It was 40°F / 5°C. I took off my bright yellow outer coat, my thick fleece jacket, my woolen sweater, my flannel shirt, and my thermal undershirt. It was cold and I felt like a bit of a fool.
A small crowd of people stood around me, fully clothed, joking how crazy I was. It was hard to argue. I stripped down to my shorts, bundled my warm clothes on the beach nearby and stepped into a one-foot deep hole dug in the black sand.
I lay back, soaking neck-deep in the warm water and enjoying the refreshing contrasting sensations of the heat on my skin and the cold air on my head.
With me were four other hardy souls. Behind me was a small fleet of zodiacs that had brought us ashore. To my right, the skeletal remains of an old whaling station swam in the mist.
To my left, a penguin waddled down the beach, disappearing into the steam that was rising from the sand.
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I booked a trip to Antarctica mostly, I’ll admit, so that I could check the seventh continent off my list. I was travelling around South America at the time. I love to do active things when I travel, and had cycled down the Andes in Ecuador, gone white water rafting in Peru and (on a later trip) hiked to Laguna Torre in Patagonia.
It seemed a shame to go all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia and not go that extra bit further for the bragging rights of visiting all 7 continents. Never in a million years did I expect to love it as much as I did.
Deception Island, Antarctica
I took an 11-day cruise around Antarctica; we spent the first two days crossing the Drake Passage and filled the next two days with penguins, seals, whales and icebergs and glaciers. Those stories are for another day. On the fifth day of the cruise, we headed to Deception Island and a very different experience.
The island is a donut, the top of an active, but sleeping volcano. In one place the wall has tumbled down, letting the sea – and us – in.
In stark contrast to the white and blue that had surrounded us the last few days sailing around Antarctica, things here were brown, coated in layers of volcanic ash. It felt like we were entering a secret hideaway, floating into a large harbor completely surrounded by a ring of hills.
We weighed anchor off Whaler’s Bay, the site of Hector Whaling Station (1911-1932) and Biscoe House, a British Antarctic survey station (1944-1967). The volcanic activity that destroyed much of the site in the late 1960s was the source of my spa.
Hot springs spa on the beach
Once ashore, we spent some time exploring the stations’ ruins. They are surprisingly well-preserved and fascinating.
I returned back to where a small crowd of people had gathered near the zodiacs to find that the crew had dug a large hole in the beach, which had filled with water from natural hot springs seeping up from below.
We had been told before we came ashore that we would have a chance to soak in thermal waters here, and a handful of people had expressed interest, but faced with the reality of temperatures hovering around 0°C/ 32°F most changed their minds and headed back to the ship.
A small crowd stood around enjoying the spectacle. None of us had anticipated being able to be able to go swimming in Antarctica or have a Deception Island hot springs bath.
My determination to try every experience that was available overcame my common sense, so I stripped off in the chilly air, and jumped quickly into the warm water.
As I settled into the temporary thermal pool, I could see our ship floating in the bright blue waters nearby. It looked tiny; dwarfed by the surrounding ring of hills surrounding us. Patches of snow contrasted with their barren brown.
Empty wooden huts, huge silos, wrecked boats, a wingless plane and the remains of barrels were strewn across the beach, half seen in the steamy air. An eerie reminder, perfectly preserved in the cold dry air, of what was here before us.
As I lay in the water soaking up to my neck in the warmth, marveling at my surroundings, I was glad that I had.
The cold-water treatment
I’ve soaked visited many hot springs in Japan, where it is virtually a national pastime, Korea, Guatemala and Ecuador. If you’ve ever had a Korean, Japanese or Latin American style spa, you’ll know that it involves not just hot water, but also cold.
I was determined to do the whole thing right, so I stood up, stepped out of the hole I was soaking in, walked quickly to the water’s edge and put a trial foot gingerly into the Southern Ocean.
It was as freezing cold as you would expect! I figured I would wade into it shin deep, and that plus the chilly air would be enough for the ‘cold-water’ part of the spa experience.
So, I took a step forward and was now ankle deep in Antarctic waters. A couple more inches and I’d be deep enough to say I’d done it and get back into the warmth.
I took a final step forward. The ground suddenly fell away from beneath me and I promptly plunged neck deep into the icy ocean! There was a sharp drop off that I hadn’t seen. I frantically swam back, scrambled ashore and literally leaped back into the warm water.
The cold-water treatment didn’t work out so well – but being back in the warm water was great! I stayed there until it was time to return to the ship.
The post-spa wind down
Climbing out and back into all my layers of clothes over top of my wet shorts wasn’t the most comfortable part of the experience.
Back on board the ship, after a shower and with a glass of wine in hand, my skin tingled. Rather than being relaxed and floppy like I often am after a spa, I felt more invigorated and more alive than I had in a long time.
As I looked out the window at the donut of Deception slipping away in the distance, a minke whale raised its head and a school of penguins porpoised out of the water nearby. This truly had been a spa experience like no other.
Visiting Deception Island, Antarctica
If you want to experience a Deception Island hot spring, look for Deception Bay on your Antarctica itinerary. However, keep in mind that all shore excursions in Antarctica are weather dependent, so the itinerary may change.
How to get to Deception Island
You will need to take an Antarctica cruise. Ships leave for the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands from Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Many operators provide a package including airfares from north American cities and a night in Buenos Aires. Always check carefully what is and is not included.
There are several operators that go to Antarctica. I recommend going on a ship that has 100 passengers or fewer, because that is the maximum number of people allowed shore at one time in Antarctica. Bigger ships have to do shore excursions in shifts, which will give you less time ashore.
Travelwild specialize in small ships. I’ve never used them, and get no payment from them, but it’s a good place to start.
The first and last two days are crossing the Drake Passage between Ushuaia and the Antarctic Peninsula. This is notoriously one of the roughest stretches of water in the world. I arrived at the ship to multiple discussions between passengers about the types of sea sickness medication they were taking. I hadn’t thought about this at all and had none!
I was lucky though. The crew described it as “Drake Lake’ because it was so calm. Everything is relative – it didn’t seem very calm to me and about 80% of people were confined to their cabins until we arrived in calmer protected waters.
My tips: do NOT stay in your cabin – get fresh air and look at the horizon. The middle of the ship is the least rocky. If I ever started to feel a little queasy, I went outside. Ginger and dry crackers can also help.
Best time to go to Antarctica
I went late December and this was a great time of year to visit Antarctica because there were lots of baby penguins. Cruises at the end of the season often arrive to empty penguin rookeries, which you don’t want.
Planning and packing for Antarctica
I use the Internet a lot to plan – and I hope this blog is useful resource for you – but I also always use a trusty Lonely Planet to get the big picture and practical things like maps. Use it as a useful resource than a travel bible so that you don’t miss out on loads of awesome things and places and experiences that aren’t listed in it. You can buy the Antarctica Lonely Planet here.
To help you plan your trip, read my Trip Planner – it breaks down everything you need to do to plan your trip, including when you need to do it.
When you are ready for your trip, check out my Essential Packing List for the basics you will need to take. Your cruise operator will give you a more detailed packing list.
How to deal with seasickness
Seasickness is common when crossing the Drake Passage, and unlike me, you should prepare for it. Three common options are:
- Dramamine. These pills are the classic seasickness prevention method. The main problem is that the traditional formula often causes drowsiness. You don;t want to spend your vacation sleepy. There is a non-drowsy version now, though. Buy the non-drowsy version here.
- Patches. This is herbal treatment. You wear a patch and it slow releases herbs into your body that help prevent seasickness. There were plenty of people on the ship wearing them. Buy patches to help prevent sea sickness here.
- Wristband. If you want to avoid medication, there are wrist bands that you wear instead to prevent seasickness. They work by pressing on a pressure point on your wrist that somehow prevents seasickness. I’ve never tried them, but I have had several people swear they work. Buy the anti- seasickness wrist bands here
It is important to be fully prepared when you travel. In addition to accommodation, planning and flights, you should always have travel insurance, just in case. I always hope I never need to use it but I get it just in case I do! For more information, read my Complete Guide to Buying Travel Insurance.
A great insurance option is World Nomads. You can book it online here or get a quote right here:
Enjoy the beach spa!
Do you have any stories of Antarctica? I’d love to hear them. Comment below.
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More Antarctica adventures to come. Meanwhile, read about some Patagonian adventures:
- Hiking French Valley in Torres del Paine, Chile
- Where to stay in Torres del Paine NP, Chile
- Hiking to Laguna Torre near El Chalten, Argentina
- Driving in Patagonia (Argentina and Chile)
- Cruising past glaciers and icebergs in Argentina
- Experiencing Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina
- Taking a food tour in Santiago, Chile
- Tasting wine in the Maipo Valley, Chile
- Experiencing tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina
James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He is passionate about experiential travel, i.e. meaningful travel that actively engages with the environment and culture. He helps people have similar experiences that involve active participation in activities and festivals; engaging with the local food and handicrafts through lessons and food tours; and interacting positively with environment by hiking, riding, rowing, diving and low/no impact animal encounters.
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