A cold day in heaven Eco-tourism: At its own glacial pace, Antarctica opens its dramatic, remote, frigid beauty to those who would go to the ends of the earth to experience awe.

December 20, 1998|By Dan Leeth | Dan Leeth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PALMER ARCHIPELAGO, Antarctica - Dorothy's right. This is definitely not Kansas anymore. Flung by the sea, I've sailed into the Land of Awes.

To both starboard and port, mountainous islands rip skyward, jutting from water that defines navy blue. Only the sharpest, most jagged ridges expose daggers of anvil-black rock. Thick mantles of glacial ice smother the rest, concealing summits and slopes beneath mounds of glistening white.

Inspiring as they seem, these ocean-piercing Everests are but the first fragments of the last land on earth. The tip of Antarctica lies a short way beyond.

Owned by no nation, Antarctica is the world's most remote continent. For decades, the only tourists to wallow in its grandeur were those cruisers who could afford five-figure fares. The fall of the Cold War changed that.

With Russia nearing bankruptcy, ice-hardened research ships became available at reasonable rates. Outfitters, such as Marine Expeditions in Toronto, leased vessels and began offering southern cruises at Caribbean prices. Their catalog arrived the same day as my new MasterCard. Yielding to the omen, I used the plastic to buy a boarding pass for the R/V Akademik Ioffe.

Ice and penguins

The 620-mile-wide Drake Passage separates the Antarctic Peninsula from South America. This tempestuous merger of two oceans wields the wildest water on earth. By Drake standards, our crossing is merciful. Winds howl only at near-gale force, the ship merely lists 10 degrees to port, and some of the crashing swells do not even drench my fourth-deck porthole.

Near the mainland, waves calm, and for the first time a line forms for breakfast. Everyone seems eager to ride the inflatable Zodiacs ashore.

"Our first landing will be Cuverville Island," says expedition leader Brad Rhees. "It has one of the largest gentoo penguin rookeries on the peninsula."

In near-freezing temperatures, we descend the gangway to the 10-person boats that bob below. Drivers gun outboards and the Zodiacs take off. Their exhaust temporarily masks the rotten cabbage aroma of penguin droppings wafting from shore.

As we step onto Cuverville's guano-splattered beach, hundreds of waddling, 2-foot-tall penguins greet us like an assembly of midget maitre d's. They poke and peck in curious exploration.

Chicks, nearly as tall as their parents, still sport vestiges of down. Some chase the elders in a squawking quest for dinner. Occasionally the youngsters get fed. Other times, the adults flee the nagging youths.

In the afternoon, we achieve bragging rights to the seventh continent by touching the mainland at Neko Harbor. Dark peaks tower beyond a pebbly beach, their inclines shrouded by glaciers. The ice terminates at the ocean in a humbling escarpment of dense, powder blue.

Chunks float in mirror-still water. A crabeater seal uses one as a raft. He ignores our shorebound paparazzi who look, point and photograph. He's still there when the last Zodiac returns to the former Russian science vessel.

Built in Finland in 1988, the Ioffe offers comfortable but unpretentious accommodations. It carries 80 passengers in addition to its Russian crew. Marine Expeditions adds a staff of nine who, thankfully, include a Canadian bartender and two chefs and ensure we will not have to slurp vodka and borscht the entire trip.

The cooks fire up grills for a deck-top barbecue. We gobble burgers and bratwursts while sailing through the fjord-like Lemaire Channel.

Known as Kodak Gap, this photogenic corridor of soaring ice and rock could be Alaska's Glacier Bay on steroids or the Alps after the Great Flood. We pass through, ogling the same vivid, oil-on-velvet landscape that greeted the first explorers. Antarctica may be the only place on the planet with such vast tracts unaltered by human occupation. Here, our species are transients, confined to a handful of outposts. We tour one in the morning.

Research station

The British constructed Faraday Station shortly after World War II. In 1995, they gave it to Ukrainians who renamed it Vernadsky Base. Roman Bratchik guides us through, proudly showing off science labs and shower rooms. A photo in one hallway captures him swimming in the 35-degree ocean.

"Oh, this is not so frigid a place," says Bratchik, grinning. "It gets much colder in the Ukraine."

In the afternoon, we stop at Petermann Island where fur seals occupy one side of an inlet. These animals have the disposition of Hulk Hogan and the teeth of Mike Tyson. We keep a 50-foot distance.

Across the Antarctic Circle

The Ioffe continues south, bound for the Antarctic Circle. Icebergs float everywhere. Some rise big and flat as a Kansas county. Smaller ones resemble fractured Gibraltars, castles and monoliths. An eerie teal luminescence glimmers from just beneath their waterlines.

The nautical charts indicate these are "unsurveyed waters." Our Russian captain follows a southwesterly heading that overlaps the only known depth soundings.

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