I don’t often subscribe to trips being “once-in-a-lifetime” because when you fall in love with a place, you usually do all you can to find your way back. Nature travel is addictive, and perhaps because it is filled with wonder and what you see today will not be there tomorrow, no encounter is ever repeated, and each experience is one-of-a-kind. While certainly, many people do return to Antarctica; it is a remote and astounding destination that intrepid travelers dream of seeing at least once in their lifetimes. The journey to get there is certainly not for the faint of heart, and once there, it is like no other place in the world. I was not quite prepared to visit a continent that is not a country; it belongs to no one, there is no government, and there are no settled populations except for scientific outposts. Antarctica is vast, wild, remote, and completely indescribable.
Seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom) maintain territorial claims in Antarctica, but most other countries, including the USA, do not recognize those claims. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 was signed by 53 countries, of which 29 are Consultative parties having the right to participate in decision-making regarding conservation and environmental protection of the continent. We can only hope peace and good stewardship prevail in this region that holds an astonishing 70% of Earth’s freshwater and 90% of its ice!
National Geographic Resolution: The Ship and Why it Matters
Getting to Antarctica is PART of the journey, so the vessel you choose really does matter! Ideally, a sophisticated, top-in-class ship purpose-built for polar waters, and let’s face it, if you are going to be making the ship your home for 10+ days, you want it to have all the bells and whistles! Introducing Lindblad’s National Geographic sister ships: The Resolution and the Endurance.
My group was elated to embark on the National Geographic Resolution for our voyage to the White Continent. The Resolution is a next-generation expedition ship, purpose-built for polar navigation, launched in November 2021. A twin to the company’s first polar new build, National Geographic Endurance, the Resolution is a fully stabilized, highly strengthened, ice-class Polar Class 5 (PC5) vessel designed to navigate polar passages year-round and safely explore uncharted waters while providing exceptional comfort. Its patented X-BOW® is crucial to its design; its powerful wave-slicing action provides an exceptionally smooth ride and even reduces spray on deck for superior observation. This technology proved incredibly valuable while crossing the infamous Drake Passage and navigating ice-filled waterways on the Peninsula.
Women Explorers: Introducing our Captain, Heidi Norling
A great vessel is nothing without an exceptional Captain at the helm. All of us were completely in awe of this inspiring and pioneering woman who stands out in the male-dominated industry of sea-faring captains. Heidi’s passion for the ship and exploration and her support and admiration of her entire crew were exemplary. Captain Norling inspired us throughout our journey – from the Bridge to the Dining Room, she was always graciously and fiercely in command. I am proud to make space for Captain Norling’s incredible Bio at the end of this blog.
Day 1 – Charter Flight from Santiago to Ushuaia
And so it began. Today was a long day, so be patient with the process. It is organized but includes a series of transitions as we made our way from the hotel to the airport, boarded our charter flight, and flew south to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to meet our ship. Ushuaia’s spectacular setting, between the jagged peaks of the Darwin Range and the protected waters of the Beagle Channel, makes it an appropriately wild place to begin our journey to the White Continent and a great destination in its own right. While we made our way to the ship, the crew of the Resolution was literally “all hands on deck,” deboarding the departing guests and readying the ship for our arrival. We spent several hours in Ushuaia with a brief visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Then we had a casual lunch they served onboard a private catamaran while cruising the Beagle Channel. Residents of Ushuaia often call their small city ‘El Fin Del Mundo,’ The End of the World, but for us, it’s just the beginning of our epic adventure!
Welcome Aboard! National Geographic Resolution sets sail from Ushuaia!
The Resolution carries 126 guests in 69 cabins, 53 with balconies. We settled into our beautiful state rooms where our luggage, polar parkas and life jackets were awaiting us.
Basecamp is where it “all happens.” This is where guests have lockers to store their parkas, boots, and poles. After layering up in our guest rooms, we are called down to base camp by group, and there we are suited and booted with polar gear before offloading onto either zodiacs or kayaks for our daily landings and excursions. Throughout the expedition, we are out daily, exploring our Zodiacs, hiking at penguin colonies, discovering remote bays, photographing wildlife, and learning fascinating details from the naturalists and other experts who accompany us on every excursion. The Resolution has a full suite of expedition tools, including a fleet of Zodiacs, kayaks, and an ROV, and offers a variety of experience-enhancing amenities.
Often stations with hot toddies, hot chocolate, and sweets are set up to welcome us back by the doting crew of the NG Resolution!
The Resolution’s Social Hubs
The ship offers excellent environments for relaxing, socializing, and taking in Antarctica from the observation deck, library, ice lounge, dining room, and bar.
Spa and Fitness Facilities
The spa includes two types of Sauna, ship-front jacuzzis, a relaxation room, massage cabins, a yoga studio, and a fully outfitted fitness center.
Igloo Life aboard the Resolution
For guests that would like to enter the lottery for a night in one of the two top-deck igloos, you are in for an adventure of ice, wind, stars, and moonlight while sleeping the night away in your cozy glass igloo!
Day 2 – Drake Passage
Days at sea are often referred to as “transit days,” moving from one destination to another. I feel calling these special days “transit days” is the ultimate misnomer. The seas themselves are destinations, especially when crossing legendary passages such as the Drake. This 500-mile-wide strait between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the world’s most infamous bodies of water. Sometimes ferocious, sometimes flat calm, the Drake is always a fascinating place in its own right. This part of the journey is our best opportunity to see stunning seabirds like the wandering albatross, and you might be lucky enough to encounter killer whales or rare species of dolphins. This is also a day to get to know the ship and prepare for the adventures ahead. Visit the Bridge (a great place to spot wildlife), have a relaxing massage, attend a talk about the biology of the penguins you’ll soon be seeing, or settle into a comfy chair in the observation lounge, look out over the waves and reflect on the incredible history of this fabled passage. If it gets a little rough, take a few nice naps; you’ll be in Antarctica before you know it. One never knows if you will get the “Drake Shake or the Drake Lake”; I think we had a bit of both. Either way, rest assured that under the capable hands of Captain Heidi and her crew with such an incredible engineering marvel as the Resolution, we all knew we were in very good company! While everyone reacts to motion differently, seasickness meds are readily available. I personally found the experience exhilarating, and some of my best periods of sleep ever were on board the Resolution.
So the voyage continued; while the ocean presented endlessly changing sculptures of seawater, seabirds glided by effortlessly.
The Drake Passage
Many early explorers traversed the waters of the Southern Ocean in search of ice, land, or proof that anything existed at this end of the world. This morning, we could all relate, as many of us stood on the bow and various observation decks and wondered, “Have we made it to Antarctica yet?” Signs of life slowly emerged. Through the fog, we spotted petrels soaring in front of the ship and chinstrap penguins porpoising nearby, and the blows of sei whales decorated the sea. And then, we saw land.
The Antarctic Peninsula stretches over 800 miles from north to south, a spine of craggy peaks cut by dozens of deep fjords. It’s an enormous region with many different faces and ever-changing weather, which is what makes Lindblad Expeditions’ long experience here so important. Five decades of exploration have given them an unparalleled knowledge of the region, allowing them to stay flexible and respond to changing conditions, turn on a dime, and select the optimal activity for each day.
As we approached the South Shetland Islands, we could see the columnar shapes of the basaltic land masses and hear the calls of thousands of penguins.
If you are not kept on penguins and, more specifically, penguin poop, you might be in for a surprise, as you will see a whole lot of both! There are seven incredible penguin species in Antarctica, and they are genuinely fascinating and hilarious marine mammals.
In Antarctica, be prepared to make fast friends and learn more than you ever knew possible of the Adélies, Kings, Chinstraps, Emperors, Gentoos, Macaroni, and Rockhoppers.
Penguins are flightless birds; instead, they’re designed to swim. Their powerful paddle muscles and sleek, hydrodynamic shape makes them extremely quick in the water, often reaching speeds of 25 mph.
Although sharp, quick, and elegant in the water, on-shore, penguins waddle and hop about in an awkwardly slow fashion. Enjoy watching them march with a purpose, on a never-ending mission.
Antarctica penguins are very well adapted to the cold. Their oily feathers, which give penguins a distinguished, well-dressed look, do not allow water to pass through to their skin.
Underneath the outer feather layer is a thick layer of fat which keeps penguins so warm that they often need to fluff up their feathers to cool down.
Although Antarctica penguins have poor eyesight on land, their vision underwater is incredibly good, and you will be amused as they jump and slide off the ice into the polar waters and then be astonished by their synchronized swimming skills as they jet in and out of the water in packs searching for dinner!
Day 4 – Tay Head, Joinville Island
We woke to magnificent views of icebergs in the Antarctic Sound. We cruised past Paulet Island with its hundreds of thousands of Adelie penguins to Tay Head, where we spent a fantastic morning hiking ashore.
Ice! It’s probably the very first thing most people think about when the topic of Antarctica comes up, and once you’re here, it never disappoints. From icebergs the size of islands to the fragile, nearly invisible layers glistening on the surface where the sea has just begun to freeze, from near-vertical glaciers pouring down the slopes of every mountain to the endless landscapes of sea ice, frozen ocean stretching to the horizon in every direction, ice defines the Antarctic. You’ll get to know it up close and personal, hiking, kayaking, and cruising in the Zodiacs through this frozen world.
At the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula mainland is the Trinity Peninsula. But still, to the north are a couple of large islands. The passage between these two regions is the Antarctic Sound, not named for the continent but for a famous exploration ship. The story of this ship, its crew, and the science team is a topic characteristic of the Weddell Sea. For several reasons, we have decided to spend about three days in the Weddell Sea, cruising around various locations and going to shore surrounded by its incredible landscapes.
Most landings are called “wet” landings, not because we actually get wet but because we step into the glacial waters in our waterproof boots to reach the shores. Sturdy Zodiac landing craft is really the heart and soul of our explorations in the Antarctic. These tough, stable little motorized boats maneuver easily through ice-choked waters, getting us ashore safely in even the most remote and challenging locations. And simply cruising in the Zodiacs is just as much fun. What’s around the next corner? A leopard seal relaxing on an ice floe or a chance to photograph a magnificent arched iceberg that no one has ever seen before? We never know because, after all, we are dealing with nature.
For our first day in the Weddell Sea, we will visit one of the largest Adelie Penguin colonies in the western Antarctic—over 140,000 pairs of Adelie nest over the northern slopes and flatter areas of the island. In February, you can expect to see half-grown chicks chasing adults and forming creches, groups of fluffy balls. It is a busy mass of birds as adults come and go bringing food to the hungry chicks. Antarctic Shags also nest on a steep ridge above the shore. Paulet Island is of historical significance to the ship’s crew, Antarctic. Captain Larsen and his crew overwintered on the island when the Antarctic suddenly sank.
During our hike, we weaved between fur seals, watched snoozy Weddell seals, and were enchanted by the characters that are Adelie penguins.
Day 5 – James Ross Island
This morning we woke up in a fjord that goes to the center of James Ross Island. This season the island mainly became ice-free early on, so a few of the ships have been able to go along its shores and into some of the bays. In years prior, the island had been locked in pack ice and inaccessible. The island was named by the 1903 Swedish Expedition of Nordenskøld in honor of James Clark Ross, who explored some of the eastern coast. When you hear the wake-up call, we should be at the picturesque end of Croft Bay, which indents into the center of the island from the north.
We woke up to the best weather we have encountered on this trip. The sun was out, the water was smooth as glass, and the wind was calm. Guests were divided into two groups, one group kayaked while the other group made a landing on the island. Halfway through the morning, the two groups switched, allowing everyone the chance to kayak and hike. A platform was set up so we could easily launch kayaks from the ship. Over a hundred guests kayaked and paddled around the bay. We observed large ice calvings on the shore from the kayaks’ safety.
The hikers wandered freely and observed a small waterfall in a canyon.
Polar Bear Plunge
This afternoon’s fun was perhaps a highlight. Hardly anyone looks forward to jumping in the Antarctic Ocean, and I’ll admit it was not a bucket list adventure of mine, either. Yes, the music, the tequila shots, the jostling, and the competition of it all got almost everyone’s inner child, inner-adventurer, maybe inner fool out of them, and the end result was the largest polar bear plunge day that the Resolution has had to date, with 120 of us taking the brutal plunge! Yes, it’s cold, shocking-so, but the only regret I would have had was not doing it. So there you have it!
Day 6 – Snow Hill Island
This morning, we woke to another gorgeous field of icebergs in a dramatic setting with mountains and glaciers in the background. We have arrived at Snow Hill Island, a historic area, and this late in the summer, the area is devoid of the snow it is named for.
As we traveled closer to shore by Zodiac, we glimpsed a small hut left behind by Swedish explorers over 100 years ago.
The hut has been restored by the Argentine researchers that work at a nearby research station on Seymour Island. The hut is on the west side of Snow Hill Island, just south of Seymour.
Day 7 – Mikkelsen Harbor and Cierva Cove
A gloriously foggy Antarctic morning awaited us as National Geographic Resolution crept into Mikkelsen Harbor at the southern tip of Trinity Island.
Having spent three days in the Weddell Sea, our route during the night goes through Antarctica Sound. We then reached Bransfield Strait and turned south. After changing course, we will spend the last few days of the voyage on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Our destination this morning is a small bay at the southern end of Trinity Island. The bay was used during the early 1900s as an anchorage for whaling in the Gerlache Strait. Going ashore, we encountered Gentoo penguins nesting on the island with their large chicks.
Below, the remains of a ship and multiple whale carcasses hunted for their blubber to make heating oil.
Back on board the Resolution, the afternoon was spent watching magnificent ice shelves float by. The Resolution offers warm capes if you need to leave your card game, book, or cocktail to run out to the deck for incredible pictures in the elements.
Through the night, we continued traveling south in the Gerlache Strait. We awoke off the coast of Cape Rennard at the entrance to Lemaire Channel, which is formed by the mainland and Booth Island. Lemaire Channel allows passage southward without going out into the Drake Passage. It is also quite scenic, with steep rock walls rising vertically over the channel and glaciers on the opposite side.
In the very early morning, we sailed south in the Lemaire Strait. It was foggy at first, but as we entered the strait, the fog lifted a few feet off the sea surface. This gave us a chance to appreciate the narrowness and picturesque scenery of the channel.
As we approached Petermann Island, the sky opened. Petermann Island has a population of nesting Gentoo Penguins as well as a few Chinstraps and Adelies. There is also another Argentine refuge hut near where we land. Petermann has another very heroic story of exploration and science from the early 20th century.
On this voyage, we spotted several whales, including up close and personal to our kayak – maybe a little too close for my comfort! We had the chance to encounter Killer (Orca), Sperm, Humpback, Fin, and even Blue Whales.
I realized what a find Blue Whales are as I sensed the giddiness of all the Naturalists as the ship whipped around to see them. Here are a few fun facts about Blue Whales, which is why everyone was so delighted to see them I learned:
Probably the most extraordinary creature on Earth, the Blue whale is bigger than any previous living creature on Earth, with an average weight of 120 tons and a length of 30 meters!
Everything about a Blue whale is enormous. Their heart is the size of a small car and pumps 10 tonnes of blood around its body! Their tongue weighs the same as a fully grown elephant.
A small child could crawl through a Blue whale’s blood vessels, and they consume over 5 tonnes of food per day in the feeding season!
Although Blue whales are grey, they acquired their name because they glow a luminous blue color when seen under the water’s surface.
Their mottled skin, luminous aqua-blue color, and sheer size make identifying the Blue whale relatively easy.
Blue whales are ‘Baleen’ whales (no teeth) and consume krill by taking enormous gulps of krill-rich sea water and then sifting the water out through its fringed baleen plates.
The Blue whale is thought to eat for eight months of the year when the waters are at their most nutrient and then fast for the remaining four months, living off their fat reserves.
Blue whales tend to swim alone or in pairs, cruising the world’s largest oceans. However, they are actually one of the loudest creatures on Earth, and, in good conditions, their moans and groans can be heard by other Blue whales up to a 1,000 miles away!
Blue whale calves actually enter the world as one of the largest creatures on Earth, weighing around three tons and 8 meters long.
The calf’s diet consists purely of its mother’s milk, and will grow 90 kg (200 lb) in size each day for the first year! Blue whales are also one of the longest-living creatures on the planet, with some Blue whales living over 200 years!
Although not a common sight on an Antarctica cruise, they are still seen regularly as Antarctica is one of their favorite hunting grounds!
Day 9 – Drake Passage
Again, we entered the Drake Passage in the early hours. Conditions were perfect for wildlife viewing, with calm seas and partly sunny skies. Appropriately, and just before breakfast, early risers viewed two large whale blows in the distance. Photos and behavior strongly suggested that they were mom and calf fin whales! About an hour later, we saw a humpback mom/calf pair. Then during lunch, a pod of striking-patterned hourglass dolphins appeared off the port side, matching the speed of National Geographic Resolution for several minutes until they peeled off, either because they were tired of us or were tired themselves. A little later, another pod followed in our wake for several minutes. Not a bad day for marine mammals!
After lunch, the wind increased, bringing in the magnificent gliding albatrosses.
There is a fair amount of time for camaraderie and carrying-on on the Resolution. The beverage director and head barman was Derrick, who did a fabulous job of caring for our jolly group!
And one night, all departments, from housekeeping to the servers, to the cooks, to the engine room, entertained us with a talent show. We were told that we were their most enthusiastic audience to date!
Food and beverage on board the Resolution are outstanding, with plentiful breakfast buffets in the main dining room and an a la carte option on the observation deck are served. Beautifully plated lunches and dinners are served in the main dining room. A casual grill is open on calmer days at sea, where a burger and fries are just the ticket.
Every guest is invited to one multi course tasting menu showcasing an Antarctic theme –
Day 10 – Crossing the Drake to Ushuaia
When Cape Horn emerges from the morning mist, the main thought among us is that it’s all almost over. This fantastic adventure at the end of the world is coming to an end. Nobody says it, but we all think it. We’d be willing to recross the Drake Passage and start all over again.
We had been making excellent speed over the last 24 hours across the relatively “calm” Drake Passage, so conditions allowed us to get reasonably close to Isla Horno, where the furthest south point is the infamous Cape Horn. Sailing ships often spent days trying to go around the Horn during the nasty weather. We could only approach a distance of about three nautical miles. Any closer, and we would need a Chilean pilot. When visibility is good, as we turned to the east and pass the island, some can spot a monument of steel with binoculars with a cut-out that forms an albatross on the wing. It is a monument to all of the sailors lost at sea trying to get around the Horn. The lighthouse and home of the keeper are prominent at the island’s eastern end. Often there are dolphins and many birds around the Cape Horn area.
National Geographic Resolution rode the waves with kindness, and life onboard was good!
The trip of a lifetime
Gather your tribe and contact me to find the perfect sailing and help you manage your group of friends to Antarctica and beyond!
Captain Heidi Norling’s Bio:
Heidi’s connection to the sea began in the Stockholm archipelago, where, as a young teenager, she sailed a 25-ft. boat with her father. She studied the charts. Her father told her it wasn’t necessary since they were in familiar home waters. And then they ran aground. When her father subsequently attended an evening course for basic navigation (good role-modeling of humility, Heidi’s Dad!!), Heidi joined too.
After training at the Merchant Marine Acadamy in Kalmar, 400 km south of Stockholm, where she lives today, Heidi spent time aboard Swedish cargo ships as a cadet. Sailing into various ports, from the Mediterranean to the Mexican Gulf and beyond, offered opportunities to go ashore and fed her desire to explore even more.
Heidi’s first opportunity to be Captain was on a ferry charter in the Northern Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. The charter afforded challenges like navigating on ice since none of the harbors had any ice-breaker assistance—clearly essential for her eventual polar exploring. When she discovered the joys of cruising after being a guest on a small sailing ship in French Polynesia, the transition to expedition-style travel was inevitable.
She worked on the Hanse Explorer for three years in cold waters, then transitioned to warm waters aboard the cruise ship Tere Moana, where she got to transit the Panama Canal 22 times. Between engagements, she consistently returned to Gotland—where one day, she saw National Geographic Orion at the dock in Visby. She thought: that’s my dream ship.
As evidence that dreams do come true, Heidi received a call from Captain Martin Graser a few months later asking if she would be interested in a short contract as Staff Captain/Chief officer for Lindblad Expeditions, sailing from Bordeaux to Lisbon and then repositioning the ship down to Punta Arenas for a few cruises to Antarctica.
That contract, another in the South Pacific—and soon, Heidi scored a big first: as the proud and very capable Captain of National Geographic Orion and Lindblad Expeditions’ first international fleet female Captain.
The thing she loves most is sailing unknown waters. Each time she heads out, she looks forward to the discoveries that can only happen when navigating the far-reaches of Alaska, Polynesia, the Arctic, and more.
After things came to a screeching halt during the pandemic, Heidi is thrilled to be back on the high seas. This past November, she was honored to christen the brand-new National Geographic Resolution. “To be the Captain of this ship is really special,” she said during the christening ceremony. “It’s a custom-made ship for polar regions. We will be able to do things we have not done before and discover new places that I’m really looking forward to.”