There are a few ways to get to Antarctica. Land a job or research time at one of the year-round science bases or summer field camps—the continent's only human-inhabited structures, each run by one of 30 countries that have established a scientific toehold there—or visit by air (a flyover from Australia, a camping/skiing adventure accessed by a plane from Chile or Argentina, a brief helicopter touch-down offered by certain cruise ships) or water (cruise line, science vessel, re-supply ship or even yacht).
Each year only about 30,000 visitors make it to Antarctica. Pamelia and I would travel there on a medium-sized Russian science ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, with a Russian crew, an international team from Canada-based One Oceans Expeditions, esteemed British zoologist, conservationist, writer and wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine and 96 other passengers, nearly all of them from Great Britain or elsewhere in Europe.
The only person on board we had met before was Mark Carwardine, the organizer of the trip, with whom we briefly chatted in 2011 after a talk he gave at the Watermill Theater near Bath, England. Mark is one of Europe's best-known and most respected naturalists.
Because of Mark's passionate work on behalf of endangered species—of which Pamelia first became aware in 1990, when she read Last Chance to See, the late genius Douglas Adams's funny yet sobering account of accompanying Mark on a global expedition to find species on the verge of extinction, including aye-ayes, Yangtze river dolphins and northern white rhinos—we had highlighted Mark at our Naturalist's Notebook public space in Seal Harbor, Maine. We had even commissioned Portland, Maine, artist Carolyn Heasly to make rhino stuffed animals as a tribute to Max, a southern white rhino (later killed by poachers) that was featured in the 2009 sequel to Last Chance to See, which was written and filmed by Mark with the brilliant British comic actor and writer Stephen Fry.
To this day, Pamelia considers the original Last Chance to See one of her favorite books and she has given copies of it—and of the 2009 BBC video series Last Chance to See, which is a must see—to countless friends and acquaintances.
As wonderful as we knew Mark was, we were still surprised to learn that more than three-quarters of the passengers on the Vavilov had previously taken trips with him, to places ranging from Baja California (Mark's favorite place for seeing whales) to the Arctic. One passenger had taken something like 14 such trips. Given that, and knowing that Mark had been to the Antarctic 23 times, we knew we had picked the right voyage for our once-in-a-lifetime journey south.
And then, over our first dinner on board, Boris Wise, One Ocean Expedition's leader for the trip, told us we'd better secure our cabins before going to bed. He said that as soon as we left the Beagle Channel and headed toward the Falkland Islands, gale-force winds and large waves from a storm were going to slam us.
Which they did. But the real excitement on this trip was just beginning.
Coming next: churning seas (below), nesting albatrosses, rockhopper penguins (also below) and the first appearance of Charles Darwin. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood