Antarctica is a wonderland, a home to penguins by the thousands, as well as seals, whales, albatrosses with massive wingspans, stark and beautiful ice formations, including glaciers, all surrounded by the waters of the Southern Ocean.
It is also a land of surprises. In the Antarctic summer, Bostonians may find temperatures warmer than those at home.
Anyone who visits gains entrance to a relatively small circle. Since the first person set foot on the continent, arguably in 1821, only an estimated 300,000-500,000 people have followed. You need not be a math whiz to realize that is a fraction of those who have walked the earth since then.
The reason appears simple. The trip isn't for everyone. You get to Antarctica by ship, and the price of entry is a stretch of rough sea called the Drake Passage. You need to be in reasonably good physical shape - my trip required a doctor's statement saying you are able to climb down ship's ladders and into a Zodiac, or raft, for the trips to shore. Weather conditions can vary daily, or even hourly, so there is no guarantee you will be able to land at any given time.
While there are barriers, age isn't necessarily one. I traveled with Boston-based Grand Circle Travel, which specializes in trips for those 55 and over. Of the 84 passengers, all but a few were 50 to 70. Age didn't prevent them from navigating often rocky and hilly territory.
"This isn't a cruise; it's an expedition," said Nick Tozer, spokesman for the three Grand Circle guides on the 16-day trip, which included two days in vibrant, sensuous Buenos Aires before and after the Antarctic journey. The expedition label was accurate, considering the trip's ruggedness and unpredictability. Nonetheless, life aboard the MS Andrea, which Grand Circle charters, had some cruise-like features.
Food, as prepared by German chef Wolfgang Frese, was better than some I have had aboard larger and more luxurious ships, with dishes like braised halibut and filet of beef Wellington with morel sauce. While there were no Broadway-style shows, as on the big ships, there was entertainment in the form of a joke-telling night, bingo night, and Antarctica quiz night. There was a sampling session of yerba mate, a tea-like infusion that is Argentina's national drink. There were many talks about the land we were visiting, animal inhabitants, geography, and history. There was even a singing waiter named Romeo whose rendition of "My Way" drew cheers.
We boarded the Andrea in Ushuaia, Argentina, the world's southernmost city, where we had spent the night in a pleasant resort nearby. Our itinerary allowed time to explore Ushuaia's streets, which were jammed with gift and souvenir shops, offering, among other things, uncountable stuffed and ceramic penguins. Once aboard, it didn't take long to get acquainted with the five-deck ship, which holds a restaurant, cafe, two lounges, and 54 compact cabins, with televisions, showers, and sufficient storage space. My cabin, one of the few aboard for solo travelers, was especially small, but I didn't spend much time in it.
We were introduced to the ship's eight-member expedition team, who would be our guides and no-nonsense safety enforcers. Among them: Brad Rhees, expedition leader, a lean, mustachioed Coloradan whose next job would be to lead an
As we cruised, there was much to learn. Grand Circle inundated us with information about the history, geography, and animal and bird life of Antarctica. There were several onboard lectures and slide shows as well, some livelier than others. When, for instance, Blyth talked in his clipped British accent about 15th-century explorer Bartholomew Diaz, a photo of actress Cameron Diaz appeared on the screen.
Equally, or maybe more, important, were the instructions on going ashore, something we were increasingly eager to do. We were told how to grip expedition members' wrists when boarding the Zodiac, what distances to keep from the creatures we would see, how to stay safe on shore, and the need to respect the environment. We were left with a definite impression that the team would brook no deviation from the rules.
Sailing began smoothly in the Beagle Channel. But before reaching the Antarctic peninsula, where most tourism takes place, there was a hurdle: the 500-mile-wide Drake Passage. This stretch of open water, which took about a day and a half to cross, marks where the Atlantic and Pacific converge, and seas can be rough.
I was one of several who proclaimed they never get seasick, but nonetheless took the minimum recommended dose of Dramamine (which was freely available throughout the ship, as were seasickness bags) and went to bed just before entering the passage. Hours later, I awoke feeling as if I were on the world's roughest carnival ride. There would be a lot of stomach-emptying that night. The following morning, Grand Circle guide Alicia Flores suggested I try a seasickness patch, and I recovered rapidly, even as the pitching and rolling continued. We were told to "walk like a penguin," swaying from side to side, and to always grip a banister or other stable object with one hand.
The discomfort faded and excitement rose as we entered calmer waters and approached our first landing site, Robert Point on Robert Island. We were divided into three groups, put on our going-ashore gear ("even more complicated than getting dressed for skiing," said one passenger), and climbed into the Zodiacs, each holding about 10 passengers.
There would be eight landings during the journey, but none as exciting as the first. What a thrill to set foot on Antarctica and to be surrounded by curious penguins, with several seals in sight as well. Cameras clicked as passengers carefully climbed over rocks to get yet another penguin picture. I felt sorry for those passengers in large cruise ships who come in sight of the continent but do not go ashore. With unabashed corniness, and with a gentoo penguin eyeing me, I posed holding up seven fingers for the seven continents I had now visited. Because this was summertime south of the equator, temperatures were in the 40s and would even creep into the low 50s before the journey was through. I later learned that on this February day, it was 8 degrees in Boston.
Just slightly less exciting was our first landing on the mainland itself the following day. The site was Brown Bluff, notable for rust-colored cliffs of volcanic rock where petrels nest. The area has been compared with central Australia and the US Badlands, but those places didn't have hundreds of Adelie and gentoo penguins or Weddell seals.
Landings would continue once or twice a day. On Half Moon Island, we visited an Argentine research station and were served coffee there. At Port Lockroy on Goudier Island, we found a former British research station that is now a post office and gift shop. At various landing sites, we found remnants of early explorers' lodgings and an old whaling station, and an occasional tombstone. (We would also learn a little secret about penguins: Few things on earth may smell worse than their droppings, and the bitter, acrid aroma lingers.)
There were also Zodiac cruises that brought us close to whales and penguins swimming like porpoises or resting on ice floes. All the while, we would be surrounded by wondrous blue-white ice formations and the sparkling sea.
While every passenger didn't view every creature, before the trip was done, we would get a good look at, among others, gentoo, chinstrap, Adelie, and Magellanic penguins (but not emperors, who are at sea in summer); leopard, fur, Weddell, crabeater, and elephant seals; minke, fin, sei, and humpback whales; and numerous kinds of petrels, albatrosses, terns, gulls, sheathbills, cormorants, and skuas.
Antarctica is such a treasure trove of nature that one has to wonder and worry about the effects of global warming. As members of our expedition team noted repeatedly, nowhere are the effects more evident than on this continent, with its significant increase in melting in recent years.
Our return to Argentina was marked by events such as an outdoor barbecue (yes, the weather was that mild), a farewell dinner, and a talk on the South American region of Patagonia by Grand Circle guide Elizabeth Bejarano, dressed in gaucho garb for the occasion. There was also another trip through the Drake Passage, but this time passengers knew what to expect. With my seasickness patch firmly in place, I weathered the waves, and while I didn't feel like singing and dancing, I wasn't ill. To see Antarctica, I would gladly face it all again.
Richard P. Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.