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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Get ready, we're headed on a cruise to one of the world's most inhospitable places on the planet. As part of NPR's series Climate Connections with National Geographic, were going to Antarctica. Around 40,000 tourists are expected to visit this year. They're going for various reasons, not least to see the continent before the changing climate changes it too much. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

(Soundbite of barge horn)

GWEN THOMPKINS: There comes a time when the ties of home life loosen. Some give way completely and one is moved as if by nature herself to put to sea. At least that's what the books tell us. Herman Melville called that feeling - when it is November in my soul. A sea journey puts you on a continuum of discovery that began well before Magellan, or Columbus, or Red-faced Old Leif Ericsson. You were connected somehow to the age of exploration, even when your boat has Wi-Fi and an all you can eat buffet.

Mr. MICHAEL KALWEIT (Broker of leveraged buyouts): Let's see, we're at 54 degrees south, 60 degrees west, and we're standing 71 feet above water. Right now we're doing three miles an hour.

THOMPKINS: Michael Kalweit is standing on the deck of the MS Fram, an ice breaking Norwegian pleasure ship that has just pulled away from the southern most tip of South America. The Fram is heading south and Kalweit's fancy GPS watch is tracking the ships progress. Antarctica you see, is the dream, the destination, the prize, and Kalweit, who ordinarily brokers leveraged buyouts in Chicago, can feel that he's at the beginning of something extraordinary.

Mr. KALWEIT: Surprisingly you find an occasional person who's actually been her before and they get really excited and they tell you about how wonderful this trip is. It's almost a religious experience to go down there. I'm like, how can that be?

THOMPKINS: There are more than two hundred passengers aboard the ship and about a million and a half reason why they're here. Lorraine Longmore keeps a bed and breakfast in Connecticut, and she says she feels like one of the great explorers. Not Ernest Shackleton per se, or Robert Falcon Scott or even Norwegian Roald Amundsen. No, Longmore says she feels like her mother.

Ms. LORRAINE LONGMORE (Bed and breakfast owner in Connecticut): My mother was a world traveler and did it on freighters, around the world twice and several other voyages. I have never had that opportunity, so I am so excited about this one.

THOMPKINS: But somewhere amid all the optimism is the wisp of a worry that Antarctica could no longer be the same continent that the polar explorers encountered. After all, climates everywhere are changing. The scientists say so, Al Gore says so, and the company says so too.

Mr. BOB ROWLAND (Geologist): We always found out that it melts around the outside, so most of the changes that you see for snow and ice melting is around the edges of the continent.

THOMPKINS: That's Bob Rowland, a geologist who's been hired by the Hurtigruten's Cruise Line to talk about the affects of global warming on the Antarctic Peninsula. He can't say for sure that what we'll see is the climate changing before our very eyes, but apparently some parts of Antarctica are not as cold as they used to be.

Mr. ROWLAND: If you look at some of the maps that have been produced by the National Science Foundation and the British Antarctic Survey, on those maps you can see changes that have taken place since the '60s.

THOMPKINS: On the Fram's main deck, it's plenty cold. Ten minutes into the cruise, we're already wearing fleece jackets and hats and the wind is picking up, up, up. Technically it's evening, but it's also summer at the bottom of the world, and the sun, like a fussy child, is refusing to go to bed. Through the windows of a dining hall below, we can see the ship gaining on the waves. The Fram will so enter the Drake Passage, where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet. These are some of the most treacherous waters on the planet.

(Soundbite of beeps and intercom announcement)

THOMPKINS: Rule number one of travel is to live to tell the tale. So here we are, shivering in the wind that first night. We're learning how to climb into the most unattractive, but life-saving polar suits. If the ship sinks, we'll be the ones wearing orange.

Ms. KARIN STRAND (expedition leader): It's just a very inhospitable and unpredictable and potentially dangerous environment we are sailing into.

THOMPKINS: That's expedition leader Karin Strand, a Norwegian who resembles the young Doris Day. In Norwegian, the word Fram means forward, and in English, Karin Strand means business. She dresses down anyone who won't bundle up.

Ms. STRAND: So being prepared for severe and changeable weather. This is not home.

THOMPKINS: A boat like ours sank last year and every on aboard survived. But it reminds us that this part of the world is filled with stories of heroic failures and tragic loss. Herman Gran is a kind-faced Norwegian who's here to tell tales of adventure and danger in the Antarctic.

Mr. HERMAN GRAN: My father was Tryggve Gran. He was a skiing expert on the British Antarctic expedition from 1910 to 1930.

THOMPKINS: It was during that legendary Antarctic expedition that the first explorer made it all the way to the South Pole. Unfortunately for the British, and for Sir Robert Falcon Scott in particular, the Norwegians beat them by a nose. Scott and mates died on the walk back to camp and Herman's father found their disappointed remains. Herman has his father's diary entry, dated November 12, 1913.

Mr. GRAN: We buried our dead companions this morning. It was a truly solemn moment. Driving snow whirled up around us and by the end of the hymns, the white mantle had covered the dead.

THOMPKINS: Above the graves, the men fashioned a cross out of a pair of skis. Herman's father wore Sir Robert Scott's pair back so that some small part of this great explorer could complete the journey home.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: But it's another world entirely on the 7th floor lounge deck, where the view is wet and the martinis are dry. Ocean liners have cornered the market on comfortable travel to Antarctica. Ours has a full bar, pistachio ice cream, and the incomparable Billy Holiday.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: And what do you know? After almost 40 hours of us sipping and pitching and sailing 600 miles south, one lone iceberg interrupts the limitless horizon, then two, then twenty and thirty. And sooner than you can say Land Ho all the ship's windows fill with the most unusual skyline, endless mountains and glaciers are frozen under elaborate petticoats of ice and snow.

(Soundbite of anchor dropping)

THOMPKINS: Today, we're dropping anchor for the first time off the coast of the Shetland Islands, that much closer to the Antarctic Peninsula. Down in the mudroom, the air is positively electric. Fathers and sons, lifelong bridge partners, doctor's wives and doctor's husbands are struggling gamely into their Wellingtons and queuing for the motorboats. They want to see something that eludes the rest of us. They want to be somewhere that gives them goose bumps. They want to touch someplace that leaves them cold.

Gwen Tompkins, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow you can join Gwen and her fellow passengers on the ice. And you can take a photographic tour of Antarctica at npr.org/climateconnections. There you can see the latest video by public television's "Wild Chronicles."

This is NPR News.

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