Beginning the Antarctic Journey

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003
Our reporter, Catherine Gehm, is currently cruising in Antartica, we received this report yesterday.

NOTE:   Society Expeditions is no longer in service, however this four-part report on Antarctic cruising contains much valuable information for those wishing to sail in the region with other cruise lines.

Antarctica, truly the end of the world, is a place that should be on anyone's lifetime trip list. I am on a small ship, Society Expeditions' World Discoverer. The company has been a leader in expedition travel for 30 years, and even though it is still early in the trip, it is quite obvious the Society Expeditions people know what they are doing.

Although the company previously had a vessel of the same name, this new World Discoverer has only been in service about six months. Purpose-built for exploration-type cruising, the World Discoverer is a stabilized vessel of 6,000 tons, that can carry 100 crew, 170 passengers and 12 lecturers.

This is expedition travel in style: The cabins are comfortable and quite spacious, with a full bath, hair dryer, TV/VCR, ample storage for all the cold weather gear you'll need, a sitting area, and mini-fridge. Stateroom sizes range from 215 to more than 500 sq. ft. The two-room owner's suite and junior suites have balconies. All passenger accommodations are accessible only via interior passageways, and no exterior cabins have a promenade outside their windows.

The dining room is single seating with no assigned tables, but you meet and make friends quickly. The food is very good. My fellow passengers are pretty equally divided between Germans and Americans, with a smattering of Canadians and Brits. It is a marvelous group of curious, inquisitive people ranging in age from late 30s to mid-80s.

Making a trip to the distant Antarctic requires diligence, an inquisitive mind and a love of nature. We left Ushuaia, Argentina on Sunday night after an unusually sunny and warm spring day, sailing through the Beagle Channel into the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough piece of water that must be crossed to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. The seas were high, but not as bad as I expected. However, any discomfort is worth it once you sight the first immense icebergs, as we did this morning, having made the crossing in record time. Scenic views can be taken from the fore and aft decks, crow's nest or, more comfortably, the forward observation lounge, surrounded by huge windows.

It has been sunny and much warmer than expected, but the fog rolled in as we made our first expedition ashore this afternoon in the South Shetlands. Decked out in red parkas, we trekked up a snowy trail after leaving our zodiacs, with amazed gentoo and chinstrap penguins eyeing us suspiciously. Both species are currently nesting, guarding the eggs that will produce the next generation. Down on the beach, young bachelor elephant seals were snoozing. Penguins climbed up and slid down the slopes on their bellies, frequently belly-flopping! It was an amazing experience, especially stopping to let a penguin or two cross the path.

We are off to our next stop. From the restaurant I can see immense icebergs, like flat islands, sitting placidly alongside, appearing to go on forever!

In just two short days I have learned a great deal about seabirds and penguins as well as the geologic formation of the planet and Antarctica. The onboard lecturers are superb, with an extraordinary breadth of expertise. Of the 12-person lecture staff and expedition crew, only two are making their first foray into the area.

The expedition leader, Klemens Puetz, is on his 26th voyage! A penguin researcher originally from Germany, he now lives in the Falkland Islands. Most of the lecturers have doctorates in their subject, have taught at major universities, written, published and done important research over the years. They are passionate about their interests and never boring. I fully expected to have my eyes glaze over with a plethora of facts. But they have all been fascinating.

I can already identify the birds that were following in our wake yesterday, the black-browed albatross, the southern giant petrel and the cape petrel. But now it's time to dress for the captain's cocktail party. I said this was a different type of expedition travel. Stay tuned for the next installment.

To be continued...

Click here for Part 2

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