Trek to Antarctica

(Published April-May 2010)

By David G. Young

On December 27, 2009 Hampton Orthodontist Marsha Albright arrived at the international airport in Santiago Chile after an exhausting 11-hour flight from Pittsburgh with a stop in Miami. With Albright was her daughter, Kim Kramer, and her son, Chris Kramer. The trio was headed south for a 10-day adventure cruise to the Antarctic, a combination graduation gift for Albright’s daughter as well as a birthday gift for Albright. They anticipated a trip filled with discovery and surprises, but they received their first surprise before boarding the flight to their final destination south.

Ship Looking Down col

“As we were gathering with other passengers for the flight to Ushuaia, Argentina,” said Albright, “I spotted a young man wearing a blue and gold Hampton Talbots knit cap. I was so surprised that I asked him ‘Are you from Hampton Township, Pennsylvania?’”

It turned out that she had bumped into Jay English, who, along with his father Hal and older brother Garrett, was also booked on the 10-day voyage! Ironically the six were not just the only passengers from Hampton … they were actually the only passengers from Pennsylvania!

By another coincidence, the two families chose to make the same winter trip as a result of a similar shared experience.

“Back in 2007 my wife Sue and I took the boys on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, which we booked through the National Geographic Society,” explained Hal English. “It was such a great trip that we thought the trip to Antarctica would be another great learning experience.”

As the Englishs later learned, Marsha Albright and her two children had also made that trip in 2008, so both families were veteran explorers. As the six of them made the four-hour flight to the southern tip of South America, both families anticipated another exciting adventure.

For anyone who has ever sailed aboard a relaxed Caribbean cruise or traveled aboard pleasure cruises in any other part of the world, an adventure cruise to Antarctica is a very different experience. Travel sponsored by the National Geographic Society combines exotic travel destinations with in-depth educational experiences. Passengers are treated as explorers and naturalists who participate in these expeditions with the staff, and not merely as guests and passengers.

National Geographic Expeditions (, which was launched in 1999, operates more than 300 trips each year to locations in more than 40 countries on seven continents. The National Geographic Society itself is one of the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations, reaching more than 300 million people each month through magazines, television (the National Geographic Channel), radio, films, books, videos, maps, and interactive media.

A Sturdy Ship for a Rugged Trip

After a lengthy and tiring set of plane flights from Pittsburgh to South America, the Englishs and Albright/Kramers reached Ushuaia, Argentina on December 28, allowing enough time to explore some of the local sights. The port city of Ushuaia, population 64,000, is located on the southern coast of the Argentine island chain Tierra del Fuego, sandwiched between a mountain range on the north and by the Beagle Channel on the south. Named for Charles Darwin’s ship, the HMS Beagle, the channel leads ships south to the Drake Passage, the body of water that separates South America from Antarctica, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.

The next day, on December 29, they boarded the M.S. National Geographic Explorer (M.S. stands for Motor Ship), a 356-foot-long “ice class vessel” that was designed specifically to brave the ice-choked waters of the Southern Ocean in safety and comfort. The ship carries 148 passengers along with a crew of 70 and 10 staff members.

While perhaps not as luxurious as the cruise ships that ply the Caribbean – huge vessels that feature numerous activities, nightclubs, restaurants and entertainment options – the Explorer features a bistro bar, chart room, restaurant, global gallery, library, lounge with full service bar and state-of-the-art facilities for films, slideshows and presentations. There is also an Internet café, a laundry, and a fitness center. Passengers wishing to learn more about the ship’s operations are also welcomed at all times to visit the bridge for an opportunity to chat with the ship’s officers and captain, and stand watch at all hours.

Though not a luxurious cruise liner, the M.S. National Geographic Explorer is nonetheless well equipped to offer an engaging expedition experience for passengers. The ship is equipped with Zodiac landing craft, kayaks, a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), a hydrophone, a “SplashCam” (an underwater video camera), a video microscope, and snorkeling gear.

And the “ice breaking” capabilities of the ship are not to be underestimated. Although there are increasing numbers of vessels carrying passengers to the world’s coldest continent each year (more than 35,000 per year), many of these vessels are much larger than the National Geographic Explorer (with up to 2,000 passengers) and are not designed for special protection against sea ice. You may recall that in late 2007 an older vessel on a similar Antarctic cruise struck underwater ice, developed a leak and sank (fortunately with no loss of life).

But, the M.S. National Geographic Explorer is a specialty vessel designed just for the task of leading adventure cruises through one of the harshest climates on earth. Fortunately, making the trip in late December and early January is one of the mildest periods in Antarctica’s summer season.

Getting Under Way

With all passengers and crew safely aboard, the M.S. National Geographic Explorer set sail around 6:00 p.m. on December 29 from Ushuaia. By dawn the ship had transited the Beagle Channel and was cruising down the Drake Passage towards their first port of call, Deception Island. The ship’s captain reported an unusually calm passage, although Marsha Albright found that the first leg of their seagoing expedition to be a little harrowing.

She said, “I didn't expect the weather to be so warm or so sunny (I think we got lucky) and I didn't expect 24 hours of daylight to be so disorienting. I also didn't expect the Drake Passage to make me seasick, but the crew tried very hard to make us feel comfortable for the entire trip.”

On December 31 the ship reached Deception Island, affording passengers the first view of the Antarctic continent. After sailing around the island the National Geographic Explorer anchored in Whaler’s Bay. Deception Island is an island in South Shetland off the Antarctic Peninsula, with one of the safest harbors in Antarctica. At one time whalers used the island as a base and volcanic eruptions in 1967 and 1969 damaged several scientific stations, which were abandoned.

The landing at Deception Island gave passengers a chance to participate in their first “adventure” of the trip … a dip in the frigid ocean! Although the island has “hot springs” where 120-degree spring water splashes into 27-degree ocean water, the dip in the ocean was definitely a “polar bear affair.” Hampton’s intrepid travelers plunged into the sea off an iceberg with a thick rope tied around their waists. To be precise Marsha Albright plunged in only up to her knees, but the rest of the crew went in over their heads. They found the experience to be “invigorating,” to say the least.

As Jay English explained it, “Right away I tried to swim, but the water was so cold my muscles wouldn’t move.”

Jay’s father, Hal, added, “They gave those of us who braved the cold waters a certificate for having the courage to make the plunge. But they also gave a commendation to those who stayed on shore for having the common sense not to jump in the water!”

While the swimmers were enjoying their brief plunge other passengers were paddling about the bay in Kayaks. Back on the ship (and warmed back up) the passengers and crew settled in to celebrate New year’s Eve. Following an old ship-going tradition, midnight was marked with the sounding of eight bells, four by the oldest member on the ship to bid farewell to 2009, followed by the sounding of four bells by the youngest member to welcome in 2010. On January 1 the ship set sail for the Weddell Sea and Devil Island.

Penguin Encounter

Antarctica is populated by an impressive array of marine creatures and wildlife, including whales, seals, cape petrels (large bird) and many more. But chief among the most notable wildlife are the penguins, which inhabit the continent by the millions. Passengers got their first glimpse of penguins at Deception Island, but they would see many more at their next destination, Devil Island.

On January 2 the National Geographic Explorer anchored off Devil Island. Passengers were allowed their choice of kayaking around the bay or climbing to one of the highest peaks on the island. In fact, Devil Island was named for its two peaks that resemble horns and is the nesting site for more than 10,000 pairs of Adelie penguins. The upper slopes are also home to snow petrels and Wilson's storm petrels, along with skuas, which are smaller sea birds.

The hike up one of the twin slopes was rigorous, but rewarding. As Garrett English explained, “We hiked about 700 feet up the mountain that day, but the weather was great and the views from the top of the peak were really impressive.”

The Weddell Sea itself is also “home” to numerous icebergs and ice floes, another attraction for the travelers. The visage of huge icebergs seems to have inspired all of the travelers. As Hal English put it, “One of the first tabular icebergs we spotted was huge … easily the size of Hampton’s Community Park. But just when you thought that was impressive you spot another iceberg that’s vastly larger, easily the size of Hampton Township itself.”

Indeed, the largest iceberg spotted during the trip was estimated to be more than 35 miles long! Sharing similar perspectives, Kim Kramer said, “One of the things that I found most impressive was the sheer size and vastness of it -- I think particularly because it kept taking me by surprise. We would see huge, sweeping landscapes with not a single sign of human interference in sight. I found that, without any of the usual trappings of human civilization for reference, I quickly lost all sense of scale. A giant glacier wouldn't look that big, and the iceberg next to it might look tiny in comparison. And then someone from our group would paddle over near the "tiny" iceberg" and seeing how it towered over them, my whole sense of scale would suddenly shift, and I would realize just how huge everything really was. That constantly shifting sense of scale gave the experience a kind of magical, Alice-in-Wonderland type of feel.”

Another scene with a huge scale that didn’t fail to impress the travelers was the sight of tens of thousands penguins crowding the shoreline. Making a trek up the slopes the party encountered a large contingent of penguins. The visitors were cautioned not to go up to the penguins or to engage them up close, but that didn’t stop the penguins from engaging the humans! Marsha Albright captured a video of two penguins that decided to plop down and park themselves in the path of the hiking party, which was then forced to stand and wait until the birds became bored and moved on. It became a little unclear who was exactly studying whom!

The remainder of the 10-day voyage unfolded in rapid order. From Devil Island in the Weddel Sea the Explorer embarked for the Danco Coast, the Gerlache Strait, Errera Channel, Andvord Bay and Neko Harbour. Along the way they spotted humpback whales, chinstrap penguins, emperor penguins, elephant seals, and many more sights.

On January 4 the ship crossed the Antarctic Circle, a spot that not many humans have had the honor of traversing. As the tour’s guide book expressed it, “While the circle is nothing more than a representation of the angle at which the earth’s axis is tilted relative to the plane of its travel around the sun, it defines the limit of twenty-four-hour daylight on the day of the summer solstice.”

Further ports of call over the next two days were made to Petermann Island, Lemaire Channel, Port Lockroy, Palmer Station and Paradise Bay. At Palmer Station the passengers were treated to a tour of the United States Antarctic research facility at Palmer Station. Finally, the tour completed, the National Geographic Explorer headed out into the Drake Passage for the voyage back to the ship’s homeport through choppy, 12-15 foot waves breaking over the bow (normal weather during the “calmer” winter months).

The English and Albright/Kramer families agree that the trip proved to be a fantastic experience. Perhaps Marsha Albright summed up the experience best when she said,

“I went to Antarctica to see the penguins before they disappeared and the ice before it melted. I also hoped to see some whales. What I didn't expect was for the penguins to be so cute and the ice to be so very beautiful. Nor did I expect to see forty killer whales at one time breaching and feeding in front of the ship. I would have to say everything about the trip exceeded my expectations. The more I travel, the easier I find it is to understand people. We are all different but so very much the same. It makes it easier to understand the differences and makes the similarities stand out even more.”

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