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Taking the Kids: Spending New Year's with the penguins and whales in Antarctica

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

"The best day of the trip," added his friend George, 12, from Nashville.

Equally impressive -- besides the spectacular weather this voyage has enjoyed -- is how the kids are so excited and energetic, despite a late night of New Year's Eve partying with their newfound friends, including a 2 a.m. swim in the pool.

On New Year's Eve, the kids realized sleds could be superfluous as they slid down a slushy hill after stepping onto the continent of Antarctica in Nexo Harbour. It was so warm everyone shed parkas and hats in the sunshine.

Some of the kids built a snowball tower at the top of the hill, which offered a spectacular view of our ship, Le Boreal, and the water was as calm as glass and dotted with ice floes.

"Crazy to be in a T-shirt in Antarctica!" says George, who looks as if he should be in Miami in his short sleeves and sunglasses.

We hear a part of the glacier calve into the water with a loud crack and boom.

Concerns about the impact of global warming -- consider the news earlier this year about the iceberg the size of Delaware that broke off the Antarctic ice shelf -- are spurring tourism to Antarctica, including a growing number of families. Visits to Antarctica with members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators were up 15 percent last season and is expected to continue to increase, reaching the most visitors since 2007 and 2008.

Christmas morning was just as unreal on Salisbury Plain, located on the north coast of South Georgia, between the Grace and Lucas Glaciers, as we were surrounded by King Penguins. They waddled right up to us. There were fur seals and tiny fur seal pups, which were nothing more than tiny balls of dark brown fur. These seals were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century but they've made a remarkable comeback and number in the millions today.

The penguins were in front of us on the beach, behind us and all the way up a grassy hill. "This is one of the all-time great sites of nature," says Carol Walton, one of the Abercrombie & Kent naturalists guiding us on this cruise.

It's one of those I-can't-believe-I'm-here moments. Only 100 passengers at a time are permitted on the rocky beach and the expedition staff sets up paths so we don't disturb the animals. They, of course, have the right of way.

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