By Phil Marty,special to Tribune Newspapers
July 20, 2011
CIERVA COVE, Antarctica — The icebergs are amazing.
Some are no larger than a refrigerator. Others are the size of an ocean liner, dwarfing our puny Zodiac as Vladimir, a member of the expedition staff, steers it among these ancient ice chunks.
"That looks like a golf ball," says one of the eight passengers, pointing to a dimpled orb the size of a house.
We cruise by another that rises out of the water 15 to 20 feet at its highest point and looks to me like the snout of an alligator.
Wind and waves have sculpted sensual curves into some of the bergs and symmetrical crevices into others. Still others show rugged, angular lines as if they'd just been cleaved from a glacier.
But the most haunting ones, the ones still burned into my memory, are those that glow a deep blue. They look as if a light has been flipped on inside.
The phenomenon, Vladimir explains, is a result of air being forced out of the ice by pressure and/or melting, which changes how the light is reflected.
This is the afternoon of our first full day aboard the M/V Ocean Nova, a diminutive 240-foot-long expedition ship with an ice-strengthened hull that makes it ideal for cruising these iceberg-infested waters during the brief Antarctic summer.
My trip in early January, booked through polar travel specialist Quark Expeditions, had a unique aspect. Many Antarctic expeditions sail from southern Argentina or southern Chile and eat up two days down and two days back cruising across the notoriously rough Drake Passage.
But on our trip, the 60 of us boarded a relatively small airliner in Punta Arenas, Chile, and two hours later stepped onto the unpaved, short runway at Frei Station on King George Island, part of the South Shetland Islands.
The South Shetlands run parallel to the northwest coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, separated by the roughly 100-mile-wide Bransfield Strait, and it's here that this trip of a lifetime truly begins.
And, speaking of the trip of a lifetime, when you tell someone you're going to Antarctica, you get two reactions:
"Wow! I've always wanted to go there," or "Why would you want to go there? You'll freeze!"
First things first: No, you won't freeze. Antarctica's summer (our winter) has modest temps (think 30s) along the Antarctic Peninsula. It is much colder on the interior of the continent, but that's not where most tourists go.
Matter of fact, while many people in North America were frosted over, we were sitting out on deck at 8:30 one night (the sun wouldn't set for almost three more hours) wearing jackets while eating barbecue and drinking beer and wine under clear blue skies.
Now, as to why would you want to go there?
This is a place where you see something like those amazing icebergs and think, "Well, how are you going to top that?" Then the next day you see gentoo penguins tending to the cutest little babies you'd ever want to see. These balls of fluff with their reddish-orange beaks are no more than a week old and small enough you could hold one in the palm of your hand (but can't, of course).
But how are you going to top that?
It's another morning in the Zodiac and it's no coincidence that this place is called Paradise Bay. Frozen mountains rise along the shore and are reflected into the still, deep-blue waters. The only sounds come from the purr of the outboard motor and the thunk, thunk, thunk of chunks of ice bouncing off the bottom of the Zodiac's hull.
Andre, our driver this morning, breaks the silence. He's been doing trips down here for 16 years, he says, and he points to a section of glacier that's receded about 1,000 feet in that time.
"That mountain over there," he says, pointing to bare rock, "used to be covered by snow and ice."
Moments later we watch in awe as an avalanche rolls down the slope of another mountain.
How are you going to top that?
Back aboard ship, the loudspeaker crackles to life.
"There's a whale off the port bow." Everyone who had been sitting in the Panorama Lounge while listening to a lecture on wildlife rushes out on deck to see the real wildlife.
For the next hour, we're in whale heaven. One humpback here. Three humpbacks there. Two humpbacks over there, looking like a synchronized swim team as they dive together, their tails arching in unison.
How are you going to top that?
After three days of sunny, calm, moderate weather, our last day has given us what our expedition leader, Mariano, describes as a typical summer day here — overcast, 35-mile-an-hour winds, temps in the low 30s, scattered snow.
Boarding the Zodiacs to go ashore at Deception Island, a former whaling station, proves a challenge as waves bounce them up and down. But we're getting the complete Antarctic experience — and our first sighting of chinstrap penguins to boot.
Later, out in the strait, I look out from the top-deck lounge and watch the horizon in front of the bow roll up and down as we slog through 10-foot waves that occasionally smash across the windows. The lounge is nearly empty as most people have gone to their cabins to lie down after grabbing a handful of seasickness pills from the bowl that sits on the bar.
The 10-foot waves, Mariano would say later, are typical for a normal day if we'd gone across the Drake Passage.
Lying in my bunk that night as the boat rocks in the waves, it's hard not to gain a greater appreciation for people such as Shackleton and Amundsen and Scott, who challenged this amazing wilderness on foot and in delicate wooden vessels just a century ago.
Why would you want to go there?
"This was a trip and a destination that will live in my heart forever," says Helena, a Briton from Argentina, as we wait to go ashore our last day. "It's like remembering a favorite tree — or an old lover."
If you go
American and LAN are the primary airlines flying from the U.S. to Punta Arenas, Chile, starting point for my trip. I flew a combination of the two, with the last leg being from Santiago to Punta Arenas on LAN. Depending on your starting point, you're looking at being in transit as much as 24 hours. For departures in December and January 2012, expect to pay $1,500 to $2,000 round trip, though if you're a glutton for punishment and willing to spend even more time en route, you might score a better fare.
The Antarctica Fly and Cruise package from Quark Expeditions (888-892 0334, quark
expeditions.com) includes two nights' lodging in Punta Arenas, the round-trip flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island, four full days and two half-days on the Ocean Nova, all food (quite good, with a choice of meat, fish or vegetarian) and drinks. We had two outings a day in the Zodiacs, including landings.
Our group of 60 came from 14 countries, and though there were a couple of extremes, average age was 50s and 60s. Despite that, this isn't your grandparents' cruise. Getting in and out of the Zodiacs can sometimes be tricky, and we had hikes through the snow up hilly areas at some landings that were quite strenuous, though those were always optional.
Cost of the trip for the coming season, which has just seven departures from mid-December to mid-January, runs $9,260 to $14,410 per person, depending on whether it's a triple, double or single cabin.
Quark has several other Antarctic trips, some costing less than $5,000 per person, that involve traversing the Drake Passage.
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