By Kristy Alpert
I was buried in a mound of snow the first time I felt the gaze of those dark, penetrating eyes. I didn’t even hear him coming, his footsteps muffled by the sounds of icebergs clashing together and the wind roaring over the sloping hills above. Suddenly, his feet were just inches from my face, and I was made keenly aware that it was just the two of us trapped together in that moment as I felt his gaze go from curious to stupefied.
He had every reason to be confused, considering I very well could have been the first human he’s seen in months, years or maybe even his entire life. But as I peeked through the hood of my expedition parka, straining not to move a muscle, I knew I had made a good decision to climb that hill alone early in the morning and bury myself in fresh snow so I could watch him, the first Gentoo penguin of the morning, make his way from his nest and down the penguin highway for his breakfast in the sea.
I was one of 100 or so passengers on a 12-day Polar Latitudes cruise that sailed between the tip of Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula. I had booked the trip through Adventure Life, a custom travel company that specializes in responsible tourism, opting for their small-ship option in hopes of getting an intimate encounter while in the massive expanses of Antarctica.
Larger vessels are required to let passengers off the boat in shifts due to the 100-passengers-off-at-a-time restrictions, and so it was, without time constraints or pressure to switch positions with other passengers, that I found myself in a face-to-foot wildlife encounter.
Tourism is relatively new to Antarctica; the first tourists arrived by ship in 1966 on an expedition cruise led by Lars-Eric Lindblad.
“There are more vessels traveling down here every year,” says Seb Coulthard, Antarctic historian with Polar Latitudes. “Last year, 14,566 Americans came, and it’s going up by thousands every year. Antarctica has a certain effect on people. It’s the beating heart of the planet. You come down here and you see this pristine environment, and there’s a lot of room to think. It’s a place that makes you contemplate a lot of what you’ve done and where you’re going.”
Although trips can range from a six-day air and cruise combination to a 67-day cruise from Iceland that circumnavigates Antarctica, the 12-day voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, like the one offered by Polar Latitudes, remains the most popular option for visitors looking for an authentic experience in Antarctica.
The Polar Latitudes voyage starts out in Ushuaia, where passengers spend the first night cozied up in the luxurious Arakur Hotel and Resort. The next day, everyone meets at the harbor to board the Hebridean Sky and embark on the adventure of a lifetime. It takes two days for the ship to cross the infamous Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans converge in a waterway better known as the roughest waters in the world.
Depending on the weather, the passage can be referred to as the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake.” Our November crossing was more lake-like, but a few motion-sickness pills helped the passage go more smoothly for many guests, while others took part in bird-watching surveys on deck to help out with some Citizen Science initiatives in which the ship participates.
Once in the waters of the Antarctic, days are divided into morning and afternoon excursions that are largely dependent on weather conditions, landing conditions and wildlife sightings. You are just as likely to spend a morning hiking on shore to view a Gentoo penguin colony as you are to spend a few hours navigating through sea ice in a military-grade zodiac boat to explore cathedral-like icebergs or watch humpback whales feeding in the open waters.
Back on board, the ship maintains a tight crew-to-passenger ratio, with onboard photographers teaching complimentary photography sessions and scientists remaining on deck to answer questions about wildlife, sustainability or any other science-related matters.
Although journeys to Antarctica would rarely be considered budget travel or inexpensive, most tour operators maintain that it’s not about making profits but rather about making ambassadors for this largely uninhabited continent.
“Without public interest, expeditions don’t exist,” Coulthard explains. “So without public interest, the Antarctic would not survive. The Antarctic needs us in order to keep it in our mind’s eye. You go down a tourist, and you go back home an Antarctic ambassador to keep this continent alive in the minds of people to the north.”
For more information, visit adventure-life.com.