What a Trip: Among the penguins in Antarctica

(Family photo/ ) - Penguins were one of the highlights of the trip that Sandra Embler and Michael Shavers took to Antarctica.

(Family photo/ ) - Penguins were one of the highlights of the trip that Sandra Embler and Michael Shavers took to Antarctica.

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PUERTO VIEJO DE TALAMANCA, COSTA RICA - OCTOBER 28: A sailboat sits in the harbor of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica on October 28, 2012 at sunset. (Photo by Paige McClanahan)

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Who: Sandra Embler and her husband, Michael Shavers, of Olney

Where, when, why: Ever since we met while working in Turkey, my husband and I have loved to travel, and we quickly set ourselves a goal of reaching all seven continents. My fascination with penguins and my husband’s love of nature photography, coupled with a desire to get down to Antarctica while we were still relatively young and mobile, spurred us to set off last November on a two-week adventure aboard the National Geographic Explorer.

Highlights and high points: For me, being able to sit and watch penguins in their natural environment, totally unconcerned with their audience, was almost surreal. I found that I could sit and watch them waddle by for hours. For my husband, the starkly beautiful vistas of icebergs, glaciers and the wildlife (seals, whales and, of course, the endlessly entertaining penguins) were the highlight.

Cultural connection or disconnect: From the penguins walking up to you completely unafraid to the glaciers, mountains, incredibly clear skies and beautiful sunsets that go on for hours, the “frozen continent” makes it possible to imagine what Earth was like before it was touched by man. Returning to “civilization” after a few precious days in that environment, you experience a jarring reentry that probably compares only to going to outer space and back. As one of our expedition guides said, “People will ask you what it’s like here . . . and you will be at a loss for words.”

Biggest laugh or cry: We can laugh about it now, but at the time it seemed like a horrible harbinger at the start of the trip. Our connecting flight from Newark to Buenos Aires was repeatedly delayed and finally canceled around 11 p.m. The airline put us up in a dicey-looking hotel, and we awoke the next morning to pouring snow and thought, “More delays.” Thank goodness I’d insisted on leaving a day early or we would have missed the ship and the whole adventure.

How unexpected: Everyone on the trip kept remarking about the wonderful weather. We’d armed ourselves with Dramamine patches for a rough crossing of the Drake Passage, but it was relatively easy. We’d prayed for just one day of sunny weather in this notoriously fickle weather region, but we actually had only one stormy day. We have all these photos of sunny Antarctica: Some people think that we Photoshopped the images!

Fondest memento or memory: We’ll never forget the 5 a.m. penguin wake-up call. On the third day of the trip, I’d seen thousands of small penguins, and just when I thought that it couldn’t get any better, we were awakened by the expedition leader announcing that the captain had “parked” the ship in an ice shelf and that emperor penguins were on the ice on the port side! We’ve never dressed faster, and it seemed as if everyone had the same thought: People were out in bathrobes, pajamas, you name it. We’d all seen “March of the Penguins” but had been told that it was much too early to see emperors. I’ve never been more excited to have an assumption refuted.

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