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No. 1 trip of a lifetime? Antarctica is like visiting Mars

Journey to the white continent

Cruising to Antarctica aboard Lind Blad's National Geographic Explorer, Dec. 2015.
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Cruising to Antarctica aboard Lind Blad's National Geographic Explorer, Dec. 2015.

Berryhill and Merriwether, 20-something sisters, are first off the ship, bounding onto the ice ledge — pronounced sturdy and safe by our watchful naturalists — for a gasp of solitary grandeur. For one precious moment, the three of us are the only people on this silent, icy planet.

It will be a few minutes, still, before our shipmates will haul on parkas and join us on the shelf where our captain has moored our ice-hardened ship, literally crunching into the crust so we can walk from gangplank along the crusty sheet.

For now, we are Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton combined, explorers in a vast untouched universe — though in far more comfortable circumstances, with fluffy duvets, schnapps-laced hot chocolate and home-baked cheesecake plated on a chocolate crunch.

Our voyage aboard the 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer comes 100 years after Sir Ernest Shackleton’s final, treacherous expedition, and 50 years after Lindblad Expeditions, which runs the National Geographic sailings, first brought tourists to Antarctica.

During our nine-night December sailing from Argentina, a total of 15 vessels will bring visitors through the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula. We will see only one — a surprisingly small sailboat of intrepid travelers — as we steam through the Gerlache Strait on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, then slip east into the Weddell Sea on our 2,000-mile voyage.

Our voyage comes 100 years after Sir Ernest Shackleton’s final expedition, and 50 years after Lindblad Expeditions, which runs the National Geographic sailings, first brought tourists to Antarctica.

We have expedition leader Lisa Kelley — on her 121st Antarctic foray — and careful coordination between visiting vessels to thank for our solitude. When it comes to tourism, Antarctica is one of the most closely regulated regions on the planet, thanks to the environmental commitment of the 25-year-old International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which works with the governing Antarctic Treaty organization.

But first, the dreaded Drake Passage.

One hundred million years ago or so, Antarctica was connected to Australia and South America. Today 600 miles of open water lie between Tiera del Fuego and Antarctica, a stretch notorious for its furious winds, swaggering waves and unpredictability. The 36-hour journey can be as placid as a bathtub or uproarious enough to send a stalwart to the porcelain bowl.

Our crossing rates a 6 out of 10, we’re told, with 15-foot swells and winds that can drop a six-foot man. Snug inside, we stagger through corridors grasping handrails and the stout ropes that have been tied across open lounges. The skies are variable: one minute hailing, the next sunny, the next so foggy the waves outside the window disappear altogether. Then it’s back to snow and sun again.

“It’s the price we pay,” says Capt. Oliver Kruss, “to get to this magnificent environment.”

For most passengers, a scapolomine patch and Dramamine do the trick — though it’s wise to keep one hand clutched around your café au lait.

“It’s like having a hangover without the party the night before,” says Steve Weissman of Aventura. “The only thing funnier than watching other people move is trying to move yourself.”

That explains why we spend much of the crossing reading in the library or in the cushioned chairs of the ship’s main lounge. The day is spent preparing: meeting the expedition team members — geologist; natural historian; experts in birds, whales and sea ice, all certified as photo instructors; watching presentations on currents and local seabirds. Most of our fellow travelers are widely traveled — given the cost and rigor, Antarctica falls deep into the bucket list — and retired, with a few adult children and parents in the mix.

Safety — for us and the Antarctic ecosystem — is at the journey’s center. The sea day allows time for decontaminating all gear and training for clambering in and out of the Zodiacs that will zip us to shore in small groups. The rules: stay 15 feet from a penguin, farther from a seal, and avoid sensitive areas. In this fragile, fickle landscape, nothing can be taken for granted.

At last, the White Continent appears. Boots and parkas come out of the closets as we head to our first landing, on the steep and windy Half Moon Island.

The Zodiacs unload into gusts forceful enough to throw an average-sized person — or two-foot penguin — to the snow-packed ground. The best hope is to put back to the wind, bend the knees and tough it out. The good news: The kabatic blasts don’t last long, and soon we tromp along the ice-packed “people paths” to a rookery of chinstrap penguins. The guides ensure that we keep our distance from the stone-filled nests where the brushy-tailed birds each warm a pair of eggs. The local residents seem to have missed the memo and occasionally waddle over to check us out, getting far closer than anyone expects.

Flapping, the penguins waddle purposely along until they belly-flop into the snow or fling themselves into the sea. On rocky nests, they guard their eggs, one mate zipping off for food while the other keeps marauders at bay. Images don’t quite capture the strangeness, but we give it, literally, our best shots. At each point of interest — near the Weddell seals at one end of the island, by the rookery on the ridge — a naturalist/photo instructor helps with settings on cameras ranging from SLRs to cellphones and suggests new angles.

Our Antarctic days unwind according to the dictates of ice and weather: landing; hiking; cruising amid icebergs in our rubberized skiffs. One frosty morning we huddle into Zodiacs, hunched against a pelting rain as we survey the cove in weather too rugged for landing. A few hours later the sun is glinting off the sea, and we head off in search of seals and shipwrecks and a smelly colony of red-lipped gentoo penguins that march importantly along cleared paths and people tracks. The pungent aroma of poo-shrouded nests — quickly dubbed “eau de gentoo” — reaches hundreds of feet across the sea.

At Port Lockroy, we have our first and only contact with humans. A trio of young women staffs the research station-turned-museum, selling T-shirts and keeping tabs on the vintage canned goods (brisket, butter, Christmas pudding), radio receivers and dorm bedrooms dating from the 1960s, when it served as a research station. The shop doubles as a post office, so we can actually send mail marked “Antarctica.”

Our 356-foot-long ship is more than home base. It’s an expedition rover, hugging ice floes where we find a leopard seal one day, and on another, the surprise of an Emperor penguin, rare in this part of the continent. Wildlife trumps all, and whatever we’re doing stops so we can dash on deck to follow a pod of orcas or a humpback cow that swims so close to the ship we can hear her breathe. The bridge, always open, becomes a place to bring a hot chocolate and chat with naturalists and the captain, review the bird and mammal list for the day and track our voyage.

“No matter how many times you visit, it’s completely different,” Kelley says.

After so many sailings and several overwinters, Kelley knows. She came first as a college student with her grandparents and fell so in love with the stark, compelling seascape that she applied for a job aboard the Lindblad ship from which she had just disembarked.

“People are seeing things that will disappear,” she says, pointing to the declining Adelie penguin population, whose food source is disappearing. “We’re creating ambassadors, teaching people what they can do about the changes,” such as declining to buy increasingly popular krill oil. Just this month, she was named operations manager for the tour operators association.

Our Antarctic days unwind according to the dictates of ice and weather: landing; hiking; cruising amid icebergs in our rubberized skiffs.

Kelley’s was an extreme version of the response the late Lars-Eric Lindblad was hoping to inspire when he began the first Antarctic tourist expeditions in 1966, says his son Sven, now the company CEO.

“He always had a deep-rooted philosophy that travelers could become ambassadors for things he cared about. He cared deeply about conservation and our relationship with the planet, both natural and cultural,” Lindblad says.

In the company’s early years, his father led trips to Mongolia and Easter Island. At the time of the first Antarctic trip, “for laymen, that was akin to going to the moon.” While space travel is still beyond the ken for more than the richest, bravest travelers, today about 40 tourist ships travel in the region each year, according to the IAATO website. Only those carrying fewer than 500 passengers are allowed to land, with only 200 guests at one time. Care is required, Lindblad says.

“I believe the more people can get out and be exposed to these places, it creates awareness. It changes the way people see the world,” he says. But, “people underestimate that it’s still a potentially dangerous place if you don’t really know what you’re doing.”

Because Explorer is rated as an ice-class ship, we attempt to push through the thicker-than-usual icepack blocking the Lemaire Channel, hoping to make our way to a colony where Emperors have lingered. The ice proves too thick even for our ship; the frozen pack looks more like a pocked lunar desert than the sea. The ship moves back toward less clogged waters, where lentincular clouds swirl in the blue overhead, like spaceships heading in for a snowy landing. Penguins hopscotch amid the floes, mindful of hunting seals that slyly hide in the shadows.

Come evening, guests gather in the lounge for cocktails and a presentation — undersea footage shot by the onboard diving expert, photo tips from the guest professional photographer, a talk about climate change — before dinner with surprisingly sophisticated dishes including spicy coconut soup, crumbled poached egg with asparagus, grilled scallops on root vegetable puree, deconstructed rhubarb tarte. And after: a slide show about the hardships of wintering in the frozen south (“It’s as close as you can come to living on Mars,” says guest lecturer Dr. Alexander Kumar) or the recent film “Chasing Shackleton,” for which he was expedition doctor.

Or, on a warmish night, simply a stroll on deck at a sunset that lasts far longer than our eyelids. The ship glides through endless flats strewn with crushed ice, splattered with searing gold and splashes of crimson, rimmed with crusty peaks. The captain takes advantage of calm winds and the looming sunset to circle a small iceberg, positioning so the ship’s angles, decks and railings are shadowed against the ice in intricate detail.

To our surprise, some days feel almost balmy — at 32 degrees and calm, warm enough for kayaking in a protected cove. And warm enough for the polar plunge. Bragging rights for leaping into the Antarctic waters are simply too tempting for many — though the thought of the ship’s doctor ready to wrap you into a warm towel when you bolt from the water certainly helps ease worry. The youngest — dare we say most foolish? — of the guests go for seconds. “After the first time, you can’t really feel it,” explains Andrew McArthur, a 20-something Seattle engineer who actually jumps in for a third time. (His traveling companion, his father, opts for staying dry.)

Just when we think we’ve seen penguins enough, we wake to a cove filled with black-and-white birds literally flying through the water. Leap, pirouette, porpoise, dive! What looks like a rave party is part predator dodge, part feeding frenzy in the waters rich with krill.

Here at Brown Bluff, it’s hatching season for the Adelie penguins, neurotic noisy birds that nervously stomp to and fro, to and fro with a pack of mates until one finally flings itself into the sea, and the rest rush in. The panic may be warranted; penguins make a fat snack for leopard seals and killer whales.

A hundred yards from the beach, the birds snuggle in snow and the rocks they’ve brought to build their homes, warming eggs — most penguins have two — and feeding chicks still fuzzy with down. Right before us, a tiny beak appears; a shell cracks; a penguin is born.

Even the worldliest travelers are awed. “I was ambivalent about the trip,” admits Madeleine Neems of Chicago. “I’ve been on safari, to Nepal, to the Galapagos. But this is my No. 1, absolutely.”

It’s a magical moment to end our time on The Ice, as the naturalists call it. But the voyage isn’t over quite yet.

While some parts of the Antarctic ice are increasing, others — such as the fast-disappearing Larsen ice shelf — are thinning as climate warms, causing them to fracture. Early in this century, a chunk larger than Jamaica broke off the Ross Ice Shelf on Antarctica’s western coast. In a northern drift, the world’s largest iceberg — once measuring 183 miles, 23 miles wide, dubbed B-15 — has flipped and fractured into massive shards. Its dwindling remains edge the channel to open water, creating Iceberg Alley. Sailing through it “is like wallpapering an apartment through a keyhole,” says our ship’s captain.

A phalanx of frozen faces rises 150 feet from the sea, the blue of ice compressed for centuries glowing above and below the sea. The largest, B-15Y, measures 10.2 miles long. The mythology is true, says onboard ice expert Eric Guth; 90 percent of each berg lies beneath the surface.

Guth will tell you that while people come to Antarctica for the penguins, they come back for the ice.

“The scale you see down here helps put a lot of things in perspective,” says Andrew McArthur of Seattle.

Berryhill McCarty is a believer.

The family previously visited the Arctic, and “I was expecting ice and ocean,” she says. “But I wasn’t expecting the wonderful sense of being overwhelmed. You’re entirely here.

“I’ve seen photos of Antarctica. You think you get the feeling of it, but you really don’t. The wind, the big open expanse ... there really aren’t words to describe this imagery.”

Jane Wooldridge is a past winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year award.

If you go

To visit Antarctica by ship, you should be in good health and be staunch enough to climb into Zodiacs and trudge through snow.

Like most modern Antarctic itineraries, ours began in Buenos Aires. A day later we flew via charter to Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost city, where we boarded our ship. Lindblad’s 14-day White Continent itinerary starts at $13,360 per person, double occupancy, and includes internal airfare and all activities. Some sailings also include international airfare. Longer trips are also offered. Information: expeditions.com.

We chose Lindblad for its strong reputation for science, environmentalism, guest services and onboard photo instructors. Other lines offering itineraries with Antarctic landings include Hurtigruten, Ponant, Quark Expeditions, Seabourn, Silversea and Zegrahm. Each has its own character; some offer ultra luxury, others on-ice camping, still others a more a la carte cost approach.

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