ANTARCTICA’S FROZEN LANDSCAPE has been the coveted prize of intrepid explorers past and present but while most people leave it as their final continent to conquer, I was eager to get there as soon as I could. And thus, on a clear November day, I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, to begin my three-week voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands. Gleaming in the sun was my chariot-in-waiting: the National Geographic Endurance, a new vessel of Lindblad Expeditions. Her dramatic inverted X-Bow – with the ability to part the waves and offer a smoother ride – sealed the deal for me. Over welcome cocktails in the lounge, I met our 17-member expedition team and fellow guests, who unanimously agreed that we were here for the same reasons: icebergs, penguins, and the trip of a lifetime.
Departing Ushuaia, we began our 36-hour crossing of the Drake Passage towards Antarctica. Miraculously, the weather gods obliged and our Drake crossing was met by four-metre waves and 16-knot winds. Considering that the Drake regularly doles out 10-metre waves and hurricane-force winds, I was beyond thrilled.
Lindblad Expeditions' new National Geographic Endurance.
As promised, the Endurance sliced through the waves like a hot knife through butter, and Antarctica was soon in sight, its ice mountains piercing the sky and its waters dotted with gargantuan icebergs.
To prep us for our epic arrival, our National Geographic photographers conducted workshops on photographing icebergs, wildlife, and scenery. Our naturalists taught us all about sea birds, penguins, whales, and everything else that resides in or migrates to and from the Southern Seas. I took copious notes, marking everything that made sense and chuckling at those that didn’t, such as shore birds called oystercatchers that don’t catch oysters, and seals named crabeaters that don’t eat crab. But true to their names, chinstrap penguins do sport a strap-like marking under their chin, and rockhopper penguins do hop over rocks, and they were a comical bunch in action.
Heeding the call to disembark, I popped on my bright orange, fur-lined-hooded Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic logoed parka, which was mine to keep. Waterproofed boots, pants, and gloves were must-haves, and to save packing space, all were available for rent through Lindblad Expeditions. Properly suited, we made landfall on the Antarctic Peninsula at Brown Bluff, where I set foot on my sixth continent and met my first Gentoo and Adelie penguins. These adorable creatures immediately stole my heart with their playful antics, and I went on to encounter many others during my days around the Peninsula in the Weddell Sea.
A day later, on the sea ice off Snow Hill Island, penguin watching kicked into high gear. Minutes after we arrived, two emperor penguins were spotted in the distance, and another three shortly after. They waddled towards us, craning their necks and making trumpeting calls as if to ask each other what to make of their orange observers in the distance. The emperors lingered for more than an hour, showing just as much curiosity in us as we did in them.
Along with all the beauty and serenity of our Antarctic safari, we also witnessed the circle of life as it plays out in the wild. One moment we cooed at penguins preening their fuzzy chicks, the next we recoiled from the sight of a leopard seal tearing its favourite meal apart in the water and the scavenging skuas fighting over the entrails on the rock later. And I’ll never forget the king penguin that emerged from the water with a large gash across its chest, knowing that, although it had escaped the jaws of its predator, it wouldn’t be long before it succumbed to its injury.
Despite its mighty prowess on the rough seas, National Geographic Endurance’s interiors were nothing but genteel. Her accommodations sported clean lines of Scandinavian design, with thoughtful amenities such as electronics charging stations, walk-in rain showers, and stocked mini-bars. Staterooms were adorned with large picture windows or spacious balconies – even those designed for solo travellers. Seating in the Ice Lounge encircled the central podium, and windows everywhere on the ship ensured we didn’t miss a minute of the scenery. A yoga room and stretch classes readied us for our eventful days; two whirlpools, massage treatments, and an ocean view sauna soothed us afterward. The two igloo structures on deck that guests could reserve to spend the night in at no charge were booked solid. In the belly of the Endurance was the garage, housing the 14 Zodiacs that ferried us ashore up to twice a day. A fleet of kayaks was on standby, but unfortunately, it was a tad too windy to launch them during our expedition.
Most impressive though was the Endurance’s culinary team, who, in 20 days, produced scrumptious South American specialties and international favourites, never once repeating a menu item. With 100 crew members serving 116 guests (and never more than 138), service was top-notch.
They say the motto of expedition travel is “Expect the unexpected”. And when the unexpected was meeting the world’s largest iceberg, none of us complained. Named A76A and borne of an even larger berg broken off from Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf in 2021, the behemoth measured 135 kilometres long and 26 kilometres wide, and was near where we were heading.
After dinner, Captain Aaron brought the Endurance alongside A76A, and for over an hour, we gawked at this mind-boggling phenomenon. A fellow guest put things into perspective: “If I were to get in a car and drive highway speed on it for an hour, I still wouldn’t get to the other end.” As the sun’s final rays reflected off its gleaming surface, we reluctantly left to resume our course, as South Georgia Island beckoned.
This tiny outpost of the United Kingdom is slightly smaller than Long Island, but what South Georgia lacks in size, it makes up in biodiversity. The numbers, as reported by our naturalists, were astounding: five million fur seals, three million pairs of macaroni penguins, four hundred thousand pairs of nesting king penguins, and five hundred thousand elephant seals live here.
Guests photograph king penguins on South Georgia Island.
At Gold Harbour, king penguins rushed enthusiastically to greet our Zodiacs while elephant seals and fur seals barely stirred from their naps. The next day at St. Andrews Bay, seal pups freshly weaned from their mothers wrestled with each other while king penguin chicks sporting fluffy brown fur coats chattered with their parents. The cacophony of cackling birds, penguins as far as the eye could see, and the musky stink of the fur seals were simultaneously a delight and assault on the senses.
But things weren’t always peaceful here. South Georgia was once plagued by a rat problem that nearly decimated the entire bird population. In the early 1900s, nearly two hundred thousand whales were brutally slaughtered in these waters for their blubber, and the refined oil went into everything from lubricants to lipsticks.
Our walk through the abandoned Grytviken whaling station and its museum was a sombre reminder of its storied past. Our final days of the expedition were spent in the Falkland Islands, home of our Expedition Leader Russ. A special treat was a visit to his family farm on Saunders Island, where Russ performed his old day job by sheering several sheep for our viewing pleasure.
Our day ended with a barbecue, with Russ’s uncle grilling fresh farm-raised lamb and beef and the Endurance’s crew providing all the fixings and drinks. As I picked tender morsels of flame-grilled lamb off the bone, I savoured the moment in more ways than one, as this outing is exclusive to Lindblad and only when Russ is leading the expedition.
At Steeple Jason on the West Falklands, we hiked along the ridge to a wall of tussock grass. Beyond these thick clumps – some nearly twice my height – was our prize: the largest colony of black-browed albatross in the world. I maneuvered my way blindly through the thicket, following the bird calls until the grass parted to reveal a breathtaking sight: stretching into the horizon were the majestic white birds sitting atop their chimney-shaped nests. Affectionate couples preened and beak-kissed each other like love birds while others glided effortlessly in the wind with their seven-foot wingspan. As much as penguins were the stars of the show in my journey, these albatross were a close runner-up.
Guests can spend the night in one of two on-deck igloos.
It is said that a trip to Antarctica is life-changing, and after spending three weeks amongst awe-inspiring scenery and prolific wildlife, it was hard not to agree. On our final evening, we gathered in the lounge to watch a highlight reel of our expedition. Someone in the group asked how we would each describe our experience. I reflected on the wildlife encounters, the historic A76A iceberg, the smooth Drake crossing, and the steadfast National Geographic Endurance, and only one word came to mind: perfection.
Written by: Ming Tappin for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles. All photos courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions.
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