February 2005 Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Commonly referred to as El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World), the Tierra del Fuegan hamlet of Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, is actually just its beginning.

On a surprisingly sunny and warm late summer evening, we boarded the world’s first expedition cruise ship, the ice-strengthened, double-hulled M/S Explorer. The eastern Beagle Channel lay before us. Nearly two centuries have passed since Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy sailed westward in these waters, now named for the boat they guided on its historic journey of discovery.

We left the port in serenity, the area’s notorious winds surprisingly tranquil, the Beagle Channel flat as a pancake. As we drifted through soft, rolling mountains framing our way, with the sun setting behind us, the scenery was strikingly reminiscent of southeastern Alaska’s inland passage. But that geographic possibility was soon eradicated as Magellanic penguins leapt in the water on our starboard side. Two dusky dolphins did the same in the bow wake of a huge cargo ship heading west, like ants leading an elephant. Then the channel filled with dozens more, frolicking and twisting as they soared through the air, lit delicately by the diminishing light. A good way to begin a journey, indeed …

Photo 1: “En route back to the ship, we spent a short time exploring icebergs in our Zodiacs. It’s hard to grasp the beauty and majesty of this drifting ice, whose colors range from white to deep blue, with forms sculpted by the tools of wind, water and time.”

Photo 2: “Arriving, the beach was filled with gentoo and chinstrap penguins and their chicks. I had forgotten how comical these little flightless birds are as they waddle and scurry around, like elegantly garbed Keystone Kops. And the chorus of gentoos singing, which I wish I had recorded, is a sound that will always bring a smile to my face.”

Photo 3: “While Zodiacking to Danco Island, a leopard seal on an ice flow yawned, revealing its long, sharp teeth. Considered the most ferocious of pinnipeds, they are the only ones known to prey on other seal species, as well as penguins, fish, squid and krill. Though there are also tales of them attacking humans, most are thought to be folklore.”

Photo 4: “The shapes and sizes of the icebergs left me incredulous, as did their colors — endless shades of blue. The older and denser the ice, the deeper the hue. My poor brain was mystified by the way the seemingly tropical, turquoise-toned undersea ice made the crystal-clear water appear. But it is a vision that is indelibly imprinted there.”

Then we stopped. The world was still. Ice was everything. And it ruled.

Our quest for the Antarctic circle had ended at 65°41’47” south latitude, 64°52’ west longitude, less than 60 miles short of our goal. Some were disappointed, assuming the accomplishment of this a foregone conclusion. But Antarctica is not a place for children to play. And it had repelled our best effort. I felt not the least bit cheated, thinking the land and scenery at the circle couldn’t have been dramatically different than where we were. Yet our experience in the ice, and the knowledge afforded me of its authority in Antarctica, are things I’d never trade for a journey to a somewhat arbitrary line of latitude. As the ship turned around and crunched north-northwest towards the open ocean, I was sad to be leaving the realm of the ice …