In a world where climate change is a pressing issue, and sustainability is a buzzword, “traveling with purpose” is becoming more important than ever. For those in Asia, there is one destination that drives home the importance of these issues: Antarctica.
Antarctica is a vast, white wilderness that highlights the urgent need for change. The balance of nature here is a matter of life and death for so many species, and travelers to this remote destination are witness to the forces of climate change unleashed before their very eyes. It is a humbling experience that reminds us that we humans are not as powerful as we like to think.
Despite being protected by a treaty signed by 12 nations in 1959, Antarctica is under threat. Superpowers such as Russia and China are eyeing its minerals, while factory ships are stealing its vital stocks of fish and krill, and its ice is melting.
But help is at hand in the form of travelers like us. We are here to bear witness and take the message home. We are aboard the Viking Polaris, one of the newest ships from the leader in river and ocean cruising, and we are not just on vacation, we are on an expedition.
Our expedition leader, Marc Jansen, welcomes us in the Aula, a panoramic auditorium inspired by the University of Oslo’s famed ceremonial hall, the former venue for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. He reminds us that this is a journey with purpose, and encourages us to go back to our homes and spread the word about this unique and fragile environment.
The lounge is just one of many firsts on this ship. Below us, a pair of submarines, a speed boat powered by two jet engines made for the Finnish navy, and military Zodiacs are in the hangar awaiting us.
Some 200 travelers from Asia and around the world have made the journey to Antarctica, drawn by stories of the great explorers, bucket-list ambitions, or simply a desire to experience something different.
But here, Mother Nature is Queen. Schedules are all very well, but they will be abandoned in a heartbeat if a storm blows in. Captain Margrith Ettlin, Viking’s first female captain, makes it clear that this is not a vacation – it’s an expedition.
Despite the inhospitable environment, Viking Polaris conveys us to one of the world’s most remote places in comfort. Capt Ettlin is proud of her new charge, which is just six weeks old and flies across the Drake Passage at a racy 17 knots.
The passage is notorious among seafarers, but tonight, as we toast our adventure’s beginning with Viking’s included wines and beers, it’s “Drake’s Lake”. Our stabilizers are not really necessary.
Capt Ettlin brilliantly outruns the weather, taking us to Half Moon Island at temperatures of five degrees and wind speeds of 15 knots, allowing us precious hours to go ashore and see the wildlife.
Viking Polaris’s submarines Ringo and George are out on the water by 7am, and Zodiacs are rescheduled to take advantage of the weather windows, giving us amazing experiences on land, watching the penguins build their nests for the coming breeding season.
The Hangar has a unique slide that allows us to board the speed boat inside the vessel. She is then launched down the slide and onto the water for a high-speed ride past icebergs and penguin highways.
The 20-strong expedition team are keen to recruit us for citizen science projects to monitor krill and plankton, and check whales’ tails. Polaris has labs on board where we can study the samples we collect and contribute to important scientific research.
We may be travelers, but we are also ambassadors and advocates for the conservation of this incredible place.