“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful” (Alleged recruitment ad for Shackleton expedition)
The very thought of Antarctica chills one to the bone. Why would we ever want to visit this continent? Our response? Why not? We hadn’t yet been to the continent. Besides, with global warming, seeing Antarctica before it melts was compelling.
And, with winter temperatures reaching -129 degrees, its reputation is well deserved. Less well known is that the continent is a desert, with an average of only two inches of precipitation per year. And it is also the highest (an average, believe it or not, of 8,200 feet above sea level) and the windiest (a maximum of 212 miles per hour) continent on earth.
The continent is huge—the fourth largest in the world counting just the land, and the third-largest when you include its ice. This chunk of land was once part of the super-continent of Gowanda. It separated from South America, as evidenced by the southernmost span of the Andes Mountains, which divide the continent into two very different environments. The continent is still being created by volcanoes, moved and shaped by plate tectonics, shrunk by glacial ablation, and wind and water erosion. Even a tiny, tiny bit of soil is being created from the unique combination of powder-fine minerals that have been ground by the glaciers and the penguin guano that provides the organic content.
While the continent is huge and diverse, our trip covered only a tiny sliver of this vast, severe and challenging land. We were limited to a handful of stops (ten to be precise) along the coastal northwestern tip of a peninsula that stretches some 1,000 miles north of the South Pole. So, although we did land (and actually even camped out in the cold environment) on the mainland, at the southernmost point of our voyage we still only reached only 65 degrees south latitude (65 degrees, 6 minutes, 66 seconds to be precise). This was almost 35 degrees or 1,800 miles north of the South Pole. In fact, we didn’t even reach the Antarctic Circle. And we only touched that non-ice-covered sliver that right along the coast of that peninsula.
Antarctica, however, is about more than land. It is also about ice—ice that in total, contains 90 percent of the earth’s total fresh water. Most of this ice is locked in glaciers—glaciers that may be millions of years old, that cover 98 percent of the continent’s surface and are, in some cases, more than three miles thick. Much of this ice, however, escapes the confines of the land. During the winter, ice sheets can stretch more than 1,000 miles out into the sea—doubling the size of the continent. Some of the ice from both glaciers and ice sheets break off into huge icebergs, some of which are more than ten miles long. And since roughly 7/8 of the mass of these bergs is submerged, a single one can contain more than 150,000 acre-feet of water—enough to support of 200,000-person city for a year. Unfortunately, global warming is rapidly melting the ice.
Whales were almost hunted to extinction in this region. However, they have returned in force, with six species (including the rare Right Whale) now represented in the Antarctic Ocean. When whales were almost depleted, seals were hunted for their pelts and blubber. They too are back–from the huge number of relatively small Crabeater Seals (which have never been known to eat a single crab—but that’s another story) to the small number of huge Elephant Seals.
And then there are the dozen or so species of seabirds that populate the region and everybody’s favorite—the penguins. Millions and millions of penguins (especially Gentoo, followed by Adelie, Chinstrap, and a small number of others) with themselves, their guano and their feathers (from molting) covering almost every ice-free spot of the peninsula. And this is not even to mention the handful of fish and shellfish, the moss, algae, and lichen, the one species of insect and two plant species that live on the continent. Nor can one forget the hundreds of species of chemotropic organisms that live under thousands of feet of solid ice and survive by metabolizing minerals.
Explorers and Adventurers
And don’t forget the humans. The whalers and seal hunters who ravaged animal populations from the late 19th through the early part of the 20th centuries, the scientists who now man the research laboratories and especially the explorers and the adventurers who explored the earth’s last frontier. There was, for example:
- Roald Amundsen, with his rugged journey that ended on December 14, 1911, made a successful journey to the South Pole, which he claimed for the Kings of England and Norway;
- Robert Scott, and the heartbreaking and tragic story of the explorers who reached the same point one month later (January 17, 1912) only to discover that Amundsen had just beat him. Even worse, he and his entire party perished on the way back—when they were, unknowingly, only 17 miles from a supply base); and also
- The first party of women who successfully reached the Pole on January 14, 1993. One of these women was a member of our boat expedition and gave us a first-hand account of the 73-day journey and the challenges they faced. These included the different criteria by which each of the four participants were chosen, the training programs, the need to rely on crowdsourcing to raise the million dollars needed to finance the trip (at an average of just under $25 per contributor), how they needed to consume 6,000 calories per day, fat-based diets (and how each of them lost a lot of weight), the need to slog on despite severe frostbite (which is a third-degree burn), injury (such as skiing with injured ankle tendons) and illness (as in mountain climbing with a three-week case of bronchitis) and how one almost died and another became suicidal.
Then there is the less successful, but ultimately even more miraculous and inspirational journey of Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew. Although we knew the story, a PBS documentary shown on our ship reacquainted us with the details. It explained how he twice unsuccessfully tried to become the first to reach the South Pole and then settled on an alternate goal—to become the first to cross the continent on foot. How his ship got caught in, and was later crushed by ice sheets and the incredible story of survival—not just of him, but also of the 26 other men who volunteered and were selected for the dangerous journey. After 15 months of survival on their original ice flow, the sea finally opened enough for the crew to depart on lifeboats. While they were unable to come anywhere near their destination of South Georgia Island, after nine days of brutal sailing they did reach at least temporary refuge on Elephant Island, where the crew was able to survive on seal meat, penguin meat, and blubber.
But since they couldn’t communicate their location to the outside world, someone still had to reach civilization in order to arrange for a rescue party. Shackleton and five others modified one of the lifeboats for the 800-mile sail through the world’s roughest and coldest seas to reach the whaling station in South Georgia. After surviving not just the seas, but also a hurricane, after 17 days, they barely reached the opposite side of the island before almost dying of both hunger and thirst. (As the movie did not explain, but one of our guides did, freshwater was available in the form of icebergs. But since they lacked the ability to melt the water, the energy loss attributable to eating ice more than outweighs the benefit.)
Even this victory would have been in vain had they not been able to reach the whaling station at the other end of the uncharted, 80-mile wide, highly mountainous, and glacier-clad island. So Shackleton and three others—clad only in threadbare clothes, leather boots (into which they drove nails to give them traction on the ice), and a couple of early 20th-century carpenter’s tools—accomplished the amazing feat of reaching the station in a mere 36 hours. Although they tried twice, they failed to reach Elephant Island to rescue the men remaining on the other side of South Georgia. Then, four months later, they finally succeeded, not just in reaching the still stranded crew, but in rescuing every last one. This grueling journey has become one of the most inspirational in history.
Our trip was considerably less challenging. We slept in luxury shipboard rooms, ate prepared meals, drank wine, had access to a ship doctor, and had professional guides to show us the ropes, carry our gear and, on the one night we camped out, help us set up our tents and continually communicated with the ship in case challenging weather would force us to get back on the ship. Even so, we felt almost like pioneers, hiking rugged landscapes and experiencing nature in its rawest form and most extreme power. Although we shared our adventure with 100 colleagues (not to speak of a support staff of 80 people), we felt extraordinarily privileged to be one of the roughly 40,000 people who visit the continent each year. And among the even fewer number who have camped out.
Selecting and Rating Our Antarctica Tour
The only practical way to visit Antarctica is to go with one of the roughly 30 tour operators who specialize in Antarctica cruises. True, you can take one of the mega-cruise ships across the Drake Passage to the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, and content yourself with catching a view of the land and animals from the ship’s deck balcony, but your feet will never touch land. Or, you could take a smaller boat with about 200 people that actually does land, but is unable to land at many of the small sites that are limited to 25-30 people at a time. Or you can take a day trip by plane from Ushuaia, Argentina, land and walk on the continent and return to South America that evening.
These options, however, didn’t interest us. We wanted a smaller ship, one that accommodated only about 100 passengers, offered sufficient time at a number of varied stops and had an experienced professional crew and expedition staff. And, since our barebones travel days are long over, we were also looking for comfortable facilities. We got all we are looking for and more than we knew to request from Polar Latitude’s tour on the Sea Explorer 1:
- Polar Latitudes is a relatively new company founded by experienced Antarctica travel executives of Quark Expeditions who had sold Quark and wanted to create a new service with more upscale accommodations and especially experienced staff;
- Sea Explorer I, our ship, offers spacious (including many suite-sized) cabins, professional catering with many interesting, well-prepared choices that varied daily and are seldom repeated, and large, well-appointed common areas. Right after our trip in 2016, it went under a major renovation and was to emerge, re-anointed as the Hebredine Sky.
We were impressed by the pre-cruise information and assistance provided by our agent, Expedition Trips who guided us amongst the various expedition options and helped us find the trip that best suited our interests. We loved our very spacious, very comfortable cabin (one that had so much room and storage space that we didn’t even use it all), appreciated the informative lectures and information resources that were provided, enjoyed much of the food (especially dinners with dishes including venison, ribeye, pheasant, Butterfish, John Dory and, on the last night, a credible lobster thermidor) and hospitality (not to speak of the company of our fellow travelers). We found the cruise staff to be totally knowledgeable, professional,l and very accommodating. Nor did it hurt that two of Polar Latitude’s owners and executives were aboard, both of whom were very open to feedback and the CEO, in particular, taking a hands-on role in the operations of the expedition (under the management of Hayley, our very experienced, very good expedition manager).
We were equally impressed by many of the tour leaders, interpretive guides, and lecturers. Among those who we particularly got to know were Sunni (a member of the first women’s team to reach the South Pole, and leader of one across Greenland), Snowy (a former leader of an Australian Antarctic scientific team), and Tracy (a geology professor with a specialty in geology, climatology, and glaciers). Then there were the equally experienced guides knowledgeable in fields including biology and zoology, as well as those who led more specialized activities, such as kayaking and camping.
We also appreciated the captain’s caution when he decided to not risk a planned crossing through an unexpectedly ice-clogged channel (especially after we learned that a ship that had gone through the night before was forced to take a 50 nautical mile detour and skip at least one of the scheduled land trips). And we appreciated the flexibility of the expedition staff in organizing alternative activities that were among our favorites of our tour (see Day Seven of our blog outlining our Expedition Agenda).
Is there anything that we would like improved? Certainly. We would have loved to have the motion stabilization and WiFi performance enhancements that are to be installed in the ship’s major infrastructure enhancement scheduled shortly. And while they are at it, how about a Michelin 3-star chef (just kidding as the food was remarkably good).
While there are always things we would like to see improved, we can think of only one significant fault or major enhancement we would recommend. But it was largely outside Polar Latitude’s control. We were extremely disappointed in the Ushuaia hotel at which Polar Latitudes booked our first night (see our blog on Ushuaia). It was very tired looking and in desperate need of a renovation. Although it was only a 20-minute walk to downtown, it was on top of a hill making it an hour walk up a mountain to get back. Yes, they had a 17-person shuttle that ran every 2 hours. But it was always filled. That meant taking taxis. The staff was clearly overwhelmed and full of false information. In fact, we are not sure that they told us one thing that was correct. But we suspect that it was the best the company could do in trying to find a place for 100 people to stay on the first night as it is the top rated hotel in the city. There simply weren’t any viable alternatives. At least it was clean and we did sleep well.
Overall, we would recommend both Polar Latitudes and the Sea Explorer I.
OK, enough background. Come explore Antarctica with us