Tens of thousands of king and gentoo penguins inhabit beach in Antarctica. (Karen Telleen-Lawton)

If boaters sail straight for our Channel Islands and miss them in thick fog, the next land they’d encounter would be Antarctica, more than 8,000 miles south.

I just returned from Antarctica via a more conventional route: boarding a small cruise ship in Ushuaia, Argentina for the 30-hour Drake Passage crossing to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. We sailed down the western coast into the Antarctic Circle, then returned north to reach the Weddell Sea, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands.

My overarching impression of the Southern Ocean and the seventh continent is vast. On the crossings you see nothing save ocean swells in any direction.

Swells and birds: black-browed albatrosses, cape petrels, Antarctic terns. Swells and birds and whales: southern right whales, fin whales, humpback whales. It becomes palpable that nearly three-fourths of the planet is covered by sea.

We rarely saw other ships or people. When passenger Charlie became ill, we rendezvoused with a Norwegian cruise ship ,which evacuated him to the Falklands. (He is doing fine.) Instead we encountered rich wildlife thriving in the vast unpeopled cold continent.

Graceful seabirds glided overhead. Penguins porpoised to port and stern. Fin whales crowded the passage from the peninsula to South Georgia, puffs so numerous it reminded me of a field of geysers. We spotted 30 fin whales in a day, more than 30 the following day.

In a spectacular cove surrounded by glaciers, we kayaked over glassy ocean studded with icebergs. One large berg collapsed and rolled, generating small tsunamis in its wake. The entire landscape in blue, white and clear ice impressed me as otherworldly and magical.

Often we visited the ship’s bridge, which Captain Heidi Norling kept open for guests 24 hours a day. The room was spacious and high-tech, trimmed with so many screens, instruments and dials that it looked like a spaceship cockpit.

Late one evening we watched and listened as Captain Heidi and two of her crew shone lights on approaching icebergs, watched the radar to estimate sizes, and moved slowly through an ice field.

On the day we approached Elephant Island, it emerged through deep fog when we were almost upon it. Here Earnest Shackleton’s crew survived 107 days after their ship the Endurance was crushed by ice in 1915.

Shackleton and five others sought help by rowing 800 miles to South Georgia Island in a leaky rowboat. Their incredible journey is documented in movies, books, and stories of heroism.

Coincidentally, the wreck of the Endurance was discovered 10,000 feet under the Weddell Sea’s surface during the time we were there.

Our South Georgia Island visit was more pedantic than Shackleton’s. Our hike wound up through thick tussock grasses and across a grassy plateau soft with thick mosses and small streams marking a retreating glacier.

There we overlooked a beach harboring a veritable Serengeti: tens of thousands of king and gentoo penguins, fur seals, and skuas and petrels preying on baby penguins. It was fascinating to watch these highly social creatures interact. Some king penguins were especially gregarious, with a curious call that sounded like a drone.

One evening we paddled kayaks in a sheltered cove, watching Macaroni penguins leap out of the water onto guano-drenched rock cliffs. Unbelievably, they could usually grip the slippery rock with their sharp claws. Those who slipped and slid back into the water tried until they succeeded or became a leopard seal’s dinner.

Antarctica accomplishes everything in superlatives. It is the coldest, windiest, driest and highest on average of the seven continents. Its remoteness and the abundance of its wildlife ensure it is a sought-after destination for tourists looking for  pristine landscapes. Yet it is not pristine, and is surprisingly fragile.

Beneath its breathtaking beauty is a continent whose resources have been exploited for hundreds of years, from whaling and fur seal harvesting to krill, kelp, and the inevitable lust for oil and minerals.

The effect of climate change is dramatic. We guiltily enjoyed weather that was rarely below freezing. Warm weather translates to more snow and fewer favored nesting sites for some penguin species, whose failed nesting colonies we witnessed.

Captain Heidi pointed out a glacier that had shrunk 450 yards since her last visit in November. 

Krill, the tiny crustacean providing primary sustenance for creatures from whales to penguins, eat the algae that grow on the underside of sea ice. Antarctic krill populations have plunged 80% in the past half century.

Retreating glaciers and melting sea ice are also feeding the sea level rise affecting everyone on the globe.

Even with strict policies, such as limiting the number of ships, no anchoring and no dumping, there can be no doubt that cruise ships are part of the problem. Of course, we adhered to strict biosecurity from island to island, repeatedly cleaning and sanitizing all our outer gear to ensure we didn’t transport biota from island to island. But what is sustainable?

I’ll explore this and other topics from our amazing Antarctic adventure in upcoming columns.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at ktl@decisivepath.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Small cruise ships make journey from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Small cruise ships make journey from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Antarctic Peninsula. (Karen Telleen-Lawton)

Karen Telleen-Lawton

Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk Columnist

Karen Telleen-Lawton is an eco-writer, sharing information and insights about economics and ecology, finances and the environment. Having recently retired from financial planning and advising, she spends more time exploring the outdoors — and reading and writing about it. The opinions expressed are her own.