate his fingers!  So we resisted the urge to pet the penguins.  ;)  To see some of the penguin pictures that I took though, click here.

Did you see any polar bears?
Nope, polar bears don't live this far south, and can only be found in the northern latitudes.  I do want to travel to Greenland and the North Pole someday though, so keep watching this site, and someday you may see polar bear pictures here as well!

Did you see any whales?
Oh yes!  I got a brief glimpse of some Killer Whales (also known as orcas), saw *lots* of Minke Whales, and got absurdly close to some Humpback Whales. I also got very good at scanning the waters around the ship, looking for the telltale surfacing of a dorsal fin as a whale emerged to catch a breath and then dive again.  It was extremely enjoyable to be the first person to point and call out, "Whale!" and then hear my cry echoed down the length of the ship as others rushed over to take a look.  Minke Whales are the most common, and I probably saw a dozen or more in the distance at one point or another.  To see some of my pictures of whales, check the pages on Andvord Bay, Waterboat Point, and of course the Whales page.

Where did Humpback Whales get their name from?
I'd always assumed that it was because there was an actual "hump" on the back of the whale...  What I learned from whalespotting though, is that they surface differently from Minkes, making more of a hump shape as they dive back down.  It's a very distinctive movement, and I can see why the old whalers would have quickly named the Humpback Whales as they did.  Just as the whale that's called the "Right" Whale got its name...  It wasn't because of anything to do with left or right, but because that particular type of whale had a high percentage of oil in its body, that allowed it to float, even when dead.  This made it one of the easiest whales for the whalers to deal with, plus one of the most lucrative, so it was the "right" whale to hunt.

What was your favorite part?

There were several...

Who else went on the expedition?
It was an amazing collection of people.  Scientists, retirees, students, teachers, tourists, and sometimes "Just plain folks."  As we got to know each other, one of the most common questions we'd ask each other, aside from, "Where are you from?" was, "So, why are *you* going to Antarctica?"  There were lots of different answers, ranging from scientific interests, to general tourism, to support of the Planetary Society, to just getting out to do something different.  There were some famous individuals, such as Adriana Ocampo, the NASA geologist who was on the team that discovered the meteorite impact crater that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.  And of course Dr. Louis Friedman, the Executive Director of the Planetary Society.  And Elizabeth "Jake" Feinler, one of our Internet "ancestors," the one who came up with the very idea for domain names like "" and "".  For those of you techies, did you know that we were traveling with the woman that ran the Internic for 20 years??  Other co-travelers had other credentials from the internet, or from NASA, or the Pentagon.  But right alongside them were people with the exact same adventurous spirit, who were just out there "stretching their wings" for the first time...  People aboard who had never before had a passport, or been out of the U.S.  That's gotta take some guts, making your first trip out of the country, to someplace as remote as Antarctica!

How many people were on the ship?
There were about 50 passengers from the Planetary Society, 50 from various other places around the world, and about 35 crewmembers, scientists, and naturalists.  So in total, about 150 people, with 10-12 different nationalities represented.

What kind of research were the scientists doing?
Most of the scientists onboard were there simply as guides and lecturers, since the primary purpose of this expedition was educational.  Some of them, of course, are always doing research of some kind though, even when "on vacation."  Adriana Ocampo, for example, was always on the lookout for interesting rocks and meteorites (and she thinks she spotted one in the side of an iceberg, but we couldn't get close enough in our raft for her to pluck it out, because of the 60-knot winds <sigh>).  Tony Martin, the whale specialist, was also very eager to get pictures of humpback whale tails, since they are used for identification purposes to help track humpback migration patterns.

Did you see the Southern Cross?
Yes, and that was a very special part of the expedition for me, since I used to be an Astronomy major...  On the first night aboard ship, I went up to the very top deck, up in the open air, lay down on my back so I wouldn't have to worry about keeping my balance on the rocking ship, and pointed my binoculars at the sky.  It got amazingly dark out there on the Beagle Channel, and we could easily see the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri, and the Magellanic Clouds.  Since I was fairly familiar with the sky, I spent quite a bit of time pointing out the Southern Cross and other constellations to other of my co-travelers.  I also got to spend some time looking for a few of the more obscure "fuzzy patches" in the sky, and I think spotted things such as the "Jewel Box" cluster and the "Great Looped Nebula."  It was a very emotional experience for me, looking at the stunningly beautiful southern constellations above me, and knowing that below me was a ship which was taking me even further south, to Antarctica!

Meet any cute Russians?
A few.  ;)  Actually, one of the funny stories about my trip, came on the first evening when Claudia, who ran the ship's small bar, came around to ask us for our drink orders.  Without even thinking, I ordered what I always order as a mixed drink, in any bar in the world:  "May I have a White Russian please?"  She blinked, and for a moment, I thought she was going to reply, "Sure, how tall?" <grin>

Page last updated: March 3, 2009
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