A growing number of travelers are sailing to Antarctica, lured by its majestic, surreal beauty and spectacular wildlife. But as a bellwether of our planet’s health, the continent is also a focus for naturalists and climate scientists.
Sail to Antarctica
Sea ice creates an otherworldly marinescape in placid waters off Antarctica’s western coast.
| Credit: Dan Westergren

A smooth, serpentine form silently broke the surface. Right next to me. The creature's foot-long head, glossed with a veneer of water, emerged wraithlike from the deep, the turned-up corners of its mouth set in a rictus grin. More unnerving still were its eyes, which appeared to scrutinize me. I got the impression I could easily have been its prey. Then it was gone.

It was the third day at sea on a two-week Antarctic excursion with Lindblad Expeditions, and several fellow passengers and I were in a Zodiac, accompanied by an underwater photographer and one of the naturalists from our ship's 15-strong team of scientific specialists. As we crossed the stygian bay, enshrouded by mist, there was no sun, no moon — our primary reference point the watery mirror below. With little sense of time or space, we skimmed past sapphire-blue icebergs, the surroundings taking on the quality of a dreamscape, one populated by ink-outlined Adélie penguins that seemed to gaze at us with an almost spiritual serenity. Despite these impressions, this strange, icy land is a place of harsh realities. Young gentoo penguins at Brown Bluff, a rocky volcanic site at the tip of the peninsula. Dan Westergren

Suddenly, a huge leopard seal lunged out of the water, its awesome fangs snapping closed on a penguin. The fierce predator played with its prey like a cat with a mouse, tossing the penguin around by its foot, repeatedly slamming the bird down against the water's surface and hammering home its place in the food chain.

There's an old mariners' expression pertaining to the ferocious winds of the southern latitudes that goes: "Below 40 degrees south, there is no law; below 50 degrees south, there is no God." To be sure, Antarctica, an immaculate wilderness without religion or nationality, is like nowhere else on earth. And thanks to the Antarctic Treaty System — signed by 53 nations — it is also a place for global cooperation, for science.

Come December, Antarctica's waters will be home to the world's largest ocean sanctuary. Some 600,000 square miles of the Ross Sea — located directly south of New Zealand — will be off-limits to commercial fishing for an initial period of 35 years. Every member of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (comprising 24 countries and the European Union) voted to grant protected status to the sea, which is considered the planet's most pristine marine ecosystem.

"One of the reasons the Ross Sea designation is so valuable is that it allows us to study a system that isn't being perturbed by commercial fishing and over-harvesting of Antarctic krill, so we can start to understand the relationships between the environment, krill, and fisheries," said John Durban, a killer-whale researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a guest expert on our voyage. He explained that, while orca populations in the Ross Sea appear healthy, there is cause for concern around the Antarctic Peninsula, on the continent's western side — the area we were touring — and it's not just related to fishing. Cruising in Cierva Cove, along the Antarctic Peninsula, passengers on a Lindblad voyage get an up-close look at a leopard seal. Dan Westergren

Over the past 60 years, the peninsula has seen a five-degree rise in average temperatures, and while the impact of climate change across Antarctica isn't completely understood, it is widely suspected of contributing to ice loss and instability on the continent's western side. While we were visiting, news reports broke that a gargantuan crack in the Larsen C ice shelf — just a few hundred miles away from our ship — had been advancing at a rate equal to the length of five football fields each day, racing closer to a complete split that would create an iceberg larger than the state of Rhode Island. And there are signs that these changes could be affecting marine life. Durban and his wife, Holly Fearnbach, the marine-mammal research director at Sealife Response, Rehabilitation & Research, had come to Antarctica to collect orca size data and blow samples, which we watched them obtain by hovering a specialized $25,000 drone over the whales.

"We've just seen some very skinny killer whales today, something we encountered on last year's peninsular trips as well," Fearnbach noted. "Five years ago we had no concept that there could be thin or sick whales in Antarctica." By studying the health of Antarctica's orca pods, scientists can glean important information about the state of the ecosystem beneath them in the food chain. Healthy systems have healthy top predators.

Increasingly, research like Fearnbach and Durban's has become intertwined with the expanding business of Antarctic tourism. Once, the white continent was the exclusive preserve of scientists, explorers, and whalers, but starting in the 1960s the entrepreneur Lars-Eric Lindblad began pioneering trips for lay travelers. From the outset, Lindblad saw science and tourism as integral partners, and he recognized that having travelers actively engage with Antarctica, side-by-side with experts, could play a valuable role in bolstering conservation of this great wilderness. That ethos has continued to guide and distinguish Lindblad Expeditions under the leadership of his son, Sven-Olof. Today the company operates two Antarctic ships — in collaboration with National Geographic — offering three itineraries between October and March, ranging from 14 to 24 days.

My excursion was aboard Lindblad's National Geographic Explorer, an ice-class expedition cruise ship outfitted for just under 150 guests. After launching from Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina, we sailed for the Antarctic Peninsula and the nearby South Shetland Islands, the closest parts of Antarctica to Cape Horn. But we first had to make the 36-hour crossing of the Drake Passage, the notorious mariners' graveyard where furious gales can whip up waves into a boiling maelstrom.

Luckily for us, our voyage was smooth and pleasant, so much so that the crew jokingly referred to the passage as Lake Drake. We got to enjoy the ship's gym and sauna, the restaurants, board games in the sun lounge, and talks given by the various experts on board. We arrived early and well rested.

Setting foot on the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time was an incredible experience. While the breathtaking landscape and wildlife are familiar from photographs and films, being there, immersed in it all, defies the borders of imagination. Stepping onto a glossy black-pebble beach in the snow-white shadow of a subglacial volcano, I was greeted by juvenile gentoo penguins, who rushed to greet me, nibbling at my boots and pant cuffs. Though they were begging to be picked up and smuggled on board as stowaways, I resisted. Just. Killer whales swim in Paradise Bay, on the Antarctic Peninsula’s western edge. Dan Westergren

Gargantuan, slobbering elephant seals lazed languidly on the shore, indifferent to our presence, the males occasionally making the effort to haul themselves upright and inflate their ridiculous proboscises to show who's boss. Meanwhile, chinstrap penguins, in huge colonies, ignored us tourists with the apathy — and the attire — of an army of Parisian waiters.

On a visit to Trinity Island, off the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, recumbent Weddell seals blinked at us as we passed by, playing up to the camera and coyly rolling onto their backs to reveal soft jelly bellies. They were oblivious to any danger, lazing near the ruins of a 1920s whaling station littered with gigantic whale bones.

A fur seal, bobbing calmly in the water as I stood and took pictures, even had the audacity to rush after me as soon as my back was turned. Alerted to its approach by the cacophonous, if somewhat unintelligible, warnings of a few fellow passengers, I turned to see the lolloping behemoth — weighing a few hundred pounds — in attack mode. Instinctively, I began running, before hearing the advice of one of the crew's experts. "Don't run! Look big!" shouted Jamie Coleman, a British naturalist.

Stretching out my arms and splaying my fingers — and even my toes within my waterproof boots — I stamped my way back toward the creature, letting out a resounding roar for good measure. The seal stopped and backed off, perhaps in fear of me as an alpha male, or perhaps just to prevent me from causing an avalanche with my howling ululations. I was soon relieved when members of our party came to stand shoulder to shoulder with me as the seal retreated.

Antarctica may seem like a synonym for isolation — and our skillfully charted itinerary meant we scarcely saw another ship for the duration of our voyage — but we were not alone. There are 58 vessels currently registered with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), from 10-person yachts to luxury liners, and during the 2016–17 season they brought close to 44,400 visitors to the continent, up from roughly 9,600 two decades ago. Sometimes, when tourists flock to pristine natural wonders, they unwittingly contribute to their degradation. But Antarctica has become an example of how tourism can be a powerful tool for conservation, just as Lars-Eric Lindblad envisioned.

"We simply couldn't do some of the research we do without these trips," Durban told me as we sat in our ship's brasserie, polishing off dessert and a bottle of wine with his colleagues during our return sail. "It's a very expensive place to visit, and limited government funding will stretch only so far. We have to seek diverse sources of financial support and apply for grants just to keep these important programs going."

All IAATO members conform to rules devised to protect this environment — from limiting the number of passengers allowed ashore to 100 at a time to restricting ships to a maximum of 500 travelers — and most have specialists on board to serve as guides and give educational talks. But Lindblad, staying true to its founding vision, prides itself on treating its voyages as scientific expeditions. "There's a temptation to think it's a bit gimmicky that Lindblad invites scientists along as a way to entice guests," Durban remarked. "But that's not it at all. It really is this shared vision to promote research and conservation. We get so much support, and every trip is invaluable for us."

All of the crew and guests contribute, whether by helping to look out for whales or sharing photographs they've taken. "Over the past seven years, we've published a number of scientific papers with the slew of data being collected on board," Durban said. "This is real science being done."

Echoing the words our captain and crew repeated throughout the voyage, Fearnbach added, "This really isn't a cruise — it's an expedition." That is certainly what I'll be telling the folks back home.

Orange Line

The Details: Antarctica

Getting There

Antarctica has become much more accessible to travelers in recent years. Multiple cruise lines, like Ponant, Silversea, and Lindblad Expeditions, provide trips to the continent from Ushuaia, Argentina. Flights to Ushuaia from the U.S. may require multiple stops.

Tour Operator

Lindblad Expeditions: The author took a 14-day voyage aboard the National Geographic Explorer. Guests depart from Ushuaia and cross the Drake Passage before spending five days along the Antarctic Peninsula. from $13,760 per person.