ANTARCTICA, January 13, 2013 ― Venturing out on the deck upon our arrival in the waters off the White Continent, I was nearly blinded by the brilliant blanket of snow that coated the ship from the tip of her bow to the helicopter pad at her stern.
What a surprise, for this was the middle of summer! Summer in Antarctica!
Though the opportunity to throw a snowball or two was tempting, I knew there was plenty of adventure ahead on shore, and I didn’t want to miss any of it.
The sound of the engines signaled that we had reached our offshore anchorage and the anchor was about to go down, as well as the four rubber Zodiacs stored on the platform aft. These swift, 16-foot-long landing craft carry 10-12 passengers. Their 60 horsepower outboard motors speed explorers to shore where they can then set foot on the fabled White Continent.
I was aboard the Antarctic Dream, a small 2,180-ton polar iceboat with a reinforced hull, built for adventure. Featuring just 39 cabins, (four of which are suites) for 78 passengers, the ship has an elite, mostly Chilean crew of 36 commanded by the legendary Swedish captain, Peter Skog.
Captain Skog’s long career at sea has spanned more than four decades. The congenial Swede has navigated Antarctic waters on more than 100 voyages since 1974, longer than any other ship master currently sailing here.
Today’s first landing was at Port Lockroy, a site with a checkered past beginning from its years as a whaling station, from the late 1800s to the 1930s. During World War II, the site became Great Britain’s secret “Base A” for monitoring German shipping movements.
Abandoned after the war, the original station building has now been restored and turned into an historical museum and gift shop, with its wartime decor and authentic trappings of the 1940s still preserved.
Antarctica belongs to no nation, but has various national scientific stations on its soil according to international treaty agreements.
During the short November-through-February Antarctic tourist season (summer in the Southern Hemisphere), Antarctica attracts more than 10,000 adventurers. Only 350 each day are allowed to land, just 60 at a time so as not to endanger the fragile environment.
From Lockroy, another short Zodiac ride lands you at the vast Gentoo penguin rookery at Jougla Point. Some 800 pairs of adult Gentoos and their chicks nest here. You’re virtually up to your knees in the little creatures when you step on shore.
By moving slowly and quietly among the inhabitants, you pose no threat to them as they go about their nesting, feeding and grooming activities.
On the shoreline of the rookery, I found a myriad of century-old whale bones, now colored green by algae. Nearby, a completely reconstructed whale skeleton lay on the ground, measuring a good 60 feet in length.
My closest, most rewarding encounter with Antarctica’s wildlife was just around the bend. It was nearly time to board the last Zodiac back to the ship, when an out-of-breath fellow passenger told me of his great discovery in the neighboring cove. In a flash I was racing along the rocky shoreline (as best I could) to see what he’d found.
At last I reached it: Stretched out on a patch of soft snow was a sleeping, 12-foot-long Weddell Seal. I approached him cautiously, but he was sound asleep. I got so close I could have tickled his whiskers! I didn’t, though.
There was just enough time to shoot some very close close-ups before racing back to the waiting Zodiac.
Five of the ten days on the Antarctic Dream’s expedition cruises are devoted to “boots on the ground” landings on Antarctica and its offshore islands via Zodiacs. Weather and safety play a big role in these landings.
Up to three shore landings per day are scheduled during the long summer days, which during our visit lasted from 4:30 am until after 10 pm. Altogether, our group made a total of eight landings without incident. Our first Antarctic landing was at Neko Harbor, at the head of a massive glacier. This was our first opportunity to meet and march amongst the penguins.
The 1,080-mile cruise aboard the Antarctic Dream included many other once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like a Zodiac excursion off Pleneau Island through blue ice flows as tall as five and ten-story buildings. One floating marvel looked like a Greek temple with sculpted Corinthian columns, another like a transparent Oriental dragon.
On flat snow flows that resembled floating tanning salons, we encountered up to a dozen seals at a time basking together in the brilliant Antarctic sunshine.
Another highlight was our entry into Deception Island, a spectacular caldera, the remnant of a collapsed volcano that last erupted in 1970. We sailed in through the caldera’s only entrance, called “Neptune’s Bellows,” a tricky, narrow passage, but one often negotiated by our own Captain Skog. Just a week earlier, however, a larger passenger vessel with 300 passengers aboard ran aground in these narrows.
All aboard had to abandon ship and wait on shore to be rescued by passing vessels. The incident attracted worldwide media attention.
Once ashore inside the caldera, we hiked up to the top of its 1,250-foot-high outer rim for a panoramic view of the entire 15-mile-wide volcanic remnant. Before our departure, we made a second Zodiac landing where a number of our group stripped down to their bathing suits and dug themselves into the warm, volcanic sands and waters that came to the surface.
Then the heartiest of the hearty finished off their Antarctic spa experience by dashing headfirst into the caldera’s icy waters to “cool down!”
By day’s end, our final shore landing took place in Maxwell Bay on King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands. There at anchor lay the empty vessel that had been disabled at Deception Island.
On shore we visited both the Chilean and Russian scientific bases, which among the bases of eight nations that have permanent facilities in Antarctica.
Our return voyage ended in spectacular fashion as we approached Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, where our voyage had begun just 11 days earlier. As we nudged into port during a light shower, the sun suddenly broke through and a rainbow covered the whole harbor with its brilliant halo.
Truly we’d found our “pot of gold” on board the Antarctic Dream, where dreams really did come true!
Note: The Antarctic Dream suspended operations in July, 2012. However, a total of 16 expedition vessels are currently sailing in Antarctic waters. They range from icebreakers to luxury expedition ships and include expedition cruisers and research vessels as well.
POLAR CRUISES, of Bend, Oregon, since 1991, are known as “The Polar Travel Experts.”
Founder Chuck Cross and his staff have decades of first-hand experience in Polar waters as crew and staff and represent all lines.
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