Explorers have long been fascinated by the mysterious continent of Antarctica. But now they’re being joined by a new crew of travelers who want to see the magnificent scenery and matchless wildlife up close–before global warming can melt away the ice that sustains them. Contributing writer Lynn Langway sailed on one recent voyage to the bottom of the world, and she reports on the region’s enduring beauties and emerging threats.
On most cruises, it’s tough to pry passengers away from the buffet table, let alone during dessert. But when the loudspeaker broke the news that a pod of killer whales had been sighted right beside the National Geographic Explorer, diners instantly abandoned their crème brulees to dash to the forward decks. And there they were, nine glorious orcas in all their sleek, black and white splendor, lining up in regimental muster, while we aimed our telephoto lenses, point and shoot cameras, and cellphones with joy. No sooner had we gone below than another summons came: humpbacks off the bow. Then two more pods of killer whales, and finally, a couple of frisky penguins cannonballing off a sculpted turquoise iceberg into a meltwater pool.
The allure of such once-in-a-lifetime experiences convinced my husband and me to take a 14-day trip to Antarctica aboard the Explorer this past January. The trips can be long, running between 10-22 days, and costly, at fares starting about $10,000 per person. But like more than a few of our fellow passengers, we were determined to go as soon as possible after a massive iceberg broke away from an Eastern ice shelf in 2017. Scientists were warning that the Antarctic peninsula, where most of the smaller ships land, was warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, and some penguin colonies were already struggling to survive.
We wanted to see as much of this fragile wonderland as we could. Under the international treaty and regulations that govern the region, larger ships may cruise the waters, but only smaller “expedition” vessels, carrying 200 or fewer, may drop passengers ashore to explore.
About 40 of these sturdy, specially constructed and reinforced ice ships ply the route, primarily from ports in Argentina and Chile, during the summer season between November and March, when the ice recedes enough to permit landfall.
We opted to travel with Lindblad Expeditions, the acclaimed outfit that started the expedition business back in 1966 and joined forces with National Geographic in 2004. While Lindblad certainly wasn’t the cheapest contender, we knew from previous experience that they’d have outstanding naturalists and lecturers plus a few new perks: free airfare from some cities, gratis drinks and gratuities, and if truth be told, the “closer” goodie: we got to keep the orange down parkas we’d admired on friends.
Reaching this remote paradise can take two stormy days across the drake passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge; we had a relatively easy voyage going, but a bouncy return (the seasickness pills were free) once we reached our destination on the Western side of the peninsula, we had five days to experience the remarkable sights on hikes, paddles and cruises in rubber Zodiac dinghies.
Travelers have two or more expeditions a day to choose from, suiting up in rental gear (comfortable waterproof boots and pants to wear over long johns, fleeces, hats and multiple socks) against the 30-35 Fahrenheit degree temperatures and blustery winds, and then following orderly landing schedules so no site would be overwhelmed.
On our first excursion, we were awestruck by the bellowing elephant seals and the noisy profusion of penguins that greeted us as we walked a rocky island: white-capped gentoos, adelies sporting the classic tuxedo look, and chic chinstraps whose black markings make them appear to be wearing jockey caps. We observed the protocol to stay 15 feet away from the squabbling, trumpeting, knee-high birds, but as the staff was fond of pointing out, the penguins didn’t know the rules; the most curious creatures often wandered right up to us.
On another outing, our Zodiac bobbed around a bay full of icebergs and ice floes topped by off-white crabeater seals. A humpback whale and her baby circled us playfully, coming so close we could hear them breathe and count the barnacles on their snouts. And one calm, sunny morning, we paddled our inflated kayaks through the ice chunks in sheltered waters, savoring the total stillness—until a distant glacier disgorged a small berg with a thunderous crack (a process known as “calving”).
From the decks of the mother ship, we spotted about 30 species of seabirds—-including the majestic wandering albatross, whose wings can span 10 feet or more across. Most memorably, we saw a total of about 100 whales from five species—-including 80-foot blue whales, once hunted almost to extinction, finbacks, humpbacks, minkes, and orcas. We skipped the chance to dive off the ship into the chilly sea, although nearly half the passengers took this “polar plunge” and lived to boast about it.
The Explorer was a comfortable home with many thoughtful touches—a top-deck gym with panoramic sea views, excellent massages, and a chart room where passengers could find hot drinks at any hour. The food was tasty and inventive, especially the freshly-baked breads and cookies and Argentine barbecues. Informality ruled; dressing for dinner meant finding your cleanest fleece. And our mid-rate cabin on a high deck was surprisingly spacious, with ample storage and big windows where we could watch even more penguins and whales passing by.
There’s a certain last supper mentality associated with an Antarctic cruise. Like us, many of our fellow passengers were baby boomers who want to see this unconquered continent before it’s too late. Expedition leader Brent Stephenson, a witty New Zealander, who has sailed these waters for ten years, says he sees “a rising sense of urgency” among travelers. Their numbers are growing, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators; many predict the annual total will soon equal or surpass the pre-recession peak of 46,000.
One takeaway here, for us as well as many other travelers, is an out-of-this-world destination that both thrills you—and then just as quickly puts you in your place. Unlike the penguins, so adorably clumsy on ice or land, so torpedo-like in the sea, humans will never be at home in this icy wonderland. Nor should we be. The real takeaway here is as dedicated and determined as we were to visit, perhaps the best we can do is also resolve to do no more harm.
Text and photos by Lynn Langway for PeterGreenberg.com