The Last Place on Earth: My Journey to Antarctica with National Geographic

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The Last Place on Earth: My Journey to Antarctica with National Geographic

“Get Out There” is a column for itchy footed humans written by long-time Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although different now, travel is better than ever. Today we visit the bottom of the world, Antarctica, aboard National Geographic Explorer.

I saved the best for last. After 10 years of travel writing, I recently made landfall on Antarctica, my seventh and final continent. It is the most stimulating, majestic, and unpredictable place I’ve ever visited. 

For two weeks aboard National Geographic Explorer, my wife and I saw thousands of gleaming icebergs and pungent penguins. We gawked at massive but nameless glaciers and snow-capped mountains that would be protected national parks anywhere else. We saw dozens of breaching whales, several calvings, and pods of orca intent on eating a distressed humpback for dinner. We also survived 25 foot waves on the infamous Drake Passage, marital strife while kayaking ice flows, and the below freezing waters of the polar plunge. We did all of this among the most professional wait staff, capable crew, and scientists sailing the Southern Ocean today—usually in between five-course meals with icebergs, wildlife, and three hour sunsets outside our table window. 

In short, cruising to Antarctica with National Geographic was not a “trip” as we often say. It was an expedition. It was also an amazing privilege—but an expensive one at that. While you can sometimes find end of season sales on cut-rate cruises for $5000-6000 per person, most expedition-grade, naturalist-led, and all-included luxury ships like the one I sailed start at three times that. 

But if you have the means or discipline to save for such a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, sailing to, hiking on, and zodiac-ing around Antarctica is worth every penny. Here’s why. 

Polar exploration for everyone

I’ve never traveled anywhere that took so long to get to. Most of us, for instance, can fly anywhere in the world within 12-24 hours. Antarctica is different. Landings first require an overnight flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, aka “El Fin Del Mundo,” followed by two sailing days on the 500 mile Drake Passage, which is often choppy and sometimes rougher than any other stretch of sea. So three days each way. 

That’s considerably longer than previous land expeditions I’ve made to The Alps, Patagonia, Machu Picchu, or Japan. I say that because journeying to Antarctica is likely the most extreme, underdeveloped, and unpredictable adventure any of us will endeavor. Never before did I feel more unprepared or unsure of what to expect than from Antarctica. Only the moon seems more remote. 

After booking this trip, I expected to see the last place on earth with my own eyes. But I failed to realize that I would actually become a polar explorer in the process. To feel that is to feel alive. Even if I was asked to hike between the orange cones the guides had placed on land for us, as one of the hundred parka wearing “penguins” I explored with.

Come for the penguins, stay for the ice

Antarctica

Fact: Antarctica is the least photographed content on the planet. Because of this, it’s like visiting a place with no postcards. I cannot describe what that feels like other than it’s the only continent you can still visit completely fresh. While many travel writers exaggerate with claims of “like nothing you’ve seen before,” Antarctica is the only place on Earth where this cliche is actually true—a continental-sized national park that’s yet to be discovered. 

While crossing the Weddell Sea, we were flanked by ice floes and giant icebergs as far as we could see. While hugging the peninsula, I lost count of the number of majestic mountains and glaciers we confronted. “All of these would have names and brochures on any other continent,” I said to my wife. As our ice-breaking ship navigated the content, it would often crush massive blocks of ice, which rattled but never broke our course. On short hikes up nearby peaks, I swore many of them could rival the famous hikes I’ve taken on any other of the six continents. 

While the ice is the star of the show, the wildlife is equally inspiring. We saw porpoising and squawking penguins wherever we sailed or hiked. They do not fear humans, although you will fear their smell. We witnessed several pods of killer whales and a trio of humpbacks gorging on millions of krill for breakfast not 50 feet from our Zodiac. We saw well-fed seals resting on ice slabs, calving glaciers, and albatross buzzing overhead. 

We saw so much I couldn’t take notes fast enough, making Antarctica the most mentally stimulating place I’ve ever visited. 

Life on board the ship

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is a pod of orcas moving quickly off the starboard side at four o’clock,” boomed a voice from the loudspeaker. I quickly left the sauna drenched in sweat and grabbed my robe, bursting open the deck door and stepping into a blizzard blowing sideways. I nearly slipped in the slop in my flip flops. I clearly wasn’t wearing the proper gear; heck, I wasn’t even wearing underwear. I looked off the starboard bow but I missed the moment. With a disappointed shrug, I headed back to the comforting sauna to warm my bones once more. That’s the gist of a luxury Antarctica cruise: creature comforts, some disappointments, but mostly triumphs in the harshest environment of earth. 

Once you arrive in Antarctica, each extended day is filled with gourmet breakfast, a two or three hour excursion in the morning (usually Zodiac tours, landfall hikes, kayaking), gourmet lunch, another afternoon excursion, afternoon tea (more food!), and a recap of the day’s events and short scientific presentations over cocktails. Following that, you’ll enjoy a five course dinner and more fascinating presentations on the history and science of the area, not to mention additional seminars from National Geographic photographers, underwater divers, and researchers on board. The sun finally sets a little before midnight and rises around 4 a.m. It’s all very adventurous, debonair, camaraderie-inducing, and wonderful. 

On National Geographic ships, all food, drinks, tips, presentations, and excursions are included. Book it and forget it. Chef Ivan’s daily food tour was borderline miraculous. Stunning photography plasters the ship. Below deck, there’s a badass mudroom with lockers to decontaminate your gear and stage for wet landings, Zodiac tours, kayaks, hikes, and polar plunges. 

Most of the 150 passengers on board were retirees, but several were in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties. All were totally cool and accomplished individuals. That’s travelers in general—the most hopeful, trusting, and optimistic people alive. But it’s even more so for the daring souls who venture to Antarctica. 

Antarctica

National Geographic perks

Every National Geographic ship is operated by Lindblad Expeditions, the inventor of Antarctica tourism over 50 years ago. Today, the two work together as the biggest names in oceanic expeditions. On my ship, that meant 14 onboard scientists (aka “naturalists”), two photography experts, two researchers, and one endearing expedition leader. All gave fascinating and socially-aware presentations on everything we were seeing and doing in the area. The expedition even staffs two underwater divers to film what’s going on below the surface as we explore everything above it. They then premiered their footage every night before dinner. How cool is that?

Another extra: you get access to the continent’s hardest to reach spots. “Very few companies attempt the routes we take because our insurance and ships are simply better,” our expedition leader said matter-of-factly. Indeed, we only saw three other cruise ships out of the 70 total that sail these waters. That’s what you get with Lindblad-National Geographic. 

You also get a bridge that’s open 24 hours and the most energetic and impressive spot to observe wildlife, let alone the 25 foot Drake Passage waves that sprayed and flooded the bow. Not to worry: the first officer blasted Van Halen’s “Jump” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” while the half of the ship that didn’t get sick enjoyed the thrilling ride. 

In truth, the mostly Filipino crew that man these ships are the sherpas of Antarctica today. None of this would be possible without their devoted sacrifice, smiling hospitality, and sturdy sea legs. Veronica and Ana made up our room in minutes and doubled our chocolate ration after discovering how much we enjoyed it. Rommel and company served us multi-course meals in rough seas, silverware and glasses clanging and shattering from topsy-turvy tables. Ramz happily gave me whipped hot chocolate after the damage was done. To that I offer a heartfelt “Salamat po.”

Less gear than you think

To keep you safe and warm, most ships provide fleece-lined parkas that turn you into easily identifiable human penguins. They also loan out or rent expedition-grade boots to keep you dry and save you the hassle of packing penguin guano home on the return trip. Outside of long underwear, a packable puffer, waterproof pants, plus gloves and a beanie, you really don’t need any specialized gear, since you’ll be visiting in the summer with average temperatures in the 30s. Comfy, mild winter clothing is all you really need. The ship even has hiking poles and binoculars you’re free to use. Of the garb I did pack, my Cotopaxi jacket, grippy REI trail runners, and these clean looking Duer pants were my favorites. 

Although this was a five-star experience all the way, it wasn’t perfect. The spotty internet was slow and overpriced. And I wouldn’t fault anyone for feeling underwhelmed had bad weather prevented many of the activities we enjoyed, which is a real possibility and reality for some. But it’s a risk worth taking. 

Simply put, cruising to Antarctica with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic was the greatest trip—nay, expedition—I’ve ever been on. After traveling over 2,000 miles of its coastline and connecting waterways, it’s my new favorite continent. Indeed, no place on earth requires more time, money, and planning than this. And no company provides a better experience of that than Lindblad-National Geographic.


Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his wife, five kids, and two dogs.

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