I was sitting at the top of a snowy peak at the bottom of the world. It was my first sailing to Antarctica and we were on one of the first continental landings of the trip. From my vantage point, I could see penguins going about their business, a cold gray sea, and vast amounts of ice in all shapes and sizes. I was overcome by the power and raw beauty of the White Continent. But then another thought struck me: “This is all melting as we speak.” It was a strange moment: to be both appreciating Antarctica’s grandeur and grappling with the invisible threat it faces.
Which is why I was relieved to be traveling with Quark Expeditions, an expedition cruise line that’s put sustainability front and center of its mission. During my 11-day sailing, I learned an incredible amount about science—and, relatedly—how to travel more responsibly. In lectures led by the scientists who doubled as the crew, I gleaned insights on glaciology, marine biology, and ornithology, as well as the conservation efforts being undertaken to protect wildlife. Even the ship and its daily passenger programs are designed not only to navigate the challenging waters but also to protect this pristine land.
Here’s how Quark is changing the narrative around polar cruising.
You may think you’ve seen a lot of snow—perhaps after a blizzard or on an epic ski trip, but then you see what millions of years of accumulation looks like. The average thickness of the White Continent’s ice sheet is 7,218 feet, with some places measuring up to 15,669 feet deep. Stunning glaciers, which can be as old as 2,000 years, and the icebergs they calve are everywhere, with colors ranging from white to indescribable blues depending on the amount of air trapped within.
Beneath the awe this dreamy landscape inspires, there’s an underlying reality: it’s melting. Some studies suggest that the last 50 years have seen an average wintertime temperature increase to 43 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the southern polar region, which is dramatically increasing sea levels. According to Dr. Lauritz Schonfeld, Quark’s onboard glaciologist, we are only now beginning to understand the rate of melting and its impact.
Quark’s glaciologists educate guests, but they’re also actively working in their capacity as glaciologists, according to operations and sustainability manager Lyndsey Lewis. For example, some are studying underground lakes and rivers that feed the world’s oceans.
For most travelers, the marquee wildlife—penguins and other birds, whales, and seals—are Antarctica’s main draw. And it was thrilling to see albatross and orcas follow the ship, and watch elephant seals sun on the shores, and wander near a gentoo penguin colony, and watch a humpback whale breach from my kayak. It was equally satisfying to learn how Quark Expeditions helps to protect this wildlife.
Because, unavoidably, there’s another side to the story. According to Tom Mitchell, our expedition’s marine biologist, we were viewing an ecosystem under stress. The food chain depends on krill, a small shrimplike crustacean abundant in these waters. With changing water temperatures, krill levels are decreasing—threatening the balance of the entire ecosystem. Adrian Boyle, the onboard ornithologist, added that chinstrap penguins have experienced a 50 percent population decline in the past decade alone.
That makes protecting wildlife even more essential.
While on land, passenger programs advocate careful stewardship to minimize tourism impact. Expedition leader Alison Kirk-Lauritsen says tours to Antarctica operate under codes of conduct developed by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).
Notable tenants of this United Nations–founded organization include protocols limiting the number of passengers that can land at any one time (100) and strict guidelines for how to interact with the wildlife (to start: lower your voices). A representative of IAATO happened to be onboard our expedition to ensure that rules were being followed in light of the growing polar tourism industry.
Quark also follows the guidelines set out by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), which promotes responsible travel, both environmentally and socially.
While sailing, guides educate guests on wildlife and their behaviors. Travelers are taught to remain quiet (no shouting or other loud noises) to avoid disturbing wildlife, says sustainability manager Lyndsey Lewis. Ships never move within 200 meters of a polar bear, and on Zodiac excursions, guides don’t follow swimming seals—and they steer clear of any seal pups.
Quark also supports several organizations through onboard auctions: Proceeds support habitat restoration on the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (which has seen local bird populations increase in recent years as a result), as well as Penguin Watch, a citizen-science program that monitors penguin populations. (Lewis says that members of the Penguin Watch team often join expeditions in order to maintain equipment and continue research.)
Sustainable travel is a key part of the journey. So important, in fact, that on Earth Day 2019, Quark launched its Polar Promise: a commitment to protect the Arctic and Antarctic regions that includes responsible business practices, a reduction in carbon emissions, conservation work, and a polar ambassador program. In February 2020, it released its first Sustainability Report.
Quark Expeditions’ ships are specifically designed to operate more efficiently than traditional cruise ships, with new technology going into the engines and overall design.
In 2021, the company will launch Ultramarine, a 200-passenger ship featuring a micro-auto-gasification-system (MAGS), a fancy name for a waste-processing system that converts waste into energy, eliminating the need to transport it. The ship will also have a propulsion system similar to that of a Prius (part diesel and part electricity generated and captured from the engines); ecofriendly lighting; and a redesigned hull and propeller that minimize resistance, thereby conserving energy. The dynamic positioning capabilities (a system that positions ships in the water) of Ultramarine minimize wildlife disturbance, Lewis says.
Onboard, the commitment is just as rigorous. The company has eliminated single-use plastics, participates in the ship-focused SeaGreen recycling program in Ushuaia, and is working toward a fully zero-waste plan.
This balance between helping people see the polar regions and helping to protect them is a fine one.
“The polar regions are the last great frontiers for humankind to explore,” Lewis says. “But they also must be protected. David Attenborough said it best: ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they haven’t experienced.’”
How to cruise to Antarctica
A growing number of tour operators offer options to Antarctica. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition runs reputable programs where donations support conservation education and advocacy.
In light of the pandemic, Quark has put a number of programs in place to protect both passengers and crew—and will likely add more as time goes on. Travelers and crew are screened daily; there are enhanced air filtration systems in place, socially distanced public spaces, and enhanced protocols (including deeper, more frequent cleaning and mask mandates onboard).
Since it’s so difficult to plan these days, the company also offers full refunds for any COVID-19 related cancellation, including on the day of departure. To travel with Quark, explore its 2021/2022 Antarctic departures.