Way Down South Antarctica: A cruise to the bottom of the world takes you through a region of wild beauty and natural wonder.

November 24, 1996|By GINGER DINGUS | GINGER DINGUS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When was the last time you went on a shore excursion and a penguin tried to follow you back to your cruise ship?

If you're game for something different this winter, head south -- way down south -- to Antarctica. When it is winter here, it is summer there and the only time of year that ships can navigate through the ice-clogged waterways.

There is never a dull moment on a cruise to the bottom of the world. You'll experience the raw beauty of pristine mountains, colossal icebergs and untamed shores while breathing the purest air on Earth. Thrilling encounters with nature, both wildlife and wild weather, happen daily. Expect the unexpected.

"Humpback whales off the starboard bow." The captain's deep voice boomed over the ship's loudspeaker. He spoke calmly, without a hint of urgency.

We cruise passengers painted an entirely different picture -- rushing madly to the nearest window, if we happened to be relaxing in the forward observation lounge. The others, an international mix of 170 adventure seekers on board the Hanseatic, raced to their cabins, grabbed cameras, binoculars and parkas and dashed out on deck. The quickest passengers secured front-row positions on the chilly open wings of the bridge.

For more than an hour, three 40-ton humpbacks cavorted beside our bow. Their long flippers slapped the water, sending streams of icy sea spray flying. The whales surfaced repeatedly, spouted, then dove, their glistening, V-shaped tail flukes slipping smoothly beneath the waves. Once, a massive head rose from the inky surface, mouth agape. It remained motionless for a moment, then snapped shut a jaw large enough to swallow half a dozen passengers in one gulp.

Fortunately, humpback whales feast on krill, small shrimp-like creatures, not on large animals. A single whale devours up to two tons in a meal, and that's precisely why these incredible mammals are found in relative abundance off the Antarctic coast.

The vast quantity of krill swarming through the Southern Ocean also supports other wildlife found here, six types of seals and 50 species of seafaring birds including albatrosses, petrels and eight varieties of penguins, an estimated 175 million of these flightless charmers.

The "White Continent" claims to be the coldest, windiest, driest and most remote place on Earth. But the common perception of a desolate, snow-covered wasteland couldn't be further from the truth, at least along its shores. The 1,000-mile long Antarctic Peninsula and its neighboring islands teem with life -- marine life.

Visiting the peninsula

The peninsula, a crooked finger of land curving away from the tip of South America, lies 600 miles south of Cape Horn. It is the most accessible and most visited part of the continent.

Still, the only way to get here (after flying to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost town in the world) is by ship. That means enduring the Drake Passage, a voyage averaging 36 hours across waters notorious for high seas and gale-force winds. It's all part of the adventure.

Antarctica's tourist season extends over the warmest part of the Southern Hemisphere's summer, mid-November through February. Even in this short time, wildlife-viewing opportunities vary dramatically.

November's bustling mating season brings penguins to shore by the thousands. In the crowded rookeries, nesting pairs create a raucous, foul-smelling obstacle course for the season's first camera-toting visitors.

On the beach, hefty bull seals battle to secure slivers of land and females for their harems. Christmastime features seal pups and penguin chicks vying nosily for attention. Near the end of February, the vulnerable youngsters, forced to face the open sea, attract killer whales and leopard seals in search of easy prey.

In terms of species, "not a lot lives in Antarctica," said David Fletcher, one of five expert lecturers on the Hanseatic. "Our objective is to see as much of that 'not a lot' as possible."

To that end, the cruise director scheduled one or two shore excursions per day, weather permitting.

Luckily, weather forced us to miss only three outings. Cold winds howled across our bow, changing the droplets of drizzle into razor-sharp blades.

We stayed dry inside our floating hotel while Fletcher whetted our appetites for seeing the creatures outside. His intriguing anecdotes and slides represented 15 years on the British Antarctic survey team.

Meanwhile, the captain changed both course and itinerary to find favorable conditions.

After a rough night crunching past wind-driven icebergs as big as city blocks, we awoke to bright sunshine, calm seas and the promise of penguins.

Many layers of clothing

The ship anchored near Petermann Island, where the crew lowered 14 Zodiacs, inflatable craft used for going ashore. We clambered into the bobbing skiffs, feeling clumsy in multiple layers of gear topped by parkas, waterproof pants and knee-high rubber boots.

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