Way Down South Antarctica: A cruise to the bottom of the world takes you through a region of wild beauty and natural wonder.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When was the last time you went on a shore excursion and a penguin tried to follow you back to your cruise ship?

If you're game for something different this winter, head south -- way down south -- to Antarctica. When it is winter here, it is summer there and the only time of year that ships can navigate through the ice-clogged waterways.

There is never a dull moment on a cruise to the bottom of the world. You'll experience the raw beauty of pristine mountains, colossal icebergs and untamed shores while breathing the purest air on Earth. Thrilling encounters with nature, both wildlife and wild weather, happen daily. Expect the unexpected.

"Humpback whales off the starboard bow." The captain's deep voice boomed over the ship's loudspeaker. He spoke calmly, without a hint of urgency.

We cruise passengers painted an entirely different picture -- rushing madly to the nearest window, if we happened to be relaxing in the forward observation lounge. The others, an international mix of 170 adventure seekers on board the Hanseatic, raced to their cabins, grabbed cameras, binoculars and parkas and dashed out on deck. The quickest passengers secured front-row positions on the chilly open wings of the bridge.

For more than an hour, three 40-ton humpbacks cavorted beside our bow. Their long flippers slapped the water, sending streams of icy sea spray flying. The whales surfaced repeatedly, spouted, then dove, their glistening, V-shaped tail flukes slipping smoothly beneath the waves. Once, a massive head rose from the inky surface, mouth agape. It remained motionless for a moment, then snapped shut a jaw large enough to swallow half a dozen passengers in one gulp.

Fortunately, humpback whales feast on krill, small shrimp-like creatures, not on large animals. A single whale devours up to two tons in a meal, and that's precisely why these incredible mammals are found in relative abundance off the Antarctic coast.

The vast quantity of krill swarming through the Southern Ocean also supports other wildlife found here, six types of seals and 50 species of seafaring birds including albatrosses, petrels and eight varieties of penguins, an estimated 175 million of these flightless charmers.

The "White Continent" claims to be the coldest, windiest, driest and most remote place on Earth. But the common perception of a desolate, snow-covered wasteland couldn't be further from the truth, at least along its shores. The 1,000-mile long Antarctic Peninsula and its neighboring islands teem with life -- marine life.

Visiting the peninsula

The peninsula, a crooked finger of land curving away from the tip of South America, lies 600 miles south of Cape Horn. It is the most accessible and most visited part of the continent.

Still, the only way to get here (after flying to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost town in the world) is by ship. That means enduring the Drake Passage, a voyage averaging 36 hours across waters notorious for high seas and gale-force winds. It's all part of the adventure.

Antarctica's tourist season extends over the warmest part of the Southern Hemisphere's summer, mid-November through February. Even in this short time, wildlife-viewing opportunities vary dramatically.

November's bustling mating season brings penguins to shore by the thousands. In the crowded rookeries, nesting pairs create a raucous, foul-smelling obstacle course for the season's first camera-toting visitors.

On the beach, hefty bull seals battle to secure slivers of land and females for their harems. Christmastime features seal pups and penguin chicks vying nosily for attention. Near the end of February, the vulnerable youngsters, forced to face the open sea, attract killer whales and leopard seals in search of easy prey.

In terms of species, "not a lot lives in Antarctica," said David Fletcher, one of five expert lecturers on the Hanseatic. "Our objective is to see as much of that 'not a lot' as possible."

To that end, the cruise director scheduled one or two shore excursions per day, weather permitting.

Luckily, weather forced us to miss only three outings. Cold winds howled across our bow, changing the droplets of drizzle into razor-sharp blades.

We stayed dry inside our floating hotel while Fletcher whetted our appetites for seeing the creatures outside. His intriguing anecdotes and slides represented 15 years on the British Antarctic survey team.

Meanwhile, the captain changed both course and itinerary to find favorable conditions.

After a rough night crunching past wind-driven icebergs as big as city blocks, we awoke to bright sunshine, calm seas and the promise of penguins.

Many layers of clothing

The ship anchored near Petermann Island, where the crew lowered 14 Zodiacs, inflatable craft used for going ashore. We clambered into the bobbing skiffs, feeling clumsy in multiple layers of gear topped by parkas, waterproof pants and knee-high rubber boots.

As the Zodiacs neared shore, we wiggled over the sides, then sprinted toward the pebbly beach before the icy water could reach our boot tops and soak our toes.

Rocky hills sloped gently upward, still partially covered with snow. We immediately spotted penguins dotting the treeless landscape, the quintessential black and white Adelie and the more vibrant gentoo with its bright orange beak and splashes of white above its eyes.

Gone were the hoards of squabbling breeding pairs of early summer. Instead of thousands, we found a few hundred adults caring for their chicks.

A playful mood filled the rookery. Wherever a patch of snow covered a downhill slope, pert Adelies flopped on their bellies and paddled swiftly to the bottom, using both stubby wings and padded feet for propulsion.

Penguin chicks grow

By February, the chubby chicks matched their parents in height (about 2 feet). Their fluffy down coats had been partially exchanged for mature feathers, leaving them clad in fuzzy brown hooded capes draped over natty white bibs.

Left alone while their parents fetched seafood, the chicks huddled together for protection from the circling skuas (predatory birds) that shrieked "attack, attack" as they swooped down to check for stragglers.

In Paradise Bay, icebergs the size and shape of bizarre, creep- show castles added a fresh dimension to animal watching.

Our drivers skillfully maneuvered the Zodiacs between the huge blue-white forms, coming close enough to capture on film the pink yawns of seals lounging on the drifting bergs.

The soft silvers and golds of the crab-eaters' fur shimmered as they snoozed, unperturbed by whirring cameras.

Chinstrap penguins, named for the black line under their beaks, greeted us on Half Moon Island. Dozens raced the Zodiacs, flipping through the water like dolphins. They bounced on shore, springing instantly to their feet.

Their clean, wet feathers glistened, making them exceptionally photogenic.

As usual, the nearby fur seals ignored the fuss and pretended to sleep.

Adventures in exploring

In all, we made nine landings and accomplished several "firsts," no mean feat for modern-day explorers.

We were the first of the season to land on the barren moonscape of Snow Hill Island and visit the frail wood hut where six members of an expedition survived a brutal winter in 1902.

One evening, we detoured to Crystal Bay to witness a spectacular mauve sunset.

And never before had the captain let the Zodiacs cruise through the scattered ice floes of Lemaire Channel, an exquisite passageway between jagged mountain peaks and pure white glaciers.

No two cruises to Antarctica are alike. You might even be the first person who sets foot on an unexplored shore. It still happens here.

If you go

How to go: Ships visiting Antarctica generally depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. Most trips break up long flights from the United States with one or two nights at a hotel (included in the rate) in Buenos Aires or Santiago. Some cruise itineraries include the Falkland Islands as well as the Antarctic Peninsula.

In Antarctica there are no hotels, no cafes and no jumping ship, so choose your ship carefully. The following vessels range from luxury cruise ships with ice-strengthened hulls to converted Russian research icebreakers with shared facilities. Prices are per person, double occupancy, and do not include airfare unless noted.

Hanseatic: 188 passengers, the newest and most luxurious ship traveling in Antarctic waters. Built for expedition cruising in 1993, it has an ice-hardened hull of the highest passenger-ship classification, features all outside cabins and carries 14 small boats. For an 11-day cruise, rates start at $6,300, including airfare. Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, (800) 333-3333.

World Discoverer: 138 passengers, well-appointed, with an ice-hardened hull. Rates for 12 days begin at $3,830. Nature Expeditions International, (800) 869-0639 or Society Expeditions, (800) 548-8669.

Explorer: 105 passengers, the first cruise ship designed to sail in Antarctica. It was built in 1969 and refurbished in 1992. Rates for 11 days begin at $5,210. Abercrombie & Kent, (800) 323-7308.

Marco Polo: 450 passengers, the largest ship calling in the area. It will visit again in December 1997. Orient Lines, (800) 333-7300.

Livonia: 38 passengers, a Finnish-built polar research vessel. Rates for 12 days begin at $5,495. Mountain Travel-Sobek, (800) 227-2384.

Marine Adventurer: 80 passengers, originally constructed for oceanographic research. For nine days cruising, rates start at $2,995, including airfare. Overseas Adventure Travel, (800) 221-0814.

When to go: Cruises take place from mid-November through February, summer in the Southern Hemisphere. You are likely to experience a wide variety of weather conditions and temperatures ranging from the relatively mild 40s to below zero.

Tips: Pack to dress in layers. Waterproof pants are essential as are knee-high rubber boots (supplied along with parkas on the Hanseatic). Take heavy socks, thermal underwear, two pairs of gloves, a hat, parka (if not supplied by your ship) and a backpack to carry your camera and binoculars. Bring more film than you think you will need.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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