On January 5 Le Lyrial departed from Ushuaia for a voyage to Antartica. On the way, we visited West Falkland and South Georgia. We saw penguins, seals, and all manner of birds. It was a life-changing journey on magical seas. On January 17 Le Lyrial approached Neko Harbor where we would have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set foot on the continent of Antarctica. Looking across the bow of Le Lyrial, I saw a disappointing site. Serious snow. Obviously, one should expect snow in Antartica, but this snow chose the only day we would be on the Antarctic Peninsula to make itself known. Well, shucks!
Neko Harbor is a the west coast of Graham Land which is on the Antarctic Peninsula that juts off the continent. The harbor’s outline resembles a boot. The area supports a large breeding colony of gentoo penguins, as well as nesting areas for giant petrels and south polar skuas.
Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache discovered the inlet and named it in honor of the whaling boat Neko that worked in the area between 1911 and 1924.
The Antarctic Treaty System has a number of features designed to protect Antartica’s delicate ecosystems. These include disinfecting boots and vacuuming clothing before going ashore to prevent the introduction alien species in the form of seeds, bacteria, and spores. There is also a limit of one hundred visitors ashore at a time. To meet this requirement, passengers on Le Lyrial were divided into two groups to go ashore by zodiac. My group was given the first slot for going ashore —a 6:30 a.m. departure from the ship. When I awoke at 5:30, I peeked through the window and saw rapidly falling snow. But, I thought to myself, a lot can change in an hour.
I got dressed, grabbed my parka, boots and other gear, and went down to the departure lounge. The snow continued to fall, and I had to think about whether setting foot on the continent was really important to me. At that point, I realized my fourth lesson from this Antarctic cruise. In this instance, the journey was more important than the final destination of Antarctica landfall.
I had the amazing experience of encountering Elephant Seals, Fur Seals, and King Penguins on their own terms. I visited pristine environments. I saw whales swimming by the ship. Those experiences made the cruise memorable. Standing on Antarctica in a high wind with falling snow was not something I needed to do.
During the 2021-2022 tourism season from November to March, 23,527 people visited Antartica. This season the numbers may top 100,000 visitors. Each looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On some days, five cruise ships might visit the same landing site, but every effort is made to keep them at a distance so visitors have the illusion that their ship is alone in a pristine, watery wilderness. During our cruise, I only saw one other ship.
In January 2022 the National Geographic ship Endurance encountered a massive gathering of fin whales off Coronation Island where the waters are rich with krill, a favorite food for whales, squid, and penguins. The incredible encounter was all the more amazing when you consider early 20th century industrial whaling almost drove the species to extinction.
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South Polar Skua by Paride Legovini.
Giant Petral with chick by Brocken Inaglory.
Elizabeth Leane. “More than 100,000 Tourists Will Head to Antarctica This Summer.” The Conversation. Jan 4 2023.
Annie Roth. “Cruise Ship Stumbles on a Rare Sight: A Gathering of 1,000 Whales.” National Geographic. Feb. 21, 2023.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.