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, abercrombiekent.com). But, instead of the calving glaciers and rushing waterfalls I’d expected to see from documentaries, 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. They 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 their seventh continent; many were multigenerational families looking for adventure; and others just wanted to see penguins.
On the welcome night in Buenos Aires, McClintock told the group that “Antarctica will change you.” By the end of the trip, for some, it had.
The Other Side of the World
Six days into the journey during the 11pm twilight hour—the sun barely sets in January at the tip of the Southern Hemisphere—I found myself in the bridge, from where Cpt. Erwann le Rouzic was navigating the 465-foot-long vessel through the narrow Lemaire Channel. Just 7 miles long, the channel, protected by sheer cliffs, was stiller than a glass of water.
Filled with ice chunks, the soft sound of the bow breaking through the frozen film covering the water sounded like popping corn. “It’s like a spoon though panna cotta,” the captain chuckled, clearly reveling in this highlight of the trip. Upon reaching the end, people exhaled. “Welcome to the other side of the world,” he said.
And that’s when it hit me that we were really there.
Antarctica is vast and, surprisingly, the peninsula is mountainous. The tallest peaks reach above 9,000 feet in what’s a geologic extension of the Andes Mountains. The land and bedrock islands are covered in an ice sheet; the sheet stays the same size, in theory, but the ice shelf is what ebbs and flows with the seasons. (The sheet and glaciers, however, are retreating too.)
During our entire 10-day cruise, we saw two other boats, and the only other humans were those staying at the research centers where we stopped: Port Lockroy and one of the three United States’ outposts, Palmer Station. And, yet, the aloneness was balanced by the intimacy of the ship. Le Lyrial is a new boat and embarked on its maiden voyage in 2015. The staff-to-guest ratio was close to 1-to-1, so a cold drink, clean room and question answered were never more than a couple feet away.
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