Journey to the End of the World
A traveler spends an unforgettable New Year’s Eve in Antarctica
By Marks HintonWhen I was five years old my father was transferred from the wonderfully tropical climate of Houston to the "land of the windchill factor" -- Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Little did I know how miserable the next 12 months were going to be. We lived in the suburbs, just far enough out of the range of the snowplows that my mother had to bundle me up like the Michelin tire man so I could walk to school through head-high snowdrifts. One afternoon I froze my right hand in a snowball fight. From that day forward I began a lifelong hatred of cold weather.
All I wanted to do was to sail from Cape Town, South Africa, to Valparaiso, Chile. However, Antarctica is in the way. I was going there whether I wanted to or not. Fortunately, the Law of Unintended Consequences was going to work in my favor, and I was about to experience one of the great adventures of my life -- a life, I should say, that has not been without a considerable amount of hair-raising experiences in remote places like Papua New Guinea, Borneo, western Tibet and the headwaters of the Amazon, to mention a few.
My wife, Barbara, and I had booked passage in Athens on the Royal Princess (now sailing for P&O as the Artemis), a 20-year-old vessel in the fleet of Princess Cruises. We spent a leisurely 24 days cruising the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar and down the west coast of Africa to Cape Town. Two days out from our destination, the seas began to boil off the Namibian coast. It was to be our first taste of what was to come.
Most of the old tars shipped out in Cape Town, and new passengers embarked. Minutes out of Cape Town, in a gesture of welcome to the new "pollywogs," the South Atlantic Ocean resumed its relentless motion. King Neptune was making certain we were in for an interesting ride.
After steaming southward for four days, we awoke one morning to see beautiful Tristan de Cuna off the bow. This luscious and remote subtropical island group is a British protectorate. Having had no terra firma under our feet for almost a week, we were excited about visiting this interesting place.
However, that wasn't to be. You see, there are only 280 inhabitants in Tristan de Cuna, and the last thing they want is 1,200 people storming their island paradise. You didn't need a mathematics degree from Cal Tech to quickly calculate we would not set foot on land again for another 12 days, when we would be in the Falklands.
Some of the islanders jumped in their Zodiacs and sped out to the boat with local handicrafts that were to prove invaluable in the next two weeks -- wool watch caps, woolen socks, sweaters and gloves. The quality was good and the prices fair, and money was burning holes in the pockets of onboard shopaholics. All in all, it was a good day for the locals. It was Christmas Eve, and the Royal Princess was the first ship to visit in many, many months. 'Twas the season to be jolly!
Leaving Tristan in our wake, Capt. Andrew Proctor made a sharp turn to the south and we were on our way to Antarctica. Little did we know how correct explorer Ernest Shackleton was when he said, "Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic...."
We had sailed 1,598 nautical miles from Africa to Tristan and still had 2,170 to go before getting our first look at the most remarkable continent on Earth. And to complete the voyage we were going to have to sail through some of the roughest waters in the world as we crossed the longitudes -- the "roaring" forties, "howling" fifties and "screaming" sixties.
King Neptune looked on us with favor and only gradually increased the force of the winds and seas. The forties didn't roar, but they growled some. But things were about to change for the worse; this was the calm before the storm.
Our first messenger iceberg from Antarctica emerged from the mist about 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 26. Everyone was quite surprised by this event, as the berg was well outside the Antarctic Convergence, the usual limit for ice. Excitement was building and would soon be electric. But we had some seas to contend with first.
Two days later the fifties began to howl. We were in a Force 9 gale. Winds were a constant 45 knots, gusting to 65 knots. Seas were 18 to 21 feet. I felt like I was in the opening scene of "Victory at Sea" as the waves crashed over the bow of the Royal Princess.
However, rather than being nervous, everyone was ecstatic. We all had the highest confidence in Capt. Andy. This was why we bought a ticket on this ride, so ride 'em cowboy! It was the thrill of a lifetime. The fun lasted 48 hours.
Then came the sixties. We were prepared for the worst, but instead the Southern Ocean was as smooth as glass. What a surprise. I've never seen a reflection pool as calm. The temperature, which had been gradually falling since we left Tristan, began to drop like a rock, and on the morning of Dec. 29 we awoke to an air temperature of 34 degrees and a water temperature just one degree higher. We were entering the "land of the big bergs."
At 7:30 p.m. we saw our first giant iceberg. It was estimated to be five miles long and at least three miles wide, the size of a small ranch. It lazily drifted off our starboard bow about a mile away, but it looked as if we could almost touch it. It was truly an awesome vision, one of many we were to experience.
The Southern Ocean is teeming with bird life, and as we neared Antarctica the numbers increased. The skies were filled with birds -- hundreds at first, and then thousands as we sailed deeper into the sixties. Royal and black-browed albatross soared by the Royal Princess, and then the first wandering albatross, the largest of the species, appeared off the stern. A magnificent sight, this blackish and white vagabond with its 12- to 15-foot wingspread was truly awesome. He was the first of many birds to pay us a visit over the next week. We also would see giant, snow and Wilson's storm petrels. Prions and southern fulmars soon joined this aerial circus.
Then it was time for the marine life to take center stage. Spouting whales were everywhere. We were privileged to see blue, minke, humpback and southern right whales. One particularly precocious minke decided to challenge the Princess to a race. It was reminiscent of Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral.
The stage was set to visit the Earth's coldest, windiest, driest and most uninhabited continent. On Dec. 29 we were treated to our first view of Antarctica. The day broke mostly cloudy, with southeasterly winds clocked at Force 5. And suddenly off the starboard bow was Elephant Island, named for the giant elephant seals that inhabit it.
This inhospitable pile of rock and ice was Ernest Shackleton's first landfall on April 15, 1916, in his desperate and heroic attempt to save the lives of the crew of the Endurance, who were trapped back on an ice floe in the Weddell Sea. Fortunately, our arrival was under less stressful conditions.
The first thing a traveler must quickly learn in Antarctica is to be flexible. The navigator may plot the course, but nature dictates whether you can hold that course. We had planned to enter Hope Bay for a visit to Esperanza Station. Daybreak on Dec. 30 found the Royal Princess facing 70 miles of pack ice between her and our planned destination.
In addition, we were in the midst of a huge iceberg field. This situation put great strain on our six iceberg spotters (two studying radar scopes and four with high-powered binoculars). In football parlance, it was time to "audible." Capt. Andy proceeded to transit Bransfield Strait and passed between the South Shetland Islands on our starboard side and the ice pack on our port side. Our goal was Deception Island, a former whaling station.
We arrived at Deception at 6 p.m. The weather was glorious -- sunny and clear with light breezes. We had spotted a few penguins on small bergs as we cruised, but here we were about to see a colony of chinstrap and Adelie penguins numbering close to 100,000 breeding pairs. Many were just returning from feeding. Not only was Deception covered with them, but the ocean was chock-a-block with penguins swimming home.
As we watched the incredible action we got our second lesson in visiting the Antarctic: The weather can change dramatically in minutes. Before you could say, "the barometric pressure is dropping," we went from blue sky and bright sun to being pelted with pancake-sized snowflakes, and Deception disappeared from view.
On the morning of New Year's Eve, we passed Intercurrence Island and entered the Gerlache Strait, where we reached our maximum southerly latitude. From the Gerlache Strait the Royal Princess navigated through the Neumayer Channel, where we celebrated the arrival of 2004.
Just as quickly as it deteriorated, the weather improved, and we spotted the tallest berg of the voyage -- 295 feet high. We saw ice floes with penguins as well as leopard, Weddell and Antarctic fur seals, not to mention the magnificent scenery of the Antarctic Peninsula. At midnight, with the sun beaming down on us, it was time for champagne. Barbara and I cracked open a bottle of Schramsberg Vineyards 1999 Blanc de Noirs Brut. It doesn't get any better than that.
On New Year's Day we bid Antarctica farewell, passed the South Shetland Islands and set a northerly course toward Stanley in the Falkland Islands. But we were not home free yet. We still had to cross the dreaded Drake Passage, known to mariners for centuries as the roughest stretch of water on the planet. Davy Jones' locker contains the bones of many a soul who dared this course and met their maker. Again fortune smiled on us, and we were blessed with clearing skies, warmer temperatures and a rising barometer. The passage was pleasant, and I began to think that old King Neptune took a shine to our Sea Witch Princess.
On the morning of Jan. 3 we dropped anchor in the Falkland Islands. We made our voyage to the end of the world safely.
Everyone was happy to set foot on dry land after so many sea days. I can't say the Falklands are beautiful islands, but they are very interesting to visit. There are many sights to see in Stanley: Christ Church Cathedral and the adjacent Whalebone Arch, the wreck of the Charles Cooper, the Britannia House Museum, war memorials from 1914 and 1982, St. Mary's Church, geological formations called rock flows and a folk art environment dedicated to saving whales.
Tours are offered to see battlefields, Camp (the South Atlantic's answer to the Outback), penguin colonies and other wildlife sanctuaries. However, in this writer's opinion the "must-do" tour is also the most disturbing: You can visit the minefields left by invading Argentines following their defeat at the hands of the British in 1982. Land mines have to be the most inhumane anti-personnel weapon ever developed -- thousands of acres are covered in them, rendering the islands uninhabitable by man or beast for centuries to come. It is a chilling sight to see miles of fenced-off areas with skull-and-crossbones signs bearing the legend, "DANGER MINES."
From the Falklands we sailed south to Cape Horn, another legendary place since the days of captains Magellan, Drake, Cook and Bligh. On Jan. 4 the Royal Princess passed 12 miles south of the Cape and entered the South Pacific Ocean. There is something mystical about making this passage and following in the steps of so many ancient mariners.
We entered the Beagle Channel and made port in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the Western Hemisphere. From there we proceeded through the Strait of Magellan to Punta Arenas, Chile. After Antarctica, there was very little to get excited about in these two ports.
But we had two more sights in the fiords of southern Chile -- the beautiful Amalia Glacier and the Pio XI Glacier. These are quite similar to those seen in Alaska's Glacier Bay and College Fiord. The waters in these fiords have not been well sounded, though, so for safety reasons viewing takes place at a much greater distance.
One last stop is Puerto Montt, Chile, a quaint port city known for its sausages and cheese. Tours to the Lake District are worth the time. Snowcapped volcanoes overlook crystal-clear lakes, and small villages like Frutillar, settled by German immigrants a century ago, lend an old-world atmosphere to the region.
Two days later we docked in Valparaiso. The journey was complete. I must confess, however, how happy I am that Antarctica was in the way and I got to visit this breathtaking continent.
Information: Learn more about cruises to Antarctica by visiting Vacations To Go, or by calling (800) 338-4962.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May 2004 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.