Glacial Safari

Christine Benedetti | June 26, 2018 | Story Further Afield National

I was 15 weeks pregnant when I boarded Le Lyrial in Ushuaia, Argentina, to set sail for Antarctica. I halfheartedly joked that I wanted my son to witness the Great White Continent before it melted; after all, this was Abercrombie & Kent’s climate-change-focused 10-day expedition cruise with scientist Dr. James McClintock (from $14,995 per person based on double occupancy). But, instead of the calving glaciers and rushing waterfalls from documentaries I’d expected to see, the signs of global warming were more nuanced and profound—yet ever-present as we sailed more than 1,500 miles across the Drake Passage and around the Antarctic Peninsula.

For the following week, the 160-plus passengers (capacity is 199) aboard Le Lyrial, operated by French company Ponant, grasped for language to describe where we were and what we were seeing: dramatic, grand, desolate, unbelievable and otherworldly. The guests came from more than a dozen countries—the majority were American—and gave different reasons for journeying to the end of the world. A well-traveled group, some wanted to touch the seventh continent; many were multigenerational families looking for adventure; and others just wanted to see penguins. On the welcome night in Buenos Aires, Argentina, McClintock told the group that “Antarctica will change you.” By the end of the trip, it had.

Days with eternal sunshine pack a full itinerary. (The sun doesn’t really set at the south pole during summer.) Meals aboard the 465-foot Le Lyrial are served in two restaurants: the formal dining room on Deck 2 and the buffet-style restaurant on Deck 6. The cuisine is incredible, given the limitations of serving it. For example, an on- board pastry chef prepares croissants, strudels and pies for breakfast alone, along with several kinds of bread for lunch and dinner—in true French fashion.

Breakfast is followed by an excursion. Guests are loaded onto small inflatable motorized boats navigated by A&K’s naturalist/ Zodiac drivers, which either tour the open waters looking for wildlife and icebergs or dock ashore for land ventures that include short hikes, research-station visits and even sledding. Though the itinerary changes for each cruise based on weather, excursions may include Port Charcot, Deception Island and Paulet Island. The outings are led by one of more than a dozen guides who are equal parts knowledgeable academics and international characters hailing from different parts of the world (Scotland, New Zealand, Argentina and Australia, for example).

After lunch on excursion days—selections from daily prepared soups, a salad bar, a butcher’s block and a dessert station, all paired with wine—it’s back into the elements aboard the Zodiac for another off-ship adventure. Humpback whales and orcas? Maybe. Crabeater seals? Probably. Penguins? Most definitely.

In the early evening, a specialty cocktail hour includes snacks, and the guides recap the day’s highlights in an entertaining presentation given in the ship’s theater. After dinner, the evening continues with movies, lectures, live music and, of course, scenery-viewing from any of the ship’s six passenger decks or several bars.

McClintock is a professor at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert on the effects of climate change in Antarctica. He has been to Palmer Station—one of three U.S. Antarctic research centers—27 times to conduct research, primarily studying chemical ecology. We stop at Palmer on a warm, sunny day. Graduate students from the Midwest greet us for a tour. They’re wearing jeans and sweaters; it’s tepid enough to go without coats on this Antarctic summer day. The students are blunt about reality. The glaciers around Palmer Station are retreating at a rate of 30 feet per year; the Adélie penguin—which used to be the prominent species on the peninsula—population has been reduced by 85 percent as the birds move farther south for colder climes; whale patterns are shifting; and crustaceans that previously stayed in the deep ocean are moving onto the ice shelf. The students’ role is to contribute to a growing body of science documenting these rapid changes.

And what about us, the visitors on the luxury excursion? The continent only sees some 45,000 tourists each year, dramatically up from 12,200 visitors in 2000, but still a minuscule part of the world’s population. Part of that remoteness, available only to an elite few, is Antarctica’s appeal to travelers. How do people go from standing on a rocky beach, surrounded by thousands of noisy penguins guarding their young, back to the U.S. and relay the experience? “You’ll be ambassadors for this special place,” says McClintock. Those who spend the time and money getting there become stewards of the continent.

By the time my son is able to travel on his own, it’s hard to predict what shape it will be in or how tourism will operate as more people make the trek. Perhaps that’s another appeal for tourists: an urgent call to see something they may not be able to in the future. It could be the definition of experiential luxury travel—and I’m glad we both got to do it when we did.

Originally published in the June issue of Silicon Valley

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