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Day 1: In Antarctica, greeted by dirt, not ice

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By Kerry Sanders, NBC News Correspondent

We touched soil in Antarctica on Aitcho Island and the biggest surprise was just that: Our first footsteps were on soil.

While I know it's summer in this part of the world, I’d always believed snow and ice perpetually covered the top and bottom of the Earth. While that was once the case, on this day it was a balmy 45 degrees.

 

Nery Ynclan / NBC News

Seals nap on Aitcho Island.

Here on Aitcho Island it felt like I’d stepped into a National Geographic film.  Between the wildlife and the remote nature of Antarctica, I was in a perpetual state of awe. You can see in the accompanying photos and video that the island is home to Elephant seals, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. What you can’t see is that the sweeping beauty comes with a rather unpleasant stench.

Yes, those thousands of penguins tending to their newborn chicks are also making a heck of a mess. My boots were caked in guano (otherwise known as dung), and it took the help of a guide -- with both of us working several minutes per boot -- to wash it off before I climbed back into a small inflatable boat known as a Zodiac for transport to our main ship, the Ocean Diamond.

 

Modern-day expeditions to Antarctica are a more pampered escape than the harrowing ordeals they once were, but a couple men remember the heroes of previous expeditions a little better than most. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports.

One hundred or so years ago, explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton braved the elements here with nothing more than rubber boots that often led to trench foot, a painful condition that can result in gangrene. They donned wool sweaters that, while warm, became the enemy when they worked hard and perspired -- as their sweat-soaked clothes did not wick away the moisture. Yet here I was, a century later, with my silks and GORE-TEX and not a worry about frostbite (or worse). In fact, it was so warm that at times I would sweat just standing still.

Kerry Sanders / NBC News

A penguin takes shelter from the wind behind a whalebone

The high point on our first day had to be seeing the penguin who stood solo next to what looked like a piece of driftwood.  But that's no driftwood -- it's a whale bone. For my little feathered friend, it made for the perfect wind block on this tiny volcanic outpost in the South Shetland Island chain.

 

Day 2: Penguins in decline

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See photos from NBC's Kerry Sanders' voyage to Antarctica.