Editor's note: This is Part One of Summit Daily travel editor Bob Berwyn's report on a recent two-week voyage around the Antarctic Peninsula. Go the Summit Daily blog page to see more photos and to read posts on the trip and check out the travel section next week for Part Two.
USHUAIA, Argentina " Sipping one last Beagle beer on dry land before boarding the M/V Professor Molchanov for a 10-day cruise to Antarctica, Leigh and I contemplate the adventure ahead.
It is such an improbable destination, a place where it feels that you could fall off the globe if you weren't holding on with your fingernails. But tourism to the remote continent is increasing every year, with up to 40,000 visitors cruising through the ice flows and tromping around rocky beaches and glaciers to visit seal colonies and penguin rookeries.
We're looking forward to seeing the ice-bound critters, and we're also excited about visiting a place that doesn't belong to a single country. It's the only continent on the planet where you can step ashore without showing a passport. Incredibly, given the contentious history of mankind, there's never been a war here in the southernmost reaches of Earth.
The continent is governed under an international treaty that emphasizes peaceful scientific cooperation. That hasn't stopped some countries, including the United States, from staking tentative territorial claims. But so far, no national government has tried to establish sovereignty over any part of Antarctica.
The same treaty sets strict tourism guidelines to limit environmental impacts. Visitors are permitted to take nothing from the continent " not a feather or pebble, and shore landings include the process of disinfecting shoes to prevent any chance of spreading contamination.
During a briefing early on the voyage, expedition leader Jan Belger tells us that, as an experiment, guides once tried vacuuming Velcro fasteners on clothing and backpacks before going ashore. They hoped to eliminate even the remote possibility of exotic seeds sprouting somewhere on an Antarctic isle.
Like most Antarctic visits, our trip begins in Ushuaia, a gritty harbor town near the very tip of South America. From here, it's just a two-day voyage across the Drake Passage to reach Antarctica. Along with pubs and souvenir stands, the streets are dotted with shops renting parkas and boots. Travel agencies offer last-minute deals on trips to fill vacant spots on boats departing weekly between November and April.
A handful of people on our ship purchased their tours just a few days before leaving, sometimes at substantial savings over a pre-booked tour.
Lupines, Shasta daisies and even rose bushes thrive in the surprisingly mild maritime climate. Well-behaved local dogs, all with collars, seem to rule the streets, each one purposefully trotting down the street toward some unknown destination or rendezvous.
We befriend an especially friendly mutt living just down the street from our lodge, the Posada del Fin del Mundo. He runs the length of his fenced-in yard each time we walk down Rivadavia to reach the waterfront. Glaciated peaks form a dramatic backdrop, and there's even a small glacier-based ski area at the head of a heavily forested drainage just a few miles from downtown.
The local history museum tells the story of the early explorers who first traveled these waters in their quest to circumnavigate the globe: Sir Francis Drake, Capt. James Cook and Ferdinand Magellan, the most notable to sail the maze of fjords and headlands of the archipelago at the tip of South America.
Later, we buy a couple of portions of a seafood salads made from king crabs. The spiny, long-legged denizens of deep southern ocean waters are starting to move south, closer to Antarctic shorelines as currents and water temperatures shift under the influence of climate change.
It's a first taste, literally, of what we're going to learn about how global warming is affecting Antarctica and especially the Antarctic Peninsula, where temperatures have warmed five times faster than the rest of the planet during the past few decades.
But first we have to cross the Drake Passage, where all the world's oceans mingle in a maelstrom of currents, wind and waves, unimpeded by any land masses. Shortly after we board our ship with 50 other passengers, we learn that sailors don't take the stormy waters lightly. Just last year, an Antarctic cruise vessel sank after hitting submerged ice. During a lifeboat drill, the trip leaders tell us that, if we hear the siren, it's serious business.
On the bridge of the Molchanov, all is calm as the Russian crew sets sail eastward down the Beagle Channel, accompanied by South American terns, kelp gulls, black-browed albatross and giant petrels.
The big milestone during the voyage is the Antarctic Convergence, where cold water flowing northward from Antarctica sinks beneath the warmer water. South of this boundary, the sea temperature can drop suddenly by three to seven degrees Celsius. On calm summer days, a fog bank often forms where the waters converge.
The mixing waters nurture enormous concentrations of plankton and krill, making the Antarctic waters a provident haven for an astonishing multitude of whales, birds and seals. The convergence also marks the northernmost extent of polar sea ice in the winter, though large tabular bergs sometimes break off and float beyond the boundary.
Sure enough, as we pass south of the zone, the Molchanov is surrounded by a pod of giant fin whales, flaunting glistening dorsal fins and spouting clouds of mist into a golden sunset. On the far horizon, we begin to see the outline of mountainous South Shetland Islands. At dawn the next day, we've entered the Antarctic Sound, gleaming bergs floating all around us.
Next week: The M/V Professor Molchanov loosely traces the path of early Antarctic explorers like Ernest Shackleton and others in a voyage around the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Ushuaia is full of lodges, hostels and full-service hotels, but we felt completely at home in the cozy Posada del Fin del Mundo. Ana, Marcello and the rest of the staff keep their wood-beamed cottage immaculately clean and offer up the finest breakfast spread in town. Get more info at www.posadafindelmundo.com.ar/.
For info on last-minute deals on Antarctic cruises, go to www.coolantarctica.com/Travel/Trip_details/antarctica_cruise_8.htm.
Other outfitters are already offering 50 percent off on trips for next season, beginning in November. Tough economic times means the deals could continue. Check out www.expeditiontrips.com/.