Antarctica is an imposing and inhospitable land, but many are voyaging to experience the natural wonder and beauty of this remote end of the planet. Still more are racing to preserve it. Come with us as we explore The White Continent.

We stood in line, waiting our turn and hopping from foot to foot as we tried to limit the amount of time each bare foot touched the frigid, steel floor. We hugged our bodies, clothed only in our bathing suits as songs like “Twist and Shout” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” blared through the mud room. Spirits were high, and — I discovered later — spirits were flowing. We each made our way down the stairs to an open door as the Arctic air swept in and started to take hold. Finally, as my turn came, I stepped outside onto the platform, keenly willing myself to push through to the last step. Taking a deep breath, I jumped — hanging in the air for the slimmest of seconds before I plunged into the embrace of the deep, blue arctic abyss below. 

Antarctica is, for many who have not been there, an abstract. Most picture a colorless, white void with howling winds, not dissimilar from the barren planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. Antarctica has captivated the minds of explorers for centuries. This land of Cook, Weddell and Shackleton is as imposing as it is vague; however, the challenge of discovery was too great a pull for many to resist. Located over 640 miles from the southern tips of Argentina and Chile, this land is inhabited almost exclusively by penguins with names like Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adélie. Seals, whales and more have been a siren song for those eager to uncover the secrets of this land.

But why travel there today? What is the draw that brings both scientific explorations and boatloads of tourists to this vast land in the middle of February? My “why” came when I saw Jimmy Buffett leading a tour to the Antarctic in support of protecting the world’s oceans. I thought: If the troubadour of the sea can take this journey, so can I. While adventurers look vastly different today, the impulse remains the same: the spirit of discovering the secrets of an inhospitable space that covers the southernmost point on Earth.

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Booking through Belle Meade Vacations, we joined Lindblad Expeditions and their partner, National Geographic, as they offered an in-depth, immersive way to experience Antarctica. With a crew of naturalists, historians and photo experts leading lectures and excursions, the experience is both cerebral and multilayered.

A journey to South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula is no small feat as travelers must first cross the mythically difficult Drake Passage. This gateway to the land of snow and ice is considered one of the world’s most difficult passages: high winds — and the lack of land mass to interrupt the ocean’s currents — create waves that can peak at 40-feet high. While crossing the Drake Passage can be overwhelming for some, modern ships are well-equipped to help passengers manage the two-day journey. Travelers are ultimately rewarded with the breathtaking natural beauty of untouched land.

No two expeditions are alike, and each can vary wildly based on weather and landing conditions. Because the expeditions run through the summer months — when ice shelves are calving, or releasing, icebergs — ships may need to alter course slightly. Strong winds may make landing impossible, which again begs the question: Why travel to this formidable land?

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On the first day of this particular journey, the first stop was at Barrientos Island — part of the South Shetland Islands. The most striking trait of this mile-long landmass is that it is ice-free and, while not inhabited by humans, is a popular breeding spot for gentoo and chinstrap penguins. A veritable sea of penguins could be seen filling the coastline, including fluffy, all-too-adorable juvenile penguins that boast more than an ounce or two of bravery and curiosity.

The following day, the excursion ventured to Croft Bay and Snow Hill Island. The sun was high in a brilliant blue sky as travelers kayaked over calm water and passed massive icebergs that loomed over us and illustrated the scale of our existence. This is the land of Cook and Shackleton. Yet, seeing the sheer mass of the icebergs was imposing and dangerous; more than once, kayakers were warned that — while gorgeous — the icebergs could flip, trapping well-intentioned and curious guests into depths below. The imposing and beautiful ice glows an ethereal blue. On closer inspection — as small chips floated near our rubber-sided exploration boats — we found them to be clear. More than one dinner-plate-sized chip made its way back to the boat to chill a cocktail or two. The adventure continued that day as 72 brave souls threw caution to the wind and joined in a Polar Plunge, jumping into 30-degree water while clad only in bathing suits.

Highlights of the journey included a visit to Goudier Island; set in the safe harbor of Port Lockroy, Goudier Island is home to the most southerly operational post office in the world. Established in 1944 as part of Operation Tabarin — a clandestine British plan to prevent enemy activity in Antarctica — the historic hut was used as a base for upper atmospheric research until it was abandoned in 1964. It was reopened and restored by the British Antarctic Survey in 1996, now operating as a museum (and post office) through the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. It is one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, hosting around 20,000 visitors this year alone.

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Each day brought new discoveries of a land that, for many, exists in a sort of nebulous space. What brought the narrative of the journey together was a stellar group of experts that helped us grasp the wonders before us. The dedicated team members led lectures and tours to help fill in the gaps of history and paint a greater picture of understanding. The credentials of the expedition team were varied and relevant: a documentary filmmaker, photography experts and instructors, and a variety of naturalists. Intimately knowledgeable about the variety of wildlife, topography and history of the area, these experts led lectures or toured with small groups in zodiac boats. Their goal was to help travelers, whether it was to understand the geological formation of basalt columns that made up Edinburgh Hill or to identify the variety of seals or penguins that kept a cautious distance from human contact.

Throughout the adventure, wildlife was in abundance. Pods of whales curiously inspected the ship; nesting penguins could be found raising their chicks. Varieties of seals could be found lounging on beds of ice or patrolling the water for a snack of penguin as the penguin patrolled the water for a snack of krill. It is interesting to see the collection of marine life on display when, just a few decades ago, the hunting of seals and whales was so prevalent that some species were almost annihilated. Today, the greatest predator facing this pristine land and its inhabitants is climate change: Polar ice caps are receding at an alarming rate, and icebergs calve earlier and earlier each year. An entire generation of penguin chicks at Port Lockroy, the British scientific research station, will likely not survive the winter because of a late birthing season as climate change negatively affects their nesting grounds.

Submerged for mere seconds, I break through the surface of the water to meet the crisp, Antarctic air once more. The shock of the water and air combined internally and externally as my skin tingled and my lungs fought for air. It was a baptism of sorts: I emerged reborn with a desire to return and to protect this majestic space.