A black-browed albatross zips along the cliff-like edge of an iceberg. Whether at 4 a.m. or 9 p.m., there is always something to ogle in Antarctica. (Jim Zuckerman/Alamy Stock Photo)
I was born with acute wanderlust, which, by my early 40s, had propelled me far beyond North America to Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America, often for months on end. Yet seeing the seventh and storied White Continent never crossed my mind until a chance meeting with a globe-trotting pal.
“I'm looking for someone to join me in Antarctica. The ship leaves from the tip of Argentina in six weeks, and it's half price. Wanna come?”
You bet. Here was a $6,897 chance to hit my final continent and its jaw-dropping environs, with most flights covered by airline miles. Dire reports of a massive, cracking ice shelf and potential rising sea levels only increased my sense of urgency.
On the evening of Dec. 7, two weeks before the summer solstice below the equator, Vivienne Lassman, an independent art curator, and I joined 91 passengers from around the world aboard the Sea Adventurer, a 1976 Yugoslav-built vessel — with an ice-strengthened hull — run by Seattle-based Quark Expeditions.
By midnight, we had left behind the port of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel to enter the notorious Drake Passage. There, in what is called the Southern Ocean, the currents of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans often slam together to create an Antarctic “convergence” below Cape Horn. Waves can easily top 30 feet and turn the hardiest sailors into seasick wretches.
We, however, lucked out. Our 600-mile Drake crossing was blessedly calm, and the wildlife impressive: humpback and fin whales, orcas, divebombing petrels and skuas, and one glorious albatross, miraculously engineered to glide hundreds of miles without flapping wings that span 8 to 11 feet. Some fly for months without landing.