Antarctica: The Last Wild Place
Proximity to perfect harmony. That was what I believed I was seeking as I hauled myself up the steep, icy slope that was the spine of Danco Island. The sun was shining brightly out of a clear blue sky, the first blue sky I had seen since the start of my Antarctic cruise a few days earlier, and a blanket of snow covered the land from horizon to horizon. Nothing moved. Far below was a rookery of gentoo penguins that I had passed on my way up, but their squabbling presence was already a memory.
Having managed to escape the company of my 66 fellow travelers, I was hoping to find a few moments of solitude to take in the enormity of the landscape. I have traveled the world, but I had never been anywhere like this. I found a ledge and looked across the azure waters toward the Antarctic Peninsula. In the middle distance was the Ocean Nova, the tiny ship that had brought us here, made even tinier by this vast landscape. The words of American explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd came to mind: "This is the way the world will look to the last man when it dies."
Danco Island lies at the southern end of the Errera Channel, off the Danco Coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The sea was as still as a pond, and the icebergs, some the size of buildings, seemed to hang suspended. It was, of course, an illusion, for this was sea ice and glacier ice on the move.
My reverie was interrupted by the distant voice of our expedition leader, Laurie Dexter. It was time to rejoin the ship, and I trudged reluctantly in the direction of the others. Instead of tiptoeing down the snowy slope that I had climbed so carefully, I threw caution to the wind and slid on my backside, coming down at a ferocious speed.
That rush of exhilaration, and the laughter of my fellow passengers waiting at the foot of the slope, broke the spell, but it would return again in the days to come.
Just before my trip, I'd had lunch with Sara Wheeler, whose book Terra Incognita is required reading for any wannabe Antarcticaphile. She had warned me that this would be a profound, even life-changing, experience. "It is a metaphysical landscape," Sara said of Antarctica. "In an increasingly grubby world it has been romanticized to fulfill a human need for sanctuary. I think all that comes from its unspoiled status—the only place on the planet not tied down by ownership, laws, a human population. It is beyond all that, and greater than it."
She was right, for here all the tawdry transactions of our modern urban lives are made meaningless. For a brief moment on Danco Island, I believed I had found sanctuary.
Every traveler to the Antarctic is warned that getting there is taxing. In fact, the sea journey is called the Drake Tax, for all one must pay in fear and fortitude to cross the notorious Drake Passage. This 500-mile stretch between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula has some of the roughest seas on the planet, containing as it does the unimpeded flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which carries a huge volume of water—about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River—through the passage. With winds raging at more than 65 miles per hour, it is nature at its wildest and most unpredictable.
It had taken two nights and two full days for us to cross from Ushuaia in Argentina to the South Shetland Islands, which have been claimed at various times by Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile but are shared peaceably, for exploration purposes, by all 50 countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty, which in 1959 established the continent as a scientific preserve. The Ocean Nova had bounced and pitched and yawed relentlessly. Even though we were tabbed up with promethazine anti-nausea pills and covered with scopolamine patches, we all teetered on the edge of seasickness. The public areas were lined with paper vomit bags—tucked into the handrails, behind the bar, beside the sofas in the lounge. Taking a meal in the dining room was risky, for every so often you'd be thrown out of your chair by a violent pitch or yaw that sent dishes and everything else flying. In the mornings, those who actually emerged from their cabins had the haunted, hollow-eyed, exhausted look one tends to associate with Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and the other suffering explorers of the Antarctic's Heroic Age a century ago.
But we did get there in one piece, and on that first calm morning 48 hours after we'd pushed off from Ushuaia, we awoke to the sight of gigantic icebergs on the horizon and a sea as flat as a pancake. I could see the color coming back to the faces of my fellow travelers and hear the conversation levels returning to their previous intensity.
We were a diverse crowd: doctors, lawyers, university professors, a best-selling novelist, a Belgian aristocrat, and a number of solo-traveling women. Our guides, too, were an impressive array. Laurie Dexter was a hard-core explorer who had made 110 trips to the Antarctic and once crossed the Arctic on skis, a journey that took him three months. Colin Bates, the marine biologist, was a professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert on climate change in the Antarctic. John Harrison, the historian, was a Cambridge-educated author and lecturer who had made some 41 trips to the Antarctic.
I was curious to learn firsthand why this vast, inhospitable continent—a continent of which the most doomed of explorers, Scott, rather succinctly said, "Great God! This is an awful place"—had become a magnet that many people can't help returning to again and again. Yes, it is one of the last pristine wildernesses, covering five million square miles—one and a half times the size of the United States—and holding three-quarters of the world's freshwater. It is a gigantic ice desert that is the highest, driest, windiest, emptiest, coldest place on earth, and it represents ninety percent of the planet's ice.
It is also home to some of the world's most enchanting, revolting, and brutal creatures. Witness gentoo penguins waddling in unison from rookery to water's edge like fussy old men with their pajamas pants around their ankles—enchanting. Witness elephant seals lying side by side like giant greasy slugs as the dominant male yawns to reveal a bright-pink palate—revolting. And witness a leopard seal beating a gentoo on the ice until its body is inside out and ready to eat—brutal.
The fact is, now that swaths of the African bush have been overrun by four-wheel-drive vehicles and air-conditioned bush lodges with Wi-Fi, Antarctica appeals as one of the last really wild empty places left for adventure travel.
It was not, however, the higher motives of adventure, discovery, and science that first drew people here in the early nineteenth century but rather the more prosaic pursuit of wealth. The blubber and skin scramble was a precursor to the California Gold Rush, with sealers and whalers from America and Europe descending on the peri-Antarctic islands by the boatload. Within a year of William Smith's discovery of the South Shetlands, in 1819, more than 40 ships had arrived to farm the fur seal skins and oil, and by early 1822, over 90 ships were working the islands.
By the end of 1823, more than 320,000 fur seal skins and 940 tons of oil had been taken. As the fur seal population shrank to the brink of extinction, the sealers went after elephant seals, doing similar damage to these unfortunate creatures. And as the century wore on, the whalers, who had depleted the northern Arctic seas, began to look to the southern oceans. By the early 1880s, reconnaissance voyages led to more than half a century of whaling in these waters. Explorers and scientists weren't far behind. A resolution adopted by the Sixth International Geographical Congress at London's Imperial Institute in 1895 declared that "the exploration of the Antarctic Regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken" and unleashed a rush of brave, doomed British explorers in what was to be known as the Heroic Age. The most famous, Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott, not only failed to become the first man to reach the South Pole—Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat him by 33 days—but died on the trek back, frozen in his tent beside two of his companions.
Scott's death set off waves of patriotic fervor among the British as they prepared for war with Germany, and came to define British courage and stiff-upper-lip nobility. One of the survivors of the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, wrote of Scott and his dead men in his uncompromisingly poetic and moving The Worst Journey in the World: "What they did has become part of the history of England, perhaps of the human race, as much as Columbus or the Elizabethans, David, Hector, or Ulysses. They are an epic."
For all the hero worship of Scott and his men, the age of flag-planting adventurers was short-lived and probably ended with Shackleton's failed expedition of 1914–16. His attempt to become the first person to cross the continent from one side to the other ended with the great man and his crew enduring one of the most extreme survival stories in the history of Edwardian exploration.
The twenty-first century has seen a great increase in travel to the Antarctic. This season—which runs roughly from November through March—more than 35,000 are expected, a jump from last season's 26,000. Travel restrictions are enforced thanks to a 2009 amendment to the original 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers are prohibited from landing, and only 100 visitors are allowed onshore at a time—not always an easy thing to monitor, but, Dexter noted, everyone traveling to the Antarctic "tends to stick by the rules." Further restrictions came in 2011 when the UN's International Maritime Organization ruled that ships may not burn or carry heavy fuel oil. Instead, they are required to use marine gas oil, which is cleaner but much more expensive. The fuel mandate was also intended to discourage ordinary cruise ships—those not properly equipped to cope with sea ice—from sailing into the area. This point was driven home by the ecologically devastating oil spill following the 2007 sinking of the M.S. Explorer—a double-hulled ship that should have been able to withstand a collision with submerged ice—off the Antarctic Peninsula. (All passengers and crew were safely evacuated.)
The centenary of Scott's 1912 death and the resurgent interest in the Harris Tweed–wearing explorers of a century ago are only two of the reasons for the rise in Antarctic tourism. There is a growing understanding that the Antarctic is, as one researcher told me, "a science playground," a place where battalions of researchers and scientists are studying everything from the geological history of the planet to global warming. And to give the explorers of the Heroic Age their due, their expeditions were as much about science as about flag planting. When Scott set sail for Antarctica in 1910, aboard the Terra Nova was equipment for investigating meteorology, geology, zoology, marine biology, botany, and glaciers.
Those expeditions brought back pioneering research and discoveries that transformed the Antarctic from an unknown wasteland into a profoundly important key to the planet's past and present. Before Scott, Shackleton, Cherry-Garrard, Edward Wilson, and the rest trudged across the region, Antarctica was thought by many geographers to be a colossal raft of ice anchored to a loose group of islands. (It is in fact a continent, nearly twice the size of Australia, 97.5 percent of which is covered by an ice sheet.) Thanks to the explorers, we've come to understand Antarctica's crucial role in global climate and ocean circulation. For example, it was Wilson—who died in that tent alongside Scott—who discovered the 250-million-year-old plant fossils that scientists had been waiting for to confirm the existence of the Mesozoic supercontinent Gondwana. Today, the key markers relating to global warming are being found here, spurred by the discovery in the mid-1980s of the Antarctic ozone hole by three scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, and leading to the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer.
"Over the past 15,000 years, the temperature here has risen 10.8 degrees on average," the marine biologist Colin Bates told me. "That's the highest rise in any ecosystem in the world. It's a misnomer to call this global warming—it's climate change. Around the world, we're seeing freak weather, more violent storms, floods—and the deterioration of the Antarctic ice shelves is another consequence of climate change. They're breaking up faster than expected."
You could say the Antarctic has provided us with the alarm bell that may just save life on earth.
My moment of reverie and wonder on Danco Island was the first of many on this exhilarating journey. Every morning we would rise to the cheerful voice of the expedition leader over the loudspeaker, informing us of the time the Zodiacs would be leaving for shore and the outside temperature (which during my trip ranged from 19 degrees to a balmy 32). This was our cue to bolt down breakfast and start layering on kit like a medieval knight donning armor, beginning with a thermal vest and polypropylene tights, then jeans and waterproof leggings, followed by a fleece sweater, gloves with polypropylene innards, a scarf, a wool hat, sunglasses, goggles, gumboots, and a yellow waterproof jacket and life vest. Forget one element and you had to unpeel the layers, insert the missing item, and then painstakingly layer it all on again.
Trussed up like so many bright-yellow chickens, we loaded ourselves into the Zodiacs and powered through the floating ice to various landing points along the Antarctic Peninsula. From the South Shetland Islands, the ship moved down the Bransfield Strait to Deception Island on the fourth day, passing through a narrow channel called Neptune’s Bellows into Whalers Bay. The following morning, we traveled down the Gerlache Strait past Orne Harbor to Danco Island, and then that afternoon into Andvord Bay, where we finally set foot on the Antarctic continent for the first time at Neko Harbor.
All this time we were heading south, hoping to reach Petermann Island, home of the most southerly established colony of gentoo penguins. The brash ice was getting thicker, however, and we learned that another expedition ship, Hurtigruten’s M.S. Fram, had been trying to reach Petermann and was having problems with the ice.
Ice is the currency of the Antarctic, and an entire lexicon has grown up around it. There is bay ice, bergy bit ice, brash ice, fast ice, glacier ice, and growlers, and much of it can present a serious problem to ships, even to an ice-reinforced vessel such as the Ocean Nova. One can just picture Shackleton’s great ship the Endurance being slowly but inexorably crushed, splintered, broken, and sunk by the gathering ice in 1915 as he and his crew stood watching on the frozen land. “Almost like a living creature, she resisted the forces that would crush her,” wrote Shackleton.
As we stared out at waters that were studded with ice of different shapes and sizes, Bates warned, “This year we’ve had a lot of glacial ice blocking the passage south, so we may well be thwarted. We shall find out.”
As if on cue, there was a loud report in the distance, like a muffled explosion—a glacier was calving. A few minutes later, the Ocean Nova began to rock gently. A giant slab of ice, probably weighing a few tons, had broken free from the glacial landmass and created a mini tsunami, so when we set out in the Zodiacs we braced for another upheaval, holding tight to the sides of the rubber boat as it bounced toward Neko Harbor.
Once ashore, we climbed to a high peak, past the inevitable gentoo rookery that gave off the now familiar acrid smell of penguin dung, again looking down onto our diminutive vessel dwarfed by this magnificent landscape. Then came another loud report, and this time we could see the glacier calving, a gigantic block of ice falling away from the land and crashing into the water. The waves fanned out, concentric, equidistant—a pattern of nature that a draftsman could not have re-created. Far below, our ship bobbed as the waves reached it. This was a comparatively gentle calving, but one got a sense of the massive forces at play in this remote continent.
Back on the Ocean Nova, the captain announced that we were raising anchor and would continue south to Paradise Bay, so named because it provided whalers with a protected harbor. Deep in the bay is the Argentine base Almirante Brown, named for Admiral Guillermo Brown, the founder of the Argentine navy. Once there, we took to the Zodiacs, buzzing amid the icebergs and twice coming to a halt when we found solitary seals floating on tiny islands of ice.
The Weddell seal, the most southerly of these strange mammals, peeped above the ice at us, an ingenue with round, soulful eyes. This was the Anne Hathaway of the seal world, a creature you’d want to pick up and hug. But on a neighboring floe lay a sleek, sinister-looking beast with razor-sharp teeth and an expression of sheer menace on its face—the leopard seal. As the name suggests, this is a ruthless predator that hunts penguins and has been known to attack humans.
By the time we had returned to the Ocean Nova, happily anticipating the next day’s journey to Damoy Point, home to a population of gentoo penguins, snow was beginning to fall and a bitter wind had begun to blow. A few intrepid travelers decided to ignore the deteriorating conditions and camp overnight on the ice (as we would discover the following morning when they returned to the ship, few would actually sleep).
I chose to spend the evening talking to Bates. One of the primary concerns for marine biologists, he told me, is the acidification of the oceans. Approximately 40 percent of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by humans dissolves into oceans, rivers, and lakes. According to Bates, one of the main consequences of this is that the organisms which form their shells with calcium carbonate (clams, mussels, and the like) are not able to do so as quickly, and thus we may see a drastic falloff in their numbers, creating a huge imbalance in sea creatures that will affect the whole food chain. “If we reach a tipping point of ocean acidity, we’ll see a dramatic decrease in creatures that rely on calcium carbonate,” Bates said. He also explained how climate change is affecting krill, the zooplankton that are the staple of seals, penguins, baleen whales, and most seabirds. The krill population in the ¬Antarctic is estimated at 600 trillion, and they are the centerpiece of what Bates called “the Antarctic food web.” A drop in krill means hunger, starvation, and decreased reproduction in the animals of the region, and this, according to Bates, is something we should be seriously concerned about.
The following morning, we inched south down the Neumayer Channel to Port Lockroy, a year-round British Antarctic Survey base until the scientists left for better facilities in 1962. Now a museum, it describes the work of scientists of another age and houses the world’s most southerly working public post office. It is also the most visited site in the Antarctic: 15,622 people stopped there this past austral summer (roughly from November through March).
A glimpse of how the early scientists lived is provided by recipes they used during the winters. “Chop the seal brains into small pieces and mix with eggs, tomato sauce, and nutmeg. Heat butter in a saucepan and mix with the brains. Cook for a minute or two, then serve on hot buttered toast sprinkled with grated cheese.” Delicious.
It was no surprise when the captain announced that we could no longer head south. The M.S. Fram had not managed to penetrate the sea ice in the Lemaire Channel and reach Petermann Island, so there was no point in our trying. Instead, we were to sail north and land on Barrientos Island in the South Shetlands before crossing the dreaded Drake Passage. The weather had deteriorated, with a katabatic wind blowing, sleet falling, and the temperature plunging. We dropped anchor in the protected bay off Barrientos, and once we had donned our layers of protective clothing, headed ashore. We were here to see elephant seals, those alien creatures that look like a cross between giant slugs and E.T.
An Awful Place
I trudged through the mud and across the hill, then descended to a rocky beach to discover a pod of elephant seals doing just what elephant seals do—nothing. The gigantic male yawned, showing off a bright-pink palate. In the distance, a pair of Antarctic fur seals were fighting with the ferocity of bull terriers, but apart from their grunts the only sound was of the sleet splatting against my jacket. Just as Scott’s famous words about this being an awful place came to mind, we were ordered back to the ship.
We were all aboard the Ocean Nova by late afternoon, when Laurie Dexter’s voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing that we would be heading for the Drake Passage—and that rough seas were expected. His advice: apply our scopolamine patches.
As I shook off the harshness of Barrientos and prepared myself for the battering that lay ahead, I thought about why those explorers from the Heroic Age kept going back, why our expedition leaders make so many trips to the Antarctic, and why even tourists keep returning. But I already knew the answer.
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