If boaters sailed directly to our Channel Islands and missed them in heavy fog, the next land they would encounter would be Antarctica, over 8,000 miles to the south.
I just returned from Antarctica by a more conventional route: boarding a small cruise ship in Ushuaia, Argentina, for the 30-hour crossing of the Drake Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. We cruised along the west coast to the Antarctic Circle and then back north to reach the Weddell Sea, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
My overall impression of the Southern Ocean and the Seventh Continent is vast. At the crossings, you see nothing but the ocean swell in all directions.
Swell and birds: black-browed albatrosses, Cape petrels, Antarctic terns. Swell and birds and whales: southern right whales, fin whales, humpback whales. It becomes palpable that almost three quarters of the planet is covered by the sea.
We rarely saw other ships or people. When passenger Charlie fell ill, we met a Norwegian cruise ship, which evacuated him to the Falklands. (He’s fine.) Instead, we encountered a wealth of wildlife thriving in the vast, cold, uninhabited continent.
Graceful seabirds hovered above our heads. Porpoise penguins to port and aft. Fin whales swarmed the passage from the peninsula to South Georgia, puffs so numerous they reminded me of a field of geysers. We spotted 30 fin whales in one day, over 30 the next.
In a spectacular cove surrounded by glaciers, we kayaked on a glassy ocean dotted with icebergs. A large iceberg collapsed and rolled, generating small tsunamis in its wake. The whole landscape in blue, white and clear ice impressed me as otherworldly and magical.
We often visited the deck of the ship, which Captain Heidi Norling kept open to guests 24 hours a day. The room was spacious and high-tech, lined with so many screens, instruments and dials that it looked like a spaceship cockpit.
Late in the evening, we watched and listened as Captain Heidi and two of her crew shine lights on approaching icebergs, watch radar to estimate sizes, and move slowly across an ice field.
The day we approached Elephant Island, it emerged in thick fog as we were almost on it. Here, Earnest Shackleton’s crew survived 107 days after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice in 1915.
Shackleton and five others called for help as they rowed 800 miles to South Georgia Island in a leaky rowboat. Their incredible journey is documented in films, books and stories of heroism.
Coincidentally, the wreck of the Endurance was discovered 10,000 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea while we were there.
Our visit to South Georgia Island was more pedantic than Shackleton’s. Our hike was through thick bushy grass and across a soft grassy plateau with thick mosses and small streams marking a retreating glacier.
There, we overlooked a beach with a real Serengeti: tens of thousands of king and gentoo penguins, fur seals, skuas and petrels feeding on baby penguins. It was fascinating to watch these very social creatures interact. Some king penguins were particularly gregarious, with a curious drone-like cry.
One evening we paddled a kayak into a sheltered cove, watching Macaroni penguins jump out of the water on guano-soaked rock cliffs. Incredibly, they could usually grab the slippery rock with their sharp claws. Those who slipped and fell back into the water tried until they succeeded or became a leopard seal’s dinner.
Antarctica accomplishes everything in superlatives. It is the coldest, windiest, driest and highest on average of the seven continents. Its remoteness and the abundance of its fauna make it a popular destination for tourists looking for unspoiled landscapes. Yet it is not pristine and is surprisingly fragile.
Beneath its breathtaking beauty lies a continent whose resources have been exploited for hundreds of years, from whaling and fur seals to krill, kelp and the inevitable thirst for oil and minerals. .
The effect of climate change is dramatic. We enjoyed a guilty weather that was rarely below zero. The warm weather translates to more snow and fewer preferred nesting sites for some species of penguins, which we have witnessed nest colony failure.
Captain Heidi pointed to a glacier that had shrunk 450 meters since he last visited in November.
Krill, the tiny crustacean that provides the primary food for creatures ranging from whales to penguins, eat the algae that grows under the sea ice. Antarctic krill populations have fallen by 80% over the past half century.
Retreating glaciers and melting sea ice are also fueling sea level rise that affects everyone on the planet.
Even with strict policies, such as limiting the number of ships, banning anchoring and unloading, there is no doubt that cruise ships are part of the problem. Of course, we adhered to strict biosecurity from island to island, repeatedly cleaning and disinfecting all our outdoor equipment to ensure we were not transporting biota from island to island. But what is sustainable?
I will explore this and other topics from our amazing Antarctic adventure in future columns.
– Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as director of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.
Small cruise ships make the journey from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula. (Karen Tellen Lawton)