Luxury Expedition Ship
National Geographic Explorer
My journey began at 60° latitude South. It actually began much earlier than that and at much lower latitudes, however for this story, let's say it began at 60° South, halfway between the tip of Argentina and the edge of Antarctica. This is the chronicle of my trip to the remote land at the bottom of our planet—Antarctica.
Even though I have been helping clients plan trips to Antarctica for a while, nothing could have prepared me for the incredible experience that lay ahead. As soon as I arrived it hit me with full force. A universal silence and stillness, that can only be called ‘Antarctica’, rooted itself firmly inside my soul and I have a feeling it's not leaving any time soon.
When I say arrive, it's not a matter of hopping on a flight in one city and landing squarely on the Antarctic continent the next day, ready to start snapping photos of penguins. One must earn passage to this great white expanse. It is not given freely, nor easily. An overnight flight traveling from the states is an option. A hotel overnight in either Santiago or Buenos Aires is a must. Usually there is a need for an additional night in Ushuaia, the point of embarkation for most trips to Antarctica. The ship voyage itself is another 36 hours across the Drake Passage. By this time, a full six days later, a small sensation may begin to creep up your back, hinting that you have embarked on an epic journey; you wonder if you are prepared even though you thoroughly checked each of your lists. Twice.
Then one morning, you awake to a vast beautiful wildness of snow and ice, white jagged mountains, oceans that extend into forever, and endless daylight. The air has a sharper edge, so brisk and fresh, like nothing you've ever breathed before. During my trip, the first thing I did each morning and the last thing I did at night was go outside and just breathe the air. I never thought that just breathing could be such a powerful experience. Another incredible aspect are the icebergs — they can be absolutely mountainous or smaller bits of floating ice called growlers. Either way, they are so majestic, alternating colors and shape as we pass by, new light and new angles make them a constantly changing show of art.
It is remarkable that such a desolate land has any wildlife at all. But somehow there is, and of course, like everything else here, it is exceptional. On my first shore landing, a curious elephant seal pup made its way over to me, nuzzled my knee, and looked up at me with those large doe brown eyes. I don't think I've ever wanted to hug something so much, but of course, it is illegal to touch the animals. Since the animals do not know about this law though and have no fear of people, it works out great for us visitors! The very next day we saw two Emperor Penguins on the fast ice. Many other seabirds abound at all times—I loved the beautiful Snow Petrel, but the Antarctic Tern and Blue-Eyed Cormorant were also favorites.
The crabeater and Weddell seals lounge around on the ice and only express mild concern as you cruise by in your Zodiac. By nature, they are unafraid, lacking any real enemies except for the occasional orca whales roaming the seas. My group had the supreme luck to see a leopard seal nursing her pup on the ice, a sight that even our experienced seal expert had never before witnessed, and had to take a separate trip out to have a closer look.
Not only did we see the amazing life above the water’s surface, we received a rare glimpse into undersea life as well. The undersea specialist on my trip would dive down with his team and take pictures and video that he would later show at our evening recap describing in great detail what life is like beneath the surface. A hydrophone on board lets you hear what is happening in the waters below. Another piece of specialized equipment is the ROV, or remote operated vehicle, which is basically an underwater video camera with an umbilical cord attached to the ship. This ROV can go 1,000 feet down, much deeper than a diver, to obtain video of unique and rare aquatic life.
I traveled aboard the National Geographic Explorer, a 148 passenger luxury vessel with some of the best guides in the region. Not only are they very experienced and extremely knowledgeable, they also have a way of conveying information in an understandable, concise and often humorous way, offering something for everyone aboard the ship. I'm always curious about other travelers’ favorite destinations on the planet, so I inquired with many of the guides, crew and staff as to what their favorite place was, thinking that, of course, some would favor Antarctica, while most might say Papua New Guinea, Africa, Galapagos, or Patagonia perhaps. Hands down without even a fraction of hesitation, across the board, each and every one answered Antarctica. Actually, all those who had previously traveled to the Falklands and South Georgia had a resounding answer that, yes, the trifecta of Antarctica, Falklands & South Georgia was THE ultimate trip on this planet and their absolute favorite. This amount of combined passion on board is not only rampantly contagious but it means that every shore landing, every lecture, every interaction on board and off is filled with absolute love of the region. It's really quite indescribable to be surrounded by people who currently reside in their dream destination.
The ship has many amenities like a gym with the best view ever, a nice toasty sauna as well as massage therapy services that book up early. The crew on board is exceptional—very friendly, helpful and by the second night, they knew most everyone's names and drink preferences. The cabins are very comfortable with choice of a porthole, window or balcony. Each cabin has individual climate controls and a TV, as well as European and American outlets in the room, making it easy for all plug types. You can listen to the naturalist lectures from the privacy of your own cabin if you prefer. There is an elevator on board and available walking sticks for shore landings. A very high level of safety protocol is practiced on board at all times. For instance, the crew had two separate safety drills during our trip while the guests were off doing shore landings. Also, at each point of embarking/disembarking the Zodiac or vessel, there were always two staff holding onto each guest at all times in a firm hand to wrist grasp. The expedition leader always stepped into the Zodiac at each landing and gave specific instructions of where you were going to step, what the surface was like once you stepped out (slippery rocks, uneven snow, etc.), where you were going to go on the trail and what time you had to return. I felt very safe and in extremely good hands at all times.
One of the best things about the trip is the presence of a video chronicler on board who quietly captures all of the amazing moments during the trip, and then edits it all together into a fantastic little movie for the guests. This is a great way to keep your memories alive and relive your trip again and again as you share with friends and family a quality video of your specific trip.
Reflecting back on my trip, my mind began this journey so full of the 'everyday'. Now at journey's end, my entire mind, body and soul has been shaken-out, upside-down, and filled-up with dreams of my next chance to return to Antarctica!