As I ventured out on deck to start another day at sea, a brilliant blanket of whiteness nearly blinded me—snow, coating the ship from bow tip to helicopter pad astern. Not the sort of thing you expect to see in the middle of summer. Unless, of course, you’re in Antarctica.
I was aboard the Antarctic Dream, a polar ice boat with a reinforced hull. The ship was small, just 2,180 tons, with 39 cabins that accommodates 78 passengers. I abandoned the notion of throwing a snowball when my ears caught an unfamiliar sound, or rather the lack of one—I could hear the full throb of the engines. The relative silence meant we had reached our anchorage. Soon, four Zodiacs, swift 16-foot rubber boats, would be in the icy water, carrying us ashore for the first time.
Our destination was Port Lockroy, a onetime whaling station from the 1800s to the 1930s and then, during World War II, a secret British base for monitoring German shipping. Abandoned after the war, the original station building has been restored and today is a gift shop and museum, with its wartime decor preserved.
For travelers who like to “collect” countries in their passports, Port Lockroy offers the opportunity for an Antarctica stamp. (Antarctica, though, belongs to no nation, with national scientific stations sharing the land under international treaties.)
During the compressed November-to-February Antarctic tourist season, nearly 10,000 people visit Port Lockroy, but only 350 are allowed ashore each day, and no more than 60 at once, in order to spare the fragile environment the travail of too many tramping feet.
Another Zodiac ride takes us to a gentoo penguin rookery at Jougla Point, where some 800 pairs of adults and their chicks nest. On shore, you’re literally up to your knees in the little creatures. Moving slowly and quietly, you pose no threat as they go about their nesting, feeding and grooming.
If you take a seat on a rock (and there are plenty to choose from), the curious penguins will come to you. As I watched, a young gentoo approached a shipmate, an elementary school teacher from Taiwan, and used its beak to probe her parka pockets and fanny pack.
Walking through the rookery, I saw myriad century-old whalebones colored green by algae. In one spot, a reconstructed 60-foot whale skeleton lay on the ground. My closest and most rewarding encounter with Antarctic wildlife happened as we prepared to board the last Zodiac back to the ship. Alerted by a fellow passenger, I clambered over to a neighboring cove and there, languidly positioned on a patch of soft snow, was a sleeping nine-foot Weddell seal. I approached cautiously and I got so near I could have tickled his whiskers. I didn’t, of course, but did shoot some wonderful close-ups.
Five of our 11 days aboard the Antarctic Dream were devoted to landings on the continent and offshore islands. The exact number allowed depends on weather and safety issues. Up to three landings per day are scheduled during the long summer days. (Sunrise one day was 4:27 a.m., sunset 10:16 p.m.) On my trip, we made eight landings, the first one at Neko Harbor, the head of a massive glacier. On a day of high winds when landing wasn’t possible, we cruised for sightings of orca, humpback and minke whales.
The 1,200-mile voyage included an excursion off Pleneau Island past blue ice floes as tall as 10-story buildings. One looked like a Greek temple with sculpted Corinthian columns, another like a transparent Oriental dragon. On flat snow floes that served as floating tanning salons for seals, we encountered up to a dozen at a basking at a time.
Unforgettable was our visit to Deception Island, a spectacular caldera of a still-active volcano (last eruption 1970). The caldera’s only entrance is a tricky and dramatic narrow passage colorfully named Neptune’s Bellows.
Inside the caldera, we hiked 1,500 feet up its rim for a view of the 10-mile-wide volcanic remnant. Before leaving, we made a second Zodiac landing, where the more adventuresome among us stripped down to bathing suits and dug themselves into a natural spa of warm volcanic sands and thermal waters. When sufficiently warmed, they dashed headfirst into the caldera’s icy waters.
Our final landing destination was at Maxwell Bay on King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, where we visited the Chilean and Russian scientific bases that are among eight national research facilities there.
The trip ended where it began 11 days earlier, at Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. As we eased into port, a light rain shower that had been falling gave way to a burst of sun. A rainbow emerged and covered the harbor with its brilliant halo.
Top photos Clockwise Left to right: Zodiac expedition returns to the Antarctic Dream, trumpeting gentoo penguin, expedition member poses with relic whale skeleton, international destination markers, Chilean scientific base, King George Island.
Bottom photos Clockwise left to right: Napping Weddell seal; expedition member surrounded by adult gentoo penguins; expedition members soak in volcanic thermal sands of Deception Island; on deck of Antarctic Dream as it glides through Wilhelmina Bay.