This year, with, we’re holding a series of monthly talks with local folks who have taken some pretty cool adventures. Our Explorer Series is intended to let these explorers share their experience, from inception to preparation and planning, to the adventure itself. The goal is to make these experiences seem not as daunting as you might think — to perhaps inspire you to act on that epic adventure that’s been rattling around in the back of your head.

Alison Watta spent months researching her dream trip to the Galapagos Islands. When it came time to book her trip, she logged onto the website for tour operator Adventure Life and —


The home page featured a photo of Antarctica. That looks interesting, she thought.

“I booked the trip then and there,” says Alison, who lives in Durham. Alison shared her experience on how she made it happen as part of our monthly Explorer Series at our Chapel Hill store this past Wednesday. Some highlights of her presentation …

Length of trip: 10 days, including air travel from Raleigh to JFK to Buenos Aires to Usheaia, Argentina and two days of travel (each way) through the Drake Passage. “We spend about 5 days total on the continent.”

Antarctica: The Frozen Continent "wasn't that cold"
Alison Watta talks Antarctica

Was that enough time? “I think it was enough time on the continent. A lot of people, though, will stay in the region and explore Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego.

The Drake Passage, what was that like? “As someone said, ‘It’s the most beautiful place on Earth, and you pay the price either going in or coming out.” We had pretty good weather going down, but on the way back we had swells of 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet). There were times when the boat’s rudder was coming out of the water, and it was like that for 24 to 30 hours. I’ve seen doors that lock, but I’ve never seen a dresser that locked. Or an alarm clock taped to a desk.”

Were you near the South Pole? “The South Pole is way far into the continent. Our first stop was at the South Shetland Islands, then Devil’s Island in the Weddell Sea.

What did you take for sea sickness?Meclicot. I didn’t have any trouble.”

What were the penguins like? “They are incredibly fast and swift in the water, but they are hopeless on land. They take a few steps, fall, take a few steps, fall. The males build nests using small rocks, and they’re constantly stealing small rocks from each other. Also, they’re very curious.”

Can you talk to the animals? You can talk to them, says Alison, “but you can’t get within 3 meters of them. They can approach you, but you can’t approach them.”

When were you there? “November of 2016. November is the beginning of their summer, which runs through February. They say if you want to experience the ‘first-man-on-the-planet,’ go in November, if you want to see the wildlife go in February.”

How cold was it? “It wasn’t that cold, about 30 degrees. In February it gets up to 40, 45. The night I slept out — “

You slept out? “They have a limited number — 20, 25 — of permits to camp on the continent. I got to sleep one night in a four-season Mountain Hardware tent. It got down to 15, 20. But I was in a sleeping bag rated to minus 10. In the night, I could hear the ice cracking around me.

How much did the trip cost? “It’s generally between $10 and $12,000, with airfare from RDU about $1,500 to $2,000. Mine was a little less expensive, about $7,000.”

Did you shop around? “Actually, I took a ‘cursed’ boat. A few years ago, it was going through the Drake Passage and got hit by a huge wave, wiping out the third deck. It underwent a $10 million overhaul and emerged with a different name. But people still new about the boat and were afraid to take it. So they lowered the rate when I went. Speaking of shopping around, there was not gift shop on the boat, and the WiFi was extremely slow.

Where are you headed next? I’d like to either backpack the Lost Coast of California or go to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the the Arctic Ocean. People asked if I saw any polar bears in Antarctica. There are no polar bears in Antarctica, but there are in the Arctic Ocean.”