Ocean Nova

Expedition staff member Vladimir mans the tiller on a zodiac during a cruise through Cierva Cove that was rewarded with spectacular views of icebergs. The Ocean Nova is in the background. (Phil Marty/For the Chicago Tribune)

CIERVA COVE, Antarctica — The icebergs are amazing.

Some are no larger than a refrigerator. Others are the size of an ocean liner, dwarfing our puny Zodiac as Vladimir, a member of the expedition staff, steers it among these ancient ice chunks.

"That looks like a golf ball," says one of the eight passengers, pointing to a dimpled orb the size of a house.

We cruise by another that rises out of the water 15 to 20 feet at its highest point and looks to me like the snout of an alligator.

Wind and waves have sculpted sensual curves into some of the bergs and symmetrical crevices into others. Still others show rugged, angular lines as if they'd just been cleaved from a glacier.

But the most haunting ones, the ones still burned into my memory, are those that glow a deep blue. They look as if a light has been flipped on inside.

The phenomenon, Vladimir explains, is a result of air being forced out of the ice by pressure and/or melting, which changes how the light is reflected.

This is the afternoon of our first full day aboard the M/V Ocean Nova, a diminutive 240-foot-long expedition ship with an ice-strengthened hull that makes it ideal for cruising these iceberg-infested waters during the brief Antarctic summer.

My trip in early January, booked through polar travel specialist Quark Expeditions, had a unique aspect. Many Antarctic expeditions sail from southern Argentina or southern Chile and eat up two days down and two days back cruising across the notoriously rough Drake Passage.

But on our trip, the 60 of us boarded a relatively small airliner in Punta Arenas, Chile, and two hours later stepped onto the unpaved, short runway at Frei Station on King George Island, part of the South Shetland Islands.

The South Shetlands run parallel to the northwest coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, separated by the roughly 100-mile-wide Bransfield Strait, and it's here that this trip of a lifetime truly begins.

And, speaking of the trip of a lifetime, when you tell someone you're going to Antarctica, you get two reactions:

"Wow! I've always wanted to go there," or "Why would you want to go there? You'll freeze!"

First things first: No, you won't freeze. Antarctica's summer (our winter) has modest temps (think 30s) along the Antarctic Peninsula. It is much colder on the interior of the continent, but that's not where most tourists go.

Matter of fact, while many people in North America were frosted over, we were sitting out on deck at 8:30 one night (the sun wouldn't set for almost three more hours) wearing jackets while eating barbecue and drinking beer and wine under clear blue skies.

Now, as to why would you want to go there?

This is a place where you see something like those amazing icebergs and think, "Well, how are you going to top that?" Then the next day you see gentoo penguins tending to the cutest little babies you'd ever want to see. These balls of fluff with their reddish-orange beaks are no more than a week old and small enough you could hold one in the palm of your hand (but can't, of course).

But how are you going to top that?

It's another morning in the Zodiac and it's no coincidence that this place is called Paradise Bay. Frozen mountains rise along the shore and are reflected into the still, deep-blue waters. The only sounds come from the purr of the outboard motor and the thunk, thunk, thunk of chunks of ice bouncing off the bottom of the Zodiac's hull.