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Cruising to Otherworldly Antarctica

Jessica Goldstein, NPR
There are more than 200 passengers aboard the <em>MS Fram</em>, with just as many reasons for making the trip.
Jessica Goldstein, NPR
There are more than 200 passengers aboard the MS Fram, with just as many reasons for making the trip.
Hermann Gran entertains travelers with the stories of his father, who was on the British Antarctic expedition from 1910 to 1913.
Jessica Goldstein, NPR
Hermann Gran entertains travelers with the stories of his father, who was on the British Antarctic expedition from 1910 to 1913.

There comes a time when the ties of home life loosen — some give way completely — and one is moved, as if by Nature herself, to put to sea. At least, that's what the books tell us. Herman Melville called that feeling, "When it is November in my soul..." A sea journey puts you on a continuum of discovery that began well before Magellan, or Columbus, or red-faced old Leif Ericson. You are connected somehow to the Age of Exploration, even when your boat has Wi-Fi and an all-you-can-eat buffet, and you can track its progress on GPS.

Michael Kalweit is studying his fancy GPS watch as he stands on the deck of the MS Fram — an ice-breaking Norwegian pleasure ship that has just pulled away from the southernmost tip of South America. The Fram is heading south to Antarctica — the dream, the destination, the prize. And Kalweit, who ordinarily brokers leveraged buyouts in Chicago, can feel that he is at the beginning of something extraordinary. At least, that's what he heard back in Chicago.

"Surprisingly, you find the occasional person who's actually been here before, and they get really excited and tell you about how wonderful this trip is... It's almost a religious experience to go down there," he says.


There are more than 200 passengers aboard the ship and about a million and a half reasons why they are here. Lorraine Longmore keeps a bed and breakfast in Connecticut, and she says being on the trip makes her feel like one of the great explorers. Not Ernest Shackleton, per se, or Robert Falcon Scott, or even the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. No, Longmore says she feels like her mother.

"My mother was a world traveler and did it on freighters," Longmore says. "She went around the world twice and several other voyages. I've never had that opportunity. So I'm so excited about this one."

But somewhere amid all the passengers' optimism is the wisp of a worry that Antarctica may soon no longer be the same continent that the polar explorers encountered. After all, climates everywhere are changing. The scientists say so, Al Gore says so, and the company says so too.

"We always point out that, like an ice cube, it melts around the outside, so most of the changes that you see for snow and ice melting [are] around the edges of the continent," says Bob Rowland, a geologist who has been hired by the Hurtigruten Cruise Line. His job is to talk about the effects of global warming on the Antarctic Peninsula. He can't say for sure that what we'll see is the climate changing before our very eyes. But apparently, some parts of Antarctica are not as cold as they used to be.

"If you look at some of the maps ... by the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic survey, on those maps you can see changes that have taken place since the '60s," Rowland says.


History of Heroism and Loss

Though Antarctica may be warming, on the Fram's main deck it's plenty cold. Ten minutes into the cruise we are already wearing fleece jackets and hats and the wind is picking up. Technically, it is evening. But it is also summer at the bottom of the world. And the sun, like a fussy child, is refusing to go to bed. Through the windows of the dining hall below we can see the ship gaining on the waves. The Fram will soon enter the Drake Passage — where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. These are some of the most treacherous waters on the planet.

Rule no. 1 of travel is to live to tell the tale. So here we are, shivering in the wind on our first night. We are learning how to climb into highly unattractive, but life-saving, polar suits. If the ship sinks, we'll be the ones wearing orange.

Safety is emphasized even among the most experienced seafarers. "This is a very inhospitable and unpredictable and potentially dangerous environment we are sailing into," says expedition leader Karin Strand, a Norwegian who resembles the young Doris Day. In Norwegian, the word "fram" means "forward."

And in English, Strand means business. She dresses down anyone who won't bundle up. "Be prepared for severe and changeable weather. This is not home," she says sternly.

A boat like ours sank last year. Everyone aboard survived, but it reminds us that this part of the world is filled with stories of heroic failures and tragic loss.

Hermann Gran is a kind-faced Norwegian who's here to tell tales of adventure and danger in the Antarctic. He makes seafaring fun — and personal.

His father, Tryggve Gran, was a ski expert on the British Antarctic expedition from 1910 to 1913. It was during that legendary Antarctic expedition that the first explorer made it all the way to the South Pole. Unfortunately for the British — and for Sir Robert Falcon Scott, in particular — the Norwegians beat them out by a nose. Scott and his mates died on their trek back to camp. Hermann's father found their disappointed remains.

On board our boat, Gran reads from his father's diary entry, dated Nov. 12, 1913:

We buried our dead companions this morning. It was a truly solemn moment. We never moved them. We took the bamboos of the tent away, and the tent itself covered them. It was moving to witness 11 weather-beaten men standing with bared heads, singing. The sun flamed through the threatening storm clouds and strange colors played over the icy desert. Driving snow whirled up around us, and when the hymns came to an end, a white mantle had already covered the dead. We have erected a 12-foot cairn over the graves, and atop, a cross is made of a pair of skis.

Hermann's father wore Sir Robert Scott's pair of skis back — so that some small part of this great explorer could complete the journey home.

Land Ho!

But it is another world entirely on the 7th floor lounge deck, where the view is wet and the martinis are dry. Ocean liners have cornered the market on comfortable travel to Antarctica. Ours has a full bar, pistachio ice cream, and the wafting music of Billie Holiday.

And what do you know? After almost 40 hours of us sipping and pitching and sailing 600 miles south, one lone iceberg interrupts the limitless horizon, then two — then 20 or 30. And sooner than you can say "Land ho!" all the ship's windows fill with the most unusual skyline, endless mountains and glaciers frozen under elaborate petticoats of ice and snow.

Today we are dropping anchor for the first time, off the coast of the South Shetland Islands — and we're that much closer to the Antarctic Peninsula. Down in the mudroom, the air is positively electric. Fathers and sons, lifelong bridge partners, doctors' wives and doctors' husbands are struggling gamely into their Wellingtons and queuing for the motorboats. They want to see something that eludes the rest of us. They want to be somewhere that gives them goosebumps. They want to touch someplace that leaves them cold.

Produced by Jessica Goldstein

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