Expedition to the Bottom

Antarctica on the erstwhile Marco Polo

By: Shawn J. Dake

There is no cruise in the world more spectacular than a voyage to Antarctica. Water, sky and ice meet in a pristine wilderness, like nothing else on earth. It is a destination that must be experienced, on a personal level with all of the senses, to fully appreciate what your eyes are seeing.

“Why would you want to go to Antarctica?” was a question I heard more than once from well-meaning friends who failed to share my excitement for the destination. “Isn’t it all just penguins and ice?”

Well yes it is, and so much more. Like the vast majority of my fellow travelers aboard the good ship Marco Polo, I was “collecting” my seventh and final continent on earth. I also wanted to experience a place that has not yet been heavily touched by the hand of man. On another level, this was a chance to reconnect with my parents, who are both in their 80s, and enjoy a trip with them as I had been doing since childhood.

On our cruise, older, experienced travelers made up the majority of the passenger list. Before the trip I was concerned about my parents’ ability to climb in and out of the zodiacs that would take them to shore at remote landing sites. Could they negotiate the mud, rocks and rough terrain? Would it be too cold for them? My worries were quickly put to rest by the incredible expedition team of the Marco Polo. At a mandatory briefing in the ship’s lounge, the team leader carefully explained landing and safety procedures. All passengers are given a bright red parka which is theirs to keep. The experienced crew made sure that every passenger, regardless of their mobility level, was able to enjoy an adventure in Antarctica by zodiac if they desired. The 22,080-ton, 826-passenger Marco Polo is the largest cruise ship that actually lands passengers in Antarctica. Orient Lines’ years of experience shows in their ability to showcase the destination to a relatively large number of people, while remaining sensitive to the ecological balance necessary to keep it pristine.

Just getting to the ship is an expedition in itself. After a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles, I was ready to relax from my journey with a pre-cruise hotel package in Buenos Aires. From there, it is another three-hour hop to Ushuaia, Argentina.

The Marco Polo’s voyage begins with a placid cruise through the incredible Beagle Channel. This serene passage soon gives way to the notorious seas of the Drake Passage, 600 miles of some of the roughest water in the world. The reward is well worth the effort. The first entry in my daily log read “Opened the curtains early in the morning to see a whale spouting.” We spent the morning cruising in the collapsed caldera of a volcanic island. In the distance giant icebergs and the white Antarctic continent loomed.

Later that day we had our first opportunity to cruise in the zodiacs as the ship anchored in the ice-filled bay of Cuverville Island. The experience did not disappoint, and included up-close looks at penguins, floating icebergs and a crabeater seal lounging on the ice. Scenic wonders continued the next day as the Marco Polo successfully navigated the glacier and mountain-rimmed passage of the Lemaire Channel.

Later, Port Lockroy would provide an opportunity to set foot ashore and mingle amongst the huge rookery of gentoo penguins with their newly hatched chicks. Paradise Harbor is home to a variety of wildlife including elephant seals, whales and thousands of penguins. It also provides the one opportunity to stand on the actual Antarctic continent, against the backdrop of a wall of
glacial ice.

The final stop is Half Moon Island where visitors land on a black-sand beach and hike up a small hill to view a colony of chinstrap penguins. With everyone safely back aboard, the ship plots a northerly course, once again crossing the Drake Passage before returning to Ushuaia. There, guests have one more treat in store for them; an included tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park, all the way to the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway which stretches from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the wilderness of southern Argentina.

After a trip like this you feel different about travel. Antarctica does that to you. It is the journey of a lifetime and can never be categorized as just another vacation. The place changes you, while instilling in you a hope that your visit did nothing to change it.


The erstwhile Marco Polo was built in 1965 as the trans-Atlantic liner Alexandr Pushkin. Contrary to persistent rumors, the vessel was never a Soviet spy-ship, nor is it an ice-breaker, although it does have an ice-strengthened hull.

The ship’s 2006/2007 Antarctic season kicks off with a 25-day cruise boarding in Rio de Janeiro on Dec. 10.