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“Visit the White Continent. It will change your life forever.”
Follow me to Antarctica, the earth’s last frontier, in the second installment of “The Christmas Vacation of Your Lifetime.”
Will you be changed?
* * * *
You’ll never forget your first glimpse of Antarctica, the White Continent, driest and coldest place on earth.
The captain’s voice crackles on the ship’s intercom, “Land ahoy,” and passengers grab parkas, hats and mittens and scramble on deck. Stiff frigid ocean winds grab your hair and steal your breath, but you don’t care.
There it is--dead ahead, the three-mile-long glacier that is Smith Island, just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
And it is white, dazzling white, dizzying bright in December’s mid-summer sunshine. Navy blue water heightens the glacier’s whiteness. Cameras click and videos whir. Cold fingers struggle with settings and buttons.
Few people on the planet will ever see Antarctica. But you have. What a way to start the New Year.
You will also never forget your first crossing of the Drake Passage. The Antarctic Ocean funnels into this narrow convergence that separates the continents of South America and Antarctica. It is the most violent sea in the world, say experienced captains and sailors.
The voyage from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of South America, to Antarctica can take over 48 hours, depending on the weather. Your voyage took “only” 36 hours, “because the weather was good,” said the captain.
“Good weather” meant only sixteen-foot swells that washed your small cruise ship’s top decks.
“Last month’s crossing was much worst. Took two days,” offered the captain. With half the passengers lying seasick in their cabins on this crossing, you wonder how bad the previous month’s passengers felt.
All seasickness disappears when your ship, the Clipper Adventurer, enters the Antarctic Peninsula’s calm waters at Lemaire Channel. For the next 10 days, you will experience adventures like no where else on earth.
For example, it’s 11 PM and the sun has yet to set. It glints off mountain peaks as you glide by. You hesitate to get to bed, but you must, because tomorrow you have a date with penguins and seals.
Not all cruise ships actually land in Antarctica. Because of strict environmental standards, only a few may allow passengers ashore. Most cruise ships only sail past. Your ship, however, lands on a different island each morning and afternoon.
One stop is Hannah Point on Livingston Island, site of many penguin rookeries. On-board naturalists have briefed you to recognize different species of penguins—gentoo, Adelie, chinstrap, macaroni and rock hopper--and how to behave among them.
Antarctica’s birds have no natural land predators, so penguins are not afraid of humans.
You may not approach, touch, feed, entice, whistle, call or otherwise interfere with their behaviors. Penguins, however, have no rules about humans, so you sit in the snow, adjust your camera and wait.
Soon, a couple of tiny fluff balls waddle toward you. Gentoo penguin chicks have recently hatched, and, like babies everywhere, are curious about their world.
You dare not breathe as they loom closer in your viewfinder. One of them spies your camera bag and pecks at the shiny metal buckle. You click the shutter—again and again. You’re so excited to be this close to a penguin you forget to let up on the automatic shutter release!
After a few seconds, the penguin chicks look at each other as if to say, “OK, what’s next,” and waddle off. You breathe again.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve. At midnight, passengers and crew toast with champagne, funny hats and noisemakers, just like at home. But something’s different in Antarctica—it’s still daylight. OK, maybe not real daylight, but at this latitude, it’s not dark at midnight. Instead a soft twilight lasts from about 11:30 PM until 2 or 3 AM. Then the sun pops out, flooding your cabin with light!
While your friends back home watch New Year’s Day parades and football on TV, you’re going swimming in the Antarctic Ocean. Yes, the ocean with the icebergs. Yes, it’s cold. Sort of. . . .
Deception Island is volcanic, with geothermal springs that bubble to the surface, trickle to the shore and mingle with icy ocean waters.
If you and the other brave (or maybe “crazy”) swimmers dig out bathtub sized holes in the black volcanic sandy beach, direct one of those 120o F. trickles into it, then stir 34o F. ocean water with it as fast as you can, you can cavort like kids in a backyard pool.
But watch out when the hot trickle shifts direction! Suddenly you’re digging sand, trying desperately to retrieve hot water before your bottom freezes!
But it’s worth it, isn’t it, to say you swam in the Antarctic Ocean on New Year’s Day?
c. Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2005