Hobnob with Royalty
Would you like to hobnob with royalty on a cold-weather cruise to Antarctica? You can on an Antarctic cruise to see the emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island, a snow-covered ice shelf in the ice-choked waters of the Wendell Sea. During these cruises, an icebreaker ship crosses the Drake Passage to the Weddell Sea and stops near Snow Island, close to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Weather permitting, you’ll take helicopter flights from the ship to a rookery for a few days. There, you’ll watch the adult penguins, the deepest diving birds on the planet, caring for their young chicks. To observe this amazing cycle of life in this other-worldly place is an unparalleled experience.
The first sound you’ll hear upon reaching the rookery is the shrill whistling of chicks begging their parents for food. Eventually, you’ll see hundreds of penguins milling about on the snow. The adults look regal, dressed in tuxedos. Tucked amongst them are the small chicks, with their fuzzy white fur. At times, adults toboggan their bodies across the snow and slide into the open water to find food for their young.
The cruises to Snow Island are usually only once or twice a year in the fall, when the Emperor penguin chicks are young and the adults still very protective. The largest of all penguins, the emperor penguins live and breed on the fast ice in the coldest climate on earth. After a female lays an egg she gives it to the male, who keeps it warm through the winter (often by huddling together with other males). The female then heads out to the open sea to feed. She returns in time for the young to hatch and cares for them while the males trek to the open ocean in search of food. When the males return, together the adults care for the chicks until they are old enough—about 6 months—to enter the open sea on their own.
After departing Snow Hill Island, you’ll sail down Iceberg Alley, past the translucent icebergs, and visit rookeries of Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins just arriving to breed and raise their young during the austral summer. Passage for most outfitters is on the Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker that was retrofitted as a cruise ship in the early 1990s and in 1997 was the first ship to navigate the Antarctic with passengers. With its 45mm-thick icebreaker hull, it can ram through ice-locked surfaces opening up watery passages. The Khlebnikov has 56 cabins (space is limited for these cruises), with comfortable but not luxurious accommodations aboard. During the expeditions naturalists and lecturers are on hand to educate you on the emperor and other penguins in rookeries around the Antarctic, in addition to offering much more information about the White Continent itself. —LF
Tours: Quark Expeditions ( 866/961-2961 or 203/803-2888; www.quarkexpeditions.com). Travel Wild Expeditions (800/368-0077 or 206-463-5362; www.travelwild.com). Polar Cruises 888/484-2244 or 541/330-2454; www.polarcruises.com).
When to Go: Fall. Only one or two cruises are offered per year.