Terra Incognita: Antarctica

Terra Incognita: Antarctica

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expedition cruise ship MV Polar Star breaking ice. Photo: Jad Davenport

A voyage to Antarctica and South Georgia Island reveals an otherworldly seascape of sculpted icebergs, forgotten whaling stations and toddler-sized penguins.

Beyond completing The Great Loop—the circumnavigation of the eastern half of the United States—and then embarking for a journey around the world, cruising the Southern Ocean is one of the last great maritime adventures. But if your yacht isn’t equipped for such expeditions, you can still appreciate the otherworldly landscapes of Antarctica and South Georgia Island. More than a dozen expedition cruise ships—some are converted Russian icebreakers while others are custom-built luxury yachts—spend the Austral summer from November to February exploring the White Continent. During this time, cruisers are treated to almost perpetual sunlight and temperatures that can be surprisingly mild although blizzards can erupt at any time. Home port in the season is Ushuaia, Argentina, a former penal colony at the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

It usually only takes a day or two to cross the famous Drake Passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, and the weather can be unpredictable, with captains joking they’ll either get the “Drake Lake” or the “Drake Shake.” Some ships will make a first stop east of Argentina in the Falkland Islands where tourists can explore one of the farthest-flung corners of the British Empire. Barely 3,000 local “kelpers” make a living here: farming, raising sheep, cutting peat or working for the Crown. The infamous 1982 war between England and Argentina (who claim the islands as Las Malvinas) is long over, but relics remain—the scattered wreckage of a helicopter on a barren slope and the red skull-and-crossbones signs warning of minefields. Still, it’s a great place to stop for a pint at a pub in Port Stanley and make a call home from the red telephone booths.

The real excitement begins when ships cross the Antarctic Convergence, an invisible ring around the continent that is recognized as a political, biological and climatic boundary. Here the sea temperature readouts plunge from a relatively balmy 50F degrees to just above freezing. The most dramatic landscapes in Antarctica fortunately aren’t found in the heart of the continent (the South Pole itself is a flat, featureless ice plateau), but along the mountainous coast of the Antarctic Peninsula that marks first landfall for most ships.

A favorite landing spot here for many is Whaler’s Bay in the Deception Island caldera. Within this active volcano (it last erupted in 1969) are the remains of a Norwegian whaling station abandoned in the 1930s when whaling went from being a land-based to ship-based industry. You can hike along the black sand beaches inside of the crater, explore the massive whale-oil tanks and station buildings—some still have shelves full of rusted cans of food. Scattered here and there, uncovered by the fierce winds, are the weathered coffins of unfortunate sealers and whalers.

Other popular landings include Hannah Point on Livingston Island with its vast colonies of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. Flocks of giant petrels, aggressive and predatory birds that feed on penguins and carrion, wing overhead like hunting pterodactyls. Sprawled along the volcanic beaches are knots of elephant seals. Keep a close eye here on the nearby rock shelves, and among the lush Pearlwort (one of only two flowering plants in Antarctica—the other is Antarctic hair grass) you might spot unusual fern fossils and lumps of petrified wood. More than 25 million years ago Antarctica was covered with trees.

Most ships will try and land somewhere on the actual continent itself, sometimes at Esperanza Station, an Argentine base set up in 1951 that still houses a civilian population and holds the distinction of having the first native-born Antarctican person. Winds pile down here so viciously from nearby glaciers that the locals like to joke the base has the only flying penguins in Antarctica. There’s a small cafeteria and souvenir shop where you can buy ceramic penguin mugs, ashtrays and patches.

Beyond Antarctica and the Falklands is South Georgia Island. “Lands doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness: never to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays; whose horrible and savage aspect I have not words to describe.” That’s how Captain Cook described South Georgia Island in 1775. Because it sits below the Antarctic Convergence, South Georgia looks and feels more like Antarctica than other subantarctic islands such as the Falklands. The island is a towering massif of 2,000-meter ice-clad peaks broken off millions of years ago from the Andes. More than half the island is covered in permanent snow and ice, but the lush shores fronted by sand and hummock coasts abound with so many sea lions and penguins it’s often impossible to squeeze a zodiac ashore.

The main port has a beautiful museum featuring Shackleton artifacts as well as information on the Falkland Islands War (a submarine attacked here) and the local wildlife. This is where the oil rush started, not for gushing black crude but for lubricant found in marine mammals. The island went through three phases of ecological disaster: the fur sealing years from 1778 to 1908; elephant seals from 1900s to 1960s (a bull elephant seal could be boiled down for 170 liters or a barrel of oil); from 1904 to 1965 it was whaling (whale oil was used in everything from crayons and shoe polish to alcohol and perfume), and up to 90 percent of all whales were removed from the Southern Ocean. From the 1960s to now it’s fishing, mostly Patagonian tooth fish, squid and krill. Whaling shut down here in 1965, and slowly the whales came back—first the humpbacks, then the blue whales, then the fins and seis, and finally, the minke whales. Now Antarctica is officially a whale sanctuary (though Japan still hunts there).

Today, South Georgia is a sort of New Eden where the wildlife has been protected so long it has lost all fear of humans. Almost half a million King penguins breed on South Georgia. At three-feet tall, they are the largest of the four indigenous species. Five million Macaroni penguins and a quarter million Gentoos call the island home, together with 4,000 Chinstrap penguins.

Ships all call at Grytviken in the east arm of Cumberland Bay. Set up in 1904, the port became a bustling whaling town of 300 Norwegians. At full throttle it reduced 25 whales a day to their economic essentials: baleen for hoop skirts and umbrellas, oil for lamps and cosmetics, and lubrication. During the 1911-12 season, a 108-foot female blue whale was winched up and peeled like a banana by Norwegian flensers with knives the size of hockey sticks. She holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest animal that ever lived. By the time Grytviken closed in 1965 it had processed 175,250 whales.

Today it’s a ghost town of ochre oil tanks and a fleet of beached whaling ships. Before exploring the ruins, pop in to the South Georgia Museum. At nearby King Edward Point, a huddle of prefabricated buildings shelter the only humans on South Georgia, a handful of scientists and the island’s administrator.

This is the best place to pay homage to Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, the unflinching leader of the failed 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. When his ship Endurance was crushed by the Weddell Sea ice and his team of 22 men marooned on Elephant Island, Shackleton made a daring 800-mile open-boat journey to South Georgia only to find he landed on the uninhabited side of the island far from help. He and two companions made a grueling 36-hour climb up and over the mountains before arriving at the whaling station of Stromness and deliverance. Not a man was lost. When he died of a heart attack on another expedition in 1922 at Grytviken, he was buried at the whalers’ cemetery. If you make a pilgrimage to the cemetery, take a moment to drink a toast of whiskey at the granite headstone of “The Boss.”

Beyond Grytviken, ships often try to get visitors ashore at Gold Harbour. Here, below the Weddell Glacier, are grassy hummocks covered with thousands upon thousands of King and Gentoo penguins and fur seals. Not far away is Prion Island, another sought-after landing. If you’re fortunate enough to make it ashore here, you can see a colony of wandering albatross, one of the rarest seabirds. Eighteenth-century American naturalist Robert Cushman spotted one while sailing these waters and wrote the famous line, “I now belong to that higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross.” The same can be said of those who have cruised these waters.

 — GETTING THERE —

Lindblad Expeditions, in partnership with National Geographic, has the most extensive cruise portfolio in Antarctica and includes luxury voyages that hit Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. expeditions.com

For cruisers who want to skip the Drake Passage and get right to Antarctica, Natural Habitat Adventures is offering guests two opportunities to fly down as part of their Antarctica Sailing Expedition (or you can fly one way and cruise the Drake Passage the other leg). The trip departs from Punta Arenas, Chile. Once in Antarctica, guests explore aboard the 75-foot polar expedition sailboat Australis. nathab.com 

Story & photos by Had Davenport, Southern Boating Magazine February 2016