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From the Chesapeake to Antarctica

In this white world, I seemed to be staring at heaven

I never considered myself the cruise-ship type until I woke up in a luxurious cabin well below 60 degrees south latitude — in Antarctica. The view out the window was so bright and dazzling that I might have been staring at ­heaven, for I could not look too long.
    After watching Cape Horn disappear the night before, I had fallen asleep as we clove grey seas into thick fog. Now the curtain had parted to reveal this icy Shangri-La, a splendor of mountains and ice gleaming all around us.
    Cruising to me has always meant the intimate and familiar joys of the Chesapeake aboard our trawler, Bright Pleiades. Coming upon a seafood shack cloistered in a creek or sea glass glinting on a hidden beach are as exhilarating as any far-flung port of call.
    Now, all around the cruise ship, cotton cloud had coiled around black rock spires, and snow blanketed the mountains into wedding cakes. I began to see swirly and luscious Antarctica as dessert, vanilla ice cream studded with dark chocolate cubes, promontories as cupcakes with streams of icy white cream. Around us, afloat, blueberry-tinted icebergs begat smaller berg fragments — contoured like a swan, a pipe organ, a three-legged toadstool.
    This winter my husband Guy Guthridge, an Antarctic expert, landed a stint as lecturer aboard a cruise ship bound for South America and Antarctica. As he could bring a guest, I swapped my 40-foot vessel to share a 785-foot-long behemoth named Zaandam with some 1,900 people. This ship had a ratio of about one crew to care for every two passengers. Did I have a problem with that?
    Like Margaret Mead arriving on a new island, I quickly picked up on the cultural norms aboard Zaandam. On our Bay trawler, I am safety officer (I suspect that’s because I get nervous sooner than Guy about the intentions of an approaching tug-and-tow). We ask all guests to don lifejackets, and we brief everyone on safety procedures. But on Zaandam, when all passengers were called to muster for a safety drill before departure from Valparaiso, Chile, we cooled our heels on deck while crew searched for missing passengers too lackadaisical to emerge from their cabins to learn where their assigned lifeboats were.
    Also new to me was the ship’s dress code of most days, “smart casual,” some days “formal” — a norm passengers in bathrobes and scruffy togs mainly ignored. On our trawler, it’s whatever keeps you warm, cool or dry.
    On Bright Pleiades I am chief cook and bottle-washer, laboring in the galley below while Guy regales our guests over hors d’oeuvres in the main salon. But on Zaandam, I leaned back in a sumptuous chair, enjoying cooking demonstrations of local dishes: charquican (a traditional Chilean beef stew) and gambas pil-pil (shrimp, Chilean style). Then there was the flower-arranging class (a guilty, unfulfilled passion of mine) and of course the lofty gym with its killer view to the horizon.
    On the Chesapeake, when our trawler arrives at a marina, I scurry around securing lines. But on this enormous ship, I looked out from a crows-nest perch eight stories up, marveling and photographing as we glided seamlessly into slips with the cities of Ushuaia, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires opening before us.
    Some 7,000 miles from the Chesapeake, we reached the Antarctic and saw our first whales. We learned to identify species by the shape of their blow. A humpback’s is described as bushy. A sperm whale’s tilts left, and a diminutive minke blows small and quick in keeping with its size. I watched humpbacks blow, tail-flap and breach. What I loved best: the slow, meditative tail-flap before they dove.
    We could look straight down over the side from Zaandam’s upper decks and see penguins porpoising through the green water. Three or more in formation streamed like bullets just beneath the surface, arched up through the air, then back beneath. This porpoising made a fast commute from rocky rookeries out to feeding areas past the ship.
    As captivating to watch as any creature was the fast-shifting weather wreathing Antarctica’s chiseled geology. Sun spotlights constantly caught and directed one’s gaze. Colors — white, black and grey — and surfaces — water, ice, cloud and sky — offered a spare palette, freeing my eye from the usual confusion of color. I squinted to check my camera; had I inadvertently been shooting in black-and-white? The landscape’s austerity made it natural to extract the abstract through the lens. Dark banks of cloud and fog with tattered underbellies pushed like live entities into a cove, then around a point, disappearing like ominous sprites.
    After three glorious days in Antarctica we turned north to plow for days over a seafloor three miles below. (In the Chesapeake it could be three inches.) The wandering albatrosses still kept with us, never tiring. Nor did we tire of watching them.
    Antarctica received us as guests, and the Chesapeake welcomes us as home. I savored the fleeting luxury of the enormous Zaandam. Back on the Bay, our trawler squeezes with inches to spare over a sand bar, tree branches rubbing the topsides, into a quiet creek just big enough for us.