The White Con­ti­nent, with­out be­ing in the red

One big deal on a costly cruise full of seabirds, or­cas and ice­bergs

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ANNIE GROER

I was born with acute wan­der­lust, which, by my early 40s, had pro­pelled me far beyond North Amer­ica to Europe, Africa, Asia, Aus­tralia and South Amer­ica, of­ten for months on end. Yet see­ing the sev­enth and sto­ried White Con­ti­nent never crossed my mind un­til a chance meet­ing with a globe-trot­ting pal.

“I’m look­ing for some­one to join me in Antarc­tica. The ship leaves from the tip of Ar­gentina in six weeks, and it’s half price. Wanna come?”

You bet. Here was a $6,897 chance to hit my fi­nal con­ti­nent and its jaw-drop­ping en­vi­rons, with most flights cov­ered by air­line miles. Dire re­ports of a mas­sive, crack­ing ice shelf and po­ten­tial ris­ing sea lev­els only in­creased my sense of ur­gency.

On the evening of Dec. 7, two weeks be­fore the sum­mer sol­stice be­low the equa­tor, Vivi­enne Lass­man, an in­de­pen­dent art cu­ra­tor, and I joined 91 pas­sen­gers from around the world aboard the Sea Ad­ven­turer, a 1976 Yu­goslav-built ves­sel — with an ice-strength­ened hull — run by Seat­tle-based Quark Ex­pe­di­tions.

By mid­night, we had left be­hind the port of Ushuaia and the Bea­gle Chan­nel to en­ter the no­to­ri­ous Drake Pas­sage. There, in what is called the South­ern Ocean, the cur­rents of the At­lantic, Pa­cific and In­dian oceans of­ten slam to­gether to cre­ate an Antarc­tic “con­ver­gence” be­low Cape Horn. Waves can eas­ily top 30 feet and turn the hardi­est sailors into sea­sick wretches.

We, how­ever, lucked out. Our 600-mile Drake cross­ing was bless­edly calm, and the wildlife im­pres­sive: hump­back and fin whales, or­cas, di­ve­bomb­ing pe­trels and skuas, and one glo­ri­ous al­ba­tross, mirac­u­lously en­gi­neered to glide hun­dreds of miles with­out flap­ping wings that span 8 to 11 feet. Some fly for months with­out land­ing.

Our first ice­berg ap­peared on our sec­ond Drake day as we headed to­ward the Antarc­tic Penin­sula. For me, Vivi­enne and nearly 20 other ship­mates — who hap­pily raised our hands when polled by a Quark leader dur­ing an early brief­ing — this frozen land­mass that is larger than both Aus­tralia and Europe would be our sev­enth con­ti­nent.

The two-day cross­ing be­came a float­ing class­room fea­tur­ing pic­tures and lec­tures from ex­pe­di­tion staffers, a multi­na­tional

group of out­doorsy, mostly young no­madic sci­en­tist-ad­ven­tur­ers. Knowl­edge­ably and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, they spoke about whales, seals and birds. (But not po­lar bears, which only roam the Arc­tic North.)

We went over five cen­turies of his­tory from the time of Mag­el­lan, in­clud­ing the 1915 hero­ics of Sir Ernest Shack­le­ton and his ice­bound “En­durance,” as well as whalers, seal­ers and avi­a­tors in this land with no na­tive peo­ples and no na­tional sovereignty. We learned about the Antarc­tic Treaty of 1959, with its dozen charter sig­na­tory na­tions sup­port­ing peace­ful sci­en­tific study. (To­day, 30 coun­tries over­see per­ma­nent and sea­sonal re­search sta­tions.)

And we learned about travel to the world’s largest desert. Since 1991, tourism has been reg­u­lated to pro­tect the frag­ile ecosys­tem by the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Antarc­tica Tour Op­er­a­tors, which caps an­nual vis­i­tors at around 40,000, with no more than 100 peo­ple on any given shore land­ing.

As we cruised along, there were also talks about plants, ice, rocks and ma­rine crea­tures. But noth­ing screamed “adorable” so much as the pen­guin sem­i­nar, fo­cus­ing on the smaller chin­strap, gen­too and Adélie breeds we would soon en­counter, and the more ma­jes­tic em­per­ors, kings and mac­a­ro­nis we re­gret­tably would not.

I must ex­plain that I’m not big on na­ture. My best hol­i­days in­volve cafes, mu­se­ums, palaces, mu­sic, mass tran­sit, food stalls and flea mar­kets. Un­til Antarc­tica, noth­ing could touch my 2014 two-month solo odyssey through In­dia’s non­stop sen­sory smor­gas­bord.

To­day, In­dia shares “life­time best” hon­ors with Antarc­tica, even though the lat­ter re­quired my first REI wardrobe foray. I had bor­rowed a ski hood, gog­gles, gaiters and gloves but sprang for wa­ter­proof pants, fleece trousers and woolen socks for day­light weather gen­er­ally in the 30s with tol­er­a­ble winds. Quark loaned us rub­ber boots for wet land­ings and gave us yel­low hooded, lined, wa­ter­proof jack­ets. (I now joke that the voy­age was free but the parka cost a for­tune.)

The ship was hardly posh. No “dress­ing for din­ner,” no wran­gling seats at the cap­tain’s ta­ble. (He was in the wheel­house keep­ing us from ram­ming an ice­berg or get­ting frozen in place.) Nei­ther ar­ti­sanal nor pre­cious, the food was in­ter­na­tional and plen­ti­ful, the pur­chased wine just fine. The out­door pig roast din­ner (sug­gested at­tire: parka and long johns) com­plete with hot, mulled Mal­bec and danc­ing, was pretty hi­lar­i­ous. And more than half my ship­mates took a day­time “po­lar plunge” wear­ing, yes, bathing suits, into frigid wa­ters while se­cured to a har­ness, for what I con­sid­ered du­bi­ous brag­ging rights.

Our low­est-priced, low­est-level cabin, a cozy 133 square feet, had twin beds, good clos­ets and a port­hole. The pri­vate bath­room was tight but the hot wa­ter never quit. The orig­i­nal price for digs like ours was $18,800. Some pas­sen­gers paid a dis­counted $13,795 each, and oth­ers, in­clud­ing us, got that ad­ver­tised late date hal­foff deal of $6,879.50. Sev­eral back­pack­ers snagged last-minute, $4,750 dou­ble berths in Ushuaia.

“Good on ’em,” I thought, re­call­ing my own bar­gain voy­ages: the Galá­pa­gos Is­lands on an Ecuado­ran navy ship, and small ter­ri­fy­ing, diesel-belch­ing In­dian com­muter tubs to and from the Sun­dar­bans tiger re­serve in West Ben­gal.

The trip was billed as 10 days and nine nights, but to­tal time spent ex­plor­ing moun­tain­ous is­lands, beau­ti­ful wa­ter­ways and the con­ti­nent’s north­west penin­sula was not quite five days. The rest got eaten up in Ushuaia, on the Drake and by our hasty exit from King Ge­orge Is­land to Punta Are­nas, Chile, so the plane wouldn’t be grounded by fog. The first and last nights were spent in ho­tels.

But what we saw dur­ing at least 20 hours of light each day at and be­low the Antarc­tic Cir­cle was spec­tac­u­lar.

Morn­ing, af­ter­noon and one evening, we galumphed off the mother ship into kayaks or 10per­son mo­tor­ized Zo­diac rafts to sa­vor sights that in­cluded crab- eater, Wed­dell and leop­ard seals lolling on ice­bergs and slip­ping un­der­wa­ter to frolic and feed. On the penin­sula, Quark pro­vided a flag — a blue field with Antarc­tica in white — as a per­fect photo-op prop. While I preened, Vivi­enne climbed the 938-foot Spigot Peak to gaze down onto the Ger­lache Strait and a chin­strap pen­guin colony, but she de­scended in time for some quick pics.

We learned to iden­tify whales by their spume, backs and flukes (tails), and wit­nessed a sin­gle, breath­tak­ing avalanche — all snow but no deadly ice boul­ders — in the Le­maire Chan­nel, nick­named Ko­dak Al­ley for its mag­nif­i­cent scenery. The ship only got half­way down be­fore ice blocked fur­ther progress.

We en­dured the heart­break of the wild when a skua drove its beak into a gen­too egg left mo­men­tar­ily un­guarded by its par­ents at Port Lock­roy’s breed­ing colony. The port also boasts Antarc­tica’s only mu­seum and bou­tique and post of­fice in a re­pur­posed Bri­tish spy sta­tion. At Whaler’s Bay on the cir­cu­lar De­cep­tion Is­land — ac­tu­ally a vol­canic crater — we stood silently be­fore two-cen­tury-old graves, dwarfed on that black ash beach by rusted-out whale pro­cess­ing equip­ment and tum­ble­down build­ings.

On En­ter­prise Is­land in Wil­well helmina Bay — along whose shel­tered coast count­less ves­sels had dropped an­chor in the early 1900s — we cir­cled a ship that never left. The ghostly Gou­ver­noren, a one­time float­ing whalepro­cess­ing fac­tory, burned and half sank in 1915.

At home in Wash­ing­ton, I crave bril­liant sun­light, which we had some days in Antarc­tica. But I fell hard for leaden skies, low slate clouds and pale fog hang­ing above sil­very-gold hori­zons bro­ken by jagged black snow-capped peaks cradling white glaciers.

Whether at 4 a.m. or 9 p.m., there was al­ways some­thing to ogle. Gar­gan­tuan ice­bergs and smaller growlers in the dis­tance, or a swirling, wa­tery stew of frozen chunks called bergy bits and brash ice float­ing past the ship. On deck and in Zo­di­acs, we saw ice that was blind­ingly white, dirty-look­ing tan and rust from em­bed­ded flora, fauna and min­er­als, and a star­tling Win­dex blue, in­di­cat­ing ice crys­tals that ex­panded over time and com­pressed all the air bub­bles. We even saw an oc­ca­sional chunk of clear ice, which our guides fished out of the wa­ter, passed around for close in­spec­tion and later brought back to chill the vodka at the ship’s bar.

Some­times I’d as­cend to the bridge to silently watch the crew study charts and com­put­ers, and sweep the hori­zon with binoc­u­lars for open wa­ter amid treach­er­ous ice.

But I was thrilled we were fly­ing out rather than re­cross­ing the capri­cious Drake, and at about 10,000 feet, Vivi­enne asked where I was headed next.

“I’m em­bar­rassed to say I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon. Wanna come?”

The ship was hardly posh. No “dress­ing for din­ner,” no wran­gling seats at the cap­tain’s ta­ble.

JIM ZUCKERMAN/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A black-browed al­ba­tross zips along the cliff-like edge of an ice­berg near Antarc­tica. With wings that can span up to 11 feet, the seabirds are able to glide hun­dreds of miles with­out a flap.

ANNIE GROER

W.T. WALLER

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: In Antarc­tica, 10 days away from the sum­mer sol­stice, sea ice has bro­ken up quite a bit, but skip­pers of smaller ves­sels still must use ex­treme cau­tion; a crabeater seal takes a break on an ice sheet; a gen­too pen­guin checks on one of her eggs.

W.T. WALLER

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