LeeAnn Moulton—called Lee—had made this trip two years before. “I came back realizing the huge impact we have on this fragile continent,” says the 50-year-old critical care nurse from England. “I felt very strongly that if more people could visit Antarctica, we would see a greater change in the attitudes in society.” She particularly wanted her partner, Andy White, 51, to experience it. An avid sailor since age 11, he had required little coaxing. Andy’s first impression of the M.S. Explorer—affectionately known to a tight little circle of Antarctic partisans as the Little Red Ship—was that it “looked very small to be taking on the southern ocean.”
In fact, the Explorer was the first cruise ship built expressly for the Antarctic. Commissioned in 1969 by Lars-Eric Lindblad, a pioneer in adventure travel, the ship had a reinforced hull to midships—meaning it was designed to withstand contact with submerged ice.
The first day out from Ushuaia, all the travelers gained their sea legs, went through the required safety briefing and drill, donned life jackets, and appeared at designated muster stations—assigned places on the ship where each passenger was to report in case of emergency. They became familiar with the ship and with one another, and settled into the routine. They learned that on days when they would attempt a landing (always depending on the capricious weather), they would rise at 5:30 for an early breakfast, then climb into the Zodiacs, to be ferried ashore. On “at sea” days there would be morning lectures on ornithology, geology, and climate change, more lectures in the afternoons, and a movie after dinner.
The ship steamed toward the Falkland Islands (a British territory still called Las Malvinas by Argentina), stopping first at one of the outer islands, where the land was spongy underfoot and the fields were splashed with yellow gorse. Black-browed albatross sailed through the air, and the travelers got their first good look at the aptly named rockhopper penguins. Then on to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. November is spring in the Southern Hemisphere, when temperatures can be expected to rise into the 50s. But the Antarctic spring of 2007 was colder than usual. Pete D’Angelo noted that the tulips had arrived on schedule, only to have to push up through the snow.
The days fell into an exhilarating rhythm; the adventurers toured old whaling stations and wandered among the detritus of an age fueled by whale oil. Sometimes the group was greeted by great flocks of penguins, none in the least perturbed by the humans in their midst. There were Magellanics, Gentoos, and Adélies. And there were elephant seals, as well. In the water were whales, and in the air, the great wandering albatross, with its 11-foot wingspan. The birders onboard were on the lookout for the pure white snow petrel. Seen only in places of ice and snow, it is called the Angel of Antarctica.
As the ship pushed south, the temperature began to drop and icebergs appeared. The travelers entered a translucent world that slipped from bright white to pearl to a deep slate. The late-spring sun never quite set; midnight was a twilight gray. With mountains cloaked in ice, it is a silent place, at once cruel and magnificent. “The Antarctic is a whole different world,” says Kay Van Horne, struggling for the right words. “There is no color at all, and then when the sun shines, there’s that wonderful blue. I can’t describe it—it’s not mournful exactly, but spiritual.”
Thursday, November 22, was Thanksgiving Day, a fact that went unnoticed by all but the U.S. passengers. On this 12th day of the cruise, the D’Angelos were up at 5:30, in time to pull on the layers of clothes required for the trip to Elephant Island, site of the rescue of Shackleton’s men. Pete found himself transfixed by the scene out the window: a study in black and white, with clouds rising on a landscape at once pristine and foreboding.