When it comes to bucket-list travel, nothing quite beats a cruise to Antarctica, where fantastical landscapes and equally spectacular wildlife promises epic adventure at every turn. Welcome to the ends of the earth.
Photographs by Andrew Rowat
“Look at it!” A Czech passenger remarked at 4:05 a.m. as I stumbled into the glass-domed observation lounge of Quark Expeditions’ polar expedition ship World Explorer. His eyes were alive above a smile as wide as a child’s on Christmas morning. Mine too, no doubt. Because after four days of cruising around the sweeping arc of the Antarctic Peninsula, our ship had at last encountered pack ice — great ghostly slabs so tightly crammed together that you could feasibly, albeit foolishly, strap on a pair of crampons and walk all the way to shore.
We all have our own idealized, hoped-for images of Antarc – tica. This was mine. Penguins? There’s a colony back home in Sydney Harbour. Icebergs? They can drift for hundreds of miles into commercial shipping lanes. But pack ice — now you’re talking. That’s when you know you can’t be anywhere else but in the realm of earth’s diminishing latitudes.
Specifically, our ship was in the icy embrace of the Lemaire Channel, a steep-sided strait that runs for 11 kilometers between the mountains of Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. When its glassy waters are free of ice they mirror the surrounding peaks with such photogenic quality that the channel — a mere 1,600 meters wide at its narrowest point — long ago acquired the name the “Kodak Gap.” On this bright midsummer morning two Decembers ago, it exceeded even that as our ship nudged its ice- hardened bow forward in a doomed attempt to stay on course. (Inevitably we bowed to Mother Nature, turned around, and went back the way we’d come. Which was no bad thing. It’s nice to know that even with all our technology, the natural world can still have the final say.)
Just as the Czech and I began feeling guilty at having all this to ourselves, an announcement over the ship’s sound system roused our fellow passengers from their slumber and in no time the lounge was full of guests in their dressing gowns, slippers, cameras. The bare essentials.
Everyone was grateful for the early wake-up. Moments like this should not be missed. I’ve been on cruises where it might be a line ball decision to make an announcement so early, to get us all out of our beds. But relax for a minute down here and chances are you’ll miss something. Even sleep becomes an annoyance. It gets in the way. Because the show never stops.
The curtain goes up two days after leaving the Argentinian port city of Ushuaia. That’s when the vast emptiness of the often-tempestuous Drake Passage gives way to views of the South Shetland Islands, a rugged archipelago of snow- and ice-laden peaks 120 kilometers to the northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula. After this there is no intermission, no lull, until, on the way back to Ushuaia you pass through these islands again. I suggest there’s no more melancholic sight in world travel than the inevitable line of passengers at the rails of an expedition ship looking back at the South Shetlands’ diminishing wall of white as they re-enter the Drake Passage. The last glimpses of a frozen world.
For now, however, the whole ship was abuzz with our arrival in the islands, a former sealing and whaling hub that these days serves as the gateway to Antarctica for most cruise itineraries. First sighted in 1819 by a British merchant ship, the South Shetlands have since been claimed by the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina, but are shared by more than 50 nations under the Antarctic Treaty, which in 1959 set aside the continent as an international scientific preserve.
Our first landfall was Half Moon Island, two volcanic bedrock islands connected by a series of gravel bars. Excitement was high as we approached the cobblestone-strewn beach in our fleet of inflatable Zodiacs, with an Argentinian research station and a smattering of chinstrap penguins there to greet us. The advance team had prepared the site, and piles of snowshoes and walking poles awaited us. A marked line of flags led up to a snow-laden knoll a kilometer or so away. Off we marched in single file, keeping to the compressed trail made by the expedition team lest we stray off line and end up thigh-deep in the powdery snow.
The climb was short but exhilarating, and the views back down along the island’s crescent shape were sublime. I passed by a south polar skua nursing an egg, and could see Weddell and Antarctic fur seals lolling about on the beaches below. In the bay there were three humpback whales. It was a lot to take in.
The next day brought us to Deception Island, a crown jewel of any Antarctic voyage. The flooded caldera of a still-active shield volcano, its ring of craggy mountains encircles a basin-like harbor accessible only through Neptune’s Bellows, a 500-meter-wide channel that can be tricky to navigate in rough weather; early American sealers named it for the howling winds they encountered within. Our passage was thankfully uneventful, and once inside, World Explorer’s Zodiacs took us to shore. At Whaler’s Bay, artifacts of a long-abandoned Norwegian whaling station — from towering rusted oil tanks to a line of decaying wooden boats — added human interest to an otherwise pristine, wild environment. Chinstrap penguins looked on as a few of us dug holes in the sand in the hope of encountering warm water. There are hot springs beneath the ground here, and if you dig a hole in the right place, you might even enjoy a thermal bath.
Considering the extraordinary landscapes we were in, our days were surprisingly routine. But routine is what works here. Each day after breakfast the passengers, who’d been assigned groups with names like Penguins and Orcas, readied themselves for one of either two things: a landing, or Zodiac cruising. After donning waterproof jackets, beanies, boots, gloves etc. we’d descend to the mudroom and wait for our group to be called. Two hours on land hiking and mingling with wildlife, then two hours in a Zodiac exploring icebergs, inlets, and bird colonies. Whatever your boat driver can find. Then it was back to the ship for lunch, during which time the captain cruised to a fresh location, and in the afternoon the pattern was repeated. Two landings and two cruises, weather permitting, every day.
Our first landing on the continent itself was at Brown Station, an Argentine research facility in Graham Land unmanned at the time of our visit. You’d think it would be a thrill, landing on the continent as opposed to an island. But it was no more exciting than every island landing before it, a testament to how otherworldly this region is. There’s no landing less exciting than another; they’re all as incredible as the next.
In welcome contrast to the stark environment that enveloped us, World Explorer was as congenial and comfortable a refuge as one could wish for. A new addition to the Quark Expedition fleet, each of its 86 well-appointed cabins is a suite, and all come with balconies, bringing the Antarctic right into your room. When we clipped an iceberg early one morning, I rushed to my balcony in time to see its disintegrating remnants rolling end over end beneath me. There are unrivaled views from the glass-domed observation lounge, a dedicated lecture theater hosting daily presentations by marine biologists, climatologists, glaciologists and other specialists, and a small L’Occitane spa and heated top-deck pool that cater to less cerebral pursuits. There was just one restaurant, but the food was excellent and varied. And with 130 staff and crew onboard, service was attentive but unobtrusive.
Polar expedition ships do more, however, than just facilitate the trip of a lifetime. They help bear witness to, and assist in, documenting environmental changes and are becoming much-needed platforms for scientific research. More and more they are offering so-called “citizen science” programs. Passengers can, for instance, take photos of lobtailing humpback whales, their flukes as distinctive as human fingerprints, and upload them to scientific databases, thus helping scientists to better understand migration routes. The engine room of science has always been observation, and the more eyes you have, the better.
My own stint as a Citizen Scientist saw me in a Zodiac off Orne Island dragging a net through the water to help researchers measure the density of microplastics and phytoplankton. That night there was a lecture with a clever title Ian Fleming would have approved of — License to Krill — in which I learned that the primary food source for many species of penguins, seals, whales, and fish is under significant pressure from climate change and industrial-scale fishing. Antarctic krill populations have decreased by 80 percent in the last 50 years; in the 2019/2020 commercial fishing season alone more than a dozen ships from six countries took 155,000 tons of the small, shrimp-like crustaceans from these waters, to be used for krill oil and powdered dietary supplements.
The stewardship of the White Continent by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) should also be applauded. Founded in 1991, the self-regulating group prohibits vessels carrying more than 500 travelers from making landings in Antarctica, and restricts the number of people smaller vessels like ours can deposit on shore to 100 at any one time. Ship emissions are fastidiously controlled. So, too, was our behavior when ashore. Limits are placed on how close people can get to wildlife, and absolutely nothing is left behind, not even the deeper tracks of snowshoes, which are filled in by expedition staff prior to departure.
On a Quark voyage you can do as much or as little as you like. In addition to all the included activities onshore and in the Zodiacs, you can also book kayaks, inflatable canoes, and even stand-up paddleboards prior to departure. The kayaking was, for me, a highlight. A Zodiac took our small group — typically no more than nine or 10 guests plus two guides and a support boat towing the kayaks — a fair distance from the ship, usually to a calm iceberg-filled bay. Then you paddle for hours, slicing your way silently through frigid waters. I loved doing this, trailing my hand in the icy water, picking up shards of sea ice, and listening to the drip, drip, drip of bergs as I passed them by. The immediacy of the ice is something you just can’t feel from the ship. You can see deep inside it, into the dark blue that is compressed ice hundreds of thousands of years old. You can even hear it crack.
I thought how awful it would be to fall in, a thought that brings me to that most anticipated — and dreaded — part of every Antarctic cruise: the polar plunge. A longstanding ritual dreamed up by someone with far too much time on their hands, nothing divides up a ship’s manifest quite like this chilling rite of passage. Exactly half of the 174 passengers chose to do it. Not in dry suits, mind you, but just swimwear or shorts, plus a safety rope strapped around our chests in case things went awry.
So to a chorus of “You can do it!” — peer pressure is an extraordinary thing — we leaped off the Zodiac platform one by one. When my turn came, I shuffled to the edge as if I were walking the plank, then took a deep breath and cannonballed into the brine.
In the end, 87 souls went into the water, and I’m pleased to report that all 87 came out alive and well. What was it like? Ineffable. Inexpressible. Antarctica in a nutshell.
A trip similar to the writer’s cruise can be arranged via Quark Expeditions, which will offer its next 11-day “Antarctic Explorer” voyage on November 3, at the start of the Antarctic summer. Four Quark vessels, including the World Explorer, will ply the route, with rates from US$8,995 per person.
This article originally appeared in the March/May 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Last Continent”).