Antarctica is the place of the moment. Cruises sell out a year in advance, and the Andrew Harper Travel Office is deluged with inquiries. Perhaps this is because the continent is far removed from the world’s troubles. On an overcrowded planet, Antarctica’s emptiness and purity could be part of the appeal. For many, the teeming wildlife is probably the primary draw. And in an era with too few leaders of stature, maybe the nobility of explorers like Ernest Shackleton is especially magnetic. But for whatever combination of reasons, the Great White Continent is a staple of cocktail party conversations and the 2016 destination of choice.
Antarctica has exercised a special hold on my imagination since, as a boy, I read the story of the ill-fated Shackleton expedition. His ship, the Endurance, was trapped and wrecked by the ice. After a heroic journey to seek help, Shackleton returned to rescue all of his men, 100 years ago, in August 1916.
This year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the first commercial trip to Antarctica, in 1966, organized by Lindblad Travel, as the company was then called. Lars-Eric Lindblad pioneered expeditions to places previously inaccessible to the general public, and in 1981 I sailed to Antarctica aboard his first ship, the MS Lindblad Explorer. The original company ceased operations in 1989; its heir is Lindblad Expeditions, now under the direction of Lars-Eric’s son, Sven-Olof. Since 2004, it has been allied with the National Geographic Society, and its flagship today is the National Geographic Explorer. While there are other attractive high-end cruise options to Antarctica, in light of the anniversary I decided to journey aboard the successor ship to the one that first took me to Antarctica 35 years ago.
At 5.4 million square miles, Antarctica is larger than the contiguous United States and nearly twice the size of Australia. It is the coldest, driest and windiest of the seven continents. Most of it is covered by a vast sheet of ice — on average over a mile thick — that contains about 70 percent of the world’s freshwater, although the continent receives less than 6 inches of precipitation a year. In winter, temperatures in the interior range from minus 40 to minus 94 degrees. Fortunately there are outlying coastal areas that are gentler, most notably the Antarctic Peninsula, where daytime summer temperatures are usually in the high 20s.
On a map, Antarctica looks like a stingray. The Antarctic Peninsula is the tail, pointing to the tip of South America, from which it is separated by 630 miles of the Southern Ocean. In summer — December, January and February — Antarctica’s waters are alive with penguins, seals, whales and seabirds. All come to feed on the vast swarms of krill, a small shrimp-like crustacean that is the cornerstone of the Antarctic ecosystem.
Our chosen cruise followed a route from Ushuaia, Argentina, across the Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands, and then along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. In total, we spent 11 days on board. Many Lindblad cruises also incorporate visits to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island, adding another week. We opted for the shorter trip solely due to other travel commitments. Glancing over the proposed itinerary, it seemed vague bordering on evasive — but the reason is that everything the ship does is dependent on the prevailing sea and ice conditions.
Our trip began in Buenos Aires, where we joined our fellow travelers for an afternoon of sightseeing, followed by a cocktail/briefing session and an early-morning four-hour charter flight to Ushuaia. Passengers ranged in age from 9 to the late 70s, and included singles, couples, families and people from more than half a dozen countries (though a majority were from the U.S.).
The six-deck, 367-foot National Geographic Explorer joined the Lindblad fleet in 2008 after a complete retrofit and redesign as an expedition ship. For travel in polar seas, the hull was strengthened to a rating of Ice-1A Super, the highest attainable, meaning it can easily cut though ice almost three feet thick. Other safety features include forward-scanning radar, high-definition ice radar and a xenon-bulb light mounted on the mast to illuminate and reflect ice at night. At times we could feel bumps and shakes as we went through the ice, but I never felt any concern — although at breakfast one morning, after some pronounced shudders, a fellow passenger wondered whether “the captain’s opted for an overland route.” All 81 cabins are outside facing, and include 13 with balconies, plus six large suites and 14 cabins for single passengers, making for a regular complement of 148 passengers.
The reception area gave us our first look at the ship’s interior. I was impressed by its polished floor with an inlaid reproduction of the National Geographic Society seal, and a curved front desk that made the staff more accessible. I couldn’t call the appointments luxurious, but they were casually elegant. The corridors provided judiciously placed handrails and were decorated with striking prints of marine life taken by National Geographic photographers.
Passenger accommodations are primarily on the main deck and the upper deck, where you’ll also find the lounge, the bistro and the restaurant. Other public areas are the chart room, with coffee, tea and soft drinks available throughout the day; the fitness center, with sweeping views though three walls of windows; and the spa, with sauna and treatment rooms. My favorite spots were on the topmost Bridge Deck. Unlike most cruise ships, the bridge is open around the clock, and it became my habit to head there shortly after sunrise to converse with the naturalists, to pick up tips on seabird identification and to learn what to look out for on the day’s excursions. Also on the top deck is the library/observation lounge, a wonderful glass-enclosed space and a perfect spot for watching the passing scene, binoculars at the ready.
Like the rest of the ship, our cabin had an unfussy aesthetic. Practical rather than luxurious, it was appointed with a neutral carpet and walls, plus wood laminate furnishings. It provided more than enough storage, including drawers with push-button hardware for securing them in rough seas, and open closet space. A desk came with a full array of plug-ins for electronics — the satellite Wi-Fi is slow and comes at a supplemental charge, but it does work — and a glass top that served as a display for a National Geographic atlas, opened to Antarctica, that slid out for further consultation. The extremely comfortable bed was positioned so that it was easy to see through the big porthole. And the well-designed bath proved larger than expected, with dark-blue tile accents, a walk-in shower and plenty of shelf space for toiletries.
After departing Ushuaia, the ship entered the Drake Passage, notorious for having the roughest seas in the world when the weather is bad. Coming or going, you will get either the “Drake Shake,” which means you’ll be tossed about — even though the ship is equipped with stabilizers — or the “Drake Lake,” with smooth sailing. On the voyage out, we had calm seas, which gave us a chance to settle into the routine of the ship.
A good part of the first day was devoted to briefings and presentations in the lounge, where comfortable seating is arrayed around a central speaker’s podium. The 14 members of the expedition team introduced themselves at a morning briefing. By my calculations, they had more than 250 years of combined experience in the field. Their specialties included ornithology, marine biology and geology, and some were actively engaged in scientific research supported by the National Geographic Society. Also among them were ever-helpful certified photo instructors and a photographer from National Geographic.
Penguins would sometimes approach to peck at our boots, but mostly they just waddled by without a look.
Once we had traversed the Drake Passage, our days were filled with shore landings and Zodiac tours. The passengers were divided into six groups to ensure that no site was overwhelmed. I found it useful to spend the first moments of each excursion with one or more of the naturalists. Passionate about Antarctica, approachable and generous, they had scouted the location before our arrival, noting what animals were where and setting out small orange cones to remind us to keep a safe distance from them. While walking though their colonies, the penguins would sometimes approach to peck at our boots, but mostly they just waddled by without a look. With their experienced eyes, expedition members invariably caught things we would have missed: an unusual macaroni penguin, for example, embedded in a crèche of molting gentoo chicks. On another occasion, a naturalist directed my attention to the shore where a penguin scanned the water, wary of a patrolling leopard seal. The penguin did not look carefully enough — immediately after it splashed into the sea, the unfortunate creature was seized by the seal and disappeared beneath the waves.
There is a saying about Antarctica: “The first time you come for the penguins, the second time for the ice.” Icebergs melt faster beneath the water — the sea being much warmer than the air — and after a while they tend to flip over to reveal extraordinary wave-crafted shapes. Powerful winds then further erode their irregular surfaces. We had daily opportunities to get out on the water to explore. On one foray we ventured among extraordinary formations, including one with an enormous tunnel. Most striking was the intense neon blue that seemed to emanate from icebergs of all shapes, the result of air in the ice that has become so compressed that it allows only blue light to escape. On another afternoon, conditions were so calm that we were able to leave the ship in two-person inflatable kayaks (designed to be extremely resistant to capsizing). We were cautioned to keep back 25 feet from the larger icebergs in case they “calved,” but gliding past with the only sound being the splash of our paddles was like being in a vast outdoor sculpture exhibition.
Every evening after we’d changed for dinner — dress on the ship is casual — we would gather in the lounge for a daily recap. Fortified with hot hors d’oeuvres and cocktails — it’s been a while since I saw so many martinis — we listened to a rundown of events and a preview of possibilities for the following day. Next came a lecture from one of the naturalists: the role waves play in the shaping of ice; key markers in identifying seabirds; how to get the most out of your camera. This was followed by reports from the scientists on board: what they discovered on their dives that day; what the remote underwater vehicle had recorded; what the tagging of killer whale populations had revealed.
I loved these occasions, not just for the wealth of information but also for wonderful camaraderie that was a hallmark of our time on the ship. I attribute this atmosphere chiefly to the crew, who were engaging, friendly and contagiously cheerful, without being overly familiar. One evening I lingered after the recap while everyone else went off to dinner. As I sat there, the expedition staff spread throughout the room to clear away the empty glasses, napkins and plates. They were soon joined by the captain himself, an illustration of the “all hands” mentality that informs the entire vessel.
As is true on all cruise ships, meals set the rhythm of life aboard. Their quality proved to be a real surprise. I had wondered if, given the emphasis on nature and off-ship excursions, the food might not be at the level experienced on more obviously luxurious vessels. But we found the dishes to be creative, well-cooked and attractively presented. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style with an almost daunting variety of options. Dinners were presented at table, with choices such as rack of New Zealand lamb, magret of duck and baked fillet of Arctic char. Seating was open. In addition to the dining room, we could eat in the adjacent casual bistro, opt for a light lunch in the observation lounge or enjoy dinner as an invited guest with members of the crew in the chart room.
Each day produced its own roster of wonders, but one excursion stands out. Having enjoyed fine weather for most of our trip, the captain set a course to take us below the Antarctic Circle (this is not always possible). Having crossed the line, we entered a tranquil fjord flanked by impressive snowcapped hills. A vast ice sheet lay ahead. To our amazement, the ship plowed straight into the ice. Crew then disembarked to assess the conditions, and when they had assured the captain that the ice would support us, we exited through a doorway on a lower deck, crossed a small bridge and walked out onto the frozen ocean.
Most of us paused for a moment, striving to come to terms with the extraordinary experience. After a while we walked across to where some seals were resting. Looking back at our ship, our refuge in the wilderness, I was reminded of the Apollo astronauts who, having ventured out on the plains of the moon, turned to see their fragile lunar lander. For a moment I understood the feeling of being on another world.
Unlike virtually everywhere else I have visited during my wandering life, the Antarctic has remained exactly the same. The Antarctic Peninsula, with its soaring peaks, glorious wildlife and colossal icebergs, is just as strange, remote and hauntingly beautiful as it was 35 years ago. Climate scientists warn of the potential catastrophic collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, an area larger than Mexico, but for now the Great White Continent appears to the traveler’s eye just as it did to Shackleton, precisely a century ago.