I have just returned from Antarctica by a more conventional route: boarding a small cruise ship in Ushuaia, Argentina for the 30 hours drake passage crossing to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. We sail along the western coast towards the antarctic circlethen returned north to reach the weddell sea, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
My general impression of the south ocean and the seventh continent is vast. At the intersections you see nothing but the ocean swell in any direction.
Tidal waves and birds: black-browed albatross, cape petrels, antarctic terns. Tidal waves and birds and whales: southern right whales, fin whales, Humpback whales. It becomes palpable that almost three quarters of the planet is covered by sea.
We rarely saw other boats or people. When passenger Charlie got sick, we met up with a Norwegian cruise ship that evacuated him to the Falklands. (He’s fine.) Instead, we find rich wildlife thriving on the vast, cold, uninhabited continent.
Graceful seabirds glided overhead. Porpoise penguins to port and stern. Fin whales packed the passage from the peninsula to South Georgia, puffs so numerous they reminded me of a geyser field. We saw 30 fin whales in one day, more than 30 the next.
In a spectacular cove surrounded by glaciers, we kayak over a crystal clear ocean dotted with icebergs. A large iceberg collapsed and rolled, generating small tsunamis in its wake. The entire landscape in blue, white and clear ice struck me as magical and otherworldly.
We often visited the ship’s bridge, which Captain Heidi Norling kept open for guests 24 hours a day. The room was spacious and high-tech, adorned with so many screens, instruments, and dials that it looked like the cockpit of a spaceship.
One afternoon 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 draw near elephant island, emerged through the deep mist when we were almost on top of it. Here Ernest Shackleton‘s crew he survived 107 days after his ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice in 1915.
Shackleton and five others sought help by rowing 800 miles to South Georgia Island in a leaky rowboat. His incredible journey is documented in movies, books, and stories of heroism.
Coincidentally, the wreck of the Endurance it was discovered 10,000 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea during the time we were there.
Our visit to South Georgia Island was more pedantic than Shackleton’s. Our hike ended through thick tufts of grass and across a smooth grassy plateau with thick mosses and small streams marking a retreating glacier.
There we saw a beach that housed a real Serengeti: tens of thousands of king and gentoo penguins, fur seals and skuas and petrels feeding on baby penguins. It was fascinating to see these highly social creatures interact. Some king penguins were especially sociable, with a curious buzzing call.
One afternoon we paddled kayaks in a sheltered cove, watching macaroni penguins jump out of the water onto guano-soaked rocky cliffs. Unbelievably, they could usually grab onto slippery rock with their sharp claws. Those who slipped and slipped into the water tried until they succeeded or became a leopard seal’s dinner.
Antarctica achieves everything in superlatives. It is the coldest, windiest, driest and highest on average of the seven continents. Its remoteness and abundance of wildlife ensure that it is a coveted destination for tourists seeking unspoiled landscapes. However, 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, seaweed and the inevitable thirst for oil and minerals.
The effect of climate change is dramatic. We guiltily basked in weather that was rarely below freezing. Warm weather translates to more snow and fewer favorite nesting sites for some penguin species, whose nesting colonies we witnessed fail.
Captain Heidi pointed out a glacier that had shrunk 400 meters since her last visit in November.
Krill, the tiny crustacean that provides the main sustenance for creatures from whales to penguins, eat the algae that grow on the bottom of the sea ice. Antarctic krill populations have plummeted 80% in the last half century.
Glacier retreat and sea ice melt are also fueling sea level rise that affects everyone in the world.
Even with strict policies, such as limiting the number of ships, not anchoring or unloading, there is no doubt that cruise ships are part of the problem. Of course, we adhere to strict biosecurity from island to island, repeatedly cleaning and disinfecting all of our outside gear to ensure we don’t transport biota from island to island. But what is sustainable?
I will explore this and other topics from our incredible Antarctic adventure in future columns.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and preseniors as director of Decisive Path’s Exclusive Paid Financial Advice in Santa Barbara. You can contact her with financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The expressed opinions are owns.
Small cruise ships travel from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Antarctic Peninsula. (Karen Telleen-Lawton)