Where the wild things are
Author: Kendall Hill
Photography: Sharyn Cairns (Sea of Cortez), James Geer (Amazon), Alamy Stock Photo (Kaziranga, Wilhelmina Bay, Galapagos Islands)
The Sea Adventurer's newsletter serves up fresh inspiration to passengers each morning. Today's uplifting quote is from the American ornithologist Bradford Torrey. No, I haven't heard of him either, but his words ring true for me. "Life would lose its charm for most of us if we could no longer pursue the unattainable."
It's hard to disagree with him when you're in the midst of pursuing the unattainable. I'm on a 15-day expedition cruise from Greenland through the Canadian Arctic, attempting to cross the once impassable, notoriously fickle Northwest Passage. That's the ultimate aim of this ambitious voyage run by Adventure Canada, but the real charm lies in getting there.
A humpback whale in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica.
Every day is a revelation. The Arctic unfurls as a fantasy land of polar bears and narwhals and calving glaciers and the genius Inuktitut language and mirages and throat-singing and icebergs as big as shopping malls and shaggy muskox and a world barren and lethal but also beautiful beyond words.
The Arctic changed my outlook on travel. It made me appreciate, in the strongest possible terms, that if as a traveller you're prepared to leave your comfort zone, embrace challenges and - crucially - exercise your sea legs, you can visit parts of the planet that are inaccessible to most.
Expedition cruising is the passport to 21st-century adventure. Rare sights and magnificent experiences await. Wild places we only ever read and dreamed of - the Amazon, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, Papua New Guinea - are now within comfortable reach. Getting to the most remote of these wild places isn't cheap - Antarctic voyages cost from about $13,000 - but what price a journey to the ends of the Earth?
I didn't seriously consider the potential of expedition cruising until Gourmet Traveller sent me on assignment to Mexico's Sea of Cortez almost a decade ago. I cruised from LA aboard Prince Albert II, a 132-passenger polar explorer operated by the sleek Italian line Silversea. Prince Albert II, since renamed Silver Explorer, was "repositioning" from the Arctic to the Antarctic, so this Mexican safari was a bonus addition to its regular schedule. And what a bonus it was.
On the second morning at sea I was woken by the splish of dolphins leaping from the sea outside my balcony door. You know you're winning at life when your days start with dolphins.
That afternoon we tailed a pair of blue whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed. The sight of their gigantic bodies slicing the sea gracefully was mesmerising. For two rapt hours I couldn't imagine anywhere else I'd rather be than drifting through the Gulf of California.
I had the same feeling the next day when 2,000 long-backed dolphins mobbed our ship in a feeding frenzy. The sea was a 360-degree theme park of dolphins leaping in unison, some even skittering along the surface on their tail flippers. We were the only witnesses to this incredible spectacle.
Expeditioners are pretty much guaranteed to see something unbelievable every time they head out on excursion. Itineraries are designed that way, with destinations chosen specifically for their wow factor. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences happen once - or twice, or three times - a day.
Riberño people in the Peruvian Amazon.
In the space of 24 hours cruising the Peruvian Amazon it's possible to stand face to face (briefly, before fleeing) with a menacing anaconda in the jungle, feel a pink-toed tarantula tiptoe over your skin and play games in the river with dozens of squealing children at sunset.
In Antarctica every dawn unveils a breathtaking new landscape brimming with undreamt-of adventures. My favourite morning was in Wilhelmina Bay when a welcoming herd of a dozen humpbacks swam around our inflatables and fluked and breached against a backdrop of glaciers and luminescent clouds.
Closer to home, Papua New Guinea is a goldmine of unique travel moments best explored by boat. It's safer that way, for starters, but also the welcome is warmer if you arrive by water. On a 14-day cruise from Rabaul to Brisbane with Aurora Expeditions, we were treated like royalty by the locals. At every landing there were elaborate and colourful "sing-sings" to celebrate our visit. Some villagers greeted us dressed only in discreetly placed tapa cloth, shells and feathers. On the Sepik River a girl appeared with a parrot on her head as though that were the most natural thing to do when guests drop in. One night we dined by the lava lamp of an active volcano.
A rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park, India.
There's no rest for the intrepid on an expedition ship. The Arctic turned out to be an exhilarating fortnight of 5am starts, 11pm hikes, and one insane dive into the freezing ocean because - well, why not? You only live once.
During a voyage along India's Brahmaputra River we rose long before dawn to reach Kaziranga National Park in time to share an indelible sunrise with herds of elephants and rare one-horned rhinoceroses. Later that day a massive tiger, its head framed by elephant grass on the riverbank, looked on impassively as our expedition boats drifted by. He fled only when one passenger began screaming with excitement.
In the famously biodiverse Galápagos Islands, twice-daily outings might serve up blood-red beaches and penguins one day, sluggish sea lions and dancing boobies the next. Also giant turtles, hammerhead sharks, seven species of whales and crayon-coloured iguanas. But the only way to see all this is to go by boat.
It's inevitable the unexpected will happen. A big part of the thrill of an ocean expedition is never knowing precisely what each day might bring. Will there be whales? Will a polar bear float past on an iceberg? Will there be a sunset to rival all sunsets?
The Galápagos Islands' biodiversity make them a sought-after destination.
Expeditioners become addicted to out-of-theordinary experiences and drive demand for extreme trophy adventures, such as ice camping and marathon running in Antarctica. Silver Explorer's 2017 itinerary along the west coast of Africa visits some of the world's least-touristed countries - Angola, the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Togo and Benin - and is sold out with a waiting list. Crystal Cruises, a latecomer to the expedition scene, will launch the polar-class megayacht Crystal Endeavor in 2018, equipped with two helicopters and two submarines to cater to "particularly daring" travellers, according to Crystal president and CEO Edie Rodriguez.
The two biggest wildcards on any expedition are the elements beyond our control. The oceans and the weather often get the better of best intentions, as I discovered on a scheduled voyage from Hobart to Tasmania's notoriously unattainable south-west.
It certainly lived up to its reputation. Foul weather and wild seas meant we didn't even get close to the promised land of Port Davey, in the heart of the World Heritage wilderness region. Instead, we spent a week being battered up and down the island's east coast.
That cruise in the Sea of Cortez was memorable not only for the thrilling marine wildlife but also because it had to be aborted early when the ship was pincered between two hurricanes.
And, thanks to the heaviest summer ice in more than a decade, we never did make it through the Northwest Passage. But after the sublime sights of the Arctic Circle, it didn't matter. More than any other form of travel, expedition cruising is as much about the journey as the destination.