“Good morning everybody…”
We awoke on day three to expedition leader Cheryl’s silky voice announcing over the loud speaker that we were about to enter the famous Lemaire Channel, a spectacularly narrow passage lined with towering peaks, walls of ice, and jagged glaciers. I pulled back the blackout curtains to discover the waters dotted with icebergs; minke whales surfaced just off our window. We and our fellow passengers took to the decks staring in all directions, oohing and awing at the epic awesomeness of it all. Penguins leapt through the water alongside the ship, others sat on chunks of ice drifting through the channel. This was the Antarctic dream.
Our first excursion took us to the surreal iceberg graveyard off Pleneau Island. Our zodiac driver Derek, who leads walking (!!!) tours to view polar bears in Churchill, Canada when he’s not exploring the poles, slowly led us through a labyrinth of naturally sculpted forms. Hard-packed ice shined electric blue in snow-white frames. Flipped bergs revealed their chiseled, iridescent aqua underbellies. We slid through liquid glass searching for life. Gentoo penguins porpoised alongside as we explored, shooting through the water and even under the boat itself. Crabeater seals eyed us as we floated by, and then yawned in relief when they realized we were no threat. A leopard seal surfaced close to the boat and pursued us curiously as if we were prey. Wildlife floated through every shade of sapphire and emerald the mind can conjure up.
Those crystalline waters were a balmy -1.9 C (29 F), so we were very motivated to watch our balance as we leaned out to photograph the towering garden of icy forms. I had to force myself to take my finger off the shutter button and just sit back and behold the magnificence of Antarctica. Mystical backlit clouds devoured entire mountains and then spit them out again. Mirror-like waters reflected huge chunks of multihued ice and the stone peaks beyond. In the distance, a hulking natural iceberg arch lured our zodiac ever closer.
For real adventurers, this is what an Antarctica voyage is all about: the excursions. And in this area, not all cruise operators and boats are created equal. If you are serious about getting out and exploring, smaller cruises are better. Due to environmental regulations, cruise operators are only allowed to bring 100 visitors ashore at one time. If your boat is carrying more than that, the boat has to rotate the people who go on land.
For that reason, while some people might be shopping luxuries when choosing an Antarctica cruise, adventure lovers are wholly focused on passenger numbers and excursion details. One Ocean Expeditions totally gets this, so they go out of their way to maximize the time you are out exploring. The 86 passengers on our voyage didn’t have to split their time with anyone – we were out using every moment we could exploring, exploring, exploring!
I took another step up through the snow and turned to take in the views below. An army of penguins waddled around what looked like a toy house on the snow-covered, rocky shore far below me. That toy was the Argentine base Almirante Brown located on the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula.
“Is everything alright?” Thomas yelled as a gust of wind blew snow into our faces.
“Yeah, isn’t this amazing?” I responded as we scanned a horizon of snow-logged peaks, frosty seas, and cracking rivers of ice calving into the ocean. “We’re actually climbing a mountain in Antarctica!!!”
A screaming human body flew down the slope next to us as we appreciated nature’s greatness. The hysterical shrieking continued all the way down the mountain until the body came to a rest below the toy house. The blob of powdered Wetskins lay motionless in the snow. And then the body got up and started walking back towards the zodiac.
Getting up the mountain took some time, but getting down only took a few seconds. Another body started to make its way down the natural snow slide, but this one only slid a few feet before it stopped. The body started making an awkward flapping motion trying to propel itself forward; it looked like someone rowing in an invisible boat.
After arriving at the top of the ridge, Thomas and I spun around in awe (kind of like Maria in a polar version of “The Sound of Music”.) We gasped at the miraculous world of ice, posed for selfies, contemplated the greatness of the universe, laughed with our fellow adventurers, and then, one by one, flung ourselves down the mountain. Coming to a stop at the bottom, I stared up into a jigsaw of frigid clouds. Despite the fact that my jacket had picked up half the snow on the way down, I had never had a more “awesome” day in my life. (Cheryl gave us permission to use the word “awesome” regularly on this trip because Antarctica is awesome.)
This is where I felt One Ocean truly excelled. Excursions were fun… and fulfilling… and thought-provoking… and goofy… and scientific… and life-altering. That is a very hard combination of emotions to elicit from your customers. Moreover, they were completely safety conscious while respecting their passengers’ need to experience the world’s last frontier as independently and freely as possible.
They treated you like a person with a brain and taught you how to properly interact with the environment. They expected you to climb and walk and endure strong winds and icy ocean spray. But they also realized that not all people are the same. When 84-year-old Barbara, the oldest passenger on our expedition, decided that climbing out of the zodiac onto the icy rocks was a bit too much for her, they did not send her back to the boat. They had her out in a zodiac exploring icebergs and searching for wildlife.
Similarly, when Steve and Gilly were first shopping for Antarctica cruises as part of their family’s multi-year world tour, most companies turned them down because their youngest daughter Lucy was only six. They were certain that Lucy and their 9-year-old daughter Alisha were special, and quite capable of handling the demanding voyage. One Ocean listened and accepted the entire family aboard. Lucy is now thought to be the youngest person to ever have climbed the peak behind Almirante Brown. You go girl!!!
I positioned myself next to the gargantuan skull as Thomas composed the picture of me. The huge set of whale bones almost felt like a set prop in Jurassic Park 15 – but they were real. Gentoo penguins waddled in all directions on the rocky exposed shores of Anvers Island. Off to the left, a trio of penguins, which had built their pebble nests on smooth boulders, lay on their chicks’ heads to shield them from the harsh winds. It was an odd if effective pose.
One “teen” chick covered in fluffy grey feathers looked almost as big as the adult. It made its way to the edge of the rock, stared down in confusion, and suddenly threw itself over the edge. It bounced a couple of feet, got up and continued its way down the path. This is the total joy of watching penguins. They are some of the most comical and fascinating creatures on Earth.
“Tony, Thomas, have you guys been over to Port Lockroy yet? This is the last zodiac,” called Annie to us over the strong winds. We hopped in and crossed the waters to Wiencke Island to visit the British base.
You don’t expect to encounter Doris Day among the penguins… or Elizabeth Taylor… or Jayne Mansfield. But that is exactly who we found painted onto the walls of the Port Lockroy base. It was a virtual gallery of Hollywood pin-ups, a temple for ice-bound men. Clearly, the Brits who manned the station in the ’50s were feeling the need for a bit of sexy companionship.
“Where’s Rock Hudson?” asked Thomas annoyed by the obvious lack of representation. He looked behind a door and frowned.
We roamed the base-museum taking in every detail of Antarctic yesteryear. Mid-century canned foods and supplies lined the shelves. Cooking pots and ancient radio equipment sat undisturbed. It’s a fascinating glimpse of what the base would have felt like in the past, but I will admit that we were a bit skeptical that the base had ever been that clean or had boasted checkerboard curtains and tablecloths (especially in light of that missing Rock Hudson pin-up.)
We squeezed our way into the tiny gift shop. As I was scanning the shelves of pins, cookbooks and coffee mugs, I noticed Marilyn Monroe was painted on the back of the door. (I had been wondering where she was hiding.) We eyed a few potential buys, namely Antarctica T-shirts, but then decided we needed to be out in the ice. We exited past the bright red British postbox – the place to send postcards in Antarctica – and reemerged into the wilderness. A grey ball of fluff which would one day turn into a penguin stared up at us curiously. Apparently, he wanted to do some shopping.
The little ball of feathers standing in the snow is precisely what makes exploring Antarctica so magical. It’s the implausible abundance of life eking out an existence in the harshest environment on the planet. It’s the constant feeling that you are exploring an alien world filled with mysteries. A world where walls of ice are colored with blood-red snow algae. A realm where the most massive of beasts dwell.
“There are four more over there,” cried Cheryl as she maneuvered the zodiac around a few chunks of ice in our path and smiled with excitement, “They’re all around us.”
Suddenly, a humpback surfaced right in front of the boat and Cheryl calmly swerved in positioning the boat for perfect views. I and everyone else on the side of the zodiac closest to the whale dropped to our knees and positioned ourselves so that those behind us could clearly see. That One Ocean training was showing.
Suddenly, another humpback surfaced behind us and the people on the other side of the zodiac dropped to their knees so we could see their whale. We all burst into laughter unsure of what protocol dictated when you are floating in a sea of whales. Scanning Wilhelmina Bay, whales were everywhere you looked. Dorsal fins surfaced and vanished, tails lifted out of the water two, three ,four at a time.
A whale surfaced within feet of the zodiac, there was a sudden chorus of awes followed by gasps as the whale dove directly beneath us. The leviathan shifted and rotated under the zodiac, huge fins clearly visible just below the surface of the water. The massive creature was rolling in an attempt to dodge the boat. We all held our breath as we witnessed the maneuver wondering if any part of the whale would hit us. Nothing. We exploded in an applause of thrill and wonder at the amazing moment. A memory we will all carry with us for a lifetime.
This is what it’s all about. Exploring Antarctica is about learning, witnessing, and building memories. It’s about moving through the environment, touching the continent, dragging yourself up a mountain and sliding back down. Walking in the footsteps of Antarctic explorers and physically interacting with the environment, feeling the cold, the snow, the hard-packed ice, the sub-zero waters… that’s why you come here. Antarctica is about real discovery – this is the last continent on Earth where every visitor is still a true explorer.