Visiting Antarctica is more than a bucket-list vacation. A trip to the White Continent, even if it’s your seventh continent, is no mere to-do to be checked off. No, making the journey to Antarctica is a calling, an urge. To some, a need.
This is far from a new phenomenon. It’s been true for more than a century, and there may be no better case in point than legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who provided his own explanation on the subject:
“Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by the love of adventure, some have a keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices,’ the mysterious fascination of the unknown.”
This lure of little voices is something echoed by Shackleton’s longtime confidant and trusted right-hand man, Frank Wild. Rob Caskie, a history lecturer aboard a recent Abercrombie & Kent Antarctica sailing, called attention to Wild’s words while explaining the impact that continent has had on the people who have laid eyes upon it, even those who have survived harrowing sagas while there.
“Once you have been to the white unknown,” Wild wrote, “you can never escape the call of the little voices.”
The experience on Abercrombie & Kent’s 15-night luxury expedition cruise, a holiday getaway including stops at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia en route to the Antarctic Peninsula, is admittedly a bit cushier than what Shackleton and Wild went through. There was no survival component to our sailing, no grand sense of conquering the unknown abyss on our voyage, even if you can’t help but feel a bit enterprising while traversing the dreaded Drake Passage, a turbulent strait below Cape Horn where the Atlantic and Pacific meet. But would that further bolster its impact upon us, or diminish it? Would we, too, be summoned by those little voices?
Caskie was one of a dozen members of Abercrombie & Kent’s expedition team on our journey. Not only were they responsible for running the daily excursions, operating the inflatable Zodiac boats which ferry passengers to and from landings, and safely guiding us around a given locale, but they also provided passengers with assorted enrichment opportunities. Sea days were filled with a lineup of lectures, from photography workshops to Caskie’s history sessions, along with talks from the team’s ornithologist, geologist and assorted seasoned Antarctic devotees who’ve spent the bulk of their careers, and their lives, visiting “The Ice” time and again.
The mission of this excursion is to allow you to get as much from the experience as you’re seeking. It’s not simply a sailing to Antarctica, as if that wouldn’t be enough on its own. Instead, there are myriad opportunities to seek out knowledge, to learn and to engage in conversation, to pepper the expedition guides with questions over dinner or join them for impromptu wildlife viewing sessions on deck.
If you’d rather just hit the ship’s steam room and feast on an unending succession of snacks, that is certainly an option, too. Abercrombie & Kent operates the trip on Ponant’s Le Lyrial, a 466-foot vessel which launched in 2015 with 122 staterooms (though it’s only booked to a maximum 80% capacity), each of which has a private balcony. The areas you’d expect a French brand like Ponant to excel in — bread, butter, cheese, Champagne — were on point. There is a spa and a salon, several different bars and lounges, and butler service.
But you can relax or indulge on any cruise, and on any vacation. Here, even open spaces in your itinerary — the hours between official excursions and activities — are liable to be filled with adventure.
“Things will be happening at all times, be ready,” an expedition crew member said by way of introduction. “We can’t make announcements for every whale that goes by. Be out on deck, and go enjoy.”
South Georgia, and Anticipation for the White Continent
An enormous sense of anticipation begins building over the first half of our sailing, with days at sea sandwiched around a quick visit to the Falkland Islands. Before reaching Antarctica, we’re scheduled to spend three nights at South Georgia, which essentially tacks a week onto the trip due to its remote locale, forcing ships into a huge triangle of navigation in place of a swift, straight line. But there’s a palpable excitement for the island from the expedition crew. “It’s the highlight,” cruise director Paul Carter tells me over dinner. “If South Georgia was in the Caribbean, it would be the world’s top destination.”
Our first stop is at Moltke Harbor in Royal Bay, and it feels as if we’re dropped down into a sort of Antarctic amusement park. As soon as our boots splash into the frigid waters and we slosh up onto the beach, a field of curious animals immediately comes into view. Penguins, already? “The show is always on,” a crew member says.
There are regal, colorful king penguins standing tall in sentry, as well as goofy gentoos, waddling to and fro in an eternal search for a hug, their flippers held out wide for someone’s, anyone’s, embrace. Their chicks are huddled together, waiting for mom and dad to return with food, while the cacophonous colonies of elephant and fur seals on the beach stir up a racket, barking for our attention.
It’s summer in South Georgia, so the grass is a verdant green, and waterfalls are cascading down jagged mountains only partially lined with snow. As majestic as the animals and the setting can be, it’s not all beautiful, per se. There are mounds of red, krill-tinged penguin poop, seal snouts covered in thick mucus excretions and an at times overwhelming ammonia odor in the air. These are the things you don’t understand from postcards and travel brochures: the reality of a sliver of an island beyond the Antarctic Convergence that happens to be host to some of the world’s most spectacular topography and exotic wildlife.
Our next excursion takes us to Gold Harbor, where a gigantic glacier greets us in the bay, waterfalls of glacial melt cascading into the shallow, milky blue seas. As staggering in size as the glacier appears, we’re told that it has retreated substantially over the past two decades, occupying a fraction of the territory it once did. Here, tens of thousands of king penguins welcome us ashore, including the fuzzy, brown-feathered youths alternately known as woolies or “Oakum Boys,” and juveniles in various stages of molting appear as if dressed up for a final fashion show before donning their adult black and white tuxedos, a distinctive yellow and orange neckline and earmuffs providing a dash of pizzazz. There’s a clamorous trumpeting in the air, the kings blasting away to the heavens. An occasional out-of-place gentoo waddles through, seals laze about the beach and the glacier lurks in the near distance.
Throughout our two weeks, we encounter at least five penguin species, including the penciled-in black facial hair of the chinstrap penguins, though we miss out on a few others along the way, such as the blonde mop-topped macaroni penguins. Of the species we do see, it’s striking how varied each is not only in size and appearance, but in behavior. It’s easy to imagine all penguins as “penguins,” but they have memorable personalities replete with different rituals and noises and gestures.
After wringing as many excursions out of a soaking-wet, sleeting South Georgia as we can, the ship begins a 72-hour beeline south to the Antarctic Peninsula. As we depart, an ominous message is delivered over the ship’s PA system. “We have some heavy seas to negotiate on the way to Antarctica,” Julien Duroussy, captain of Le Lyrial, tells us. “And potentially some ice.”
A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and it wouldn’t be a proper Antarctic adventure without at least a bit of rocking and rolling along the way. The only option is to embrace it. We experience several days of rolling 20-foot swells accompanied by routine Beaufort 8 winds, characterized as gale strength. This is getting off light for this part of the world, though, and now there’s nothing else standing in our way of Antarctica. Except the world’s largest iceberg.
Straight in our path looms A-76A, one of three main chunks of A-76, which was recognized as the world’s largest floating iceberg when it calved from the Ronne Ice Shelf in May 2021. Originally 1,668 square miles in size — larger than the island of South Georgia we spent three days navigating around — its major constituent remnants are now drifting through the Drake to destinations unknown. These expedition trips are designed to maximize the opportunities which present themselves, and so the ship seizes the day with a 4 a.m. wake-up call as we cruise past the unfathomable spectacle. It serves as an example of nature’s raw power, and climate change’s stark impact.
The Big Reveal
“Going to Antarctica is the closest experience to going to another planet,” says Luciana Motta, Abercrombie & Kent’s on-board marine mammal lecturer. Now it’s time to experience it for ourselves.
On New Year’s Day, we’re awoken in the eerily calm, iceberg-studded waters of Wilhelmina Bay. With my brain fogged from too many tequila shots and too few hours of sleep the night prior — self-inflicted wounds, I realize — an adrenaline rush clears my mind as soon as I step foot on deck. It’s instant sensory overload: massive icebergs, their mirrored reflections in the inky waters, the blinding, bright white of the snow and the ice of towering glaciers, and the deep black rock of the mountains circling the bay.
The objective for the morning is to hop on a Zodiac boat and soak it all in. With calm winds, there’s no noise save for the crackling of ice chunks in the water. There’s an unspeakable sense of perfection to the environs, a storybook setting. It’s the most pristine and preserved piece of nature on the planet we call home.
Early morning hours be damned, it’s New Year’s Day, so our guide cracks open a bottle of Champagne, carefully packed upright in a sturdy bar box with eight glass flutes. “I have medicine on the boat,” she says. We toast and celebrate and down the Champagne, then head to our next destination: Danco Island.
On the way, we enjoy a parade of icebergs meandering past, bright aqua blues lighting up the water underneath them and exposing the true extent of their size. There’s a colony of gentoo penguins to view at Danco, and a steep hillside the expedition crew morphs into a body-luging, snow-sliding afternoon of Antarctic summer camp. After that, we set course for Dallman Bay to revel in the midnight sun with a dash of whale-watching during and after dinner. The day started at 8 a.m., but I don’t find my way to bed again until 2 a.m.
We arrive at Neko Harbor the next morning, a spot famed for its calving glaciers. There’s this itch to photograph every iceberg you see, every penguin that walks past, every new angle.
It’s another stunningly beautiful Antarctic day, bestowed with wondrous, warm weather. “I can promise you, the conditions don’t get better than this,” Carter, the cruise director, says. It’s sunny with a bright blue sky, and feels less like you’d imagine Antarctica and more like late spring in Switzerland, with a group gathering together for an après ski session, wearing T-shirts and slathering on sunscreen.
“You can see why we’re all so addicted to this place and keep on coming back,” says Suzana Machado D’Oliveira, the trip’s expedition director. “Welcome to paradise.” She isn’t exaggerating: Our ultimate destination in Antarctica is Paradise Bay.
And then, somehow, paradise as a descriptor no longer suffices. We’re told to hustle onto the Zodiacs as there’s been a series of whale sightings. From the shore, we can see the whales surfacing and spouting, circling the handful of inflatable boats already beside them. Panic sets in. There’s no watercraft for us to get into, and we’re missing it. We’re going to be too late. An eternity passes before a Zodiac arrives and takes us into the bay.
We didn’t miss a thing. There are more humpbacks than we can keep track of, two to one side and three to another, a couple straight ahead, several of them with distinctive enough features to be recognized and named by our guide. Then one passes right in front of our boat, brushing against it before heading under the boat right next to ours, nudging it temporarily up and out of the water.
After communing with the whales for half an hour we begin to head back to Le Lyrial. First, we pass by an iceberg reminiscent of a small atoll with a lagoon enclosed within it showcasing a wildly vibrant, cerulean shade of blue. In its protected, confined shallows we spot a leopard seal taking a leisurely swim, as surprised to see us emerge as we are to spot him.
Then it’s time for another al fresco Antarctic dinner. As we’re about to take our seats, we hear shouting from the expedition guides, who had been lining up to take their class photo on the ship’s aft. Orcas! A pod of about half a dozen, including a mother and calf, begin surfacing and putting on a performance for us. It’s the ultimate finale, a seemingly scripted piece of stagecraft that Abercrombie & Kent put on at our behest. It’s the lure of little voices.
Our two full days on the Antarctica Peninsula were filled with them, and not only little voices, but loud, booming ones singing an enchanting song. If that represents the tiniest fraction of the pull, the smallest sliver of the possibilities that await in and around Antarctica, then it starts to make sense. It clicks. It’s as crystal clear as the continent’s waters.
Caskie concluded one of his riveting lectures by referencing the Robert Browning quote that’s engraved on the back of Shackleton’s gravestone on South Georgia, a site we visited during our time there. “I hold…that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize,” reads the line, on what Caskie would insist I share is not technically a headstone, as it’s implanted above Shackleton’s feet, whose body is aligned to be facing Antarctica.
“If you take one thing from Antarctica,” Caskie said, “it’s that we should all strive for our life’s set prize.”