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Polar Opposites: A Journey Through The Arctic and Antarctica

11 mins. read

Exploring the Mysteries of Our Planet's Most Elusive Lands

Published in the Sunday Indian Express Magazine - Eye on 18 February, 2024

This week, our first expedition to Antarctica (often known as the seventh continent) gets underway led by my fellow team member and Veena World tour manager Dinesh Bandivadekar. There is another expedition slated to depart in the last week of February with travellers from all around India. With this Polar feel in the air, we decided to go venture closer to the North Pole too, with the launch of a brand new Polar Express Arctic Adventure expedition for the month of June. With so much happening closer to the North and South Poles, I feel it’s the right time to speak about Polar Expeditions today.

Polar expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic offer some of the most thrilling and unique travel experiences on Earth, captivating adventurers with their remote, pristine landscapes and extraordinary wildlife. These journeys provide a chance to step into a world far removed from everyday life, where the raw power and beauty of nature are on full display. In Antarctica, you can engage in activities such as kayaking through icebergs, witnessing the march of penguins, and even taking a polar plunge in the icy waters. The Arctic offers the magical spectacle of the Northern Lights, wildlife safaris to see polar bears and walruses, and cultural encounters with some of the northernmost communities in the world. These expeditions not only promise adventure but also a profound connection with some of earth's last untouched frontiers. The most remarkable aspect is that such expeditions are accessible to anyone, and not just limited to only the fittest among us.

Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to embark on one such remarkable journey to Antarctica aboard the expedition ship, Sergey Vavilov, a sturdy vessel designed for polar waters. This expedition was a deep dive into the heart of the Antarctic wilderness, offering an unparalleled opportunity to explore its icy realms and encounter its diverse marine life. We navigated through some of the choppiest waters of the mighty Drake Passage (the waterbody between the South American and Antarctic continents) and witnessed towering icebergs, visited remote research stations, and set foot on the continent itself, experiencing the surreal beauty of its vast, white expanse. The journey was not just about the landscapes; it was a profound lesson in the fragility and significance of these remote ecosystems, emphasizing the importance of their preservation for future generations. The ship itself, with its experienced crew and environmentally conscious operations, provided a safe and insightful passage into one of the world's most extraordinary places.

Preparing for an expedition to Antarctica was an adventure in itself, marked by a mix of excitement and apprehension for all three of us: my parents and me. As the departure date approached, the reality of venturing into one of the Earth's most remote and extreme environments set in, fuelling a sense of adventure and a deep respect for the journey ahead. Boarding the ship was a moment of awe and also a realisation that this ship was nowhere close to the luxury cruises that we have come to expect in the calmer waters of the Bahamas or the Mediterranean Sea. The ship, robust and equipped for the icy waters of the Antarctic, offered comfort and safety amidst the wilderness. Days were filled with briefings, morning and evening zodiac boat excursions, wildlife watching from the deck, and mingling with fellow adventurers, creating a vibrant atmosphere of exploring the elusive Antarctic continent together.

Crossing the Drake Passage, notorious for its turbulent seas, was a rite of passage, showcasing the raw power of nature and had me running for my sea sickness medicines. But all that is forgotten with the first sighting of Antarctica's icebergs and snow-capped mountains, which are just breathtaking. Wildlife encounters, from spotting a pod of killer whales to seals lounging on ice floes, these were moments of pure magic. The penguins of the South Shetland Islands, with their charming waddles and curious nature, offer a delightful glimpse into the heart of Antarctic wildlife. These resilient birds, hundreds of them thriving in the harsh climate, embody the spirit of the southernmost ecosystems, captivating visitors with their playful antics and communal living.

For me, the Polar Plunge stands out as a highlight, a testament to the spirit of adventure that defines the Antarctic experience. Standing on the ship's edge, clad only in swimwear against the stark, icy backdrop, was a moment of exhilarating vulnerability. The plunge into the freezing waters was a shock, a rush of adrenaline, and an indescribable connection to the raw beauty of Antarctica. Emerging from the water, the sense of achievement and aliveness was unparalleled. Two seconds in those icy cold waters is all that I could really manage.

For my parents, a highlight was sending a postcard from the southernmost post office in the world, located at Port Lockroy in Antarctica. As you pen your message amidst the backdrop of glaciers and penguins, you're not just sharing your adventure but also leaving a mark from one of the most remote corners of the planet. This rare opportunity connects you across vast distances, turning a simple postcard into a treasured memory, bridging worlds with a stamp and a story.

Reflecting on the expedition, the impact is profound and multifaceted. The journey was not just a physical adventure but a transformative experience, challenging my perceptions of our place within the natural world. The expedition offered me a unique perspective on the world, fostering a deep appreciation for its wonders and a renewed commitment to its preservation. The memories and lessons from the Sergey Vavilov expedition will remain a guiding force, inspiring a lifelong passion for exploration and conservation.

Upon my return from Antarctica, I encountered one question time and again: 'Did you see any polar bears there?' The answer is always a gentle 'No'—polar bears reign in the Arctic, not the icy expanses of Antarctica. This curiosity, however, sets the stage perfectly to shift our focus northward, far beyond the ‘northernmost town on Earth with a civilian airport’: Longyearbyen. Let’s embark on an exploration of Arctic adventures.

The Arctic Polar Express Expedition, unlike other polar expeditions that might focus solely on Antarctic landscapes, is a captivating expedition which carves its path through the Arctic's unique blend of cultural heritage and natural beauty, navigating routes that stretch from the majestic fjords of Norway to the ice-covered expanses of Svalbard, and some even reaching the North Pole for those truly adventurous spirits. What sets the Arctic Polar Express Expedition apart is its comprehensive itinerary that not only showcases the stark, breathtaking landscapes of the Arctic but also delves into the rich histories and cultures of Arctic communities. Travellers on this expedition can expect to encounter a diverse array of wildlife, including polar bears – the kings of the Arctic, walruses, and myriad bird species, all thriving in their natural habitats. The geography of the region offers dramatic vistas of glaciers, towering icebergs, and the ethereal beauty of the Midnight Sun during summer months, providing endless opportunities for photography and nature observation. In 2024, this expedition ticks off three things on a traveller’s bucketlist: 1. Northern Lights 2. Midnight Sun 3. Spotting a Polar Bear.

Activities on the expedition cater to a wide range of interests, from kayaking through serene Arctic waters to hiking on rugged, remote islands. Similar to my Polar Plunge in Antarctica, participating in a Polar Plunge in the Arctic's icy waters is a unique challenge that only a few can claim. The Arctic Polar Express Expedition is more than a journey; it's an immersive experience into the heart of the Arctic's wild beauty, offering insights into the delicate balance of life in the extreme conditions of the north.

Antarctica and the Arctic, the Earth's polar opposites, offer distinct expeditions that are as varied as their landscapes and climates. Geographically, Antarctica is a vast, icy continent surrounded by ocean, presenting a stark, frozen wilderness with colossal ice shelves and mountains. The Arctic, conversely, is an ocean encircled by land, featuring a mix of sea ice, tundra, and boreal forests. This fundamental difference shapes each region's climate and wildlife; Antarctica is colder, drier, and windier, primarily inhabited by penguins, seals, and seabirds, while the Arctic boasts a broader ecological diversity, including polar bears, walruses, and Arctic foxes, alongside indigenous human communities.

The experience onboard varies significantly between the two expeditions. Ships destined for Antarctica are often ice-strengthened vessels equipped to navigate through ice-packed waters, emphasizing environmental sustainability and research facilities. Arctic cruises might utilize similar vessels but also include icebreakers to reach the North Pole, offering more varied routes that include coastal towns and indigenous communities, providing a richer cultural experience. Both expeditions offer unique activities like kayaking and wildlife watching, but the Arctic adds the dimension of cultural encounters and the possibility of witnessing the Northern Lights.

From my personal perspective, having experienced Antarctica’s awe-inspiring solitude and raw beauty, I anticipate the highlights of an Arctic expedition would contrast significantly, particularly through interactions with local cultures and the diverse wildlife. The Arctic's variable landscape and seasonal changes would offer a more dynamic experience, while Antarctica's otherworldly tranquility and monumental ice landscapes offer a profound sense of remoteness and conservation urgency. Both expeditions promise unparalleled adventures, yet each leaves an indelible mark on the soul, highlighting the beauty and fragility of our planet's polar frontiers. These expeditions not only forge unforgettable memories but also instill a profound appreciation for our planet's fragile beauty. What’s your pick then - the Arctic or Antarctica? I would love to know what you would prefer ticking off first. So drop me a line at Until the next time, keep Celebrating Life!

February 17, 2024


Neil Patil
Neil Patil

Founder & Director, Veena World

More Blogs by Neil Patil

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