In The Pipeline: A beautiful prize: Antarctica

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

So goes one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes, and one my 14-year-old daughter, Claire, and I applied full force recently. In August, Claire heard about an essay contest. Quark Expeditions, a leading polar expedition company, had teamed up with SeaWorld to offer the chance for two to go on a spectacular Antarctic expedition to Snow Hill Island to see the emperor penguins aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, the historic Russian icebreaker.

The essay asked entrants 21 or older to write about their efforts to help preserve wildlife, and so I wrote about Claire's volunteer efforts at the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center and some of the columns I've written about the Bolsa Chica Wetlands.

Shortly after the contest closed Aug. 31, perhaps a day later, we received the phone call — we'd won.

With little more than a month to plan, we prepared for the journey. Thanks to my wife, everything we needed done was planned to a T, and about three weeks ago, off we went.

Claire and I arrived in Ushuaia ("the world's southernmost city") at the bottom tip of Argentina about 36 hours after leaving our house. We toured the gorgeous Tierra del Fuego National Park and the next day boarded the venerable ship along with about 90 other passengers, including celebrity guest Julie Scardina, animal ambassador for SeaWorld.

From there, well, it's hard to contain in one column. It feels more like a book, which I am thinking of writing. That said, soon after leaving the port city of Ushuaia, we were crossing the Drake Passage, called the roughest stretch of sea in the world.

For 48 hours, we rolled and bounced about our cabin ("Price of admission to Antarctica," a British passenger chuckled over an abbreviated dinner one evening) before we entered the Antarctic Sound. Passing gorgeous blue icebergs and glaciers, we soon arrived at Snow Hill Island, and the Kapitan created a parking space for itself by cutting into the ice. We took an ice walk after arrival for about an hour and saw lots of emperor penguins in the distance checking us out — as if they sensed that the aliens had arrived.

Next day, the helicopters flew us from the ship to the emperor penguin colonies. There, we witnessed, up close enough to touch, literally thousands of emperors and their chicks. It was amazing. We did the same thing two days later, communing with these special creatures in an icy, desolate, pristinely beautiful place that hardly any people have ever visited.

From Snow Hill Island, we set sail for Devil Island, Whalers Bay at Deception Island and a number of other mysterious, tucked-away refuges where Adélie penguins, Gentoos and chinstraps all thrive — beautiful, foreboding places that almost dare you to try and survive what they offer up, be it cold, rough seas or dense, rocky shores.

We saw the prettiest sunsets I've ever witnessed, more icebergs and glaciers and even Weddell seals. We cruised around in Zodiac boats, exploring life among the smaller hunks of ice floating in this chunky sea. We enjoyed numerous educational presentations onboard the ship ("This is an expedition, not a vacation," I was told,) and enjoyed wonderful meals with interesting people.

We watched nature documentaries, observed an onboard artist document the animal life around us, and watched one of the last great Russian icebreakers crush through tons of ice as we plowed back toward Ushuaia.

We enjoyed a faraway place that was so exotic, pure and intoxicating that we cannot wait to go back.

We certainly owe Quark Expeditions (and SeaWorld) a huge thank you for their exceptional professionalism, expertise and generosity.

However, this trip started in Huntington Beach, inspired by the wetlands that many dedicated environmentalists have worked hard to save. Without their efforts, I'm not sure we would have written a winning essay. So, on behalf of my family, continued thanks go to the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the Bolsa Chica Land Trust and everyone else who has made a difference in helping to preserve and protect these important areas. We are now even more indebted to you.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at chris@chrisepting.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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