Getting to the Great White Continent
Getting to Antarctica was not easy, and not necessarily fun. There was the indirect flight to Buenos Aires, with a missed connection and unexpected overnight in Miami. There was the 3½-hour-plus flight to Ushuaia, situated at the southernmost tip of South America, and aptly dubbed “El Fin Del Mundo,” the end of the world. And then, there was the two-day, 600-mile (or so) crossing of the infamous Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. It’s the narrowest passage separating South America and Antarctica, and home to the roughest waters and wildest winds in the world. It’s the price you pay to get to the White Continent.
On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being strap me to the porcelain barf bag; I want to die), our passage across the Drake was an easy 3, according to the captain, a.k.a. a Drake Lake. Still, we were rocking and rolling, clutching hand rails and table corners, as we moved about the ship. Passengers, dizzy from the seas and motion sickness meds, filled the time reading, napping, and listening to safety lectures and naturalist talks. We’d brought an arsenal of bands, patches, and pills, but discovered that a couple glasses of bubbly French champagne worked just fine. We kept our eyes on the horizon (and the prize), as white-tipped waves hit the windows, and the ship swayed. We were heading to the Great White.
We can’t imagine what the first explorers to Antarctica must have endured, sailing these treacherous seas in small wooden ships to places still unknown. We were on a PONANT luxury cruise, aboard the 264-passenger Le Boreal, whose hull is strengthened to withstand icy waters. The French-owned sleek yacht was decked out like a contemporary boutique hotel, all creamy, white, and gray, with silk and leather touches, and crystal chandeliers. It had a spa, small theater, two lounges, two dining rooms, and staff that remembered our names, our favorite beverages, and what to stock in our mini bars. Rooms were surprisingly spacious for a ship, with a glass door leading to a private balcony. Sir Francis Drake would be shocked. But we were blissfully, thankfully happy to be pampered (did we mention the fine food and fine wine?) in one of the world’s most rugged, inhospitable places.
We traveled 48 uneventful hours across the roily waters to reach our first landing on Robert Point, a small peninsula in Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands, where we walked among hundreds of gentoo and chinstrap penguins, and watched as southern elephant seals lounged on the rocks. “Please stay at least 5 meters away from the penguins,” our expedition leader said. But the penguins had no fear of us, and they were everywhere, waddling and stumbling on the ice in front of us, slipping and sliding into the frigid water.
That evening we gathered with a lively bunch of fellow passengers, of varying ages and from a variety of countries, to toast our arrival to Antarctica. The adventure had begun.
After a night of smooth cruising, we woke to gray skies, cold temps, and whipping winds. Our world had become monotone, black and white and gray, as if we were in an Ansel Adams photo. Our expedition leader warned that it would be a rough Zodiac landing on Brown Bluff, a volcanic mountain on the Tamarin Peninsula of northern Antarctica. We dressed in multiple layers, expedition parkas, waterproof pants, and calf-high rubber boots, and walked through the obligatory disinfectant bath required before and after all landings. We could smell guano as we approached the island. There were thousands of penguins. Groups of Adelie and gentoo penguins congregated at the water’s edge; others formed a “penguin highway” walking single file on the dirty ice to their stone rookeries. We watched as mother penguins fed their fuzzy baby chicks, and guarded their eggs and weak fledglings from the hovering, hungry skuas that were perched nearby.
The next day was still cloudy and cold when we reached Deception Island, the caldera of an active volcano. We hiked to the rim of the caldera, and around the tip of the island, where we saw Wendell seals lounging on lava rocks.
Deception Island, our expedition leader said, is home to Argentine and Spanish research bases. Several countries operate scientific outposts on the continent, though no one has sovereignty. On Antarctica, there is no government, no religion, and no native human population. (Imagine it, if you can!) It’s overseen and administered by the Antarctic Treaty System, currently signed by 53 parties. Among other things, the treaty established Antarctica as a scientific preserve, used for peaceful purposes only, banning all military activity.
The further we traveled, the icier it got. We passed icebergs the size of small buildings and dodged giant chunks of ice that clogged the channel. Our gray world was now punctuated with flashes of neon blue, from ice that had been compacted for a million years or more. The air changed to something more pure, clear and cold. We heard thunder and crackling, as glaciers calved, sending giant bergs into the water, creating tiny tsunamis. In the evening, we watched as a large pod of orcas and humpback whales followed the ship, putting on a show, as we dined on a multi-course dinner served on fine china atop white linen draped tables. The juxtaposition from the finery inside our ship to the wild, remote wilderness beyond was strange and dreamlike.
One morning, we woke to blue bird skies and “a surprise,” our Captain announced. We were in Wilhelmina Bay, surrounded by soaring glaciers and ice-capped cliffs. The nose of the ship was jammed into a large floating iceberg, and Zodiacs were dropping off passengers on the ice floe. Expedition leaders had gone earlier to measure the width of the floe to make sure it was safe. “It’s at least a meter and a half thick,” our leader said as we hopped out of the Zodiac onto the ice. PONANT staff had set up a champagne bar, and we walked on the floating sheet of ice, sipping bubbly under a sun-filled sky, as a pair of gentoo penguins looked on.
The plan on one of our final days on the continent was to visit a small research lab. It was early spring in Antarctica, and the researchers hadn’t seen anyone else from outside their group for nearly a year. We were excited, too. We hadn’t seen people from outside our cruise group for over a week! Plus, we could send postcards! We could buy small souvenirs!
But . . . we couldn’t get there. Ice had barricaded all entrances to the island and research laboratories. Another nod to our PONANT staff: They were prepared and eager to implement plan B, a Zodiac cruise in Hidden Bay. The landscape of towering, crackling glaciers, giant floating chunks of blue ice, caves, and tunnels, was surreal. We watched as Wendell seals slipped in and out of the water, and a leopard seal lounged on an iceberg. “This is only the second time this ship has been in Hidden Bay,” our Zodiac driver said. “I think plan B was even better than plan A.”
Sometimes, it works to just go with the flow.
PONANT is a longtime leader in high-end, small ship expedition cruises. The 11-day Ushuaia to Ushuaia cruise includes airfare to/from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, transfers, gourmet meals, open bar, Zodiac landings and expeditions, naturalist talks and on-board entertainment. 2019 prices start at $10,351 per person based on double occupancy. 888-400-1082, www.ponant.com