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On this special episode sponsored by Viking, Dan visits Antarctica on a two-week cruise. From icebergs and penguins to kayaks and submarines, the bucket-list-worthy enterprise leaves an impression second to none, and he learns about the ins and outs of the White Continent from scientists, guides, journalists, and explorers, including legendary adventurer Ann Bancroft.
Jean Newman Glock: I think for most it is the bucket list, it is the final continent. I’ve heard many of them say, “It’s my last continent,” and they thought they were just checking it off, but I think they are all going home realizing they’ve stretched themselves, but they’ve stretched what they thought they could do. I know I have. I definitely didn’t know I would be hiking up in the snow where I have to see the penguins, and I’ve stretched what I knew I was interested in. I’m fascinated now. So, you can explore, you can get very close to this and really immerse yourself in the white continent.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food and travel. All the elements of a well-lived life. Imagine the deepest blue you’ve ever seen, the whitest white, skies that can sometimes appear like the gates of heaven. On today’s episode, I share my experiences on a truly once in a lifetime voyage to the ends of the earth, to a world I thought I would never see, Antarctica. Before season six begins next week, we have today’s special episode made possible quite literally by Viking. For those that know me, in recent years, I’ve become a bit of a convert to all things cruise related, especially after I did two river cruises on Viking during my time at Departures magazine. So, when I recently reconnected with my friends at the cruise line, I just had to pitch them a fabulous episode about their cruise on the river Seine.
Instead, they had a bigger, grander and more out there idea: To have me join one of their first voyages on their latest ship, the Viking Polaris, all the way to the White Continent. Both the Polaris and its sister ship, the Viking Octantis, are expedition ships. Not nearly as big as a traditional cruise ship might be, but large enough to carry a maximum of 378 passengers to a place so remote it didn’t even have its first commercial cruise until 1969. My partner and I — he threatened to leave me if I didn’t bring him along — lasted two weeks and started in late October, the beginning of the summer season. We flew to Buenos Aires, stayed overnight, and then took a charter flight in the morning to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, before boarding the Polaris. When people ask me what was it like, I can best explain that it was like someone filled the Swiss Alps with icy water and you’re just sailing in between the peaks.
The trip, in a nutshell, oscillates between plenty of relaxation and intrepid excursions. The ship provides most of the gear you need, with activities like landings, rides in Zodiacs, kayaking, and plenty of whale, seal and penguin sightings. It’s a total immersion in all kinds of scientific knowledge. It’s not the cruise ship where you see a variety show, but instead perhaps a lecture on killer whales. The service on board is immaculate. The food is pretty damn good, sushi bar included, and the ship’s Scandinavian modern interiors are comfortable and well-designed, even by my standards. More on that later. Of course, to get to the Antarctic Peninsula, where the cruise takes place, requires crossing to and from the dreaded Drake Passage, which has some of the roughest seas in the world. Note to anyone considering doing this, anti-nausea patches prescribed by your doctor are an absolute must. Truth be told, it’s almost impossible to contain everything about a trip like this in a single podcast episode, but I’ll give it my best shot.
My first guest is no mere sushi bar loving amateur such as myself; it’s Ann Bancroft, the ceremonial godmother of the Viking Polaris and an actual pioneering athlete and explorer. A Minnesota native, Ann really knows her stuff. She was the first woman to reach the North Pole in 1986. Ms. Magazine named her Woman of the Year in 1987. She led the first all-female expedition to the South Pole in 1992. And in 2001, she and her expedition partner, Liv Arnesen, became the first women in history to sail and ski across Antarctica’s landmass, a 1,700 mile trek that took 94 days. I spoke with Ann from her home in the Midwest after I had returned home from the ice.
So, you were a teacher before becoming an explorer. How did this happen and what do people need to know if they’re considering a trip like this?
Ann Bancroft: Well, I always was an outdoor kid. That’s how I expressed myself. I’m an introvert, so heading out to the back woods with the family dog was just my cup of tea, even when I was a very young kid. My dream as a young girl was to travel to the top of the world by dog team. I was always camping and climbing and kayaking and doing all of these things. I got this opportunity to go to the North Pole to interview for a place on the team, it was seven men, 49 male dogs, and myself. So, when I interviewed, it was just something I didn’t really think I was going to get. I thought it might be over my head, and I found myself on this team and I thought it was going to be a 10-month experience. And I came home, and being the first woman captivated the public, we weren’t a public expedition. Very few people saw us off. It was just some family and friends who said goodbye, good luck.
You had no satellite phone, no GPS. It was the old days, 1986. So, we were using a compass, our watch, the wind direction and our shadow as a way to find the North Pole. And that was my childhood dream come true. And I thought, well, I’ll just go back into the classroom. When I came home, I took a retiring husky, stinky old boy, and we went back, it was early May, school was still in session. So, I went back to my little elementary school community. It was my epiphany, because all my colleagues had made the Arctic alive in that school building. So, math and science were the easy ones to make alive, our mileage, our lack of mileage, the currents, but there was also art and music. They were reading poetry, they had written essays, they were singing songs that they had written about our adventure.
And I came out of there that afternoon and I said, if I ever do a big expedition again, I have to do something bigger with it beyond my own personal passion and dreams. And as a teacher, the only way I knew how to do that was through education and curriculum. But when I started a few years later to think about going to Antarctica, I got colleagues to help me create curriculum. And we had, in those days, again, we didn’t have the internet yet, so we had 350,000 kids in the U.S. following along deliberately now and learning about Antarctica, learning about women’s history, just doing a multi-discipline curriculum about, not just Antarctica, but about all sorts of things, nutrition and self-esteem was in there. It was just how to persevere, attitude. And so, I found myself being a teacher outside of the formal walls of the classroom and suddenly my life fit. It was like the two passions came together and merged with this sense of purpose that I wanted to have.
And in the early ’90s, clearly you got the expedition bug, or at least the bug to do extreme adventure kind of things. And in the ’90s you led an expedition to the South Pole on skis and it took you 67 days. And I think of a two-week cruise as a long time. 67 days on skis. You’d done all the stuff in the north and when someone said, hey, what about Antarctica? Which I don’t know if you had been to before that expedition, in comparison to the Arctic, what was in your head at that time when you were like, okay, now Antarctica specifically, what were you planning for differently from the Arctic, or what was that experience like of the first switch from the north to the south?
Yeah. I had looked at a book on my parents’ bookshelf when I was quite young and it was Shackleton’s Endurance story. And those remarkable photographs of Antarctica inside the middle of the book, these black and white images of the men playing soccer on the ice. So, what you get from that is the comradery, that team, and then I saw the dog teams and just camp life, and I wanted that adventure when I was a young girl. The north was a normal progression. I think what the North Pole did for me at the age of 30 was give me the confidence to think that I could lead my own expedition across Greenland as a training exercise, and then on to Antarctica.
But Antarctica was always the dream. They are two very different places as you pointed out there. The North Pole sits up on the Arctic Ocean, so there’s ocean, very cold ocean underneath that ice. And the ice is shifting and shaping and heaving up and separating because of the currents of that ocean and the wind. So, it’s like a crazy dance floor to travel on. It’s very unpredictable. And we travel in the spring to try and get a little extra heat because it’s very dark until March, the sun starts to come back to that part of the earth. So, it’s extremely cold.
You go down to Antarctica, I always say it’s the best winter camping on the earth because it’s, you probably learned this on the ship, it’s drier than the Sahara. It’s an arid environment. So, camping is more enjoyable because you’re not full of perspiration, or if you do get perspiration from your body as you’re working during the day pulling these sleds, you can utilize that 24 hours of sunlight in the Antarctic summer, November through February. And it’s just enjoyable. It’s more enjoyable, but it’s got two miles of ice cap on top of this landmass. So, you have crevasses, you have a different kind of shifting glacial ice to travel upon and it’s also enormous.
And did people warn you, was it considered more difficult than the Arctic just because of its remoteness, even though it’s dry and it has advantages, was it seen as bigger and therefore just more perilous in a sense?
It really just depends on what you’re trying to do, your mode of transportation, where it is you’re going and what your objectives are. I think in some ways Antarctica is a little bit more accessible, maybe not to cross the continent as we did in 2000, but the Arctic is, with global warming, that Arctic Ocean is much more perilous right now. It was more stable in 1986 when we went. When I would return in ’05 and ’07, I found it to be a very different environment. We had different kinds of gear to meet the challenges of a changing environment.
The polar bears were much more aggravated for instance, and we saw a lot more of them, particularly on the Russian side. So, what I find when I travel, oddly enough, is that I have to take into account that I’m changing all the time. I’m learning new things, my body is changing, I’m getting older. So, you’ve got to take those things into account. And then the environment changes. So, if you went back to Antarctica, each time you would experience something new, something shifting. Not always for a negative reason, but nothing is ever the same. And that’s what’s so incredibly exciting about travel.
In all of the time you spent in Antarctica, is there a particular moment that stands out in your mind?
It’s like picking a favorite student. It’s just almost impossible. But I think that first time I went, flew from Punta Arenas to a blue ice runway, it’s just a piece of ice that the Antarctic wind clears. It’s not smooth, and we’re in an old DC-6, it’s just duct taped together. It’s probably the most dangerous thing we do. And this thing lands and I step out onto the ice and I don’t know if I can even describe it, but it physically takes your breath away because of the cold. But just standing on that ice that I had dreamed about since I was a 10-year-old girl made me weak kneed. And it was that moment I was just so daunted by the enormity of this place. And I’ve been to the Serengeti, I’ve been to Alaska, I’ve been to places with enormous horizons. But when you see the interior of Antarctica, it’s endless and it’s so quiet. You can hear your blood flow through your body when you start your journey. And it’s just remarkable.
If someone is, say on a cruise, and you obviously have experience as a more rugged explorer, what would you say to someone who’s considering doing this as a tourist? What should they…They’re like, hey Ann, I just booked a two-week cruise on the Viking Polaris or the Viking Octantis, its sister ship, any advice, what should I look out for?
I think my advice would be to go with your childlike wonderment, which I think is automatically happening for those who sign up for Antarctica. But to piggyback off of that and just keep those eyes wide, wide open, and you might have to force yourself, it’s exhausting, it’s so incredibly beautiful all the time and it’s constantly changing. So, if you can pull yourself out of those lovely beds with that great sheet linen count and go outside on deck and see the experiences, it’s short, it’s two weeks, 10 days, whatever it is. So, push yourself to just keep looking, because you might be the only one that sees that humpback breach on that day, and it might be the best breach ever.
If you had to describe Antarctica in three words, what would you say?
Color. Most people think it’s gray and blue and white. It’s filled with color. Enormous, magical.
On most cruises, the ship isn’t as vital as your ports of call, but when going to a place as remote and unforgiving as Antarctica, the ship becomes super important. Like nearly all of Viking’s ships, the Polaris and Octantis are designed by Rottet Studio, a firm well-known in the design industry for their residences and hotels, including various examples of the Four Seasons, St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton. I caught up with one of the firm’s founding principles, Richard Riveire at his LA office to discuss what it was like to design something I call the closest thing to the starship Enterprise I’ll ever experience, but with a really good Italian restaurant and a pair of yellow submarines.
And I’m sure there are a lot of people that are in the design world possibly listening to this and thinking like, well, I’ve done hotels, I’ve done restaurants, I’ve done all sorts of things. How is nautical design like this for something like the Viking Octantis and the Viking Polaris that go to Antarctica, how is that different as a designer when you’re sitting down to do something like this?
Richard Riveire: No, this is a really good question. One of the first really stupid questions I asked, I said, “Hotel guys, we look at, okay, we’re in Bogotá, Columbia, what’s the culture like in Bogotá? What are the views like? How do we frame the views? What are the historical background?” None of that applies when you have a ship that goes all over the world. And so, I asked that question early on. He says, no, the ships can go everywhere. It goes absolutely all over the world. So, you have to sit and think, okay, well, you wake up one morning and it’s Santorini, you wake up the next morning, it’s Istanbul. The world changes. The view outside your window changes. The way the light comes into your room is changing every minute of the day as the ship navigates and moves.
So, the flip I think was to turn it to think of this as more of your residential home that allows you to come home after a long day of looking at these wonders of the world, to come home, relax, feel like you’ve got a place to recharge so that the next morning you get up and you go do Istanbul. So, the sense, the feeling of the ship, that’s why I said I didn’t like entertainment architecture, because it was going to lend you to something, you’ve seen all this during the day, now you’re getting all this at night. That’s maybe a bit too much. I think what we want to do is rest, relax, and we’re back. And the ship movement is something that’s an art effect. That sunlight comes at you in different ways as the ship turns, but the fact that it moves in three dimensions is also quite interesting. And something hotels don’t do.
It is difficult to sit there and think about how to do it, particularly in something like books are a huge part of the Viking experience. The libraries are really curated and really thought through, and all the rest. Books will fall off shelves. So, they’ve got little roll rails. We position them in the right way so that they’re not going to do that, hopefully. That we want to make sure that the furniture is designed correctly, that it’s got stability, no tall, thin tables, that kind of stuff that could fall over. Now, having said that, the fundamentals of hotel design are all about surprise and delight. It has to give you something new, something you can enjoy, something you can aspire to. A lot of people like to buy furniture that they found at a hotel somewhere, that kind of thing. So, we want to make sure that we’re doing that as well. So, each of the ships are different. And frankly, with our expedition ships, that’s even a bigger issue. Because a voyage to, well, either Antarctica or Svalbard or the far Western Great Lakes, these are places most people only do once.
They are a bucket list item. The number of people who have actually set foot in Antarctica is a shockingly small number. And so, this has to represent an experience that is a one of a kind thing, something that is rare and something that is special. And so, that ship has to have a little more beef to it in that regard. It has to be a little bit more of that sense of an expedition, while still retaining all the things that Viking ships do. And I think if you walked on board and you’d seen that on a Star Class ocean ship, or even ship on the Nile or the ship in the Mississippi, you’ll recognize that there are pieces that are very much in common and the character of the space is in common, but they do veer off emotionally into these different places. What we did, I think that was the best thing that I maybe could have done for Viking, is that we established a very, very solid brand idea.
There are five big ideas for what Viking’s brand is all about. There is what I call, it’s our Nordic heritage to a great extent so that people describe our design as Scandinavian, and I think of it as an American version of Scandinavia, but nonetheless, it’s Scandinavian design. So, our Nordic heritage is there, and that goes back to the actual Vikings and as well as things like the craft and the folk arts of Norway and that kind of stuff. So, that’s item one. The second piece is residential modernism. I think we are not about entertainment architecture. We’re not about giving you this big wow or something that speaks to your face. I think we’re much more about a residential concept. And so, residential and modernism, because I’m a modernist and Tor is as well. Third one being craft. These are great big machines that float and they’re made out of steel and all this stuff. So, I think you want to find something that is a counterpoint to that. And frankly, Norway and the way they approach living is a great deal about craft.
Fourth one is nature. That kind of goes with the craft one and the floating machine counterpoint. But the nature side is very important to Viking and to Norwegians in general, the trekking through the woods and all that kind of stuff. And then the last one is kind of funny. Viking’s advertising tagline is, Exploring the World in Comfort. And that’s advertising, but it does shockingly really well describe them in terms of what you get out of that experience. And so, I’m looking and going, no, this is great. The comfort part we got in the residential modernism part, but the exploration part is also there. So, the fifth one is exploring the world in comfort. So, we came across those five ideas pretty early on and said, look, everything that we do needs to live in one of those, or multiple of those, worlds and not stray too far outside of those boundaries.
But what turned out is, as we went and did all of these different ships, they all draw from those five things, but in different proportions, in different ways and in different approaches. So, you asked about the expedition ship. It is, because of where that ship goes and what they do, it is much more in the nature oriented part of the world. It is about whales and pinnipeds and the sea and how ice forms and all these kinds of interesting things that I look at as inspiration. Those Star Class ocean ships, very much about exploration, not so much about nature. There’s not much there. So, the real trick I think, or the real beauty of it was to come up with these things that were not specific but made us live in a world and that brand.
So, as you go from ship to ship to ship, or ship type to ship type, they’re different. But I think you do get a sense in all of them that this is clearly a Viking ship. I like to think of it as a little bit like car companies. That you may have a sedan and an SUV and a pickup truck and all the rest, but you can kind of tell, well, that’s a Lexus or that’s a Tesla, or that’s a whatever. They live in their sort of world. This is a little bit like that, that we want the brand to be large enough to encompass all of those pieces, but not so large that people don’t recognize who you are.
And did you ever sit down with, when you started working on these expedition ships, did you ever have that first sit-down meeting with the actual ship designer to talk about the technical stuff that went into it and how his design, or her design, was going to meld with yours?
I think it’s probably fair to say that the ship design process is not necessarily a singular person. It’s a shipyard that is creating, the engineers that are creating this machine that does this very specific kind of work. And that all has to happen because the ship has to work, it has to perform and it has to meet all the regulatory requirements, and it has to live in a very harsh environment and all of that stuff. But we also have guests. And we have to give them that experience. And that’s my job is to figure out every step of the way, everything that a guest experiences has to be something that’s thought through and gone to the point where it is reflecting these big overarching ideas that we’ve been talking about. And so, it is a long process. It was, in this case, I think probably a four-year process to go through very early stages of how the ship is laid out, what the organization of spaces are, how big they are, the shaping and all that kind of stuff.
We are right there doing all that hand-in-hand. Me from the point of view of the guest experience, the ship designer, the engineers are involved in the shipyard from the point of view, well, I could do this, I can’t do that. We need to have this space, we can’t have that, well, how about this? It’s an iterative process. And then of course there’s Viking, and Viking is creating, I think they’re brilliant by the way, if I do hardware, the software side of what they do is just absolutely amazing. So, for expedition, the expedition staff, and these are world-class people involved in understanding these environments, these various environments that we go through, they’re there trying to figure out, okay, how do we make that a fun experience for our guests? What can we offer them? What can we do that makes the experience better? And so, they’re there.
So, it really takes a village to educate a child. Well, this is very much that. It is a collaborative process of all of us to come up with a singular experience. And so, that’s fun. It’s a great challenge because you’re dealing with thoughts. If I do a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, I don’t have to worry about ship movement and cold and warm and all this kind of stuff, but it’s quite a pleasurable design experience to go through.
Visiting Antarctica is quite the voyage and it’s an active adventure to be sure. I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. Would it be too cold? It wasn’t. Would I get bored? I didn’t. Would I become too exhausted? Well, the heated pool at the spa really helped. And I realized as soon as I got on board, just how seriously the crew took their duties. My first actual interview on board was in the ship’s private dining room to chat with Aaron Lawton, the head of expedition operations. Since my track record on anything adventure-based is basically nil, my last boss once called me an indoor cat, I wanted to quiz Aaron about everything I was going to experience and why from his perspective someone should even consider doing this in the first place.
So, we’re here on board in this private dining room on the Viking Polaris, and it’s our sailing day through the Drake Passage, which I’ve heard that we’ve been pretty lucky with the weather, even though it’s rocky for some.
Aaron Lawton: Yeah. There’s two Drake Passages that we face. Those of us who’ve done this for a while, we call it the Drake shake or the Drake lake. And we’ve been very fortunate, we’ve got a bit of residual swell from a system that came through last week, but it’s very gentle today. Enough breeze to bring us the seabirds, but not too much that it’s building up the seas.
Okay. So, if the birds disappear, then we know we’re in trouble.
Okay. And so, what exactly am I in for in the next 10 or so days on this expedition cruise?
I’m not going to assume that this may be one of the greatest wildlife and scenery experiences of your life, there are some incredible places in the world. However, I would think that this is going right up there, right at the top of what you’ve experienced. Antarctica is transformative. I could leave it there, I won’t, but I could leave it there. It is a transformative experience for people. It’ll blow your mind in so many different ways. And so, what is it that does that? It’s the scenery, it’s the wildlife, it’s the fact that there just aren’t people there. There’s no civilization. There’s no real limited signs of civilization there. It is a wilderness experience unlike any other, I think, in any part of the world. So, that is what we’re going to experience over the next number of days. And coupled with that is, we’re going to try to teach you through our education and enrichment on board the ship, how to get the most out of that experience.
I think for people that may not, they think a cruise, no matter what kind of cruise it is, but there’s a lot of science and safety and it’s more of an adventure than it is just sitting on the deck and having a glass of wine. Even though I will be doing that.
Yes. And I’ll join you. It is a cruise I guess in that we’re on an expedition cruise ship. But in essence, it’s also an expedition. And our chief scientist on board has an expression that he says, an expedition is a journey with purpose. And that’s what we’re doing here. We are on a ship that has, it’s very well-designed, it’s very well thought out, it’s comfortable, people feel at home as soon as they walk around the ship, they find a place to sit and they feel comfortable. And that’s part of the setting and that’s to put us in the mindset to then open our eyes and absorb what’s around us.
And so, as a relatively new part of the Viking Cruises family of ships and things like that, why now? What spurred this idea to do these new ships and these new expeditions? Are they just becoming more popular?
Certainly, to launch a program there’s got to be demand for it, and there was demand for it. Antarctica is a special region. Our owner at Viking is Norwegian, Mr. Hagen, and the Norwegians have had an incredible exploration history in Antarctica. So, I don’t think it was strange for him to look south and to think about Antarctica. But we’re different. We’re a different operation. And I think it’s the fact that we’re on a ship that is equally a scientific research vessel as it is a passenger vessel. That makes it different and creates a different experience for our guests.
And so, how many times have you been to the Antarctic?
I never really like to give a specific number. I know what that number is, but about 10 years ago I passed 100 trips to Antarctica.
Oh, wow. Okay.
And I don’t travel as much on the ships, so I haven’t crossed the 200 mark yet, but it’s probably somewhere just under 150.
So, I’m going to go on one of these submarine trips soon. So, what exactly do you see down there? Because I’m not sure, obviously in the Caribbean you can go snorkeling and you can look at coral reefs and things like that. But what will we see when we go 100 meters down, let’s say.
Generally, on the way down we’re going to pass through various, as we descend through the depths, we see varying visibility. Once we get down into the deeper depths, down below 50, 60, 70 meters, then we tend to have some pretty good clarity on the ocean floor. We’ve seen glass sponges, we’ve seen a few different types of sea stars. We see some of the small Antarctic fish similar to rock sculp and icefish have been seen from time to time. Anything we do see is, the experience of going below the surface is absolutely incredible, it is different than anything, if you’ve not been in a submarine, it is different than anything you’ve experienced before. So, even if we just see one sea star on the experience, it is still a magical experience to you.
And speaking of the last bit of the hiking part of all of this where you do have to bring a lot of equipment, you also supply a lot of equipment like boots and outer layers and things like that. Someone on your team during a safety briefing recently was like, this isn’t Disneyland, this is actually from a natural point of view, it’s quite dangerous. Safety is obviously a big part of your job. And so, I’m just curious, you have a lot of crew, which is great because it feels like a one-to-one ratio of crew to people, but it’s quite impressive. And can you tell me a little bit about that aspect of it, you’re going to a place that’s like a park where there’s no civilization, but this is not visiting Yellowstone?
Yeah. There are no warning signs. There are no barricades in place. So, we have to do that. So, we’ll send a team ashore before our first guests come ashore, and we’ll actually do a quick site assessment. This time of year, early in the season, we’ve got a lot of snow on shore. So, one of the first people ashore will be our mountain guide. One of our expedition staff members is a mountain guide, and they’ll do a site assessment from an avalanche perspective, have a look to see if there’s any crevasse risk around the site. And then they have marker poles that they’ll block off, barricade off directions that we don’t want you to go. They’ll give those parameters working with the expedition leader to set the site boundaries and set the safety system in place. And then that mountain guide will be carrying a crevasse rescue kit on their back, in their backpack, all the equipment they need to affect a rescue.
But that’s just a secondary, that’s because mountain guides don’t like to walk without a heavy backpack on their back. It ruins the image of how strong they are. If we’ve identified the site and marked the site off properly, then it’s just weight training for the mountain guide to have that equipment with him or her. Safety is paramount to what we do. And so, we make an assessment of the landing site before we bring people ashore. If we decide that at this time the landing site is not good for us to go ashore at, then we change. We look for another landing site, we change the plan for the day. And that’s a flexibility that we make on the fly as things happen. But safety is our first point we regard. And then the guest experience is the second point after safety.
And if I were to ask you why should a jaded traveler really make the effort to come and do this? Because it’s a two-week cruise, you’re flying to the edge of the earth, most likely. Why this sort of expedition, why put yourself through the most remote place on earth essentially?
I’m going to say to answer that question in that I don’t think anybody wants to be a jaded traveler. They’ve gotten that way through experiences. If you want to clean the slate, come to Antarctica on our ship and we’ll clean that slate for you. And not everything will be exactly as you expected. That’s what Antarctica’s about. It’s about throwing surprises in your way and blowing your mind. And you start to realize that some of the small things that bother you on other trips that have become recurring inconveniences, they don’t really matter when you’re standing there looking at a scape, 360 degrees around you of mountains and glaciers and icebergs and penguins porpoising through the water. That’s why you should come, especially if you’re jaded about travel, we need to reset you. And this is how we find that little button on the back of you and press reset. Hold for three seconds for the reset. We’re going to hold you for 12 days for the reset.
A trip to Antarctica can be complex on various levels. Because of the omnipresent issues of climate change and privilege there are so many facets to a trip like this. So, I wanted to speak to someone who knew much more than I did on all of the realities at play. I was lucky enough to chat with Shannon Stirone, a widely published and New York-based journalist who covers science, technology and the environment. Her recent opinion piece in The New York Times back in July, Gawking in Awe at the Universe, Together, is a must read. We compared notes towards the end of our journey.
I was super jealous of her time in a submarine as my reservation was sadly canceled due to bad weather, to chat about expectations, giant sea creatures, and of course, the only thing anyone wants to know about, the penguins.
I would say that, that was something that struck me was just how many actual scientists there are on board and how much of it is not just for show. It’s not like we’re collecting seashells on the seashore and doing a little kids museum to look at later, this is real science and real people doing things.
Shannon Stirone: Yeah. I was honestly really surprised by that. And I’m still surprised by how many scientists there are on board. There are more scientists than I realized. I run into them down in the science area and there’s a glaciologist, there’s a geologist, these are scientists who are not just scientists in their own right, but they are scientists who have done a lot of data collection in Antarctica many, many times. So, their breadth of knowledge is really amazing. And getting to talk to them even for five minutes here and there about their knowledge is just really, really cool.
And so, when you first started to think about this trip in reality and coming on it, what were your expectations, what were you expecting?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I know I was expecting to feel some sense of awe, but I was not prepared for what this place is and what it does to you and how it makes you feel. I think also having a scientist on board and having that be a fundamental part of our experience here was surprising. Antarctica is like no other place. I’ve never been anywhere like this, I don’t think most people have, but I just wasn’t expecting to feel the way that I feel.
And how would you describe that feeling? Because I have my own thoughts about how I’m going to phrase this later, but how would you describe it to somebody?
I’ve been working on trying to figure that out. I think it’s a combination of just intense awe, which sounds empty when you say it over and over again. It’s like we can feel awe about many things, but there is a vastness and a magnitude to this place that I think it’s hard to comprehend and to process. So, I think the way I’ve been describing it to people is having this sense of, it’s very ominous. The mountains, the size of everything feels very ominous, but the beauty is almost too much. Not in a bad way, but just in a way that is so intense and overwhelming that it’s hard to really comprehend what you’re seeing. I love it, but it’s also bizarre. It feels really strange.
It does feel like you’re visiting another planet. Some of the recent Prometheus, alien films, it seems like if someone were to play a soundtrack of Doom on the Horizon, at first, and I think now at the moment that we’re recording this, we’re about two thirds done with the voyage, now it’s a little bit more familiar. It’s funny how that sense of awe or a sense of foreboding vanishes and you turn it into, oh, more penguins. They’re adorable. And when you’re thinking about this from, obviously when you were planning coming on this trip and you write about climate change, what were you thinking about in terms of visiting a place like this on a commercial cruise? Obviously thinking, oh geez, this is why the world is going to hell in a hand basket. What was going through your head as someone who’s really in it and studying this kind of thing?
Yeah. I love that you said that because I did think that, and I still struggle with feeling that way to be honest when I’m here, there is an element of guilt that I’m here, not just that I get to see this, that I’m so privileged that I get to see this, but there’s an element of, we are a commercial, this is a beautiful ship, this is a very fancy experience, but there is a carbon footprint to everything that you do. And it feels like we are trying so hard to protect Antarctica and Antarctica is the ultimate symbol of climate change and the effects of climate change. So, it’s this weird dichotomy. I haven’t quite figured out how to feel about it, but it does help that there’s science on board. It does help that Viking is making a conscious effort to think about those things, but it feels quite strange. And I still feel guilty, honestly.
Yeah. I would say that I’m also pleasantly surprised at how cautious and how regulated everything is. Even before you do a landing and there’s penguins in the snow, you have to make sure that you’re not stepping outside of the bounds, that there’s distance, that the ship is not even dropping anchor and that because it’s this amazing new technology. And there definitely seems to be a huge level of caution and lightening the footprint as much as humanly possible, which is a major part of the science, but also part of the trip and part of the whole… Because I think if everyone felt guilty about it, no one would actually come because I feel like only if you are the kind of person who studies this thing, or at least has empathy, would you even bother to come?
Exactly. And I think to your point about this feeling like another planet, it essentially is treated like another planet. It is the only continent, the only large landmass on earth that is not claimed by a country. And so, part of what you’re mentioning washing our boots, that there’s that biosecurity element where we had to have all of our gear vacuumed, everything fully inspected. So, there was not even a crumb, a speck of lint, anything. And that’s essentially, in the space world that I’m a part of, it’s called planetary protection. It’s the same thing. You don’t want to bring microbes or anything foreign to this protected body of land. And so, for all intents and purposes it really is another planet, and it is so extreme and so deadly, and it’s beautiful, but it’s also worthy of us protecting.
If someone were to come to you and say, has this trip made you feel better about issues of climate change in the Arctic and the Antarctic, has it made you feel better or has it made you feel worse?
That’s a really good question. I think I still feel the same that I felt. If anything, I feel more protective over the land than I would’ve because it’s really easy to say, “Oh, we need to protect, we need to do something about climate change because the ice caps are melting.” That has huge effect on everybody. That’s such an easy thing to say, and everybody knows that, but there’s no concept of the actual place and what it looks like and what it feels like. So, I feel more protective of it. I feel instantly more caring about climate change and what we do about it, because I don’t want this place affected. I don’t want it to be touched or ruined by anybody.
And also, there’s an integrity you want to keep to something like this that is…I will say that maybe it’s better said this way. There is a very special thing about Antarctica because it doesn’t belong to any country, because the Antarctic treaty protects it so much that it feels there’s a separation between all of the bad parts of humanity, is distant here. And it makes me want to keep that distance, to keep that protection even more so. So, I don’t think I feel better or worse about climate change. If anything, I feel like we need to take it even more seriously than we are. And in that instance, having the tourism, if people see this, they might feel that way too. But I think it really depends on the person and how they feel already coming into it.
And have you been on the submarine? Tell me about your submarine experience.
I’m very fortunate that I was one of very few people that got to take the submarine, which also makes me one of the very few people who have ever gone into a submarine in Antarctica ever. And we also just happened to see a very rare jellyfish called the phantom jellyfish, which only 100 people have ever seen in the last 100 something years.
How big is this jellyfish?
The jellyfish is about 10 meters long.
That’s like 30 feet.
It’s huge, and it’s very neon colored on the inside, and its tentacles look like kelp. It’s the strangest looking jellyfish.
And how far down were you in the…Take us through this experience of getting onto this small yellow submarine?
Yeah. Our little yellow submarine named George. We arrived via Zodiac and then climbed inside the hatch. So, it was very official. It felt very cool. And then they descended us down. We went down, I think 250 feet, down to just the very bottom of the shelf where we were.
How long did that take?
I would say 10 minutes. So, it wasn’t too long.
And you didn’t have any feelings of air pressure change?
They pressurize it just like a cabin on the plane. You feel nothing. It just feels there’s oxygen flowing, it’s very, very comfortable. But the light starts to change. So, the lower you get, the darker it gets until it’s completely black.
And so, he turns these floodlights on, and then you see everything that’s on the ocean floor. And because we’re in Antarctica, it’s really weird. The life down there is really, really weird. So, the jellyfish was just one of really strange things that we saw on that trip.
And what did you see? Obviously it’s not like The Little Mermaid.
Little lobsters and crabs.
Yeah, like lobsters and bright coral. What are you seeing on the bottom of the ocean of Antarctica?
Yeah. It’s a strange thing. So, there’s this, it’s called a wolf star, and it’s this giant sea star that has something like 50 legs and it’s just enormous. It’s like three feet long, but you can’t really tell that scale when you’re down there. And then you Google images of it later and it’s absolutely terrifying. It’s carnivorous and eats everything around it. So, there’s bones and stuff scattered around. That’s the sea star. Weird sea cucumbers and sponges, regular starfish. Also, they look like regular starfish, but there’s a weird phenomenon in really cold deep waters called something gigantism where things grow much bigger than they do in normal waters. And it’s evidenced by the strange, gigantic things we saw down there.
And were you scared before doing this? Because I would say half the people that I told I’m going to go into a submarine in the Antarctic, it would be great. A lot of them were like, it’s your funeral.
Oh, yeah. No, I was terrified. I almost canceled it. I’m so glad I didn’t. But I just thought, you know what, if I die like this, then what a cool way to go out. So, I’m glad I chose to continue. But it was less scary when you approached it on a Zodiac and you realize, oh, it’s bigger than you think. But once that hatch closes and he starts pressing all the buttons, you’re like, well, I’m in this now and we’re just going to cross our fingers. So, I survived.
As a science writer, what struck you about this kind of submarine? Because also it feels like this is not something you could have done 10 years ago, that this technology of having two submarines onboard a pleasure cruise, a commercial cruise line is not something that was…It feels very James Bond to have your own personal submarine on board a vessel like this.
Yeah. It’s extremely James Bond. That’s perfect. Who has a personal submarine? I don’t think there’s any cruise ships, first of all, I don’t think there’s even really any science ships that have their own submarine. It’s just unheard of. But as a science writer, getting to go down there and see what’s at the bottom of the ocean floor, see a random jellyfish, that’s something you would never be able to witness. And also because we went below the scuba diving limit, you don’t get to do that without a submersible. You cannot see that far below without those tools. So, it was just amazing. It was absolutely amazing.
And mentioning something a little bit more lighthearted, the penguins.
Oh my God, the penguins.
Which I think is everyone’s most favorite element of all of this. Obviously, because there is very little wildlife in the Antarctic, you’ve got whales, you’ve got seals, some birds, and you could count maybe on one hand how many you might see in a day, and then you have penguins. So, is there anything about the penguins themselves that you feel was surprising to you? I was surprised by how many there were when we would visit a colony.
I was also surprised by that. I know that obviously a colony is supposed to be many penguins, but the other day when we were on Cuverville, there were thousands and then thousands en route you could see swimming. Just the sheer numbers. It’s this really interesting feeling of, oh, there’s an entire world happening here, whether I’m here or not. These animals are carrying on, they’re mating, they’re having babies. It’s really cool to get to see it, but they’re also extremely cute and awkward, the most awkward.
You do kind of wonder how on earth have these things survive this long?
If you watch them for any period of time, that becomes even more a mystery, how they made it.
They’re like stuffed animals that just somehow haven’t gotten eaten yet.
They shouldn’t be alive, but somehow, they are. And thank God for that because they’re really cute.
As Shannon mentioned, science is a major element of the cruise, and it’s not marketing to say that you feel very involved and connected to the actual science that’s happening on board. As the ability to simply be in Antarctica is so challenging, expensive and rare, the cruise really does do double duty as a research vessel. I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into that with Dr. Daniel Moore, the chief scientist on board, to help set the scientific record straight.
And just to set a little bit of a baseline, one thing that strikes you I think when you come and visit is how remote Antarctica is and how little life there seems to be on the surface. Can you tell me a little bit about the basics and the difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic from a biologist’s perspective?
Dr. Daniel Moore: Yeah, absolutely. So, the Arctic is still quite a connected ecosystem. It’s connected to other parts of the world, to the big continents of North America and Asia. And so, you have a blurring of species from those continents up towards the Arctic. Of course, you have polar bears in the Arctics which you don’t have in the Antarctic. But the Antarctic is special because for 30 million years it’s been isolated from the rest of the world, ever since the Southern Ocean opened up and Antarctica separated from other continents. And so, now it has evolved its own sets of species, and they can only be found here and nowhere else.
In terms of the species that people would see when they come here, obviously there’s penguins number one. And how many different, whales is of course a huge part of what everyone’s trying to see, how many different kinds of whale species can one see in the Antarctic Peninsula?
A real great variety. And you never know quite what you’re going to get. That’s part of the wonder of Antarctica. Of course, it’s wildlife and they can’t be predicted, but you can very likely see humpback whales, possibly Antarctic minke, fin whales, blue whales even, particularly in the Drake Passage, and a number of others as well. So, it’s so many species that you could see. And then of course you have the seals, which are really great to see. So, you have the Weddell seals, the crabeater seals, and of course the slightly terrifying but wonderful leopard seals.
And the leopard seals are the predators of all of this.
They’re the ones that the penguins have to look out for.
They do. So, the leopard seals and the orca, the killer whales, those two are really sitting at the top of the Antarctic food chain and definitely what everyone else has to watch out for.
And one of the things that I think strikes people, or struck me, when we first came here was the amount of regulations and rules that are set in place to protect the Antarctic and to protect the wildlife and the ecosystem. Can you explain a little bit about the Antarctic Treaty, what it is, and the different associations that Viking is a part of to make sure that this all is done above board and in the right way?
Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s absolutely vital that we protect Antarctica. It is at the minute a relatively pristine environment, and we want to keep it that way. Both so that we can use it for science and learn more about itself and the rest of the world, but also so people can come down and enjoy it. So, to that end, Viking is a member of the IAATO, which is the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. As part of that commitment to IAATO, we had to go through really strict biosecurity measures.
Whenever we go from one landing site to another, all of our equipment are cleaned, our boots are cleaned, so we are not moving around any potential diseases from one, say, penguin colony to another. And we’re also making sure that all of our equipment when we come down to Antarctica is super clean. So, if we’ve been elsewhere, because obviously we do great voyages to the Great Lakes and other parts of the world too, we’re making sure that we’re not introducing anything new. Biosecurity is a real top concern for us, and we take it very, very seriously.
Yeah. So, for example, today when you get off the ship and you’re doing a landing, when you get back on the vessel, you walk through a little machine that cleans your boots like you would see in a car wash kind of thing.
It is like a human car wash and it includes a biocide as well, which then dries on your boots and makes sure that any bacteria or viruses are killed too.
And obviously probably the number one element of this whole thing from a science perspective is the penguins, which I think is everyone’s, both back home watching on Instagram or just coming here, everyone’s number one highlight. I was struck about how large the penguin colonies are and how many different species of penguins are there.
So, there’s three species of penguins that we’re likely to see on every voyage. That’s the Adélie penguin, the gentoo penguin and the chinstrap penguin. There are a couple of other species that are rare sightings too, including rockhopper penguins. But those first three are the main ones that we try and seek out every voyage.
And what are the differences between the three? Are they location-specific or are they—
They are, yeah. So, the Adélie penguins tend to be found further south. The gentoo penguins are the rock-loving penguins, so we find them on shingle shores where they build their kind of stony nests. And then the chinstrap penguins love the ice, and so they can be found on the ice edge and around the South Shetland Islands.
And what are they eating? Are they all eating similar prey, or what are they doing?
Yeah. So, most of our penguin species feed out in the water in the Drake area. They fatten up over the Antarctic winter before coming ashore during the Antarctic summer for the breeding period. And so, they’re feeding on krill mostly. Krill is really vital to the Antarctic ecosystem and supports many different species, not just the penguins.
And the krill, what sort of species does…It’s sort of like the baseline of the entire ecosystem, right? It also impacts whales.
It does, absolutely. So, krill is like a small shrimp if you will. It’s a crustacean and they bloom in huge, huge numbers out in the Drake Passage and the water surrounding Antarctica. They are eaten by many of the whale species too, and so we wouldn’t have these great wildlife sightings of the wonderful whales without the krill.
Obviously, for any biologist to come here is a privilege and a treat because it’s so remote and so hard to get to. Do you think that these kinds of commercial tour operators have a role to play actually in all of this? Because you wouldn’t think that any real science could actually come out of a pleasure cruise essentially.
I think they absolutely have a role to play. They are coming down here on a regular basis, visiting the same sites, and as a scientist visiting the same sites on a regular basis, that is absolutely key to getting really quality data and understanding change over time. That opportunity for repeat sampling is the absolute number one top goal of a scientist. So, to be able to do this onboard a vessel like this is absolutely wonderful and it’s definitely something that should be supported.
And in terms of the weather balloon, tell me a little bit about that. It seems like we have radar telling us what the weather is going to be like, but what is this weather balloon doing and in terms of why is it so rare to have weather balloons down here?
There are a number of weather balloon stations around Antarctica. They’re typically found at the research stations around the coast, but they don’t launch necessarily every day. They don’t necessarily launch in all different locations. So, we are visiting really remote locations, and you have to remember that our weather forecasts come from data that’s collected by weather balloons. And so, those forecasts have to be produced by models. And models are only as good as the data that you put into them. And so, the more data that we can put into them, particularly areas where we have big gaps, like where a vessel such as Viking Polaris goes, helps increase the accuracy of those weather forecasts.
Penguins, submarines, whales, and icebergs. There was so much to take in. But I wanted to speak to someone who could put all of it into perspective from a travel veteran’s point of view. Towards the end of my journey, still in total awe from all of the natural wonders I had witnessed, I spoke with Jean Newman Glock, an ambassador at large for Viking. Jean is a total straight shooter who has a storied career in the world of travel. She worked for years at the Smithsonian and has worked with the White House, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During our chat, I think we managed to agree upon just why this incredible voyage really is one for the bucket list.
And how has your experience been like on this trip so far? At the time that you and I are speaking now we’re, I would say two thirds of the way through the whole voyage. What’s it been like for you so far?
Jean Newman Glock: Okay. I’ll be really honest. I cannot stand cold weather. I am a southerner and 70 degrees is sweater and cold for me. So, I had some trepidation when they said, we’d like you to go to Antarctica. And my mission here is to share my experience as a guest and we’ll be sharing it on Viking TV. So, I thought, okay, man up and get ready for the cold. And I sort of gritted my teeth. They have turned me into an intrepid explorer. I’ve been ecstatic.
They’ve taught me how, number one, to outfit so I’m comfortable ashore. But I’ve become an explorer, a citizen scientist, and I’m a 67-year-old grandmother. I didn’t expect to pivot this much. I didn’t expect to love it this much. To be outfitting for 10 minutes to go out on a landing to see the penguins, to see the whales, it’s magical. And I honestly thought I was going to have to fake it a little bit to enjoy it, not a bit. I’m ready to return and we haven’t even left.
And so, your travel experience is not necessarily like adventure travel?
I’ve done a lot of expeditions, but honestly, when I could choose the ones I would join in my previous role, I would choose the Amazon, I would choose Africa. I would choose the warm destinations. So, I had never chosen polar regions because I just thought I wouldn’t like it. And I’m ready to return. I’ve become the explorer, but more because I’ve learned a lot of the science behind why Antarctica matters right now with climate change and why this is just such a beacon to what problems we face. The scientists on board, the team, the expedition team, have really brought it to life in a way that reading about it, hearing about it, couldn’t.
How would you describe this trip to somebody if they said, okay, why now and why is now the right time to do this? As someone who knows the travel industry so well, why would you say that this trip is of its moment?
Expeditions to Antarctica have evolved from the very beginnings in the ’60s and ’70s when you were on very rough expedition ships. You can now visit it in comfort. You can be comfortable while you’re exploring. I would say now, because you can be in the company of scientists doing cutting edge research, you can see it while it is still pristine. I hate to say that, because I fear things could change and they are changing quickly. They told us today as we were visiting the colony of chinstrap penguins, that there were nesting already. And one of the naturalists said to me, it’s almost frightening, it’s way too early. But I think we are going to see change happening very rapidly here from climate change, not from tourist. I think IAATO and their regulations in place are very carefully followed by all the tour operators, and I think that is very heartening that it’ll be protected, but the general climate change in the world is going to change it so rapidly. It’s time to come, it’s time to learn, and it’s time to go home and share that.
And what do you think is the number one misconception about Antarctica?
That it’s too cold to explore. You were out today I think on the landing. I wasn’t even wearing gloves or a scarf and I wanted to take off one of my jackets. Yes, you can come when it is very cold, but we’re early in the season and it has not been, there’ve been a few days and certainly coming back on some Zodiacs, getting splashed with the water if they’re racing back, it’s been a little chilly, but it’s not too cold. And you can be properly outfitted, the ship properly outfits you. And so, even if you hate the cold, as I said at the beginning, like I thought I did, you can do it. And you can do it almost as comfortable as any cruise. Not even almost, you can do it as comfortably as any other cruise. I’ve been in the Med when it’s really rough. My worst cruise ever was circumnavigating Iceland. So, it’s not too rough. The ship can handle it and it’s time. It’s time to get down here.
In terms of the activities and things like that, did you have any expectations when you came on board of what you thought you would like that maybe you wound up liking even more?
Oh, yes. I thought I would do the landings. I’ve been in Zodiacs, I’m very comfortable in Zodiacs, wanted to try the special operation boat because I’d seen it at the naming ceremony in Amsterdam. It was very comfortable. But what I’ve loved is the kayaks. And I honestly have never kayaked in my life. I don’t know how I got away with that, but I passed the kayak test that I could go out in the water. And kayaking here was magical. And for me, it was the silence, waiting to hear the glacier’s calve, the iceberg’s calve. You’d hear a thundering sound. It was the silence and the very distinct noises, and you’re sitting in the kayak.
I would say the silence is something that you don’t quite, especially someone like me that’s from New York, there’s something about the silence and the pristine nature, both the visual silence and also an auditory silence of Antarctica that is quite stunning to be in the middle of that. It is just sort of—
That’s so well said, and I think I’m going to steal it. The visual silence and the auditory silence. I think that’s it, because I’ve kept saying it’s the silence.
A special thanks once again to our sponsor, Viking, Edelman PR and all of our guests today for making this episode happen. For more information about this or any Viking cruise, visit vikingcruises.com. And we’ll be back next week with the first regular episode of season six. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, please follow me on Instagram, @danrubinstein, to learn more. And sign up through email for updates at thegrandtourist.net. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time.
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