Here I am at last—I have made it to all seven continents—and finally I have arrived at the continent that everyone who fancies himself a world traveler yearns to someday set foot upon—Antarctica.
And what am I thinking?
“What in the world am I doing here?”—that’s what I’m thinking!
The weather is miserable—overcast, dreary, and drizzly.
From the moment we disembarked our comfortable ship to get into the group of thick rubber-tube-like Zodiac motorboats that dropped us onto the Antarctic continent I have not been able to see more than a few feet ahead through the thick cold mist.
I have with me two great Nikon cameras, some fine lenses and all the right different kinds of films, but there’s not much point getting them out of my camera bag.
It has been four days since the ship that I am traveling on, the M/S Explorer, set sail from the tip of Argentina. The thought of spending four more days like this one in Antarctica and then two days sailing back across the Drake Passage to Argentina is not a fun thought.
And then, as in all stories that have a happy ending, slowly the weather begins to turn and the sun starts coming out and I begin to see that I am in a place that is breathtakingly beautiful and wonderfully unlike any other place I have ever experienced.
It was to be this way for most of the rest of my time in Antarctica.
First Stop: Chile
My journey to the Antarctic continent got underway in Santiago. After spending a day touring the very modern and pleasant capital city of Chile, I joined up with my Abercrombie & Kent Antarctica tour group for a chartered LanChile flight to Ushuaia, the small town at the bottom tip of Argentina that bills itself as the southernmost city in the world. Crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica generally takes two days, depending on sea and ice conditions.
The 238-foot, shallow draft, ice-strengthened hull M/S Explorer is the perfect vessel for Antarctic expedition cruising—safe and big enough to be comfortable yet small enough to maneuver narrow channels and inlets. It carries a maximum of 100 passengers and a staff and crew of 75.
Ships any smaller rarely provide a high level of services because of low staff-to-passenger ratios. Larger ships have the distinct disadvantage of poor maneuverability that significantly limits their choice of routes and landing spots, and their large passenger numbers also diminish the frequency and enjoyment of shore visits. The M/S Explorer carries enough Zodiacs so that all passengers are able to go on each shore excursions at the same time—no staggered landings.
While the ship is very comfortable and its food always outstanding, what is most impressive about the M/S Explorer is the universal excellence of its staff and crew and their friendly team spirit.
Part of the fun of getting there is learning more about the Great White Continent and its wildlife. The ship’s naturalists and lecturers provided a very impressive and informative program.
Are We There Yet?
“Are we there yet?” is a question that even adults can ask without embarrassment when your destination is Antarctica. That’s because the boundary of Antarctica is a moving target.
The generally accepted definition of the boundary line for what we call Antarctica is that it begins at the point where the warmer, more saline waters of the sub-Antarctic flowing south meet up against the colder, less saline waters flowing north—and this point is fluid. This is called the Antarctic Convergence. It usually occurs around 60 degrees south latitude, give or take a degree or two. Once you are on its south side you are in Antarctica, which is not quite the same as being on the Antarctic continent.
After two days at sea, we were in Antarctica proper and set ashore on King George, the largest of the South Shetland Islands that lie off the coast of the continent. Thick fog and cold air enveloped us as we set out to see the sights. There weren’t many penguins around. But there were lots of interesting birds.
We didn’t come across any better weather at our next shore excursion, but we sure did see penguins—by the thousands! Our rules may prohibit us from approaching a penguin too closely, but penguins apparently have no rules restricting them from approaching humans. All you have to do is sit down and soon penguins will be checking you out up close or walking right by you, totally indifferent to your presence.
Once the good weather set in what had up until then been a very interesting and educational experience turned into something much more, something truly awesome—the sort of experience that you know you will treasure for as long as you live.
I may have seen thousands of penguins—but I was always ready to see some more. Penguins are certainly cute to look at and they are a fascinating little creature to observe.
I would see three different kinds of “brush-tailed” penguins—the Adelie, the Gentoo, and the Chinstrap.
The Adelie, named for the wife of a French explorer, is closest to the image that most of us conjure up when we picture a penguin. Like most penguins, it looks like a little tuxedo—black in back, white “shirt” in front. What makes it stand out is that it is purely black-and-white and has a white ring around each eye. This is Antarctica’s smallest penguin, averaging two feet four inches in height and weighing about 12 pounds. There are maybe 5 million of them, and it is not all that unusual to see them in groups of 100,000 or more.
The Gentoo, which is found over a wider area than other penguins, looks only a bit different from the Adelie. It has an orange bill and, instead of a white ring around the eyes, it has a flash of white behind each eye. It weighs about the same as an Adelie and is only a couple inches taller.
The Chinstrap is roughly the same height as the Adelie and Gentoo but a few pounds thinner. Also black and white, of course, it gets its name from the fact that the black line that connects its black cap to below its chin looks like a chinstrap. While it occurs only on the Antarctic Peninsula and the islands south of the Antarctic Convergence, it is the most populous penguin, with an estimated population of more than 12 million.
There is no way to distinguish male from female from their markings; in each penguin species the female is slightly smaller.
All these millions of penguins roaming around a cold desert climate in a barren landscape require tons of food to eat each day. But there is no vegetation, there are no farmlands to raid, no supermarkets. How do they manage for food? Very well, actually. Penguins love to dine out on krill—highly nutritious shrimp-like marine animals that happen to be very difficult to process for human consumption—and the waters of Antarctica are teeming with krill. There is little competition for food among penguins because there is plenty to go around.
Except for some predator birds that go after their chicks, penguins have no natural enemies while on land. But they have to be much more careful while in water because both leopard seals and killer whales (orcas) do eat them.
The fact that I was in Antarctica in January—the middle of summer in the Southern Hemisphere—meant that I was able to see a lot of penguin chicks, mostly little fluffy brown Adelies. I also saw a good number of Gentoo chicks. They were quite large, nearly three-quarters the size of their parents already, and within days of being able to fend for themselves. Chinstrap babies don’t start arriving until late February.
Summertime—December through February—is, of course, the only time that tourists can visit Antarctica, it being prohibitively cold and blustery during the rest of the year there. Throughout our visit the temperatures were often in the mid-to-high 30s and on a nice clear day, Antarctica is a truly spectacular sight to behold and experience.
No Polar Bears
We did not see any polar bears. That’s because polar bears do not inhabit the Antarctic region, only the Arctic. It seems to be a widely held misconception that they do—but, then, it also happens to be a widely held misconception that there are penguins in the Arctic region.
Penguins and other birds and whales and seals—that’s the wildlife that you see in Antarctica. Especially penguins.
Penguins are birds—flightless birds. What enables them to endure the extreme cold is the insulation that is provided for them by their very short, very densely packed feathers and their thick layer of blubber that also stores energy for them.
Their bones are dense and heavy, which helps make it easy for them to dive and stay submerged. They can dive very deep. Their wings are more like firm paddles that help propel them through the water, and they use their feet and tail as a rudder. They can travel through water at about five miles per hour and when you watch one swimming along it is almost like watching a porpoise because a penguin leaps out of the water every several feet, which is how they are able to breathe.
One sight that looks quite peculiar the first few times you see it is a penguin suddenly leaping out of water surprisingly high into the air and then landing on the edge of a rock or an iceberg. It looks like a circus act and you feel like applauding the little guys.
Lots of the things that penguins do are fun to watch. They wave their heads and flippers around. They bow. They steal stones from their neighbors’ nests to add them to their own. And if a couple of them are in a dispute they will stare and point at one another and, occasionally, charge the other one. To attract a female, a male will pump his chest, angle his flippers, stretch his head skyward and let out a loud braying sound. Sometimes this touches off a chorus of similar performances from other nearby males.
What I found most amusing about penguins is the way that they move about on land. They can be very awkward. Because their legs are so short, being set so far down in their bodies, they have to walk with very erect posture, which, along with the fact that they look like tuxedos, makes them appear very formal.
Actually they don’t so much walk as waddle. Sort of like a toddler who is still working on his walking—one of the many things that make them seem so cute to us.
It’s interesting to watch a penguin approach a rock in his path as he waddles along. If the rock isn’t too big, odds are he won’t bother to walk around it, he’ll hop over it.
One of the funniest sights is watching a penguin having difficulty walking through the snow. If it gets too much of a bother for him what he is likely to do is use himself as a sort of sled and push himself along the snow on his stomach.
‘The Last Great Journey’
I would go back to Antarctica just to watch penguins. But while they are my fondest memory of the place there are so many other outstanding memories.
I saw seals up close. And all sorts of different birds. I saw lots of whales—minke whales, killer whales, and humpback whales—and I saw some of them from remarkably close up from a small Zodiac boat and even had the experience of having a whale swim underneath our boat.
I saw icebergs the size of skyscrapers that dwarfed any I have ever seen in Alaska. And I saw icebergs with brilliant blue hues that were magical to behold.
I saw scenery of stunning beauty amid an absolute silence that amplified the experience to something I had never before imagined.
And from time to time I had the strangest sensation come over me when I paused to realize that I might well have been standing at a spot where no other human being has ever stood.
The majesty of Antarctica came powerfully home to me one day as I sat on a snow bank and gazed off into the distance. There was no one else in sight.
Up ahead a lone penguin was waddling along away from me. There was nothing but the snow on the ground and the crisp air between us. Beyond the lone little penguin was the vast Antarctic wilderness, a panoramic vista of snow and mountains and clouds and clear blue sky.
There was no sound. Just this unforgettable scene. It felt for a moment as if all there was in the world was this penguin and me.
I reached for my Nikon camera and captured the moment.
And then I thought about what the great explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton had said of Antarctica: “It’s the last great journey left to man.”
I was thrilled that I had made the journey.
If You Go
Best time to go: It’s not just the best time to go, it’s the only time of year tourists can visit Antarctica—when it’s what passes for summertime there. Remember, seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. Departures only occur from late November through early February.
Photography: Better know this if you plan to do any photography: Taking photos in Antarctica can be tricky. Do not depend on your built-in metering system. Even the most advanced automatic metering systems are fooled because of the preponderance of white in so many scenes. If you do not take special care, you could end up with snow that appears drab gray. You also have to take care to avoid snow coming out in your photos as extremely blue. Take the time to check out a couple of good photography books that explain nature photography and how to shoot in snow. Highly recommended are “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson and “The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques” by John Shaw, both published by Amphoto Books. Also, bear in mind that you go through batteries much faster in very cold weather.
Health and Safety: Antarctica is generally considered a safe place to visit. The better tour operators have a physician accompanying their guests.
Communications: Telephone and e-mail are likely available aboard your ship via satellite. Double-check to make sure.
Guidebooks: Check Amazon for books that rate and detail tour operators who cover Antarctica. A book about the wildlife would enhance your experience.
Packing: Your tour operator should provide you with a thorough briefing book on Antarctica that contains a complete checklist of what you need to bring. Some also provide you with a very comfortable Antarctic parka and a travel bag.
Information: A number of leading tour operators serve Antarctica. My journey was done through Abercrombie & Kent.
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents. See his work at EckertGallery.com.