You’re going where? Why? That’s how my friends responded when I told them I was traveling to do a story on Antarctica tourism for CNN back in December of 2000. Back then, only about 15,000 people visited Antarctica annually, but today the coldest place on earth is one of the hottest travel destinations with about 45,000 visitors a year. Antarctica is also one of the most challenging places to reach, so travelers must visit during the southern hemisphere’s summer — the winter months for the U.S. — when the ice melts enough to allow access to the continent’s outer banks. December is a great time to tour the seventh continent and Blacks are way behind when it comes to cruising the bottom of the world. It’s time to put it on your bucket list.
Preparing to Cruise
My cruise began with an 11-hour flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires, Argentina. After a night on the town and one of the best steak dinners I’ve ever had (Argentina is known for its beef), I was up early the next morning for a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, known as the southernmost city in the world. This Patagonia seaport and ski town is partly surrounded by the beautiful Andes Mountains. I took the Clipper Adventurer, with about 100 other passengers. And even though I was the only Black person onboard—including the ship’s crew members — I had a wonderful time meeting very interesting people during our mealtimes. Most of the passengers were well-off financially, but very down-to-earth, which made for a very relaxed atmosphere.
After a few hours on board, my excitement quickly changed to anxiety as we started moving through the most turbulent waters in the world, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet — the Drake Passage. The ship rocked back and forth at what seemed like a 90-degree angle, like a metronome. The trashing was so severe that dishes and passengers crashed to the floor. The ship provided belts to hold us in our beds. Scenes from the movie “Titanic” rushed through my mind as I nervously asked the bartender if we were going to make it. “Oh sure,” she said. “This is just a five on a scale of one to 10.” I couldn’t even imagine what a ten was like and started wondering if this was how I was going to die. Luckily, I was one of the few passengers who didn’t get seasick because I’d bought the motion sickness wristbands in the ship’s tiny gift shop. They worked wonders, and I’ve been using them on all forms of rocky transportation ever since. The Drake Passage lasts for 48 hours, but after the first 24, I started to get my “sea legs.”
Once I saw my first iceberg, all of that rocking and rolling was well worth it. Antarctica is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen. And since there are hardly any other humans around — other than the scientists at remote research stations run by the U.S. and 31 other countries — it’s like being on another planet.
There are miles and miles of icebergs with amazing shapes that look as if they’ve been sculpted by artists. We passengers fell all over ourselves oohing, aahing and clicking our cameras. The pristine beauty is jaw-dropping. There were wildlife experts, naturalists, marine biologists and historians aboard giving briefings on each area of the outer banks, climate change and wildlife. Various species of penguins make up the largest number of native life on the continent. They were funny little things, waddling by, doing their daily routines as if we weren’t there.
Penguins have no land predators, so they’re fearless of humans. Still, travelers are asked not to touch them or disturb their environment in any way. They were so fascinating. I could have sat and watched them all day long. But there was other entertainment such as the roaring elephant seals lounging all piled up on top of each other, the molting fur seals, the blue-eyed shags (birds) feeding their young and whales diving in and out of the water as if giant gods of the sea.
Along with videotaping the entire trip, the CNN crew and I had fun with passengers sliding down snowy hills on “sleds” made out of garbage bags and taking inflatable “Zodiac” motorboats around the awe-inspiring icebergs. We even took our gloves off to feel what it was like to hold a chunk of ice that had melted off of an iceberg. I giggled with exhilaration, even though my fingers were almost frozen solid. Ninety percent of icebergs are underwater, so what you see above water is literally the “tip of the iceberg.”
One of the highlights of the trip was at Deception Island, where the heat from a dormant volcano creates hot springs. Sitting in the warm water in my bathing suit, looking out at all the icebergs and snowy hills surrounding us was both amazing and surreal. After drying off and getting back aboard, the ship’s chef treated us to a wonderful barbeque on deck. Well, it was summer in Antarctica. The food was excellent, with three 5-star meals a day.
Luxury in the Coldest Part of the World
Sadly, Clipper Cruises has been anchored for good, but there are plenty of other options for Antarctica tours from small yachts to luxury liners. And today’s ships offer a lot more amenities than I experienced on the Clipper Explorer. Lindblad Expeditions was the first company ever to take what they call “citizen explorers” to Antarctica, dating back to 1956. It operates two ships in collaboration with National Geographic: The National Geographic Explorer and the National Geographic Orion.
“All of the cabins are outside cabins, so you always have a view,” says senior marketing manager Elissa Marton. “There’s a wellness special on every voyage. So there’s a spa, a sauna, you can get facials and massages, there’s a fitness center with all of the equipment. And it’s on the top deck with wrap-around windows, so you have this incredible view while you’re working out.”
Polar veterans with various specialties make up their expedition team, with some having been with the company for 20 or 30 years. Passengers can sit in on presentations from naturalists, marine biologists, wellness specialists, a Nat Geo photographer and photo instructor, and an exclusive undersea specialist who dives under the ice and shoots video to screen each day.
“Passengers usually start off with a variety of morning explorations after we anchor off the shore. They would get into a Zodiac, guided by a naturalist and go ashore and hikers might choose a short stroll to view a penguin colony or hardier types might make a rigorous climb, half the ship at a time can go onto these virtually untippable kayaks and explore,” explains Marton. “And then you’d get back on the ship, and it might be time for a presentation from one of the staff members, and there may be an announcement over the PA system that killer whales were spotted off the bow, and everyone gets up from the presentation and rushes to one of the easily accessible outdoor decks with their cameras and binoculars. Then it’s time for lunch.”
The breakfasts and lunches that are buffet-style and dinners are always served. Lindblad makes it a point to serve sustainable foods. Marton adds, “Our ships have the freedom to take advantage of what’s at hand. For example, a local fishing boat tails our ship with just-caught fish. Our chef can say “yes” to bringing that fish aboard. And when the ship is in the Falklands, we obtain fresh vegetables from a hydroponic grower that we know there and have supported over the years and fresh lamb from a rancher that we’ve known over the years. Our goal is for our guests to experience the geographies through the food served on board and to dine extraordinarily well.”
Then there are afternoon explorations and an evening recap before dinner. “That’s when everyone will join in the lounge with their drinks and canapés and various naturalists and staff members will talk for five to ten minutes each about something that happened that day. For example, the marine mammal specialist will talk about the killer whales we saw that morning,” says Marton.
She adds, “A highlight for many passengers is the ‘polar plunge’ where we set up a platform outside the ship and you can come down in your terry cloth robe from your cabin and throw it off and plunge into the icy waters. We quickly pull you back out and put you back in your robe and towel with a hot toddy. And we’ll have photos to prove that you dove into Antarctic waters, along with ‘I did the polar plunge’ parka patches that we sell in our gift shop.”
Crafting the Plan to Get There
The 14-day trip is Lindblad’s shortest cruise and includes a night in Buenos Aires before heading to Patagonia. The price range is between $14,680 and $36,550 double occupancy, depending on the size and deck level of your cabin, some with balconies. The cost does not include airfare but does include all excursions, meals and snacks, drinks, except premium brands, sauna and fitness center, fully-stacked library, use of their Mac computers for uploading photos, B&H photo camera equipment rentals, gratuities for the ship’s crew, and Lindblad’s signature 50th-anniversary parka.
An Antarctica expedition is a trip of a lifetime. For me, it was a spiritual experience that made me feel like a small blip on the planet with a new appreciation for Mother Earth. It also gave me bragging rights. So if you want to add the seventh continent to your bucket list, here’s what you need to know before you go:
- Start saving a few years in advance — the lowest cost for cruising the continent is about $8,000.
- Don’t forget your passport, camera/cell phone and binoculars.
- Pack lots of layers of clothing, starting with thermal underwear and socks and waterproof boots. Your costs include a parka, but you’ll still need a heavy coat before you get on the ship since the Patagonia region of Argentina is very cold.
- Take motion sickness wristbands — they work better than Dramamine — and only cost about $10 at any drugstore.
- Read the book “Endurance” which tells the true account of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s trip to Antarctica on a ship which sank in 1915. He and his crew were rescued after almost two years of living in the harsh environment.
- Finally, Marton adds, “I like to pick my cabin midship and on a lower deck for more stability [when going through the Drake Passage].”