Antarc­tica Be­yond Ex­pec­ta­tions Feat­tru­arveesl

Luxe Beat Magazine - - News - By Deb­bie Stone

Ididn’t think the day could get any bet­ter as we wit­nessed a pod of mag­nif­i­cent Or­cas glid­ing by our ship along with dozens of Painted Pe­trels rid­ing the waves amid ice sculp­tures that could have been made by Michelan­gelo him­self. But it did -- as soon as we set foot on land and were greeted by a welcome com­mit­tee of thou­sands of Adelie pen­guins dressed in their finest tuxes. They pa­raded all around us as they headed to and from their nests on the rocks and to the sea on a well-traf­ficked path, com­monly re­ferred to as the “pen­guin high­way.” Most wad­dled in per­fect lin­ear for­ma­tion, one af­ter an­other, though oc­ca­sion­ally a few would slide down the hills in an ef­fort to take a short­cut to their des­ti­na­tion. Con­sum­mate en­ter­tain­ers, they pro­vided end­less amuse­ment and Ko­dak mo­ments for their en­thralled hu­man au­di­ence.

For most peo­ple, Antarc­tica brings to mind a mys­te­ri­ous, iso­lated place of frigid tem­per­a­tures and ex­treme con­di­tions. It’s a land of su­perla­tives, be­ing the high­est, cold­est, windi­est and sur­pris­ingly dri­est con­ti­nent in the world, with the largest wilder­ness area. Most of its 5.4 mil­lion square miles is a vast per­ma­nent ice sheet av­er­ag­ing 8,000 feet in thick­ness. It’s hard to imag­ine this re­al­ity, how­ever, un­til you ac­tu­ally visit the place and dis­cover a pris­tine won­der­land that goes far be­yond ex­pec­ta­tions.

Get­ting to the Great White Con­ti­nent is an adventure in it­self. The ma­jor­ity of trav­el­ers take an ex­pe­di­tion cruise de­part­ing from Ushuaia, Ar­gentina, known as “the end of the world” for its lo­ca­tion at the ex­treme south­ern tip of South Amer­ica. There are nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies of­fer­ing such trips.

I booked my cruise with Adventure Life be­cause of its rep­u­ta­tion in the in­dus­try for work­ing with top po­lar

voy­age lead­ers such as Quark Ex­pe­di­tions. On an eleven-day, in­tro­duc­tory Antarc­tic Ex­plorer cruise, Quark’s Sea Ad­ven­turer was my home away from home. The ship had a wide range of crea­ture com­forts for its 117 guests plus crew, in­clud­ing com­pact cab­ins; a spa­cious, win­dow-walled ob­ser­va­tion lounge; main din­ing room; bar; small li­brary; mini bou­tique; sev­eral stor­age ar­eas; am­ple open deck space and, of course, the bridge, or nav­i­ga­tional hub.

It takes two days to reach Antarc­tica from Ushuaia and in­volves cross­ing the in­fa­mous Drake Pas­sage. This is the body of water between South Amer­ica and Antarc­tica that serves as a con­nect­ing point between the At­lantic and Pa­cific Oceans. Fre­quented by ice­bergs and huge waves and plagued by gale-force winds, this leg­endary pas­sage can of­ten be vi­o­lent, chaotic and un­pre­dictable.

If Mother Na­ture is in a rel­a­tively calm mood, you’ll get to ex­pe­ri­ence “The Drake Lake” with just a bit of rolling and pitch­ing about – maybe only a one-dra­mamine kind of day. If not, you’ll be at the mercy of “The Dreaded Drake,” where you’ll feel like you’re on a buck­ing bronco that threat­ens to fling you from the ship. For those re­ally af­fected by the sever­ity of the mo­tion, the safest course of ac­tion is to re­main prone in your bed. You won’t be able to read, watch videos or con­cen­trate on much of any­thing ex­cept your ap­pre­ci­a­tion for be­ing in a stal­wart, sea-wor­thy ves­sel with a vet­eran cap­tain and crew -- and for hav­ing ac­cess to the ship doc­tor’s arsenal of mo­tion sick­ness med­i­ca­tion. Rough seas are not fun for most folks. Just know there’s light at the end of the tun­nel and this, too, will pass. The dis­com­fort is well worth the re­wards.

If the sit­u­a­tion is man­age­able, take ad­van­tage of all the fas­ci­nat­ing ed­u­ca­tional pre­sen­ta­tions given by the ex­pe­di­tion team on their ar­eas of ex­per­tise, from ma­rine bi­ol­ogy and or­nithol­ogy to ge­ol­ogy and his­tory. Spend time bun­dled up out­side on the deck watch­ing the al­ba­tross cir­cling the ship; go up to the bridge and learn about the nav­i­ga­tional equip­ment; visit the gift shop and get your­self some Antarc­tica-themed mer­chan­dise; eat lots of cook­ies in the lounge and get to know your fel­low pas­sen­gers. On my cruise, there were peo­ple from all over the world – a mini United Na­tions of sort – who were well-sea­soned trav­el­ers. For many, Antarc­tica was their sev­enth and fi­nal con­ti­nent. You’ll also be en­gaged in a va­ri­ety of manda­tory ac­tiv­i­ties such as pick­ing up your boots and parkas, learn­ing about the en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­to­cols for shore land­ings, par­tic­i­pat­ing in safety drills and vac­u­um­ing your outer cloth­ing and equip­ment to pre­vent spread­ing any invasive species.

The two-day cross­ing re­ally serves to gain not only phys­i­cal, but psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance, from civ­i­liza­tion. You can’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate how far re­moved Antarc­tica is un­til you sit on a boat for two days with not much to view ex­cept steel gray rolling waves as far as the eye can see. And that makes it all the more in­cred­i­ble when you spy your first ice­berg and get your first glimpse of terra firma. Then the ex­cite­ment builds as grad­u­ally the ship is sur­rounded by more ice sculp­tures and jagged moun­tains cov­ered with snow and glaciers, pre­sent­ing a photo di­rectly out of the pages of a Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Mag­a­zine.

Vis­i­tors to the Great White Con­ti­nent will find scenes of grandeur and mag­nif­i­cence, along with abun­dant ma­rine life. The va­ri­ety of ice will as­tound you, and

even more so when you learn that each kind has its own name. Pas­sen­gers are pro­vided with a glossary of terms in or­der to help them iden­tify the dif­fer­ent forms, rang­ing from an­chor ice and bergy­bits to floe, growler and frazil. Of spe­cial note are the mam­moth tab­u­lar bergs flat-topped ice­bergs that are more or less par­al­lel with the wa­ter­line. The glaciers, too, are impressive in size, and when calv­ing oc­curs, the noise can be deaf­en­ing. As we cruised through the is­lands sur­round­ing the Antarc­tic Penin­sula, we set­tled into a rou­tine that con­sisted of at least two ex­cur­sions a day. Zo­di­acs or in­flat­able boats took us from the ship to land where we had time to wan­der around, watch the wildlife, take a hike and sim­ply revel in the ma­jes­tic scenery. The ex­pe­di­tion team was al­ways on hand to point out sen­si­tive, off-limit ar­eas, as well as to ex­plain about the en­vi­ron­ment and the crea­tures in­hab­it­ing it.

The pen­guins were the main at­trac­tion on these land­ings. They squawked and wad­dled, fetched rock af­ter rock for their nests, splashed in the sea dur­ing their food for­ays and ba­si­cally went about their busi­ness as usual with­out pay­ing much attention to their hu­man ad­mir­ers. Like pa­parazzi, we fol­lowed them, cam­eras click­ing away, as we at­tempted to cap­ture ev­ery last com­i­cal pose. We never tired of watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to these Antarc­tica celebri­ties. Most of the species we saw were ei­ther Adelie, Chin­strap or Gen­too pen­guins, and as it was De­cem­ber, they were still in the nest­ing stage. We were for­tu­nate to spot one er­rant Mac­a­roni pen­guin that seemed to have some­how got­ten him­self mixed in with the oth­ers. He stood out from the rest due to the bright yel­low feath­ers on the top of his head.

On land, the pen­guins have no real preda­tors. In the water, how­ever, they can be­come fair game for seals, sea lions and whales. There are also cer­tain birds, such as the skua, that will snatch the pen­guins’ eggs if they are ex­posed. We wit­nessed this on a few oc­ca­sions and you had to ad­mire these birds for their prow­ess and quick ac­tion. Along with the skua there are other bird species that in­habit Antarc­tica, in­clud­ing blue-eyed shags, Antarc­tic terns, kelp gulls, storm pe­trels, al­ba­trosses, cor­morants, snowy sheath­bills and an as­sort­ment of geese and ducks.

Only two of the land­ings we made had build­ings of any sort on them. At Hope Bay, there’s the Ar­gen­tinean Re­search Sta­tion, and at Port Lock­roy, there’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary his­tor­i­cal mu­seum in­side the old Bri­tish Antarc­tic Sur­vey hut. One room within the fa­cil­ity is also a post of­fice and gift shop where you can pur­chase stamps, post­cards and sou­venirs. Mail sent from Port Lock­roy can take from three weeks to three months to reach its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion.

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