Going With The Floe


By Bernadette Bernon

Photo of Bernadette Bernon walking in front of a penguin mural

There are special places in the world that, after experiencing them, seem to divide your life in two — the part before you saw the place and the part after, when your outlook, no matter what it was before, alters. Antarctica is one of those places.

Douglas and I hadn't started out with a plan to visit The Frozen Continent when we flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina — our 20th anniversary gift to ourselves. We'd planned to take a month off work, unplug, then go where inspiration, four weeks, and our Lonely Planet guidebook took us. Our only scheduled event was the flight home.

Argentina is vast — 3,650 miles long, with summer temperatures hot in the north, and cooling rapidly as we meandered southward toward Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Following tips from fellow travelers, we rented bikes and cycled around massive turquoise lakes of "glacial milk," hiked in the El Chalten mountains, and climbed to the top of the Perito Moreno Glacier. In Patagonia, we kayaked across the kelpy Beagle Channel separating Argentina from Chile, on the lookout for leopard seals.

In my dog-eared Patagonia folder, I had a note to myself, written 11 years earlier, in case I ever got to the southernmost town of Argentina, called Ushuaia. A boating friend who had sailed there had told me about a travel office that acts as a clearinghouse, selling unsold "last-minute," heavily discounted Antarctica trips on various cruise ships. When Douglas and I arrived in Ushuaia, sure enough, we stumbled upon it. In the window of Turismo Ushuaia was a sign advertising two less-than-half-price tickets available for a 12-day voyage to the Antarctic continent leaving — are you ready for this? — the next day. It was one of those rare snap-judgment opportunities that you hope, if you're ever presented with one, you won't start making excuses to turn down. We looked at each other, went inside, and slapped down a credit card.

The next morning, with every piece of Smart Wool we owned, plus new waterproof pants we'd found in town, we boarded a Quark Expeditions ice ship with 90 other travelers, and set off across the unruly Drake Passage toward the bottom of the world. For a day-and-a-half, we got to know our fellow passengers — everyone giddy and hailing from the four corners of the globe. On the journey, we listened to wildlife lectures from the Quark guides, and scanned the vast Southern Ocean for orcas and humpbacks, hoping this treacherous body of water south of Cape Horn, with its monstrous history, would stay calm. Luckily, it did.

Landfall Antarctica

On day two, an announcement rang over the loudspeaker, "ICEBERG! Iceberg at one o'clock!" The first bergs were emerging from the mist ahead — some reaching high into the sky like cathedrals of ice, others stretching out in amorphous shapes, striated with 1,000-year-old sediment, looking like great vanilla layer cakes. Despite the cracking cold, everyone piled out on deck, awestruck, as our sturdy vessel ghosted along — our minds adjusting to the stunning scope of the scenery coming into view as we passed from the familiar realm of humans into a mystical realm of nature.

When we'd anchored at the Antarctic Peninsula, and it was time to go ashore, everyone's adrenaline was pumping. On went the layers of clothing — warm, wooly long underwear, thick socks, woolen sweaters and pants, waterproof over-pants, Quark-provided thick-tread Wellingtons and insulated foul-weather jackets in neon yellow, a smart touch to find us if we went astray. Next went on the hats and gaiters and gloves, the camera bags and tripod straps, the sunglasses, the life jackets. Dressing for Antarctica's below-freezing summer temperatures, was a theatrical production.

When we dinghied ashore and actually set foot on the continent, two things were instantly striking — first, the enormity. The soaring white mountains and blue ice faces, the bergs, the extreme beauty of it all. Tears rolled down my cheeks as it hit me — I was really here and seeing it with my own two eyes, this place I'd only ever dreamed about. The next thing that struck me was the astonishing activity level of the animals and birds. What drama! By February, all the species had given birth and were hurrying to fatten their offspring to grow and strengthen in the short window of the southern-latitude summer. Soon, as temperatures start to plummet, they'd have to leave.

Baby gentoo penguins, chubby from mama's constant feedings, strained to shed their fluffy feathers, so they could learn to swim. Black-robed chinstrap penguin parents, with fish in their gullets, ran around the rock ledges at top speed, letting themselves be "chased" by their hungry babies. Closer and closer the parents enticed them to the edge, until the little ones fell in and flopped around in shock. The parents then torpedoed in after them and kept them close from predators, until all were back on the safety of the ledge, the exhausted parents' lesson finally sinking in to junior about where his dinner really comes from.

Baby seals stalked the beach crying for their mothers, who were out at sea hunting. Skuas soared above, high over the ice fields, then down to the nesting grounds, on the lookout for unattended eggs or weak infants — nature up close and gritty. Everybody was on a mission, their instincts screaming at them that the window was closing, that winter was on the doorstep, that it was time for the fledglings to learn, to fatten up, to toughen up. It was do-or-die time for youngsters who'd soon have to take to the water or air for the first time, head out to sea for the winter, and survive on their own. Higher-than-normal snowfalls during the last few years have been wreaking havoc, shortening the breeding seasons. This has tightened the time frame for bringing up baby, which means that many late deliveries will have to be left behind, incapable of maturing in time.

The life-and-death drama amid the ice palaces was unlike anything we'd experienced. Our hearts were forever in our throats on our hikes up these shimmering white mountains to find the nesting grounds of different species, or on Zodiac rides around the bergs to find seal families sunning on the floes. Once again, as is often the case for us, it was a boat that had brought Douglas and me to an extraordinarily personal moment in our lives, a corner of the world where no photographs could do justice, where no news reports could make us appreciate as deeply as we do now how precious and fragile the balance is in nature and in life — a timely reminder on the occasion of one's 20th anniversary. 

Bernadette and Douglas spent six years cruising their 39-footer throughout the Caribbean to South America. Enjoy the amusing blog of that journey, "The Log Of Ithaka," exclusively at www.BoatUS.com/cruising

— Published: December 2013

Know Before You Go:

Expedition ships visit the frozen continent during the Antarctic summer — December, January, February — leaving from Ushuaia, Argentina. For 12-day trips, costs run from $7,000 to $15,000 per person; the Bernons paid $4,000. See info below on how to obtain half-price discounts on similar trips.


About The Antarctic Cruise & How To Get A Discount

Normally, a 12-day voyage to Antarctica from Ushuaia includes two days to get there across Drake's Passage, two days to get back, including (weather permitting) rounding the Cape Horn on the return. (For those with the time, the longer voyage including South Georgia Island is highly recommended.)

Every day aboard ship, there are get-togethers and lectures on the wildlife, environment, history of exploration, and politics of the Antarctic continent. Every excursion ashore (there may be two a day) includes your choice of moderate walk or challenging hike, each led by experienced guides. Kayaks can be reserved in advance of the trip. Three wonderful meals a day are included, as are snacks and non-alcoholic beverages throughout the day; a full bar is also available and is the lively gathering spot for guests to share their stories at the end of each day's excitements.

The captain normally keeps the navigation bridge open and welcomes visitors to watch the operation of the ship navigating through the ice. Boaters will also enjoy the tour of the engine rooms and behind-the-scenes boat operation.

Here's how the discounted trips work. It's not cost effective for cruise-ship companies to continue advertising their almost-full Antarctica trips; they need to move on and promote their newer dates. So companies deeply discount these unsold cabins, and have select agencies such as Turismo Ushuaia offer them all the way up to departure day (cruise ships going to the Antarctic, the Falklands, or South Georgia leave from Ushuaia).

Though the Bernons bought their tickets at the last minute, it's now possible to check the Turismo Ushuaia website a few months before scheduled Antarctica departures to review discounted voyages as soon as they're made available to the public, allowing you more time to book the trip, prepare, and make unhurried travel arrangements. On the website, you'll see the full "brochure" prices, and on a side banner you'll see prices of trips that are discounted. A full-price trip for the 12-day Antarctic voyage can range from $9,000 to $15,000 per person (sharing a cabin). The Bernons' discounted trip cost $4,000 each.

"The extent of the savings changes every year," says Daniela Gonzales of Turismo Ushuaia. "When the trips are selling well, there are fewer deals. When there are more unsold cabins, the discounts are greater." If you find a trip on the website that interests you, contact Daniela directly; she booked the Bernons' trip. She's fluent in English, is an Antarctica expert, knows the differences between ships, and can help plan your voyage, as well as your stay in Ushuaia. ushuaiaturismo@speedy.com.ar; www.ushuaiaturismoevt.com.ar


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