Paddling into the rocky cove, we edged up against the shoreline where, only 15 feet away, is a slumbering, several hundred pound Elephant Seal. Porpoising penguins swim around us and then leap from the water with comic effort onto the shore before waddling between our kayak’s bow and the seal.
Here, amidst glorious sunshine and smooth waters, I found myself up close and personal with the wild of Antarctica, and it hardly noticed my presence.
I had come to the seventh continent onboard Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Endeavour and, when sailing on a trip of a lifetime like this, you want to make sure you sail with the best.
When current president Sven Lindblad’s father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, founded Lindblad Travel in 1958, he was a true travel pioneer. He offered the first ever cruise to Antarctica in 1966 and the first non-scientific pleasure expedition to the Galapagos a year later.
Lars-Eric’s idea was to not only transport passengers to these areas, but to educate them about the geography, biology and culture of the area. His philosophy was simple: “I’ve come to certain conclusions. One is that people do not want to be tourists: they want to know; they want to do. Looking is passive.”
Today, they are still regarded as the premier and most academically focused expedition company, and that reputation has only increased as a result of a strong partnership with National Geographic in 2004.
I sailed with them to the Galapagos a few years ago and was impressed with their organisation and professionalism and found they walked the line perfectly between offering comfort and still providing a sense of exploration and excitement.
Fellow passengers were enthusiastic and eager to learn more, do more and see more, and a large number of expert and accessible naturalists ensured we got the absolute most out of our trip.
From the beginning, it was obvious we were going on an expedition, and not a cruise. The itinerary was purposefully vague; six days in a row were listed as simply “Exploring Antarctica.”
Wind, weather and most importantly ice conditions would dictate our exact schedule. We were giving up casinos, gold by the inch and shopping lectures in exchange for kayaking, forums on climate change and presentations on the lifespan of the albatross.
What type of passenger pays % 10,000 for an expedition to Antarctica? For starters, they are well travelled, well educated and, of course, well heeled. Ranging in age from 12 to 82, they were all in good health and agile, and were excited and eager to share in the excitement.
None minded wake-up calls that came as early as 6.30am, with many even signing up for wake-up calls in the middle of the night if there was a beautiful sunrise.
While the majority were over 50, Lindblad has managed to do a good job of attracting children to their expeditions. On my trip, approximately 10 per cent of the passengers were under 35, and a pair of 12 and 14-year-old sisters had a marvellous time.
The company understands that kids should have a grand time cruising around icebergs on a Zodiac and getting to hang out with penguins! While the majority of families tend to sail to the Galapagos, Alaska and Central America, children are welcome on any expedition.
We departed from Ushuaia, Argentina, across the notorious Drake Passage, which even in the Austral summer months can be fickle and rough. The National Geographic Endeavour, however, was built in 1966 as a fishing trawler and designed for the roughest weather nature could dish out.
She boasts an ice-strengthened hull that allowed us to safely navigate through dense ice packs and, despite her doughty profile punctuated with numerous cranes, kayaks and Zodiacs, she was extremely comfortable and well maintained, with attractive furnishings and a high level of food and service.
We didn’t need to put the ship’s sea-keeping ability to the test, however, as our passage was relatively calm and, making good speed, we spotted our first iceberg less than 36 hours after leaving port.
The Captain slowly brought the ship to a stop less than 100 meters off the massive iceberg, and we marvelled at the intense shades of blue contained within the fissures. It was over half a mile long and the cold wind whipping off the cobalt blue ice marked our true arrival in Antarctica.
Only a few hours later, we were heading ashore on inflatable rubber Zodiacs and wading through the surf to reach the snowy beach. Under gray skies and on a white, windswept hill, we delighted in our first encounter with penguins.
While some sat on their nest keeping the eggs warm, others helped build nests by waddling back from the beach with stones in their beak while other, lazier penguins did away with the walk to the beach and simply stole stones from a neighbour.
Our first few days were spent making a variety of landings. We visited an abandoned British base, went swimming (if a 10-second plunge in body-numbingly cold water can count as swimming!) and were even granted a rare visit to the US base at Palmer Research Station.
Weather was generally brisk but not unpleasant at around 0C, but could change quickly. One morning, we cruised through the impossibly beautiful Crystal Bay on Zodiacs, delighting in clear skies and a warming sun while marvelling at brilliant jagged mountains and glistening, spectacularly shaped icebergs.
The next day, however, we landed in weather that almost caused us to doubt global warming, with 30-knot winds gusting across the island while thick snow was blown sideways!
We watched penguins stoically face the wind and snow, keeping their eggs warm, and wandered without limits over the entire island, which felt desolate, remote and wild. The whistling wind made for an exhilarating landing that made us appreciate the hardships of Shackleton’s winter trapped in the ice.
For many, though, the highlight of the trip came about from a plan the Captain and Expedition Leader hatched to take the ship as far south as possible. With unusual ice conditions and satellite images seeming to reveal open stretches of water further south, we sailed several hundred miles to try to cross the Antarctic Circle.
Their announced intentions were met with wild cheers by all of us, but our Expedition Leader cautioned us, however, that it would be very unusual to cross the Circle so early in the season, and we wouldn’t know until the morning if we could make it or not
By 8.30am., it was obvious we would reach Latitude 66 degrees 33 minutes South, and we went out on deck to congratulate ourselves for making it this far. Only 30 minutes after crossing, however, we felt the ship shudder, shake and shove its way through pack ice.
Large chunks were pushed aside by the ship’s rough bow, and we leaned over the rail to watch the strange sight of snowy ice forming in the ship’s wake rather than bubbly, foaming white water. We even saw numerous seals resting on the ice, often getting less than 50 meters away to allow everyone to get a great photograph.
National Geographic Alliance
Having joined forces with National Geographic in 2004, all Lindblad-owned ships now have the National Geographic moniker in their names and you’ll find a joint logo on all paperwork and brochures.
Photographers from the magazine will be onboard for every sailing on the NG Endeavour this year, giving serious snappers a great chance to learn, in an intimate setting, from the best photographers in the world.
In addition, the two companies have created a joint philanthropic fund to support conservation in the areas they sail.
As we made our first landing south of the Circle, the Captain told us: “We are alone out here. Very few ships come down this far, except a few research vessels. We have a few days now to really explore and have fun.”
With its history of expeditions to Antarctica over the last 40 years, Lindblad has built a vast amount of navigational data and created its own charts to supplement the scanty and often unreliable data found on official charts.
The company therefore has the confidence – and the desire – to take the N.G. Endeavour to the most remote locations, and we felt giddy landing on such a pristine location as Detaille Island.
We acted like kids as we slid down hills or built snow penguins. Looking out over a bay filled with grounded icebergs and swaths of untouched snow, one passenger told me: “This is why I chose to sail with Lindblad, to come to places like this. We wouldn’t be here if we were on another ship.”
After reaching the Circle, many felt we had achieved the pinnacle of our trip and it couldn’t get any better. The next morning, however, I was awoken with an announcement from the Bridge that we were “going to feel a bump in a minute.” While that is usually a bad sign on a ship, onboard the National Geographic Endeavour, it was just what I was waiting for.
‘What surprised all of us was simply how much fun we had; we delighted in the antics of penguins, laughed over the dinner tables and felt elated stepping on the seventh continent’
Looking out of my porthole, I could see the Captain was driving the ship straight into a field of sea ice. With the ship coming to a stop wedged for two-thirds of its length in ice, a gangway was rigged and we were allowed to disembark.
It is a strange and incongruous sight to see a ship docked in and completely surrounded by ice. It is an even more odd sensation to be able to walk alongside your ship without a pier anywhere for hundreds of miles!
Grabbing a section of a mooring line that had been laid out from the bow, we gathered for a group shot by pretending to heave and pull the ship further into the ice. For an hour, we walked on the flat, snow-covered ice stretching a mile around us, while harsh wind whipped down from the mountains lying just beyond.
Once back onboard and away from the ice, the Captain took us to a protected, serene cove out of the wind where it would be possible to launch the 24 kayaks. Everyone enjoyed the chance to look at penguins and seals from a water level perspective, and even first-time paddlers found the kayaks to be remarkably stable and easy.
Before sailing, I wondered whether six days of doing nothing but looking at penguins would get a bit monotonous. Happily, Lindblad kept each day fresh with new activities and excitement, whether it was multiple kayaking trips, walking on the ice or sledding down a 125-meter high hill.
Of course, we learned an incredible amount from the naturalists and their superb presentations, and were amazed at the images taken 500 feet below the surface by the ship’s Remote Operated Vehicle.
I think what surprised all of us, though, was simply how much fun we had. By mixing excitement, learning and discovery, we all delighted in the antics of penguins, laughed over the dinner tables and felt elated stepping on the seventh continent.
As we sailed back across the Drake Passage towards civilization, I felt that being in Antarctica had created a deep sense of relaxation and contentment that is far deeper than what I would find sitting on a beach with a Pina Colada.
Lindblad insists it does not sell cruises, but rather expeditions and experiences that will inspire people to care for the planet in a new way. As we approached the dock in Ushuaia, I was not sure if I was ready to re-enter the real world now that I had seen the planet at its best.
FACT FILE: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENDEAVOUR
Built: 1966 as fishing trawler, rebuilt as a passenger ship 1983
Passenger Decks: 6
Speed: 15 knots