Journey to Antarctica
April 1, 2014
Antarctica, ahoy! Luxury liners steer you to the frozen continent in relative comfort and provide a front-row seat to polar wildlife. But the journey is still a mental and physical challenge that will test even the hardiest traveler ’s resolve. Story and photos by Ian lloyd Neubauer.
Published on Apr 1, 2014
“I don’t know… maybe 40 times,” hotel manager Ian Vella tells me casually one night at the bar aboard the MV Orio n when I ask him how many times he’s sailed to Antarctica. “The first time was in 1993 with Lars-Eric Lindblad.”
That same year, precisely two decades ago, T+L named the famed Swedish adventurer one of the Top 20 Explorers of All Time—and with good reason. After migrating to the U.S. in 1951, he pioneered cruise-based tourism to some of the world’s most exotic and far-flung destinations: the Galapagos, Easter Island and the Northwest Passage, among others. Lindblad was also the first to offer post-war tours to Vietnam and Cambodia—a move that saw him prosecuted and sent to the cleaners for breaching American trade embargoes.
Of all Lindblad’s endeavors, none was more ambitious than his original to Antarctica. His 1966 voyage in a chartered Argentine navy ship is regarded as the precursor to contemporary sea tourism in the region. There are now around 100 tour companies in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa that will sell you a ticket to Antarctica in the Austral summer. Among them is Orion Expedition Cruises, a Sydney-based company offering three different itineraries to East Antarctica every year in its luxury cruise liner MV Orion.
“Travel in my opinion is not ordinary trade,” Lindblad told the New York Times in 1989. “Travel is a way of communication.” To commune with the wildest forces of nature—not to mention my own inner viking—I set sail with Orion Expedition Cruises to Antarctica, the windiest, driest, remotest, least visited, tallest, most barren and mysterious continent on the planet.
WITH WIDE WINDSWEPT BOULEVARDS FRONTED BY
century-old buildings and near-constant rain, Invercargill, the southernmost city of New Zealand, makes a fitting launch-point for my 18-day voyage to Antarctica. The actual port lies in the fishing village of Bluff, 10 kilometers south, where the MV Orion is berthed. Weighing 4,000 tonnes and measuring 103 meters from end to end, she is a formidable vessel with a top speed of 15 knots. She is not an icebreaker, but ice-rated: she can push through pack ice that has room to move but not smash her way through solid mass. She comes with an armada of creature comforts: a gym, sauna, day spa, salon, boutique, elevator, outdoor Jacuzzi, satellite Internet access and 54 luxurious suites. She also comes equipped with computer-controlled fin stabilizers to take the edge out of carving a path through the Southern Ocean, home to the largest and most violent seas on earth.
The ship approaches a coastal cliff on Enderby Island.
Minutes after leaving port we get our first taste of the ocean’s wrath as 6-meter waves lash against the hull. Seasickness pills help keep my dinner down but they can’t take away the non stop nausea. Luckily it’s a short run, and at noon the next day we drop anchor at the Snares, one of New Zealand’s ancient Sub-Antarctic Archipelagos.
Mammals like rabbits and rats that were introduced by sealers and whalers to other Sub-Antarctic islands in the 1800’s never reached the Snares. Therein lies its uniqueness—and the rationale behind its strict conservation regulations. We aren’t allowed to set foot on the Snares but, via Zodiac runs, we do get within meters of some of the islands’ huge penguin, seal and seabird rookeries. Wherever I look, I see some kind of arct-exotic creature, be it a Snares crested penguin (which my partner names ‘Professor Penguins’ for their bushy eyebrows), New Zealand fur seal, giant petrel or wandering albatross with wings 3 meters wide. Missions on the agile and fast-moving Zodiac shuttles are what differentiate the Orion and other premium-priced Antarctic cruises from cheaper trips that sail from the Argentine port of Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula—a place Orion’s expedition leader Don McIntyre says is like “the tropics” compared to our destination: Commonwealth Bay.
In 1995, McIntyre and his now ex-wife Margie spent a year living in a shipping container at Commonwealth—a bizarre experiment in selfimposed isolation documented in the film and book Two Below Zero. The pair are walking, talking encyclopedias on the region and just two of the luminaries who work as guides and lecturers on this ship. There’s also, to name but a few, seabird expert Dr. Alex Watson; Antarctica’s first female station leader, Diana Patterson; Antarctic historian David Day; and whale whisperer Olive Andrews. My favorite crewmember, though, is hotel manager Vella, an erudite Brit who’s part Austin Powers, part David Attenborough, and storyteller writ large.
“Lars was an enormous character, larger than life, bombastic. He loved sitting on the bridge,” Vella says. “We had this rambunctious Norwegian captain called Erik Bjurstedt and they did not see eye to eye. Both were big characters so it was kind of a prima donna situation that was highly entertaining. Lars was getting quite old then and losing his marbles a little bit, but we all respected him a lot. That was the year before he died.”
THE NEXT DAY WE MAKE OUR FIRST LANDING, AT
Enderby Island, one of the Auckland Islands, New Zealand’s southernmost archipelago. McIntyre and his team take extraordinary precautions to ensure our safety, including lugging ashore dozens of waterproof barrels. Inside is enough food and water to sustain us for up to 36 hours, as well as tents for more than 100 people in case the wind picks up and we aren’t able to return to the ship on schedule.
Our landing site is Sandy Bay, home to a family of yellow-eyed penguins, the rarest penguins on earth, and a large colony of New Zealand sea lions. The males of the species are boisterous, barking, bloated giants that weigh up to 400 kilograms. They spend the majority of their time on land fighting over the far smaller females, who cower in harems governed by the largest and most aggressive bulls. When challenged by would-be usurpers, the alpha male charges forward blind to all in his path; sea lion pups are often trampled to death in the mêlée, in a drama worthy of an opera or ballet. But what’s truly amazing is how close we are to it all: 5 meters. It might sound scary but it’s not. The animals see us, hear us, smell us but are nonplussed because, as our guides explain, they don’t consider us any kind of threat. It’s a zoo without cages.
After a sunset cruise through Carnely Harbour—a city-size basin surrounded by a series of 700-meter-high peaks—we commence the 940-nautical-mile, four-day voyage to Commonwealth Bay.
I kill time on the treadmill in the gym and by attending lectures on everything from the politics of Antarctica to the history of whaling. I gorge myself on the five-course meals created by chef Serge Dansereau of the acclaimed Bathers’ Pavilion restaurant in my hometown of Sydney and on room service delivered by ever-smiling Filipino stewards. I make fast friends with a university professor from Phoenix called Randy, a nature photographer from L.A. named Tim, and an eldery but hard-drinking couple from Queensland, Ross and Denise. Despite the many diversions, at times I feel as if I’m trapped in some kind of sub-zero Groundhog Day spending day after day aboard a perpetually rocking ship. I’m close to losing my own marbles when I find solace in the biographies of pioneers from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Men like Ernest Shackleton, who spent more than a fortnight adrift in the Southern Ocean aboard a small raft in constant peril of capsizing; Douglas Mawson, who trudged through 300 kilometers of snow on starvation rations; and Robert Scott, who froze to death attempting to reach the South Pole.
Going hungry isn’t a problem on the MV Orion, with a five-star galley and a crew of chefs.
Compared to near and grueling deaths, my ennui seems manageable. Still, it isn’t all easy sailing. “This is not a bus tour,” expedition leader McIntyre tells me after a particularly rough night where I sleep strapped to the bed. “It’s a rite of passage getting to Antarctica, like Mawson did. You need to expect things to be a little difficult and perhaps not always work out like you planned.”
MCINTYRE’S WORDS PROVE PROPHETIC. ON WHAT IS
meant to be our last day sailing south, he announces that we will attempt a landing at the French base Dumont d’Urville, but thanks to sheets of pack ice 45-kilometers wide, there’s no guarantee—as a note on every single page of our itinerary explains.
Furious, I march to the library and bury my head in a polar tragedy written by an ‘Antarctic virgin’ who lists cracked teeth as a nasty byproduct of the extreme cold. I’m starting to regret having set foot on this ship when I see an unusually shaped wave out the porthole.
It’s a whale! Two whales! No… wait… four whales! Four mighty humpbacks rolling through the sea, pulling off breathtaking breaches and deafening tail slaps. I’ve been on dozens of whale-watching excursions over the years but never have I seen anything like this. Later in the day we pass our first iceberg—a frozen colossus 1 kilometer across with column-like ice sculptures encircled by seabirds. Waves carve out huge caverns and stress cracks that will eventually see it divide and disappear, depositing 220 million tonnes of water into the Southern Ocean.
This iceberg is so massive that it likely holds enough drinking water to sustain 4 million people for a year.
The iceberg is a sight for sore eyes: emotionally fulfilling and emblematic of our upcoming arrival at the Antarctic Circle—the polar opposite of the fear that gripped mariners in the days of exploration whenever they sighted dreaded ‘bergs.’ But the real moment of truth, the one that makes the travails of the past four days seem worthwhile, is waking up the next morning to see we are cruising alongside a wall of pack ice. It’s a scene of such majestic beauty, so silent and pristine, glistening eye-burningly white, that I can do nothing but stare at it for hours.
Late in the day we take our Zodiacs to the ice, boating around brilliant blue ice chunks of all shapes and sizes. The thermometer reads minus-1 degree Celsius but the wind and snow make it feel a hell of a lot colder. The smallest patch of exposed skin on my face burns as if it’d been sprayed with a strong anesthetic, while my fingers go stiff in a way I’ve never experienced before. Then my toes begin to stick together with the onset of frostbite, despite being ensconced in two pairs of thick socks and inner soles made of possum skin. Explains the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr. Chris Bulstrode, an emeritus professor in trauma from Oxford University: “We are simply not supposed to be here.”
Despite the cold (or perhaps because of it?) life finds a way to survive. We come within meters of a school of minke whales feeding on krill—small crustaceans that are Antarctica’s No. 1 food source. We also see crabeater seals, Adélie penguins and snow petrels gliding gracefully over the water. “It’s like being behind the scenes of a National Geographic documentary,” says Matthew Carson, a geologist from Australia traveling with his father.
The calm, however, doesn’t last, and a low-pressure system forms the moment we reboard. Our ship is engulfed in wind, snow and waves and we can only wait it out for two days. Halfway in, McIntrye suggests it could prove a blessing in disguise by breaking down the wall of pack ice blocking our access to the continent. Yet by the time the storm passes we see it has made things worse, bolstering the wall with a field of brash ice that prevents any Zodiac missions. To top it off, there’s a hurricane now bearing down on our position. Never having entered Commonwealth Bay, we won’t set foot on Antarctica.
The captain makes the call to commence the return journey home. Like the expeditions of Shackleton and Scott, ours has been trumped by the force of Mother Nature in the last remaining place on earth where we can’t hope to tame her. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed, but there are manifold lessons to be learned from the experience—most salient that no matter how far we’ve advanced, how smart we think we are, humanity still has our limitations. “People today are used to instant gratification. They are used to having it easy on holiday. They have itineraries. They have plans,” McIntyre says. “But we work in the most inhospitable place in the world and we never know how things are going to turn out. And that’s what makes this a real adventure.”
Celebrating a birthday in the MV Orion’s dining room; the ship’s library.
It’s a triumph of technology we even made it as far as we did, on an odyssey I now understand to be more human than geographic. I’m certain Lindblad, whose 1983 autobiography Passport to Anywhere I find stashed behind the rows of books that have proven such an entertaining and informative part of this voyage, would agree. “I believe in creating new possibilities,” he wrote, “for human experience and understanding.”
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com), Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) and JetStar (jetstar.com) fly into Dunedin, New Zealand.
Orion Expedition Cruises 8 West St., North Sydney, Australia; +61 2 9033 8777; orionexpeditions.com; twin-share 21-day fares to Antarctica range from A$20,720 per person twin share in a Stateroom to A$39,955 per person for an Owner’s Suite.
Safari Lodge 51 Herbert St., Invercargill, New Zealand; +64 3 214 6328; safarilodge.co.nz; doubles including breakfast from NZ$280. The Henry Jones Art Hotel 25 Hunter St., Hobart, Australia; +61 3 6225 7000; puretasmania.com.au; doubles from A$245.
New Zealand and Australian visas are required to visit the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Island and East Antarctica, respectively. Medical certificates are required for all passengers aboard the MV Orion.