Flocks of gentoo penguins are frolicking around our ship, their plump bodies arcing completely out of the water before diving beneath the iceberg-strewn straits. Others watch, nonchalantly crowded on chunks of passing ice or float around the ship like loons.
Glaciated mountains loom on both sides of the narrow straits, both ends of which are sealed with pack ice and strangely shaped icebergs. The ship rests in the placid, mile-long patch of water in between, the mountain summits mirrored in the still water until disturbed by ripples from passing penguins.
A trip to Antarctica is like a journey to another world - or the world as it might have been in the countless eons before man.
Some say it's the closest you can come to visiting another planet without leaving this one, which may explain why more people are making the trek each year.
"The way the world is now, there's no new territory to explore," says Randy Sliester, an outdoorsman who has spent two winters and several summers on the continent with the United States Antarctica Program. "Before I came here, I'd often look at places I've been in America -especially Colorado, because it's such big country - and I'd say, 'Wow, can you imagine riding a horse and coming over the ridge and seeing this huge area for the very first time, not knowing what is beyond that next mountain?' "
"Antarctica is a lot like that," he says. "There's something special about looking at all these incredible places and knowing that, more than likely, nobody has ever set foot on it."
Antarctica's stark beauty and impressive wildlife now attract some 10,000 tourists every year, a 1 0-fold increase over a decade ago. In fact, so many tourists are coming to Antarctica, it's raised concerns that their presence may have a negative impact on the environment (see story, right).
Virtually all visitors arrive by ship, paying $4,000 to $75,000 and more for the privilege. They brave cold temperatures, fierce winds, fluky weather, and ice conditions that often scrub shore landings.
And for most, there's the often violent four-day crossing of the Drake Passage between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. At these latitudes, storms orbit the planet uninhibited by any land mass, creating 50 foot waves and gale-force winds that turn shipboard life nearly upside down.
But for those with the time, money, and inclination, it's a small price to pay for an opportunity to visit a pristine, largely untouched and unexplored part of the world.
Here, the landscape is primordial: Mountain summits that look as if they were made yesterday poke out of glaciers thousands of feet thick. There are no trees or shrubs, just a few tufts of a hardy grass and a plethora of lichens and mosses on the scraps of exposed shoreline.
There are no cars, roads, towns, or buildings. No nations or wars. Antarctica is an entire continent that remains much as nature made it. The rugged, ice-encased interior is unowned and essentially unownable. The shores are shared by the penguins, skuas, and seals.
The seventh continent is also the one place on Earth that mankind has managed to share. Twenty-six countries now share Antarctica "for peaceful purposes only," primarily the pursuit of scientific research.
They've agreed to protect Antarctica's environment, to keep it demilitarized and nuclear-free, to share scientific results, inspect one another's operations, to help each other out in emergencies and, increasingly, with day-to-day logistics.
A few cruise ships operate from New Zealand and South Africa, but most begin and end their expeditions in Punta Arenas, Chile, or Ushuaia, Argentina. These South American cities are relatively close to the wildlife-rich Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia, the setting for many television nature programs.
Tourists with inflatable boats land at penguin rookeries, research stations, and other sites, weather and ice conditions permitting. With some ships carrying 150, even 400 passengers, this can make for crowded conditions at small landing beaches and stations. Littering, collecting, or disturbing wildlife is strictly prohibited, and leopard seals are best viewed at a distance, as they re prone to charging trespassers.
The weather is unpredictable and not entirely pleasant, but travelers are often surprised to discover summer temperatures are generally milder than a January day in New England or Upper Plains states. Winter conditions are another matter, with thick ice, months of total darkness, high winds, and sub-zero temperatures. Antarctic tourism is therefore a seasonal enterprise, with all expeditions taking place in the austral spring and summer (October to March).
At the height of summer, the sun barely sets at all. At the pole, it simply circles low on the horizon for weeks, contributing to the peculiar state of mind of researchers at the US station there. It's a factor on the peninsula as well -a balmy 62 degrees South - where the short, starless nights can be quite disorienting. Even when the sea isn't filled with frolicking penguins.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society