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Antarctica: A Long Day's Journey Into Day


I am never quite sure of the time in Antarctica. With the long days of the austral summer allowing only a few hours of darkness each night, with the strange other-worldly quality of the light, with the sky so clean and pure overhead, and with the huge ice shapes at sea looming nearby, my mind is always a bit on tilt.

 

Navigating the LeMaire Passage. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.And isn't that how it should be when you are traveling to the ends of the earth?

We – the 110 passengers aboard the M.S. Caledonian Star – certainly had an otherworldly feeling the night we sailed through the LeMaire Channel on the Danco Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. This small pass, which cuts between mountains and glaciers, is famous for its beauty and we were not disappointed. The beginning of the channel is marked with a pair of peaks that were dubbed by the sailors of yore as "Ula's Teats." They are tall, grand and appropriate guideposts.

The bow of the Cal Star is full of passengers this evening...dinner is over, and it is nearly 9:30 p.m. This is bedtime most days, but tonight we are out in force...only to be confounded. The mouth of the channel is choked with ice; certainly passage will be impossible.

But we should know better. Capt. Leig Skog is at the helm, an officer who has sailed to Antarctica at least 75 times in the past 20 years. His skill is renowned. He slides the bow forward and on we go, gently nudging aside small ice floes, skirting around bigger icebergs, creating our own path in the night.

It takes over an hour to work our way into the channel proper, but the light is lovely and we are captivated as we watch the sun slowly, ever so slowly, drop toward the shimmering horizon. Cameras click and whirr but the images will never be able to totally capture that mystical moment, nor can my words. But it was certainly a highlight of one of the most unusual trips on our planet.

Antarctica is not at the top of everyone's travel list. After all, it is a continent of extremes...it is the coldest, the windiest, the highest, the driest of all the earth's bodies. It can be forbidding and deadly, particularly in the deep of winter. Little wonder it's often referred to as "The Last Continent."

But Antarctica has another face. A joyous face that presents itself each summer when penguins and other shore birds come ashore by the millions to lay eggs and raise their young during the few short months allotted to them. This the time when whales, seals and dolphins come to the surface to frolic. Even people venture down in their own sailboats to spend the season.

Improbable as it seems, Antarctica is a fascinating place to visit.

Penguins keep a wary eye on a boatful of strange visitors. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.Bill Bingham of Naples, Fla., certainly thinks so. This was his third trip to Antarctica and he says he returned yet again to share the experience with his wife, Mary. "I've always thought that this was the most amazing trip that I've ever taken and I just wanted Mary to see it, too."

For those of us on our first visit, however, it was a series of adventures. First, there is the process of getting there. We had to fly to Miami, then fly overnight to Santiago, Chile, then another five-hour flight the next day to Punta Arenas, at the southern tip of Chile, before we finally boarded the ship. All of this was accomplished with almost no trouble thanks to the arrangements made by Lindblad Expeditions.

No sooner were we aboard when we were told of a deviation in our itinerary: Another small ship had damaged its propeller, forcing it to cancel a trip, and we were going to take on some of its passengers. To accomplish this, we sailed through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we boarded 54 passengers who had been diverted from Clipper Cruise Lines Adventurer.

 

Despite being chock-full, everything went smoothly...well, except some boisterous seas as we passed Cape Horn.

If you've seen one of those historic documentaries showing horrific roundings of the Horn, let me assure you that our trip was much calmer... by comparison, anyway. The waters at Cape Horn can be very rough and to get to Antarctica you have to go past the Cape and then head southwest across Drake's Passage.

To be sure, the Cal Star is well suited to this journey. She is fully stabilized and ice-reinforced and takes heavy seas very well. Which is not to say that there were not some large swells that subjected some passengers to seasickness for a day and night.

But as soon as we neared the Antarctic Peninsula and calmer waters, everyone was up and out on deck and seasickness seemed to vanish. After all, we all had something better to do than lay a-moaning...we had to see penguins!

A baby rockhopper penguin. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.And penguins we did see...first by the hundreds, then by the thousands and then by the hundreds of thousands. I never thought that I could so enjoy watching little black-and-white birds by the hour. But their behaviors were so entertaining. They would waddle. They would argue with each other. They would flop on their bellies to "toboggan" in the snow. They would squawk at anyone approaching their young and, when their mates returned from feeding, they would greet them with an elaborate ritual of bobbing-and-weaving and calling. And, much like in the Galapagos Islands, they were unafraid of humans.

We encountered seven varieties of penguins on this trip and soon learned to identify them: The chinstraps (black strip around throat), the gentoos (orange beaks), the adelies (white around the eye), the macaronis (with golden plumage) and in the Falkland Islands we saw magellanics (white stripes), rockhoppers (yellow tufts above red eyes) and kings (larger, orange on heads and breasts).

While we did not get to see the famed emperors, who can be five foot tall, we were more than satisfied with our penguin encounters.

Our seven days in Antarctica were spent mostly exploring the islands around the Antarctic Peninsula, where the weather is most temperate and the largest penguin rookeries are found. Typically, we would have a "landing" each morning and each afternoon. We would bundle ourselves up in our waterproof outerwear (each passenger is given a red parka), our wellies (rubber boots) and warm headgear and be loaded into inflatable boats which whisked us to shore.

 

Lindblad Expeditions must be complimented on how well it handles these maneuvers. No time was ever wasted: As soon as we entered a harbor, the Zodiacs would be dropped over the side with naturalists aboard who would travel on in to determine where passengers would land. By the time the ship was anchored, the platform was down and ready to offload us. Even in rough seas, the capable crew loaded people of all abilities and ages in and out of these boats like the pros they are. And when the landing areas were too rough for people with walking limitations, the crew took them on sightseeing rides along the shore.

There are no towns or people living as residents of Antarctica. In 1959, a treaty was signed that dedicates the continent to world peace. However, there are a number of government stations and we visited several of these, most notably the United States' Palmer Station (scientific research) and the historic station at Port Lockroy, a formal British naval station which is now a museum.The key to making all of this happen was a superb staff of naturalists and lecturers, under the direction of expedition leader Matt Drennan, who has been to Antarctica over 85 times. He's married with a young family now so he only leads a few trips a year and we were fortunate to have him.

 The smartly-dressed penguins outnumber the red parka-wearing tourists at this social gathering. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.On sea days and between landings, the naturalists presented slide presentations on all matter of subjects and we never missed a one. They lectured about penguins (natch!), seals, seabirds, whales, about living and working at Antarctic research stations, about such polar explorers as Raold Amundsen and Otto Nordenskjold and more esoteric topics like the super-continent of Gondwanaland (which once encompassed India, Australia, Africa, South America and Antarctica) and the effects of global warming.

In the comfortable bar/lounge, there are four large televisions that were used to show documentary videos such as In the Freezer, narrated by David Attenborough and another with actual footage from the ill-fated expedition of Capt. Ernest Shackleton and the H.M.S. Endurance.

The library aboard was just as it should be: paneled in dark wood, shelves packed with informative books, with deep chairs for curling up for a good read. Here also you could get a hot cup of tea or coffee whenever you needed a bit of warming. Books are important on a trip like this as there is not a lot of do between meals, lectures and landings other than napping and reading.

It seemed everyone did plenty of both as the rhythm of the ship (yes, small ships do develop a rhythm all their own) was friendly and restful. By the end of the first week, we knew probably half the passengers by name and were meeting more each day. One open seating for dinner facilitates this kind of mixing.

We were pleased to find that meals on the Caledonian Star were exceptional. You don't go to sea for two weeks on an expedition ship expecting much more than pretty good grub, but the galley staff outdid themselves and we had truly gourmet meals throughout, with entrees like Grilled Yellow Fin Tuna and Range Veal Piccata.

Much of our time was spent out on deck gazing at the lovely ice forms around us, or tucked inside the bridge where we were out of the wind and could visit with the officers. However, there was one unique ice experience worth mention. As we were leaving Paradise Cove, where several of our more energetic passengers had climbed to the top of a high hill and "tobogganed" down on their bottoms, the captain discovered a squat tabular iceberg with a large pond of turquoise fresh water on the top of it. To provide everyone a close view, he nosed the bow of the Cal Star into the side of the berg, and we were able to take pictures right off the bow.

The boat inches up to an icy Antarctic pond. Copyright: Cynthia Boal Janssens.Although we hated for our Antarctica adventure to end, we were not through yet. From Antarctica, our ship returned via the Falkland Islands where it offloaded the Clipper passengers and then we spent another three days exploring the flora and fauna of this archipelago. Naturalist Allan White proved to be exuberant about this homeland: "Welcome to my world!" he enjoined at the beginning of his talk about the Falklands War.

While the temperatures in Antarctica had hovered around freezing, the weather here was downright balmy. We were able to explore the tidy town of Stanley, go on hikes, get close to several albatross rookeries and meet a number of families who live "at camp"...which is pretty much anywhere but Stanley (most islands are owned and inhabited by only one family).

 

We disembarked the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost town on earth. It had been a comprehensive trip and not at all exhausting. Not only had I set foot on my seventh continent but I'd also bought a dress for my granddaughter at a handcraft market in Chile. I'd munched on scones in the kitchen of a home on Carcass Island in the Falklands. I'd waltzed with a penguin or two. And I saw ice formations that looked like spun candy.

No one lives permanently in Antarctica. We are all but visitors. And any trip here will make one passionate about keeping it that way.

 

When You Go:

The M.S. Caledonian Star carries 110 passengers in 62 outside cabins. There is one open seating for meals. The ship is not wheelchair- accessible, although people with canes seem to manage nicely. Dress is strictly casual. Lindblad Expeditions typically offers three itineraries of 15, 19 and 25 days. Prices for the 19-day trip were from $8,980 to $16,200 per person, including flights between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. International airfare is additional.

Information: Lindblad Expeditions ( www.expeditions.com ) can be reached at (800) 397-3348, or by contacting a travel agent.

A boat from Lindblad Expeditions approaches a penguin-encrusted rock. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.Antarctic Cruising:

Summer in Antarctica is from December through February, so the cruising season is fairly short. Some trips include the Falkland Islands, South Georgia (where emperor penguins are found) and the South Orkneys. Book now for the 2000-2001 season. Discounts are generally available on the first sailing of each season and for early bookings (usually by June 30).

There were 16 ships in Antarctica this past season. Except for the Marco Polo and the Rotterdam, all were small ships, most carrying under 125 passengers. The premier companies – with the top captains and guides – are Abercrombie & Kent (the Explorer) and Lindblad Expeditions (the M.S. Caledonian Star), and they are also the most expensive.

Other companies offering Antarctica cruises:

Abercrombie & Kent www.abercrombiekent.com
(800) 323-7308

Clipper Cruise Lines www.clippercruise.com
(800) 325-0010

Orient Lines www.orientlines.com
(800) 333-7300

Society Expeditions www.societyexpeditions.com
(800) 548-8669

Quark Expeditions www.quark-expeditions.com
(800) 356-5699

Marine Expeditions www.marineex.com
(800) 263-9147

Radisson Seven Seas www.rssc.com
(800) 333-3333

No sooner were we aboard when we were told of a deviation in our itinerary: Another small ship had damaged its propeller, forcing it to cancel a trip, and we were going to take on some of its passengers. To accomplish this, we sailed through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we boarded 54 passengers who had been diverted from Clipper Cruise Lines Adventurer.

Despite being chock-full, everything went smoothly...well, except some boisterous seas as we passed Cape Horn.

If you've seen one of those historic documentaries showing horrific roundings of the Horn, let me assure you that our trip was much calmer... by comparison, anyway. The waters at Cape Horn can be very rough and to get to Antarctica you have to go past the Cape and then head southwest across Drake's Passage.

To be sure, the Cal Star is well suited to this journey. She is fully stabilized and ice-reinforced and takes heavy seas very well. Which is not to say that there were not some large swells that subjected some passengers to seasickness for a day and night.

But as soon as we neared the Antarctic Peninsula and calmer waters, everyone was up and out on deck and seasickness seemed to vanish. After all, we all had something better to do than lay a-moaning...we had to see penguins!

A baby rockhopper penguin. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.And penguins we did see...first by the hundreds, then by the thousands and then by the hundreds of thousands. I never thought that I could so enjoy watching little black-and-white birds by the hour. But their behaviors were so entertaining. They would waddle. They would argue with each other. They would flop on their bellies to "toboggan" in the snow. They would squawk at anyone approaching their young and, when their mates returned from feeding, they would greet them with an elaborate ritual of bobbing-and-weaving and calling. And, much like in the Galapagos Islands, they were unafraid of humans.

We encountered seven varieties of penguins on this trip and soon learned to identify them: The chinstraps (black strip around throat), the gentoos (orange beaks), the adelies (white around the eye), the macaronis (with golden plumage) and in the Falkland Islands we saw magellanics (white stripes), rockhoppers (yellow tufts above red eyes) and kings (larger, orange on heads and breasts).

While we did not get to see the famed emperors, who can be five foot tall, we were more than satisfied with our penguin encounters.

Our seven days in Antarctica were spent mostly exploring the islands around the Antarctic Peninsula, where the weather is most temperate and the largest penguin rookeries are found. Typically, we would have a "landing" each morning and each afternoon. We would bundle ourselves up in our waterproof outerwear (each passenger is given a red parka), our wellies (rubber boots) and warm headgear and be loaded into inflatable boats which whisked us to shore.

Lindblad Expeditions must be complimented on how well it handles these maneuvers. No time was ever wasted: As soon as we entered a harbor, the Zodiacs would be dropped over the side with naturalists aboard who would travel on in to determine where passengers would land. By the time the ship was anchored, the platform was down and ready to offload us. Even in rough seas, the capable crew loaded people of all abilities and ages in and out of these boats like the pros they are. And when the landing areas were too rough for people with walking limitations, the crew took them on sightseeing rides along the shore.

There are no towns or people living as residents of Antarctica. In 1959, a treaty was signed that dedicates the continent to world peace. However, there are a number of government stations and we visited several of these, most notably the United States' Palmer Station (scientific research) and the historic station at Port Lockroy, a formal British naval station which is now a museum.The key to making all of this happen was a superb staff of naturalists and lecturers, under the direction of expedition leader Matt Drennan, who has been to Antarctica over 85 times. He's married with a young family now so he only leads a few trips a year and we were fortunate to have him.

 The smartly-dressed penguins outnumber the red parka-wearing tourists at this social gathering. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.On sea days and between landings, the naturalists presented slide presentations on all matter of subjects and we never missed a one. They lectured about penguins (natch!), seals, seabirds, whales, about living and working at Antarctic research stations, about such polar explorers as Raold Amundsen and Otto Nordenskjold and more esoteric topics like the super-continent of Gondwanaland (which once encompassed India, Australia, Africa, South America and Antarctica) and the effects of global warming.

In the comfortable bar/lounge, there are four large televisions that were used to show documentary videos such as In the Freezer, narrated by David Attenborough and another with actual footage from the ill-fated expedition of Capt. Ernest Shackleton and the H.M.S. Endurance.

The library aboard was just as it should be: paneled in dark wood, shelves packed with informative books, with deep chairs for curling up for a good read. Here also you could get a hot cup of tea or coffee whenever you needed a bit of warming. Books are important on a trip like this as there is not a lot of do between meals, lectures and landings other than napping and reading.

It seemed everyone did plenty of both as the rhythm of the ship (yes, small ships do develop a rhythm all their own) was friendly and restful. By the end of the first week, we knew probably half the passengers by name and were meeting more each day. One open seating for dinner facilitates this kind of mixing.

We were pleased to find that meals on the Caledonian Star were exceptional. You don't go to sea for two weeks on an expedition ship expecting much more than pretty good grub, but the galley staff outdid themselves and we had truly gourmet meals throughout, with entrees like Grilled Yellow Fin Tuna and Range Veal Piccata.

Much of our time was spent out on deck gazing at the lovely ice forms around us, or tucked inside the bridge where we were out of the wind and could visit with the officers. However, there was one unique ice experience worth mention. As we were leaving Paradise Cove, where several of our more energetic passengers had climbed to the top of a high hill and "tobogganed" down on their bottoms, the captain discovered a squat tabular iceberg with a large pond of turquoise fresh water on the top of it. To provide everyone a close view, he nosed the bow of the Cal Star into the side of the berg, and we were able to take pictures right off the bow.

The boat inches up to an icy Antarctic pond. Copyright: Cynthia Boal Janssens.Although we hated for our Antarctica adventure to end, we were not through yet. From Antarctica, our ship returned via the Falkland Islands where it offloaded the Clipper passengers and then we spent another three days exploring the flora and fauna of this archipelago. Naturalist Allan White proved to be exuberant about this homeland: "Welcome to my world!" he enjoined at the beginning of his talk about the Falklands War.

While the temperatures in Antarctica had hovered around freezing, the weather here was downright balmy. We were able to explore the tidy town of Stanley, go on hikes, get close to several albatross rookeries and meet a number of families who live "at camp"...which is pretty much anywhere but Stanley (most islands are owned and inhabited by only one family).

We disembarked the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina the southernmost town on earth. It had been a comprehensive trip and not at all exhausting. Not only had I set foot on my seventh continent but I'd also bought a dress for my granddaughter at a handcraft market in Chile. I'd munched on scones in the kitchen of a home on Carcass Island in the Falklands. I'd waltzed with a penguin or two. And I saw ice formations that looked like spun candy.

No one lives permanently in Antarctica. We are all but visitors. And any trip here will make one passionate about keeping it that way.

When You Go:

The M.S. Caledonian Star carries 110 passengers in 62 outside cabins. There is one open seating for meals. The ship is not wheelchair- accessible, although people with canes seem to manage nicely. Dress is strictly casual. Lindblad Expeditions typically offers three itineraries of 15, 19 and 25 days. Prices for the 19-day trip were from $8,980 to $16,200 per person, including flights between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. International airfare is additional.

Information: Lindblad Expeditions ( www.expeditions.com ) can be reached at (800) 397-3348, or by contacting a travel agent.

A boat from Lindblad Expeditions approaches a penguin-encrusted rock. Copyright Cynthia Boal Janssens.Antarctic Cruising:

Summer in Antarctica is from December through February, so the cruising season is fairly short. Some trips include the Falkland Islands, South Georgia (where emperor penguins are found) and the South Orkneys. Book now for the 2000-2001 season. Discounts are generally available on the first sailing of each season and for early bookings (usually by June 30).

There were 16 ships in Antarctica this past season. Except for the Marco Polo and the Rotterdam, all were small ships, most carrying under 125 passengers. The premier companies with the top captains and guides are Abercrombie & Kent (the Explorer) and Lindblad Expeditions (the M.S. Caledonian Star), and they are also the most expensive.

Other companies offering Antarctica cruises:

Abercrombie & Kent www.abercrombiekent.com
(800) 323-7308

Clipper Cruise Lines www.clippercruise.com
(800) 325-0010

Orient Lines www.orientlines.com
(800) 333-7300

Society Expeditions www.societyexpeditions.com
(800) 548-8669

Quark Expeditions www.quark-expeditions.com
(800) 356-5699

Marine Expeditions www.marineex.com
(800) 263-9147

Radisson Seven Seas www.rssc.com
(800) 333-3333