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ICE-BREAKERS ON ANTARCTICA CRUISE, PASSENGERS GET ACQUAINTED WITH PENGUINS.

Byline: Story and photos by Mary S. Hartman Correspondent

PARADISE HARBOR, Antarctica - We were standing in the midst of a maternity ward at the bottom of the world.

All around us new life was emerging. Babies nestled close to mothers. Dads strutted around with all the pride of new fatherhood. Other couples waited patiently for the arrival of their little ones.

We were walking, half-hypnotized, through a Gentoo penguin rookery at Paradise Harbor on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, a finger of mountain and rock that pokes north from the massive Antarctic ice sheet.

It was mid-January, the height of summer on the White Continent. Tiny chicks were leaving the warmth of their shells for a life in the world's coldest climate, a life that, barring attacks by leopard seals or other predators, could last up to 20 years.

Cruising to Antarctica had been on our wish list for years, albeit at the bottom of that list. Minus the inclinations of early explorers Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, we dubbed it too far, too cold, maybe even too risky.

Then there was the matter of Drake Passage, a channel of water with an attitude that separates the tip of South America from Antarctica. It's here that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide and it is through these waters that most ships travel to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. The passage was named for Englishman Sir Francis Drake, who sailed here in the 1500s, the first man to circumnavigate the world.

Call it madness or enlightenment, but a few months ago Antarctica catapulted to the top of our travel list. Maybe it was the urge to tread where few have trod. Maybe it was to see penguins and other sea birds of the Southern Hemisphere. Or to visit our seventh continent.

But soon we were headed for the jumping-off point of virtually all Antarctica cruises - Ushuaia, Argentina, billed as ``The City at the End of the World.''

Some ships offer a cruise-by experience of Antarctica. From their decks, you can see this frigid land, but not set foot on it. Our chosen vessel, Orient Lines' Marco Polo, offered travelers on our itinerary three opportunities to say, ``I've walked on the rocks of Antarctica.''

Four days out of Ushuaia - and having survived Drake Passage - we found ourselves virtually wading in penguins on a rock outcropping that juts into Paradise Harbor about halfway down the 700-mile Antarctic Peninsula. Don't expect to dock at Paradise, nor at any other destination in this area.

Cruise ships large and small anchor in deep waters and carry visitors to shore in Zodiacs, heavy rubber motorized boats that may look like grand inflatable toys but are mean, lean machines designed for ship-to- shore landings. Each Zodiac seated 14 passengers.

Putting ashore on Antarctica in a rubber boat? Don't worry: Zodiac landings from cruise ships such as Marco Polo are choreographed to the -nth degree. First come high-tech life jackets, then a skilled crew that sees passengers down a short stairway outside of the ship and into the boat.

Prior to the cruise, passengers are asked to complete a wellness and fitness statement, but every passenger aboard the Marco Polo, even a few using walking devices, made it ashore with little difficulty.

So it was on day three of our journey that eager travelers donned red parkas - mandatory gear included as part of the cruise fare - and loaded into Zodiacs for a mini-cruise through the iceberg-shrouded waters of Cuverville Island, located in the general neighborhood of Paradise Harbor.

Zodiacs and icebergs don't mix, however - neither do large ships and icebergs - but a quarter mile distance between the two allows for safety and a sense of a berg's enormity. ``At the most, 30 percent of an iceberg is above water, usually less,'' said Dr. Neville Jones, a naturalist working for Marco Polo. ``You never know when these monstrosities are going to roll or break off, and one of these guys could do major damage to any ship.''

While the ship's captain and crew oversaw safety, passengers ogled and awed over the might and beauty of these floating ice castles. Brilliant streaks of turquoise within them create an aura of stained glass; the blue represents fresh water (rain and snow) that has cemented itself inside sea water ice. While the bergs surrounding Cuverville Island were relatively small, several other times during the cruise we passed behemoths the size of Yankee stadium - and that's only the surface.

But back to penguins, this time at the icy outpost of Port Lockroy, a former British whaling station. Here in the early 1900s, at least 3,000 whales were taken for their oil. A massive whale bone skeleton lies on the rocks in mute testimony to the butchering that took place here.

How do penguins stand the cold?

It's a query Jones has heard hundreds of times. ``With a layer of blubber and tightly bound feathers, they are made for it,'' he said. ``If the weather gets too warm, they begin to pant like a dog.''

These penguins weren't panting. Instead, they were preening, waddling, strutting, wading and swimming. One group was sending out loud distress calls as a skua bird, a giant-size potential predator, soared overhead. Eventually the skua left, presumably to heckle another colony, and these penguins returned to their business of making a living.

Mothers sat protectively on nests of newly hatched chicks. Those of us patient enough to stop gawking for a few minutes and focus on a single nest reaped the reward. Within five minutes, a chick popped its head from beneath mom's feathers and lifted its tiny beak upward.

That was the sign mom was waiting for. She'd been fishing that morning and had a craw filled with squid and other sea creatures. As baby's beak poked up and opened, mother's went down, and she regurgitated a nutritious penguin meal into her offspring's throat. With dinner done, baby retreated to safety beneath its mother.

Antarctic penguins must build their nests with materials at hand, namely rocks. Vegetation is virtually nonexistent on the peninsula. If it exists at all, it consists of moss in sparse patches, a couple of Liliputian-size flowering plants and a few scrawny blades of Antarctic hair grass. So, out of necessity, rocks are it.

The nest-building process is never-ending. At both Paradise and Port Lockroy, we watched as males used their beaks to scoop up rocks, one at a time, and drop them proudly in their mates' nests. In a common procedure, one fella snatched a 2-inch rounded rock from a nearby nest, precipitating a noisy dispute between thief and victim.

Victory went to the thief. This custom of rock exchange intrigued a group of British researchers to the point that they applied for and were granted permission, a few years ago, to precede the penguins to one of their rookeries and spray-paint individual nests in various colors - blue, red, green and yellow.

``By the end of that season, before the penguins moved north to escape the ice, the place looked as if it had been splatter painted,'' one of the ship's naturalists told us. ``Rocks of every color were everywhere.'' In Antarctica, you might say that penguins are in the stock exchange - er, rock exchange business.

The Marco Polo anchored at Port Lockroy for a day in the midst of scenery straight out of paradise: crystalline blue skies, cobalt-blue waters, a string of mountain peaks appearing as snow-capped cathedrals. On the starboard side of the ship rose a virtual V-shaped Mount Fuji, and beyond that lay a massive wind-swept snowfield sculpted like a Sahara sand dune.

Ice formations looking like spun glass drifted in the bay around us. Some had melted through in spots, creating huge windows, peek-holes to the icy world beyond. Cruising toward Port Lockroy, we had passed a mountain that looked for all the world as if it had just been swirled from a Dairy Queen machine. And, snow-covered as they were, the formations were a blinding white.

Volcanism, as recent as 1970, created these and other formations of the Antarctic Peninsula. And, climate - the constant freezing of water, then its thawing, which occurs for the few weeks of summer - has played an enormous role. The result is a wonderland of ice and snow.

The following day, our last to make a landing, we bundled into six layers of clothing, including our plump red parkas. Waddling down the hall to the Marco Polo's Zodiac staging area, we looked very much like fat little red penguins wandering from the nests for our daily outing.

We were at crescent-shaped Half Moon Island to see chinstraps, a species of penguin distinguished by a black band below the beak. They, too, nest in rocks, although here the rocks are sharp and jagged, making the chinstrap's quarters seem even less comfortable than the Gentoo nests of rounded stones at Paradise and Port Lockroy. Recent surveys put the number of Half Moon penguins in excess of 3,000 breeding pairs. The jagged landscape here lends an almost ghostly, outer-space appearance to the place. Huge necks of angular stone jut upward from penguin nesting grounds, perfect vantage points for Antarctic tern and skua birds. Massive mountains rise behind. The penguins, however, go about their business as though they lived in an American suburb.

As our Zodiac pulled onto the beach, one particularly inquisitive fellow waddled to within 15 feet of us. ``It's the mayor,'' quipped a member of our group. ``He's coming to extend the welcome.''

Aside from raising their young, part of a penguin's business is keeping clean, a necessary function when you consider the mess that thousands of penguins living in fairly close quarters can make each day. Thus, sometime during the day, each penguin waddles off to the ``bath tub'' - the cold Antarctic waters nearby.

Watching from the shore as they toddled off to the sea, one can't help but notice that their ``shirts'' aren't white - they are covered in pink guano.

Not for long, however. As chinstraps emerge from the sea, they look as if their shirts are fresh out of the laundry. They don't like to be dirty any more than we do, naturalists told us. Traveling to Antarctica is a bit like tossing a pebble into a pond. You go because of your interest, and you begin to learn. The more you learn, the more you want to learn. That's the ripple effect started by the pebble in the first place.

IF YOU GO

THE CRUISE: This is a trip that deserves research before you go. Virtually all travelers to Antarctica will visit it on a cruise ship. Ask: ``Am I content to cruise past the ice and mountains of Antarctica or do I want to step foot on the continent?'' Your answer will quickly narrow your choices. In the past few years, Princess and Holland America have offered a cruise-by experience. Smaller ships, some carrying fewer than 100 passengers, provide a chance to disembark. Your travel agent, along with research on the Internet, can help you narrow the possibilities.

Our cruise was on the Orient Lines' Marco Polo. Fares for its 11-day Antarctic Peninsula cruise start at $4,345 per person, double occupancy. Four such cruises are scheduled for next January. Information: www.orientlines.com; (800) 333-7300.

CONDITIONS: Assess your tolerance for rough seas. If you are a queasy cruiser, you might want to consider a larger ship. Vessels such as the Marco Polo, with a gross weight of 22,000 tons, are large enough to somewhat buffer the pitching and rolling that can come with the Drake Passage crossing. Weather and the chance of seeing the Antarctic under blue skies is always iffy. High summer, which is mid-January, offers the best possibility. Virtually all cruise lines confine themselves to the period between mid-December and mid-February, at which point the ice begins to set in again.

WHAT TO BRING: Pay close attention to the suggested clothing list that will be sent in advance of the cruise. Dress in layers. Bring binoculars, lots of sun screen and camera film (or memory cards for your digital camera).

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) Neptune's Bellows, above, massive mountains on the Gerlache Strait, top, and the adorable chinstrap penguins of Half Moon Island, above right, are among the rewarding sights on a cruise to Antarctica aboard Orient Lines' Marco Polo.

(4 -- 5) The mountains known as the Seven Sisters tower above Antarctica's Port Lockroy, a former British whaling station, left; and on the rocky shore, a Gentoo penguin mom looks after her chick, above.

Mary S. Hartman/Great Escapes

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 17, 2005
Words:2113
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