Bessie Cleveland Sweeney

Mother, Grandmother & One of the World’s First-Ever Citizen Explorers of Antarctica

 

“So at 86 I have seen Antarctica….I have traveled all over the world and seen many countries, people, and customs. But for many years my dream had been to visit Antarctica, the continent which until now has been open only to the explorer.”

 

 

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For ages Antarctica lived merely in our dreams and imagination. The vast and wild land at the bottom of the globe remained shrouded in mystery, a white beacon off-limits to all but a few lucky researchers and heroic explorers the likes of Shackleton. That is until 1966 when Lars-Eric Lindblad entered the picture.

 

Regarded as the father of eco-tourism, Lars organized the first-ever, citizen-explorer expedition into the ice—an unprecedented chance for non-scientists to come face-to-face with the enigmatic continent and its myriad wonders. Fifty-seven enthusiastic guests—the majority of them intrepid women—boarded the chartered Argentine naval ship La Pataia and set sail for 16 days. But none were more excited than Bessie Sweeney—the eldest passenger at 86 years old and the very first to sign up for the adventure.

 

Bessie was no stranger to the joys of exploration. Her son was Lieutenant Commander Edward C. Sweeney, a lawyer, serviceman, and president of the prestigious Explorers Club, whose members boasted famous geographical firsts like reaching both poles. Edward accompanied American polar explorer, Admiral Richard Byrd, on two exploratory trips into the South Pacific, and was also close friends with Captain Finn Ronne, another prominent polar explorer. He even had a mountain range named after him in Edith Ronne Land. But despite these incredible family ties to the world of polar exploration, Bessie had long resigned herself “to never being able to see that icy continent.”

 

Then in her sunset years Bessie learned about Lindblad Travel and Lars’s upcoming voyage, presumably from her son. It didn’t take long for the elderly widow from Rock Island, Illinois (known as “Gram Bessie” to her grandchildren) to make up her mind. She paid her $3,000 and was soon on her way to fulfill her lifelong dream. 

 

We salute Bessie’s fervent curiosity and her shining example that it’s never too late to explore, learn, and experience this great big world. On her return Bessie penned an article for the Associated Press that was printed in a number of national newspapers. We leave you with her own words about the experience—perhaps they will inspire you to make Antarctica a reality:

“The ice, the glaciers, the fabulous mountain peaks, penguins, Antarctic birds—and even the sea elephants and sea leopards. I can say without hesitation that Antarctica is the most beautiful part of the world. I can say the trip through the Le Maire Strait in splendid sunshine is the highlight of all my travels around the world, and my fellow travelers agree with me on this…I have also been fortunate enough to be allowed to see for myself how the scientists of Argentina, Britain and the United States work in the fields of marine biology, meteorology and other sciences…We have had cold days with strong winds. Thanks to the clothing provided, I have always been warm and have not suffered frostbite or worse things—as did the early Antarctic explorers…One of the highlights of the trip for me was holding a penguin in my arms, stroking his chest and observing him relax and even enjoy being petted. I also rode through the snow and ice on a snowcat at the Argentine army base at Hope Bay where we also had the opportunity to travel on dogsleds…So, at 86 I have seen Antarctica. Next I will be going to the North Pole, and then I will be back down here—in the Antarctic ice.”

 

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Bessie Sweeney with her son, grandson, and great grandson, 1965

 

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