It was like visiting Disneyland, Las Vegas and Mars simultaneously.
--Victor Boyarsky, Russian polar explorer
As I board a tender (boat) for the last excursion of the cruise, someone in line says, "The only good thing about this is that it's the last time I have to put on all this gear." Talk about bittersweet. Once in the tender, I discover I've forgotten my warm woolen hat. No matter. In a swift Plan B move, I pull up my parka's hood instead. I've fully embraced "polar practicality."
The weather today is giving us a star-studded send-off. The sun is out, there's not a whisper of wind and it's a positively balmy 34 degrees as we motor into the expansive 15-mile-wide Wilhelmina Bay. It's called "Whale-mina Bay" for its large number of humpbacks, one of which was spotted earlier this morning. Snowy mountains and sky-high glaciers curtain the landscape. Sculpted by the wind, the snow resembles sand dunes, undulating sensuously along the horizon. The glassy water is littered with icebergs and islands.
I remember that polar explorer Ernest Shackleton hoped to reach Wilhelmina Bay when his ship, Endurance, was crushed by ice and sank in the Weddell Sea. He was hoping to be rescued by one of the many whalers that frequented the bay, but he never made it there.
As we glide by a particularly dramatic berg on our Zodiac cruise, our guide, Will Baker, says, "I try to figure out the story of that iceberg, how it's rolled over the years and broken off." Indeed, each iceberg has its own history, its own tale to tell, like a living organism of the sea. As I look deep into the cold, clear water, I remember that 90 percent of an iceberg is submerged below the surface. It's startling to think what we see is only the tippy top.
Soon, we spot a pair of kelp gulls perched on a small outcropping, followed by a Weddell seal, lounging nonchalantly on his gondola of ice. Click, click go the cameras. We make our way to Enterprise Island, which has the semi-submerged wreck of the Norwegian whaling ship, Guvernoren. The 3,344-ton ship functioned as one of the largest whaling factory ships of her time, processing some 22,000 gallons of oil per voyage. In 1915, the ship caught fire during a night of hard partying and was run aground to save the men and supplies. All 85 men survived unharmed and were rescued by another whaling vessel. The eerie, rusted hulk, tucked into the snow and ice, has now become a home to Antarctic terns that flit around it.
Early in the afternoon, we leave Wilhelmina Bay via the Gerlache and Bransfield straits while a megawatt sun lights up the landscape like a runway. Forget Montana. This big sky country goes on forever, pierced by razor-sharp ice mountains like humps across the horizon. The air is so clean, so free of impurities, that the light is intoxicating. There's no other light on earth is like it.
We take it easy the rest of the day and soak in the picture-perfect weather. I actually spot a couple sunbathing on the outdoor deck -- fully clothed! On our way toward the Drake Passage, we pass a tubular berg the size of Manhattan, with sharply sheered sides as flat as an iron. We stare at it with awe, contemplating the lethal power of that behemoth of ice. What a fitting farewell from this icy kingdom.