In search of obsession, the discovery of something far more powerful inside the...
The SV Australis spun lazily in a cove off the coast of Antarctica as icebergs the size of islands towered off to stern. It was early March, autumn, and the sky turned restless and gray. Beyond those frozen walls lay the 600-mile-wide Drake Passage, a section of the Southern Ocean where the frigid, polar conditions of the Antarctic Peninsula collide with the cool, humid, subpolar region of South America. This climatic transition forms one of the world’s roughest stretches of sea.
Magnus O’Grady, the skipper, stood in the galley, looking at the weather forecasts on his laptop. Maggy, as his friends call him, had a thick red beard, a sailor’s squint, and the mien of a captain who, at just 27 years old, had already been through the Drake a hundred times.
“Well, guys, we have an issue,” he said with a sigh. Seven of us sat around a table in the stern. He spun the laptop around to reveal a disturbing amount of red—a storm. “If we wait, things will get very unpleasant.”
Twists like this are common at these latitudes, and frankly, they were the reason I’d signed up for the 17-day trip with Natural Habitat Adventures. The upscale adventure-travel outfitter, based in Boulder, Colorado, charters the Australis and partners with the World Wildlife Fund to offer deeply immersive, nature-focused itineraries. My trip cost $22,000, close to the price for two nights at the Ritz’s Suite Vendôme in Paris.
More than 30,000 people visited Antarctica in 2015, and nearly all of them came on large cruise ships. Vessels like those must stick to choreographed routes to reduce their impact on the fragile polar environment, and even then, only 100 people may disembark at a landing site. That means not everyone can visit every penguin colony or research station detailed in the itinerary.
The Australis, built in New Zealand and most recently refurbished in Australia in 2015, offered an entirely different experience. She was small—a 75-foot sloop-rigged yacht with three sails for stability and nine millimeters of steel in an ice-worthy hull. She slept seven guests comfortably, plus five crew, and came stocked with kayaks and camping gear. She had a forecastle laden with Argentinean lamb, Chilean wines, and French cheeses. From deep within you could feel the soothing rumble of a 180-horse-power engine that muscled us along at a casual nine knots—fast enough to slash travel times without blurring the landscape in between.
On an expedition cruise, you can go where you want to go, linger when you wish to linger, and change course on a whim. As such the Australis offered unparalleled intimacy among the planet’s most colossal landscapes while providing a cozy home for eight of the most remarkable days of our lives so far. We’d already steamed for hundreds of miles around the peninsula to explore lonely bays bathed in ethereal light. We’d hiked on beaches that bore no five-toe footprints and kayaked through brash ice under cliffs that wept veins of copper and iron. The humpbacks had come so close you could smell their terrible breath.
Now all that was left was the Drake, the passage so volatile its monstrous storms have shattered windows three decks up, flipped pianos, and sent vessels far larger than ours down into the 15,000-foot depths. The passage’s namesake himself, Sir Francis Drake, avoided it on his journey around the world in 1578. Crossing it today is a rare experience: In the age of modern travel, grueling ocean voyages have become unnecessary. You do this for you.
The plan had been to spend the night surrounded by the crackling shoulders of looming icebergs in the Melchior Islands on the north-west tip of the peninsula before casting off for Cape Horn in the morning. Instead, we would begin the three-day push right after dinner.
I looked around the table. Some of the passengers had visited all seven continents. Others had hardly left the United States before. All of us had come for the adventure. There were Bob Lawson, a 64-year-old casino builder, and the Leishears, a couple married for 44 years. Next to them sat David Larcombe, 51, an Australian rancher. Andrea “Annie” Van Dinther, 41, and Moira Le Patourel, 26, served as our guides.
It’d be days before I’d see everyone together again. For the moment, we went on deck to savor the last breath of freedom. The air. The blue. The unequivocal remoteness of it all. A whale appeared off to port, and then another and another, as if to wish us good luck.
Most people must cross the Drake twice—once there, once back— but we’d cheated and flown over it on the way south. Antarctic Airways left Punta Arenas in southern Chile and touched down on a gravel strip at a Chilean base on King George Island, about 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The flight took less than two hours.
In the summer, about 4,800 people from 29 nations live in Antarctica on bases, and this particular base, which includes one of only two civilian settlements on the entire continent, felt like a Martian colony if Martian colonies had penguins. Scientists slept in what looked like modified shipping containers.
The Australis met us on the far side of the island in a protected bay. We climbed aboard and rinsed our feet off in a disinfectant bath to reduce the risk of spreading invasive species. Maggy immediately set a course for Deception Island, a caldera about 70 miles southwest. After that the plan became more fluid by design.
While Golden Age explorers ate penguin livers, we had Anaïs Puissant, a 26-year-old French chef, who could conjure up moussaka and tiramisu and endless plates of charcuterie. Maggy’s only other hand, Bob Paige, was a 24-year-old Brit who served as the “general dogsbody” of the boat. “If it’s cold and wet and smelly, it’s my job,” Bob said, proudly.
We motored past the wobbly ice turrets of Livingston Island and 5,577-foot Mount Friesland. Chinstrap penguins toddled around on an iceberg with great flutes of blue ice knuckling the waves.
I sat in the stern and flipped through the ship’s books, searching for random facts. The ancient Greeks had long hypothesized the existence of an antarctic—literally, the opposite of the arctic—but it wasn’t until 1820 that a human laid eyes on it. It’d be another 91 years before Roald Amundsen in 1911 became the first person to reach the South Pole, a place as far south from where we were as the Bronx is from Belize. The maps still speak of the hardships: Delusion Point. Cape Disappointment. Exasperation Inlet.
The day had all but drained out of the sky when we reached Deception Island, a volcanic ring nine miles wide formed by a drowned caldera that opens to the sea through a gusty, narrow breach called Neptune’s Bellows. Zodiacs whisked us over to a long, broad beach pressed into an ice-free bay by fog-draped mountains. The husks of wooden boats a century old sat preserved in the sand. Bleached piles of enormous bones clawed their way out of the earth.
I wandered around the remains of the abandoned station itself. “You’re walking into a museum,” Annie said. Huge cylindrical tanks for storing oil erupted through the sand at odd angles. Deception is still an active volcano, and the British soldiers who built a secret base here during World War II talked of parboiling penguin eggs by burying them. In 1923 the caldera’s bay grew so hot during an eruption that the water stripped the paint off boats.
The Bransfield Strait runs for about 200 miles between the South Shetland Islands and the peninsula, and by noon we were in it. Crossing the strait in a long southwest diagonal toward the mainland served as a test run for the Drake.
Maggy ordered us to store our cameras, spare batteries, and anything else that could easily go flying in bags and drawers. “One loose battery rolling around and it’ll drive you nuts,” he warned. The berths had lee cloths to keep us from flying out of bed. Mine saved me like a backstop.
Maggy eventually dropped anchor near the wreck of a Norwegian transport ship that sank in 1916 in a calm, butterfly-shaped bay. After a day we’d arrived on the western side of Enterprise Island, a dollop of ice and rock about three miles west of the peninsula. It’s a popular spot for cruise ships, but luckily no one was around.
Treaties proclaim, in theory, that Antarctica belongs to no one and therefore everyone. In practice every country uses its own names for places and stakes its own claims. To Argentina this is Hope Base. To Chile it is the Land of O’Higgins. The British call it Graham Land, which is fine with Americans, who claim Palmer Land farther to the south.
We spent the morning assembling collapsible kayaks and fitting ourselves into those bright orange survival suits that work as warm, floating Onesies in case of a capsize. We planned to paddle along great hunks of ice that bobbed around the perimeter of Gouvernøren Bay. Annie warned us to keep our distance.
“You think, Oh, this iceberg won’t roll on top of me,” she said. “But it will. I can’t tell you how dangerous that is.”
The wind picked up, so instead we took a Zodiac ashore, where wildlife treats you with a mix of curiosity and disdain. Skuas, the world’s crankiest seagulls, dive-bombed us until terns dive-bombed the skuas and all hell broke loose in feathery mayhem and a certain détente evolved. Everyone moved along. I poked around the shallows looking for life.
Tiny fish the color of the rocks and with antifreeze for blood sat motionless on the bottom. There were jellyfish the size of dinner plates and clear ctenophores I mistook for bubbles. I lay down in the sun, listening to the iceberg pop (or melt) and crackle like Rice Krispies in milk.
The thermometer on my watch read 71 degrees against the rocks. Two weeks later scientists would report in Nature how global warming is destroying the ice here faster than anyone previously believed.
For lunch Anaïs served flaky cod and rice with baked apples and dulce de leche, and soon afterward Maggy and Annie announced we’d make a run for a Ukrainian base about a day away. Being such a small vessel, we could easily and unobtrusively mingle with the scientists between our own kayaking excursions.
We headed up on deck to watch Bob, the dogsbody, hoist the anchor, but something was off. The Australis shuddered as the enormous chain rattled around the capstan, but then the winch whined and fell silent. Stuck. Bob tried again, but again the ship shuddered and the winches whined. Then it began to snow.
The next day the crew worked tirelessly to free the anchor. We sent a GoPro into the depths. The footage revealed a weird and wonderful world of translucent sea stars, funky worms, and a chain disappearing into a huge hunk of metal. We’d later learn our anchor had discovered another anchor and there was nothing anyone could do.
Losing an anchor is a big deal. In Antarctica it’d be game over without a skilled crew. We had a spare anchor but no spare chain. Still, Maggy knew of a natural harbor so well protected that ropes and a backup anchor would do. Paradise Bay sat 30 miles south, a day’s travel away, and we set out immediately the next day, forgoing the Ukrainian base.
We cruised around the southern tip of Nansen Island, into the Gerlache Strait, and along the 9,050-foot-high Osterrieth Mountains of Anvers Island. During a calm stretch, I climbed into the crow’s nest and surveyed the scene. A lone penguin dove off an iceberg. Humpbacks stuck their tails in the air, the water rushing off the flukes in rivers. “It’d be a black-and-white world if it weren’t for all that blue,” Annie said.
Safely anchored in Paradise, we readied the kayaks and went for a paddle. The ice sluiced around the bow and crackled and crunched. “It’s like paddling over potato chips!” said Bob, the builder. We drifted silently, listening to a minke whale puff in the distance.
In a few days we would pitch tents on a lump of ocean-bound rock, stick our backs to the bottom of the earth, and feel the vastness of the continent. But this moment—floating among the sublime bottle-blue ice, each of us desperate to cup the incomprehensible magnificence of a planet stripped down to its birthday suit—shook us both to our cores.
“This,” Bob said, gesturing to the mountains, the sea, the ice, “has been going on for a million years. I’m here in one moment. When I leave it won’t change. Who am I, really?”
Our time in Paradise, like everywhere in Antarctica, was too short. But we had the Drake to deal with and so we began the push north, stopping to belly-slide with penguins on Danco Island: Pure comedy until skuas swooped in and ate the living eyes right out of one of them.
Maggy set the autopilot for 340 degrees— slightly west of north—and so it began. Crossing the Drake was one of the most intense, yet oddly rewarding, experiences of my life: 75 hours, 65-mile-per-hour winds, 30-foot seas, and one broken rib (not mine). The gray-beards bashed the boat with such ferocity that the concussions felt like artillery fire. The worst of it came 120 miles off the coast of Cape Horn, where Maggy turned the bow into the waves for nine hours just to ride it out. I stayed in bed listening to playlists and audio books, watching the curtains swing like pendulums. What magic to be at sea, safe, untethered, determined, worked.
As we drew close to Tierra del Fuego, I went to the wheelhouse, where Maggy had the helm. “One helluva Drake,” he said. The Bobs came up, as did Anaïs and David. Moments later an hourglass dolphin rose off the bow and jumped backward, like a banana with the points facing up. His bright white belly flashed wet and smooth, as if to welcome us home.
We recommend Natural Habitat Adventures expedition cruises on the Australis for its small group sizes (seven guests), guaranteed departures, and intimacy amid such magnificent landscapes. Trips typically last 12 to 17 days and run from December into March. Departures allow for flying one-way or round-trip over the Drake Passage, though poor weather can change flights and affect how much time you spend in Antarctica. From $22,000; 800-543-8917; nathab.com.