A pilot's once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Antarctica - United Hub
Employee Travel Blog

A pilot's once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Antarctica

By The Hub team , June 30, 2017

Each week we profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.

By Houston-based 737 Captain Charles Scott Williams

Antarctica is a desolate, remote part of the planet that intrigued me, and with the help of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, arrangements were made, and the trip was a go. Buenos Aires was the midpoint of a journey to the bottom of the world. From Buenos Aires, a charter flight took my wife and me to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we met our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, for the Drake Passage crossing to Antarctica. The reputation of rough seas across the Drake Passage preceded it and a conversation with my next door neighbor, a United States Navy veteran who had sailed this oceanic region in an aircraft carrier, didn't help ward off my apprehension of said rough seas. He told me of waves that equaled the height of his ship's flight deck. The Explorer, at 6,471 tons, is tiny in comparison to an aircraft carrier, and I envisioned bobbing like a cork on the rough seas of the Drake Passage. As it turned out, the seas provided wave heights of approximately 15 feet, which was an interesting ride, but the timing of the crossing was such that we crossed the majority of the Passage while we slept.

Antarctica Sabra and Scott on deck of  the National Geographic Explorer

I awoke to bright sunshine and calm waters with icebergs floating all around. Like an excited child on Christmas morning, I lept from my bed and went to the window straight away as I woke up my wife to see this new world. Shortly thereafter, I realized that it was still only 3 a.m., as the sun shines in Antarctica for more than twenty-two hours per day during the Southern Hemisphere summer. The further south we sailed, the longer the sun kept us company. Soon we saw floating sheets of ice in the distance, adorned with black dots, that on closer inspection, turned out to be penguins. In the days to come, the ship would drop anchor and we would ride in small boats called Zodiacs from the Explorer to shore and back. Attire included life vests that we donned just as an executive wears a coat and tie to the office. As it was the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica, we were given parkas with patches attached with Sir Shackleton's image. The mud room of the Explorer is the boarding point to the Zodiacs for trips to shore for hiking, and on our first foray ashore we geared up with waterproof boots, parkas with liners and gloves. Topping this all off was the life vest to add to the bulky clothing. It didn't take long waiting in the mud room to realize that this clothing makes you sweat quite readily if you are not outside in the cold Antarctic air. Upon landing, we hiked and saw thousands of nesting penguins with skua birds flying about looking for penguin eggs to steal. Penguins use stones to build their nests to protect the eggs and provide a structure while lying on the eggs to incubate them. One second of penguin inattention led to a skua bird flying off with the distracted penguin's egg.

Penguins in Antarctica

Nature can be cruel, but this is the harsh survival reality of Antarctica. The skua landed a few feet away, broke the egg and had lunch, while a penguin family will wait another season to begin again their quest to reproduce. Another day on the exploration was spent sailing in a Zodiac looking at the different ice formations and bergs floating in the waters. To see a massive block of floating ice crack into two pieces is impressive to say the least, as well as the sound of a section of glacier breaking off, which sends explosive echoes off the surrounding mountains. Thousands of tons of glacial ice hitting the water below sends out a huge propagation wave that ripples across the ocean surface. As we toured in the Zodiac, we came across a crab-eating seal that was sunning atop a small ice sheet. Later in our exploration, we saw a pod of killer whales, 100 meters off the bow.

Iceberg in the water in Antarctica

During the journey, I observed spectacular lenticular clouds above distant mountains that exceeded in size and structure those viewed in the Rocky Mountains in North America.

Our fellow passengers were people from all walks of life, many retired, making my wife I the second-youngest couple on the ship. One of our stops was Port Lockroy, a former English weather station from World War II. The tiny gift shop at the fort offered postcards that could be sent back to the U.S. via the Falkland Islands and then finally on to friends and relatives. The postal trip took our cards about three months! One of the unique qualities of the Explorer is that of limited ice-breaking capability. As we sailed slowly through ice-infested waters, the impact of smaller sheets of ice could be felt through the entire ship as the bow made contact and either moved the ice out of the way or split the ice in half, thus clearing the path for forward movement. On more than one occasion, the Explorer's bow was wedged into sea ice and after inspection, passengers were allowed to walk on "frozen ocean." In my past military service, I was based in Minot, North Dakota, and thought that I was at the end of the world. If you wanted to get away from it all, just go to Minot, and you'd nearly be there. After standing on frozen ocean at the bottom of the world in Antarctica, the relativity of getting away from it all was set to a much higher standard of desolation.

United employee, Scott Williams and his wife act out pulling the large ship through the thick ice.

My waterproof boots and thick socks kept my feet warm, and the parka I wore did the same for my upper body. The cold air made my breath visible standing on the ice and taking it all in. I turned about slowly and peering into the empty distance, could hear only the blowing wind. That peaceful quiet magnified the remoteness and isolation of this special place. It's one thing to go to the edge of civilization for a peek, but I did so knowing that my "home away from home," the Explorer, was only about 200 meters away.

Although most folks consider Antarctica a lifeless place, to the contrary, Antarctica thrives with life that fights for survival every day. The life forms in Antarctica have adapted to the subzero temperatures and howling winds that plummet the chill factor much lower. One such life form is that of lichens, an orange growth that can be seen clinging to the rocks of the mountains that towered above. We were told that a sample of this was sent into the hard vacuum of space on a satellite and left for an extended period. Once retrieved, the lichens were still alive! Penguins "queue up," or stand in line to enter the water like paratroopers jammed together awaiting the green light that tells them to jump.

Antarctica Crab Eating Seal on the ice.

These Antarctic birds do so to increase their chance of survival should a crab-eating seal or other predator lie waiting beneath the water for their arrival. One after another, they dive from shore into the ocean to forage for food. Having snorkeled in The Galapagos Islands, I've seen the aquadynamic shape of a penguin zip past my dive mask and can attest to their rapid maneuverability and very capable velocity. These attributes are often called upon out of necessity to survive when a penguin is trying to "jink" away from or outrun a predator that is eyeing it as a meal.

For much of the trip, there was no, or very limited, communications with the rest of the planet. It was nice being "off line" and having no cell phone or computer beckoning my attention. This left one's focus on just being there and taking it all in. Time waits for no one, and, as the days passed, the time eventually came for us to set sail to the north for the roller coaster ride back across the Drake Passage. I stood on the fantail and took a last look aft as our compass was pointed north for Ushuaia and we left Antarctica in our wake. The light of the nighttime faded as we moved further north and back to the reality of our lives that had been held at bay briefly by the magic of Antarctica.

Taking action to make a global impact

By The Hub team , January 17, 2020

Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).

Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes

Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.

These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.

Australian wildfire relief efforts

Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.

Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.

These medical supplies will fly to MEL (Melbourne) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.

By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives


Help us (and Ellen DeGeneres) support wildfire relief efforts in Australia

By The Hub team , January 08, 2020

Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.

On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.

Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund

We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.

Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.

In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.

20 Reasons to Travel in 2020

By Hemispheres Magazine , January 01, 2020


20. Spot Giant Pandas in China

In 2016, giant pandas were removed from the endangered species list, and China would like to keep it that way. This year, the country plans to consolidate the creatures' known habitats into one unified national park system spanning nearly 10,500 square miles across Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces—about the size, in total, of Massachusetts. —Nicholas DeRenzo


19. Follow in James Bond's Footsteps in Jamaica

Photo: Design Pics/Carson Ganci/Getty Images

When No Time to Die hits theaters on April 8, it marks a number of returns for the James Bond franchise. The 25th chapter in the Bond saga is the first to come out since 2015's Spectre; it's Daniel Craig's fifth go-round as 007, after rumors the actor was set to move on; and it's the first time the series has filmed in Jamaica since 1973's Live and Let Die. The Caribbean island has always had a special place in Bond lore: It was the location of one of creator Ian Fleming's homes, GoldenEye (which is now a resort), and the setting for the first 007 movie, 1962's Dr. No. Looking to live like a super-spy? You don't need a license to kill—just a ride to Port Antonio, where you can check out filming locations such as San San Beach and colonial West Street. Remember to keep your tux pressed and your Aston Martin on the left side of the road. —Justin Goldman


18. See the Future of Architecture in Venice

Every other year, Venice hosts the art world's best and brightest during its celebrated Biennale. But the party doesn't stop during off years, when the Architecture Biennale takes place. This year, curator Hashim Sarkis, the dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, has tasked participants with finding design solutions for political divides and economic inequality; the result, on display from May to November, is the intriguing show How Will We Live Together? —Nicholas DeRenzo

17. Celebrate Beethoven's 250th Birthday in Bonn

Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Catch a Beethoven concerto in Bonn, Germany, to celebrate the hometown hero's big 2-5-0.

16. Eat Your Way Through Slovenia

When Ana Roš of Hiša Franko was named the World's Best Female Chef in 2017, food lovers began to wonder: Do we need to pay attention to Slovenia? The answer, it turns out, is definitely yes. This March, the tiny Balkan nation about two hours east of Venice gets its own Michelin Guide. —Nicholas DeRenzo

15. Star- (and Sun-) Gaze in Patagonia

Photo: blickwinkel/Alamy

Come December 13 and 14, there will be no better spot for sky-watchers than northern Patagonia, which welcomes both the peak of the Geminid meteor shower and a total solar eclipse within 24 hours. —Nicholas DeRenzo

14. Explore Miami's Game-Changing New Park

About 70,000 commuters use Miami's Metrorail each day, and city planners aim to turn the unused space beneath its tracks into an exciting new public space, a 10-mile linear park aptly named The Underline. Luckily, the Magic City is in good hands: The project is being helmed by James Corner Field Operations, the geniuses behind New York's High Line. “Both projects share similarities in their overarching goals," says principal designer Isabel Castilla, “to convert a leftover infrastructural space into a public space that connects neighborhoods, generates community, and encourages urban regeneration." When finished, Miami's park will be about seven times as long as its Big Apple counterpart. The first half-mile leg, set to open this June, is the Brickell Backyard, which includes an outdoor gym, a butterfly garden, a dog park, and gaming tables that call to mind the dominoes matches you'll find nearby in Little Havana. “We envision the Underline dramatically changing the way people in Miami engage with public space," Castilla says. —Nicholas DeRenzo

Photo: philipus/Alamy

13. Kick Off the NFL in Las Vegas

Photo: Littleny/Alamy

Former Raiders owner Al Davis was famous for saying, “Just win, baby." His son, Mark Davis, the team's current owner, is more likely to be shouting “Vegas, baby!" Swingers-style, as his team becomes Sin City's first NFL franchise, the Las Vegas Raiders. After years of threats and lawsuits, the Raiders have finally left Oakland, and this summer they're landing just across the highway from the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in a 65,000-seat, $1.8 billion domed stadium that will also host the UNLV football team, the next two Pac-12 championship games, and the Las Vegas Bowl. Construction is slated to be finished July 31, just in time for the NFL preseason—and just in time to lure football fans from the sportsbooks to the grandstand. —Justin Goldman

12. Celebrate the Suffragettes in Washington D.C.

All eyes are on the ballot box this year, but the electorate would look quite different if not for the 19th Amendment, which was ratified 100 years ago this August. Many D.C. institutions, such as the National Archives Museum and the Library of Congress, are honoring the decades-long struggle for women's suffrage with exhibits. In particular, the National Museum of American History unveils Sarah J. Eddy's portrait of Susan B. Anthony this March, before putting on a 'zine-inspired show on girlhood and youth social movements this June. —Nicholas DeRenzo

11. Go for a Ride Through Mexico City

If you want to get somewhere quickly in Mexico City, try going by bicycle. During peak traffic, bikes average faster speeds than cars or public transportation—which might explain why ridership has gone up almost 50 percent since 2007. And riding on two wheels is getting safer and easier. In 2019, the city announced plans to invest $10 million (more than it had spent in the last six years combined) into the construction of about 50 miles of new paths and lanes. Now, you can cycle on a two-mile separated path along the Paseo de la Reforma, from Colonia Juárez and Roma to Chapultepec Park and Polanco. Future plans include a route along the National Canal between Coyoacán (where Frida Kahlo once lived) and Xochimilco (with its floating flower farms). “The goal is to finish the six-year [presidential] term with 600 kilometers of bike infrastructure," says Roberto Mendoza of the city's Secretariat of Mobility. Time to start pedaling. —Naomi Tomky

10. Consider the Mayflower's Legacy in Massachusetts and Abroad

Photo: Thianchai Sitthikongsak

Before they came to America in 1620, the religious separatists now known as the Pilgrims lived in England and the Netherlands. This year, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing will be commemorated not only by those nations but also by a fourth: The Wampanoag, the confederation of tribes that live in New England and whose role in this world-changing event has been at best left out and at worst distorted.

“We're challenging the myths and stereotypes," says Aquinnah Wampanoag author Linda Coombs, a board member of Plymouth 400, Inc., which is planning cultural events such
as an Ancestors Walk to honor the native villages pushed aside by settlers, as well as
an indigenous history conference and powwow (plus an $11 million restoration of the replica Mayflower II).

Kerri Helme, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag nation and cultural programs manager at Plimoth Plantation, says that “people want to hear the whole story." She notes that it's a commonly held belief that the Pilgrims were welcomed by the natives, when in fact their first encounter was violent, since the English had been stealing the Wampanoags' food.

“The Wampanoag are key players in all of this," says Charles Hackett, CEO of Mayflower 400 in the U.K. “It's a whole other aspect of this history." In England, a Mayflower trail will connect Pilgrim sites in towns such as Southampton and Plymouth, and in Leiden, the Dutch town where the Pilgrims took refuge before embarking for the New World, the ethnology museum will run an exhibit about the natives.

“The most important thing for us, as the Wampanoag people," says Paula Peters, a former Wampanoag council member, “is to be acknowledged as a vital tribe comprised of people that, in spite of everything that's happened, are still here." —Jon Marcus

9. Discover Lille's Design Scene

Photo: Mark Bassett/Alamy

Previous World Design Capitals have included major cultural hubs such as Helsinki and Seoul, so it came as a shock when Lille, France's 10th-largest city, beat Sydney for this year's title. Judges cited Lille's use of design to improve its citizens' lives; get a taste for yourself at spots like La Piscine Musée d'Art et d'Industrie, a gallery in a former Art Deco swim center. —Nicholas DeRenzo

8. See Stellar Space in Rio de Janeiro, the World Capital of Architecture

Rio de Janeiro is renowned for the beauty of its beaches and mountains, but the Cidade Maravilhosa's man-made structures are as eye-catching as its natural features. For that reason, UNESCO recently designated Rio its first World Capital of Architecture, honoring a city that boasts such landmarks as the stained glass–domed Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, the fairy-tale Ilha Fiscal palace, and the uber-modern Niterói Contemporary Art Museum.

"Rio is an old city by New World standards, having been founded in the mid–16th century," says architectural photographer Andrew Prokos, who took this shot. "So the city has many layers of architectural styles, from Colonial and Rococo to Art Nouveau, Modernist, Brutalist, and contemporary." In the case of this museum, which was designed by perhaps Brazil's greatest architect, Pritzker Prize winner Oscar Niemeyer, Prokos was intrigued by how the 24-year-old building interacts with its surroundings. "The upward slope of the museum complements the slope of the Pão de Açúcar across the bay," he says, "so the two are speaking to each other from across the water." – Tom Smyth

7. Join the Avengers at Disneyland

This summer, Disney California Adventure unveils its Marvel-themed Avengers Campus, with a new Spider-Man attraction, followed later by an Ant-Man restaurant and a ride through Wakanda. If the hype surrounding last year's debut of Disney+ is any indication, Comic-Con types are going to lose their fanboy (and -girl) minds. —Nicholas DeRenzo

6. Listen to Jazz in Cape Town

Photo: Eric Nathan/Alamy

Cape Town's natural wonders draw visitors from all over the world, but there's a hidden gem beyond the mountains, beaches, and seas: music. Much as jazz was born from America's diverse peoples, Cape jazz combines the traditions and practices of the city's multiethnic population, creating genres such as goema (named after a type of hand drum) and marabi (a keyboard style that arose in the townships). Cape Town has hosted an International Jazz Festival for
20 years (the 21st edition is this March 27–28), and now UNESCO is giving the Mother City its musical due by naming it the Global Host City of International Jazz Day 2020. The theme of the event—which takes place on April 30, features an All Star Global Concert, and is the climax of Jazz Appreciation Month—is “Tracing the Roots and Routes of African Jazz." During the dark days of slavery and apartheid, music became an outlet through which repressed people could express their struggle for freedom. What better way to mark a quarter century of democracy here than with a celebration of that most free style of music? —Struan Douglas

5. Take a Walk Around England

Many hikers love walking around England—but how many can say that they've truly walked around England? When it's completed, the England Coast Path will be the longest managed seaside trail in the world, completely circumnavigating the coastline, from the fishing villages of Cornwall and the beaches of Nothumberland to the limestone arches of the Jurassic Coast and the sandy dunes of Norfolk. Much of the trail is already waymarked (the 630-mile South West Coast Path is particularly challenging and beautiful), with new legs set to open throughout the year. If you want to cross the whole thing off your bucket list, be warned that it's no walk in the park: At around 2,795 miles, the completed route is 605 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail and about the same as the distance between New York and Los Angeles. —Nicholas DeRenzo

4. Get Refreshed in the Israeli Desert

Six Senses resorts are known for restorative retreats in places like Fiji, Bali, and the Maldives. For its latest location, the wellness-minded brand is heading to a more unexpected locale: the Arava Valley, in the far south of Israel. Opening this spring, the Six Senses Shaharut will offer overnight camel camping, off-roading in the surrounding desert, and restaurants serving food grown in the resort's gardens or sourced from nearby kibbutzim. While the valley is said to be near King Solomon's copper mines, the Six Senses is sure to strike gold. —Nicholas DeRenzo

3. Say konnichiwa on July 24 at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which plays host for the first time since 1964.

The Japanese capital plays host for the first time since 1964. This year, softball and baseball will return after being absent since 2008, and four new sports—karate, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding—will be added to the competition for the first time. Say konnichiwa at the opening ceremonies on July 24, which will be held at renowned architect Kengo Kuma's New National Stadium. – Nicholas DeRenzo

2. Score Tickets to Euro 2020

Still feeling World Cup withdrawal? Get your “football" fix at the UEFA European Championship. From June 12 to July 12, 24 qualifying national teams will play games in stadiums from Bilbao to Baku, culminating in the semi-finals and final at London's hallowed Wembley Stadium. Will World Cup champion France bring home another trophy? Will Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal repeat its 2016 Euro win? Will the tortured English national team finally get its first title? Or will an upstart—like Greece in 2004—shock the world? —Justin Goldman

1. Soak Up Some Culture in Galway

Photo: Ian Dagnall/Alamy

Galway has long been called “the cultural heart of Ireland," so it's no surprise that this bohemian city on the country's wild west coast was named a 2020 European Capital of Culture (along with Rijeka, Croatia). The title puts a spotlight on the city (population 80,000) and County Galway, where more than 1,900 events will take place throughout the year. Things kick off in February with a seven-night opening ceremony featuring a fiery (literally) choreographed celebration starring a cast of 2,020 singing-and-drumming locals in Eyre Square. “This is a once-in-a-generation chance for Galway," says Paul Fahy, a county native and the artistic director of the Galway International Arts Festival (July 13–26). “It's a huge pressure. There's a heightened sense of expectation from audiences, not just from here but from all over the world." Art lovers will no doubt enjoy Kari Kola's illuminating work Savage Beauty, which will wash the Connemara mountains in green light to coincide with St. Patrick's Day, or the Druid Theatre Company's countywide tour of some of the best 20th-century one-act Irish plays. Visitors would also be wise to explore the rugged beauty of Connemara on a day trip with the charismatic Mairtin Óg Lally of Lally Tours, and to eat their way across town with Galway Food Tours. But beware, says Fahy: “Galway has a reputation as a place people came to 20 years ago for a weekend and never left." —Ellen Carpenter

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