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Advancements in polar sailing allow travelers to explore Antarctica’s little-visited areas

The National Geographic Resolution stops in an ice sheet. (Photos by Bailey Berg for The Washington Post)
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The polar vessel was driving through a sheet of pearl-colored ice and snow like a spoon through creme brulee.

Though we were south of the Antarctic Circle, it was mid-January, late in the austral summer, and we were lucky to have found this several-miles-wide expanse of shore-fastened ice. (Usually by this point in the season, it’s mostly melted or broken up.) The goal was to get deep enough into this inlet, to where the ice is thickest, so we could get off the ship and safely walk about on the frozen landscape.

“Incredible, right?” said expedition leader Lucho Verdesoto, as I lifted my camera to capture the scenery, almost lunar in its starkness. “There are very few ships that can do this.”

I was aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ 126-passenger National Geographic Resolution for a 14-day voyage to Antarctica. Though the vessel shares a name with the first ship to cross the Antarctic Circle, captained by James Cook just under 250 years ago, it’s very unlike the original Resolution. As one of the newest vessels in the Lindblad fleet, the eight-deck ship is equipped with dining areas, a spa with two hot tubs and saunas, a gym, a library and more. But perhaps more important, it was purpose-built to navigate the famously challenging Antarctic waters to bring guests closer to the abstract icebergs, otherworldly blue glaciers and boisterous penguin colonies that have long captivated the imagination of explorers.

Though about 50,000 people visit Antarctica in a (normal) year, Verdesoto said that only roughly 1 percent voyage past the Antarctic Circle, and perhaps even fewer have the ability to stroll on the ice off the shore of the continent. The new technology that went into building this particular ship (and its sister, the National Geographic Endurance, named for Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic vessel) makes it possible to travel faster and farther into ice like this.

“The main idea of building these ships was to stay away from the crowds,” explained Captain Martin Graser.

The ship holds a polar class rating of PC5 Category A, making it one of the most substantial ice-breaking expedition ships globally, based on an international rating system. It also has thrusters that can rotate the vessel in any direction. (This is important when it’s lodged deep in ice.) In terms of speed, it has engines so powerful it can slice through the water at more than 16 knots — uncommonly fast compared with other vessels in the region, Graser said, especially in the infamously rough Drake Passage — giving it more range. Its bow shape helps, too. The front of a ship typically leans forward and has blunt angles that push the water away. However, the bow on the Resolution, dubbed the X-bow, is hooked backward, giving it sharper angles that split the sea. It’s meant to mimic how sea mammals work with the water, which also makes it more fuel-efficient.

“We’re still learning its capabilities, but once we do, we’ll use them to the max,” Verdesoto said of the months-old ship. (Its first sailing was in November.) Though he’s been working in Antarctica for more than 12 years, he still has some bucket-list dreams, such as crossing the Antarctic Circle on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. It has only been done commercially, he said, on the western side; the area to the east usually saw too much ice. “But, with this vessel, we might be able to do that on an upcoming trip.”

Although Antarctic itineraries are never the same — they’re based on weather forecasts and ice charts, so expedition leaders often plan on the fly — the Resolution’s enhancements open up more opportunities to explore little-visited areas and bring photo-seeking travelers closer to glaciers and wildlife, such as albatross, chinstrap penguins, orcas and leopard seals. Each day, passengers could get off the ship at least twice to go kayaking, hiking or for a ride in a Zodiac (an eight-person inflatable motorized boat).

On one particularly memorable day, we stopped in an Edenic fjord shaped like an amphitheater where glaciers calved and bergy bits (ice shorter than 16 feet above sea level) bobbed in the water. It was a place that neither Graser nor Verdesoto, a pair who have several decades of Antarctic experience between them, had been. But because we could get back there, we spent the afternoon kayaking and photographing the Weddell seals — which looked like long, overstuffed cigars — that had hauled out on the ice floes. The calm, protected waters also made it possible to do a polar plunge. (Nearly everyone who dared to jump from the mouth of the boat came up sputtering and cursing.)

The ship’s capabilities also mean that the collection of biologists, ecologists and climate scientists on board can conduct important new work.

Because of Lindblad Expeditions’ partnership with National Geographic, numerous scientists are along for the ride. Our particular sailing included Shaylyn Potter and Brett Garner, whose studies involve marine conservation and testing for microplastics, and Javier Cotin, whose fieldwork involves adding whale and bird sightings to databases from which other scientists can pull. Other sailings this season included John Durban and Holly Fearnbach, a couple whose work focuses on whether the warming climate is threatening the food source of orcas. Each scientist’s work has helped serve as a yardstick to how quickly the continent’s environment is being altered by people around the world. Each night before dinner, the scientists would give presentations on their work, putting what we’d seen that day into context.

With the knowledge gleaned from one of the talks, I tried to identify which species of penguin was atop a short mountain one morning. I was on my balcony, and from that distance, even with a telephoto lens, the scene looked more like a negative of the night sky: an expanse of white where the stars (metaphorically and of this particular show) were the color of midnight. I’d have to wait until we got ashore to put my learning to the test.

It didn’t take long. When the Zodiac reached the rocky beach, a squad of gentoo penguins waddled down from their perch and dove into the water.

Penguins have their own highway systems, areas where the footfalls of the flock have beaten down the snow between the nesting site and the water. People aren’t allowed to walk on them, so to see the colony from a closer distance, we had to blaze our own path to the top of the mountain. It was a slow hike up, though not because it’s particularly steep or because the myriad layers forced a tin-soldier gait; with each step came the desire to stop and snap a few more photos.

At the colony, I focused my lens on a snoozy gentoo penguin whose feathers shone like an oil slick in the glow of the midmorning sun. It was like nothing else existed but the penguin and me. Until it wasn’t. Into the frame came the penguin’s mate, carrying a pebble. And as he gingerly added the rock to the perimeter of the nest, a wee downy head peeked out from under the mother’s protective pouch and gave a soprano squawk.

The original Resolution didn’t have experiences like this — at least not to this magnitude. Though the ship was considered state of the art in its time, it never made landfall on Antarctica. The famed captain wasn’t able to confirm there was land beyond the ice. Here, atop a mountain nearly a quarter-millennium later, awed by the splendor and immensity of the White Continent, I realized just how grateful I was to have caught the ship’s second act.

Berg is a writer based in Colorado Springs. Find her on Twitter (@baileybergs) and Instagram (@byebaileyberg).

If You Go

Lindblad Expeditions

800-397-3348

bit.ly/journey-antarctica

Lindblad Expeditions runs three ships to Antarctica: the older Explorer and the newer Resolution and Endurance. The “Journey to Antarctica” sailing runs for 14 days and is offered from November through February. (There are other itineraries, too, up to 35 days.) Amenities include a gym, spa, library and dining areas. Prices start at $15,380 per person for the “Journey to Antarctica” expedition and include activities, meals, drinks (including alcohol) and crew tips.


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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