Travelling to Antarctica With MdDS

December 17, 2019 I stepped onto a cruise ship in Portugal to sail across the Atlantic. On December 27, following ten days of rough seas I stepped onto the docks in Miami. I didn’t know it then but Mal de Debarquement Syndrome was going to become part of my daily existence. Over the next 12 months as I searched and hoped for a cure that would return me to normal… I had a sinking feeling that I would never travel again. Although grateful for previous adventures, I grieved over the loss of future travel plans to Europe, Africa, maybe even Antarctica.

Traveling Again

We had a trip to Portugal planned for 2022 and we decided not to cancel but to give it a try. If it didn’t go well, then I would have to accept that traveling was going to become a thing of my past. My husband Steve convinced me to try a rollator walker so that I could walk independently outdoors. I was so embarrassed in the beginning that I would not walk in public. So I practiced in our local cemetery to regain my confidence. After two weeks I was walking as fast as Steve and we both agreed that I could travel as long as I had “Nitro” to balance with. We didn’t know then that I would eventually make it to Antarctica to spend New Year’s Eve 2024 to celebrate.

Finding Support

In March of 2023 I joined a VeDA online support group “Finding Joy in Your Vestibular Journey”led by Marissa Aldrete and Joy Holten. The members of that group have been so encouraging. We all support each other as we try to reclaim our lives and adjust to living with a vestibular disorder.

Dreaming of Antarctica

There was a lot of hard work to prepare myself for Antarctica and it began in the summer of 2023. We started with sailing the five Great Lakes on the Viking Octantis. In August, Steve and I attended a presentation on Antarctica given by the Expedition Guides. As we listened and watched videos of the wildlife, icebergs, and majestic scenery, I silently grieved. I knew that this was a place and experience that I would never have. There was no way I could step onto and off of a Zodiac, or Special Operations Boat (S.O.B.) I would not be able to walk on the landings to see the Penguins. The Drake Passage would probably be a nightmare for me and could possibly ramp up my “rocking and rolling” to an intolerable level. Steve was completely against our going out of concern for me. Besides it would be COLD!!!

During a previous cruise we tried a Zodiac with the help of four people to keep me balanced as I stepped down off the ship into the bobbing Zodiac. Next they loaded “Nitro” and off we went. There were crew members with strong arms waiting at the dock to help keep me balanced and Nitro ready and waiting on the floating dock with brakes on… as soon as I felt balanced enough we were off to explore an island.

This one Zodiac trip with the kindness, support and encouragement from Steve and members of the Viking Expedition Team opened my life back up to the future! We returned to the ship and I booked five more Zodiac tours, five Special Operations Boat tours and by the end of the cruise we decided to book a January 2024 trip to Antarctica!

Getting Prepared

When we returned home I made appointments and set goals with my physical therapist, Angelica Maldonado. I wanted to increase my leg, core and arm strength. I also needed to learn how to balance with walking sticks on uneven surfaces. Nitro would not be allowed on the landings in Antarctica. I would have to handle rocks, sand and gravel beaches, slippery surfaces and walking in the water. Part of my goals were to see if I could do it safely, if not, I would be happy looking at the icebergs and scenery from the decks of the ship. Being willing to take risks also comes with responsibility. I am not willing to put others who help me at risk. Injury to others or myself is not a part of my plan.

There were Expedition Team members… Sujith, Martin, Sam, Tato, Tony, and Isabel who encouraged and supported our decision to embark on this adventure. They made suggestions on what I would need to do to be prepared to handle the terrain and experience Antarctica overall. Their love for Antarctica and sharing it with me was the spark that kept me going over the next few months while I worked out. Angelica had me practicing stepping up and balancing on small surfaces… I practiced with walking sticks on the rocks in our backyard. I kept working to strengthen my legs, core and arm muscles. Slowly but surely I was making progress and my confidence grew as I got stronger. If I could trust my body, my brain would follow along.

Making the Voyage

On December 29, 2023 we boarded our flight for Ushuaia. There was no turning back now and I felt confident in my body to handle the upcoming challenges. After landing in Ushuaia we headed for the docks and the waiting Octantis. Within hours we would be sailing on the Drake Passage and I knew that my experiences in Antarctica would be determined by the level of motion they would trigger. What a wonderful surprise to discover that I had been living on the Drake Passage for the past 4 years so it felt normal to me. The best part was that I was on a ship full of passengers who were experiencing my daily existence. I told Steve, “Welcome to my life!” and he commented back, “I don’t know how you can live with this!”

The following day we arrived in Fournier Bay to blue skies and bright white icebergs the size of large buildings floating beside us. 9,000 foot snow covered mountains and glaciers surrounded us. Everywhere I looked was the stunning beauty and majesty I had only seen in pictures. I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude and looked forward to two tours off the ship to look for wildlife and closer inspection of the icebergs. We would not be going ashore so I did not have to test my walking stick skills yet. That would come tomorrow.

Early the next morning we spent 20 minutes getting dressed to go ashore. Heading down to board the Zodiac I was greeted by members of the Expedition Team. Nitro was left behind at the top of the steps. I hung on to the metal railings and made my way down to the crew who would support me as I stepped down into the bobbing Zodiac. Martin stabilized me till I could sit down on the rubber edge and hang on to the attached ropes. Woo Hoo! I made it and waved goodbye. Fifteen minutes later we approached the landing where Olivia greeted our Zodiac and gave instructions on disembarking. I was asked to remain seated since I would be last. This is where all my work was going to pay off or not.

Stepping into the water for the first time, feeling the shifting sand and gravel under my boots with gentle waves pushing towards the shore was a new feeling. There were two crew members on either side of me holding on to the straps around my waste while I held tightly to their arms. We moved steadily towards the shore where about 10 feet from the water’s edge were a collection of walking sticks. The right height was adjusted for me and we were off of to see a Penguin colony on Damoy Point. We followed the path to a set of stairs carved out of snow and ice. A few large rocks were exposed in the newly created staircase and I wasn’t sure I could handle this. There were no railings and I had to go up 20+ steps. Once again the Team members stepped up to support me as I slowly made my way to the top. This was a major accomplishment and I knew that once again my physical therapy had paid off. I trust the strength of my body and I have no fear. I do not allow myself to be afraid and forge ahead with confidence.

Steve and I continued on our own following the paths marked for the passengers. You are not free to wander off in the deep snow on your own. The Penguin highways are off limits to the humans in red coats… but our paths are occasionally chosen by the Penguins. They have the right of way and we must stay 15 feet from them, never touching or encouraging them to come to us. We were following the instructions of penguin interaction until it was time to go down the icy staircase. Standing at the top preparing myself to go down we heard instructions to “Wait!” and move back. A penguin had decided to use the stairs instead. This cute little guy finally made it to a few steps from the top where we were standing. I could’t back away any further unless I wanted to fall backwards off a small cliff. So there we stood, breaking the rules while the penguin walked three feet in front of me before continuing on its way. I apologized to the Team Leader when we arrived back at the beach to board the Zodiac. No problem I was reassured. The safety of humans comes first and no harm was done to either of us. The penguin went merrily on its way and I returned to the ship.

A Vestibular Victory!Nancy Gray Antarctica

Success! I had made it ashore and returned to the ship without falling. Tomorrow would bring another landing and I felt even more confident in my ability to continue going ashore. By the end of our trip on January 10, I was able to go ashore four times… never falling or hurting any of the crew members as I boarded and disembarked the Zodiacs with their assistance.

We have been home for over a month now. My rocking and rolling continues and it is no worse than it was before I left. So when people ask me, “Was it worth it?” YES!!!! It was worth it and I’d go again if given the opportunity. This trip has recharged my spirit, renewed my self confidence and taught me to trust my body in spite of what my brain is making me feel.


By Nancy Gray