In many ways, travel makes the world seem smaller. We connect with local people, learn about foreign cultures, explore new landscapes, taste new foods and discover that the human spirit binds us to our global family. In the process, far-off places feel a little closer to home.
Yet this November, when Kayla Torgerson and I embarked upon a Lindblad Expeditions cruise to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Orion, I experienced another blessing of travel–opening my eyes to the vastness and expansiveness of our world.
The journey to Antarctica requires an investment of time, entailing two days of round-the-clock sailing after departing “The End of the World” in Ushuaia, Argentina. Yet rather than a necessary evil, sailing across the infamous Drake Passage at the conflux of the Pacific, Atlantic and Southern oceans put more stock in the adventure. The experience deepened my respect for the historic feats and daring risks of polar explorers and–surrounded by modern luxurious accommodation, delicious food and top-of-the-line gear–the incredible technological advances of the past hundred years.
After two days of staring at ocean swells and a blank horizon, I blinked in disbelief at the magical first sights of Antarctica. The continent is majestic and expansive, guarded by regal tabular icebergs that command respect with their stoic mass. Dazzling “bergy bits” of ice bobbed in jewel-toned turquoise water. On land, courtyards of busy penguins constructed rock nests worthy of their waddling queens, presenting one rock at a time to build a royal palace for their offspring. Expansive glaciers crumbled into still waters with an echoed roar as the spring sun warmed their edges.
For six days, we explored Antarctica from a number of vantage points. We wandered the shores of the South Shetland Islands, photographing penguins busily building nests and elephant seals lounging on the foggy beaches.
As we sailed south along the Antarctic peninsula, we visited penguin colonies where winter’s snow had yet to melt, the penguins patiently waiting to begin building their nests. We explored historic research stations, “claimed” the continental mainland for a fun photo op and learned about the complex history of Antarctica during shipboard presentations by our knowledgeable guides.
We stood on the top deck of the ship and marveled the landscapes as we glided by en route to our next destination.
Often, we were drawn to the decks when whales or other wildlife sightings were announced on the loudspeakers or to capture the soft lighting of a sunset on days so long that true darkness never came.
On other days, our vantage point was much closer to the water. Kayla and I kayaked through the icy waters of Lindblad Cove on a 40-degree sunny day and enthusiastically stopped for a drink at the floating bar for some warm “adult” hot chocolate.
We jetted across calm bays on Zodiacs, tracing the shores and circling icebergs to get a better look at the intricate details of the natural sculptures.
I laid on the slanted bow of the Orion, hanging my head over to watch a pod of dusky dolphins gleefully leap and weave in front of the moving ship, playing together in the brilliant water. Later, we returned to watch the bow crush through sea ice that crumbled beneath its might.
I felt the force of an Antarctic storm from the bow of the ship as well, thrillingly leaning my weight into the strength of the bitter wind and testing my ability to withstand the cold before jumping into the hot tub with an equally spontaneous group of fellow travelers, unwilling to pass on the adventure of another (crazy) vantage point. Days later, I joined 40 fellow shipmates in launching off the back of the ship into 28-degree salt water at the cusp of freezing, cheered on by more sensible guests who laughed as we clamored up the ladder into warm towels.
After searching for the perfect “fast ice” for 6 days, we reveled in the opportunity to cross-country ski as our final encounter with Antarctica, as we enjoyed a unique vantage point atop a sheet of ice and stretched our legs in preparation for the 2-day journey back to Argentina.
For most, Antarctica holds the final spot among the seven continents, but I was lucky to experience it as my fifth. Traveling to Antarctica made my world bigger in a beautiful way. The icy kingdom epitomized the awesome power of nature, reminded me of the immensity of our world, showed me the majesty of water and ice and instilled itself in my list of favorite destinations.