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ANTARCTICA

It’s 11:55 pm on December 31, 2013 but yet there’s still some daylight reflecting off the ocean. On the horizon I see the sprays of a humpback whale pod. I’m sitting on the stern of a ship that’s about 2,000 miles from the South Pole, champagne bottle in hand, about to toast in 2014. Usually New Year’s Eve is a forgettable holiday for me, but this year, as the clock strikes midnight somewhere in the Drakes passage between Antarctica and Argentina, I reflect back with a different perspective.

Officially, Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent on our planet. In my book, it’s also the most surreal and humbling place. This year I spent the holidays there with my family and joined the exclusive club of people in the world who can say they’ve set foot on every continent. But there’s much more to it than checking a box. It’s an experience that I need to share in order to even believe it was real.

A “typical” day consisted of a morning and afternoon trip to shore in small, inflatable boats called Zodiacs. We had the opportunity to visit the Arctowski (Polish) and Port Lockroy (British) research stations, observe colonies of Gentoo, Adele and Chinstrap penguins, and on my favourite days, when conditions were just right, a small group of us would go kayaking.

 Kayaking in cold temperatures requires suiting up in serious gear in case you accidentally tip over, or in my case, wilfully jump in (yes, that happened, and I have the GoPro footage to prove it). Even though I looked like a misfit superhero, I felt like an astronaut off to explore an alien planet. I was a stranger in a strange land at the mercy of the towering cliffs, glaciers and icebergs. It was from the kayak that I really felt what it was like to be in Antarctica. When a gust of wind whipped around the mountains, I’d have to paddle harder through the brash to move forward (but still laughed when it just sent me in circles). Ice falling off the glaciers looked light, like a dusting of powdered sugar, but created a thunderous echo which reminded me how massive it really is. It’s from the kayak that I got a true sense of how small I am in the grand scheme of things. Or, perhaps more accurately, how majestic Antarctica is.

Its scale is even more impressive when you get an up-close view of its ecosystem. No humans inhabit Antarctica, but the local population has a rich culture of their own. They allow you to respectfully observe their community while they ignore you and go about their business of waddling, chilling, bickering, flirting, grabbing a bite to eat, or mothering their newborns. This polar “people watching” kept me entertained for hours. The land has its own way of telling its history too. Each iceberg and glacier is formed from ancient blue and turquoise marble of highly compressed ice that’s been chiseled by centuries of extreme weather.

I can’t write about this adventure without a special shout out to my dad (and kayak partner). It’s been a dream of his to experience Antarctica and he chose to celebrate his 60th birthday by sharing the momentous experience with his family. For me, one of the most rewarding parts of traveling is sharing all it’s joy and wonder with amazing people. I consider myself lucky to have shared this meaningful experience with those that mean so much to me.

They say that there is significance in how you spend the first moments of the new year. That those moments are indicative of how you will spend the coming year. If that’s the case, here’s to 2014.

Fore more gorgeous pictures visit this FLICKR account.