Paddling Home to Antarctica

17 Jun Paddling Home to Antarctica

Sivani Babu’s kayak gliding across the glassy water of Neko Harbor, Antarctica. ©Sivani Babu

I glided across the glittering surface of the ocean, listening to the rhythm of my own paddling: the soft thwap of my oar entering the water and the gentle swish as I pulled back with each breath. Thwap, swish, inhale. Thwap, swish, exhale. The cadence, I thought, could have propelled me forever.

The salt in the air soothed the senses, lingering in every breath as I traveled between the shoreline and the brackish water where ice met sea, my canary-yellow kayak bright on the sapphire waters of Neko Harbor, Antarctica.

As gentoo penguins torpedoed through the water beneath me, showing off the agility they lacked on land, I drifted — past hundreds of gentoos making a raucous on shore, stumbling over rocks and each other; around an iceberg that demanded a wide berth; beneath a soaring seabird searching for its next meal. I drifted toward a place where past and present mingled. Thwap, swish, inhale.

Gentoo penguins exhibiting courtship behavior. ©Sivani Babu

My draw to Antarctica was almost as old as I was. As a child, I would lie awake at night, surrounded by purple butterfly wallpaper and white, wooden bookshelves stuffed with tattered volumes. I would feign sleep after my parents tucked me in and when the hall outside my open door grew dark, I would crawl deep under my blankets and imagine myself in Arctic and Antarctic waters as I read about polar explorers and their expeditions, committing their stories to memory in the soft, yellow glow of a flashlight.

Adrien de Gerlache, for instance, was a man whose name litters modern-day maps of Antarctica (the Gerlache Strait, Cape Gerlache, Gerlache Inlet, Gerlache Island). De Gerlache commanded the Belgian Antarctic Expedition in the late 1800s with a crew aboard the Belgica that included a still-unknown Roald Amundsen, who would later lead the first expedition to reach the South Pole. De Gerlache’s had unwillingly become the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica when it became trapped in the pack ice.

When the darkness of winter came, it brought with it madness and scurvy – bleeding gums, wounds that wouldn’t heal, labored breathing, and men who were so far gone they tried to walk home. But before the pack ice, before the darkness, the madness, and the scurvy, before the expedition became an epic tale of survival, de Gerlache had discovered Neko Harbor. That I was now kayaking in the same waters once explored by de Gerlache and a young Amundsen was difficult to grasp.

“This can’t be real,” I said to myself, certain that at any moment I would wake up in my own bed with the wispy tendrils of a childhood dream drifting into nothingness.

Kayaking in Neko Harbor, Antarctica. ©Sivani Babu

A loud crack like thunder cannoned through the still air, pulling me from my musings. Way off in the distance, too far to be of any concern, I spotted what looked like a waterfall that had spontaneously erupted from a mountain. It wasn’t a waterfall, of course, and this was no dream. Antarctica was as real as that avalanche.

I paddled on, thinking about the whirlwind of days that had already come and gone on this adventure. My trip mates and I had heralded in the New Year in the Weddell Sea, surrounded by colossal, tabular icebergs the size of entire neighborhoods and small cities. The moon had risen full and red that night. We’d run beyond the warm shoreline waters of Deception Island and into the oxygen-stealing cold of the Southern Ocean. We’d watched from a distance as a solitary emperor penguin basked in unending daylight. And we’d walked on the frozen ocean, our boots crunching in the snow atop an ice floe. Each moment, each step into an otherworldly landscape, each glint of the sun reflecting off of blue ice filled me with something more than joy, something more than calm. But I struggled to identify what that something actually was.

I stopped a moment, my oar hanging suspended over the water, my body as still as a shadow. I listened, but heard only a symphony of silence unlike anything I had ever known. There, in those waters, as I drifted with the ice and looked through a window of water into a world where penguins swam below, the silence gave way to the clarity that had been eluding me for days. There was only one other place that had ever made me feel the deep sense of belonging that I felt in Antarctica; only one other place that had calmed my brain and fed my soul and showed me unconquerable beauty in a discordant world. And there was only one word for that place, wherever on Earth it happened to be: Home.

I was home.


Come home to Antarctica on one of these Adventure Collection journeys:

Kayak among the icebergs of Antarctica — just as Sivani did — with Lindblad Expeditions

Be one of just seven travelers on an ice-strengthened motorsailer Antarctic expedition, run by WWF and Natural Habitat Adventures

Venture to an explorer’s Antarctica with GeoEx

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Sivani Babu
Sivani Babu is an award-winning writer and photographer with a deep-seated curiosity about the world and a love of extreme landscapes and weather. Her adventures have taken her to all seven continents, sailing across the towering seas of the Drake Passage, kayaking with gentoo penguins in the glassy waters of Neko Harbor in Antarctica, chasing storms through Tornado Alley, and road tripping across the United States with a former teacher of hers from high school. Sivani’s work has appeared on BBC Travel and CNN as well as in Backpacker Magazine, Outdoor Photographer, Nature Photographer, and Bay Nature. Follow her travels via Instagram: @wayfaringsiv or on her blog at
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