No previous travel experience can prepare you for the otherworldly landscapes and prolific populations of wildlife that await you on a voyage to Antarctica. Only 200,000 people have ever set foot on the White Continent, and it was not until 1967 that Antartica tourism began with the launch of the expedition ship Lindblad Explorer (see sidebar). Forty-one years later, cruising is still the primary means of visiting the world’s largest unexplored wilderness area, and the number of annual visitors has grown from a few hundred annual visitors to a record 30,000 in 2007. I sailed here last November aboard the expedition ship MS Bremen of Hapag Lloyd cruises at the beginning of the cruise season that extends from mid-November to early March during the Austral summer.
Both The MS Bremen and Hapag Lloyd’s other expedition ship, MS Hanseatic have a low draught and ice-hardened hulls designed for cruising in polar regions. They are equipped with the latest high-tech environmental protection systems; both are powered by diesel oil, treated with a non-toxic underwater coat and all onboard sewage is treated biologically. All ships cruising to Antarctica must abide by regulations and guidelines established by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), an organization founded in 1991 for the purpose of promoting and practicing safe and environmentally responsible travel to the continent. Today its 97 members include tour operators, conservation groups, shipping agents, vessel owners, travel agents, and government organizations.
Due to its fragile ecosystems Antarctica cannot tolerate mass tourism, and IAATO mandates that only small groups can come ashore at 50 designated landing sites. Most ships cruise along the coast of the Antarctic peninsula, and passengers are transferred from ship to shore in Zodiacs, sturdy rubberized rafts developed by famed explorer Jacques Cousteau. Once ashore you often encounter mass colonies of penguins — hundreds of thousands at some locations — that spend the summer months breeding and giving birth. After laying eggs in mid November it takes 30 to 40 days for them to hatch, and by December the shores are littered with penguin chicks. Besides penguins, the largest populations of wildlife are the seals who divide their time between the land and the ocean and also enjoy lounging on icebergs. The most remarkable of the several species of seals is the Weddell seal that can dive to depths of 1,300 feet and stay underwater for as long as an hour. While penguins and seals seem unafraid of humans, it’s best to keep a safe distance so as not to disturb their breeding grounds and nesting areas. Also step carefully so as not to crush the lichens and moss underfoot. Over one hundred species of lichens can be found in Antarctica, and they can survive in extremely low temperatures in an environment with minimal moisture and no soil. They also have long lifetimes but grow as little as a twentieth of an inch in a century.
The Bremen was escorted on its journey south by a host of seabirds including wandering albatross and storm petrels that swooped and dived for fish churned to the surface in the ship’s wake. The albatross has the largest wingspread of any bird, and these amazing flyers delighted in riding the wind currents as they repeatedly circled the ship. After spending two days crossing the turbulent Drake’s Passage — one of the roughest stretches of ocean in the world where waves can exceed 30 feet — the ship sailed into calmer waters as we approached the Antarctic peninsula. The following morning I sighted several icebergs floating off the starboard side of the ship, and soon we were passing a flotilla of glittering icebergs of every imaginable shape and size (some as tall as office towers) that seemed to glow from within in shades of turquoise, aquamarine, and blue. Icebergs are born from glaciers in a process known as calving, and approximately 100,000 are calved every year. After breaking off from the glaciers, bergs are propelled by winds and currents into the surrounding seas. The largest iceberg on record was sighted in 2000 floating off the Ross Ice Shelf — it measured an astonishing 185 by 23 miles that is approximately the size of Connecticut. Daily Zodiac excursions to shore would often take us within touching distance of steep glacier walls, and we frequently passed icebergs where fur seals and groups of penguins were sunning themselves or sliding into the water.
If your Zodiac is in the right place at the right time you may observe one of several species of whales that migrate here during the summer, including humpback, blue whale, and orca. If you’re exceptionally lucky (I wasn’t) you may witness the spectacular sight of a humpback leaping out of the water (a phenomenon known as breaching). The blue whale, which is the largest animal that ever lived, can grow up to 100 feet long and weigh 150 tons. Another magnificent creature is the orca (killer whale) that can swim at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.
For more information on the MS Bremen’s 2008-2009 Antarctica cruises contact www.hl-cruises.com; 877-445-7447
LARS ERIC LINDBLAD: THE CREATOR
The father of tourism to the White Continent, Lars Eric Lindblad ailed here in 1967 aboard the world’s first expedition ship, the Lindblad Explorer. Prior to the arrival of the Explorer, the only visitors to the White Continent had been a few intrepid explorers and scientists. Lindblad created the formula for Antarctica cruises that combines in-depth, small group land tours plus onboard educational programs featuring talks by world-class scientists. This formula is still followed more than 40 years later by the MS Bremen and other contemporary expedition ships that cruise here every year.
Lindblad eventually passed the torch to his son, Sven Olof Lindblad, who in 1979 founded Lindblad Expeditions that today offers 15 and 25-day itineraries to Antarctica, as well as cruises to other one-of-a-kind eco-systems, such as the Galapagos Islands. Conservation has always been a top priority of both father and son- Lars Eric said, “You can’t protect what you don’t know,”- and Sven Olof shares his father’s belief that providing firsthand experience to tourists promotes a greater understanding of the earth’s resources and the important role Antarctica plays in the global environment. In 1995, a lagoon and surrounding cove was named Lindblad Cove in honor of Lars Eric’s commitment to expedition tourism as a means of enhancing environmental awareness.