The White Continent, without being in the red
One big deal on a costly cruise full of seabirds, orcas and icebergs
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.
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.
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.