By Virtuoso Life contributing writer David Hochman

Today’s wake-up call in Antarctica was a low rumble that ended with a long, gentle crunch. Pulling back the blackout shades in my cabin on Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Explorer, I gasped a little. For days, we’d been cruising the Southern Ocean’s blue-black waters on our way from Argentina to the southernmost continent, but now those “waters” had turned gleaming white with ice – a solid sheet that extended in every direction to the mountains and glacial highlands around us. The sun shone through a deep-blue sky as a welcoming party in tuxedos headed our way. Could it be? Yes! Penguins!

Our smiling expedition leader, Lisa Trotter, a young woman who’s logged more than 900 hours exploring Antarctic and Arctic waters, chimed in on the PA system to announce a change of plans for the morning. (It’s an expedition; changes are part of the excitement.) The schedule read kayaking, but instead we went ice-roving. It’s rare to get a day on the Antarctic Peninsula this sunny, windless, and warm (mid-30s), so the ice was our playground. After a quick breakfast and safety briefing, we headed out the gangway to a scene few humans ever get to see. Less than one percent of the world’s population has visited Antarctica, and as we 148 passengers walked out onto the ice, we eyed each other with appreciation.

Next came the glee. Strolling across the sea’s frozen surface in our red Lindblad-issued parkas and life jackets (just in case), we were met by a group of penguins who waddled straight toward us: first in twos and threes, then eights and nines, then by the dozens. Our briefing made it clear penguins have the right-of-way, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t let them come to us. The only warning I’ll offer: Take an extra data card and batteries for your camera. Penguins really are that cute.

Just before lunch, Lisa invited us all – the young, the seasoned, and the terrified – to experience the famous polar plunge. It’s as brutal as it sounds, but it’s maybe the most invigorating cannonball I’ve ever landed. The water was 29 degrees. I “swam” in the Southern Ocean for all of 4.6 seconds. As I scampered back toward the Explorer, wrapped in towels and a robe – and feeling quite smug about my intrepid accomplishment – I swear I saw one of those penguins laughing at me.