How can I discuss the profound experience of visiting Antarctica in a way that hasnâ€™t already been done? Libraries are filled with books that describe travels to the continent, but most seem to describe it as a place to be conquered, or at least survived. Practically a whole subgenre of literature concerns the incredible survival stories from the early and not-so-early explorers; names like Scott, Mawson, Byrd, Ross, Amundsen, and of course, Shackleton, are embedded in our collective consciousness as men who challenged the continent â€“ and who sometimes paid the ultimate price. Fortunately, however, Antarctica is being seen more recently as something greater than just a savage world to be survived.
The Privilege of Antarctica
How can I discuss the profound experience of visiting Antarctica in a way that hasnâ€™t already been done? Libraries
are filled with books that describe travels to the continent, but most seem to
describe it as a place to be conquered, or at least survived. Practically a
whole subgenre of literature concerns the incredible survival stories from the
early and not-so-early explorers; names like Scott, Mawson, Byrd, Ross,
Amundsen, and of course, Shackleton, are embedded in our collective
consciousness as men who challenged the continent â€“ and who sometimes paid the
ultimate price. Fortunately, however, Antarctica
is being seen more recently as something greater than just a savage world to be
The reasons to travel here are as diverse as those who make
the journey. One can soak up the fascinating history, marvel at the stunning
vistas, commune with the endless array of fascinating wildlifeâ€¦ and visit a
vast area of the earth where human presence is still so small as to almost be
insignificant. As globalization continues to shrink the planet, the wilderness
experience becomes harder to find â€“ and consequently, more important. I think
for many of us, Antarctica represents one of
the last places on earth where nature has absolute control, and man is merely
an occasional guest. You visit Antarctica when
it lets you, and one should be grateful for every privileged moment there.
My Antarctic experience starts two days out of South Georgia. Much to our disappointment (and particularly that of our on-board historian, Jonathan Shackleton), our planned landing at Elephant Island did not happen. As we approached, an extremely dense fog settled around us reducing visibility to only a couple miles. So we decided instead to continue south into the Antarctic Sound.
The next morning we made our first landing on Gourdin Island. Shrouded in a heavy mist, this island would probably not be considered among the worldâ€™s most beautiful places in the traditional sense. However, it was not without wonder. One is first greeted by a rocky beachfront that looks positively primordial â€“ a long expanse of sharp, black rock interspersed with small pools of water and blue ice growlers. I could imagine that it was a place very much like this where the earliest sea creatures came ashore to evolve the attributes that would let them live on land. Right now, it is owned by hundreds of Adele and Gentoo penguins, and a few hearty fur seal bulls. The â€œbeachâ€ then transitions to some lower hills, where nearly every square inch was covered in pink Penguin guano. One could not ask for a more graphic (and pungent) demonstration of just how important krill is to the penguin diet!
Antarctica gives, and Antarctica takes. We had to scrub a couple planned continental landings due to poor weather conditions, but on Feb 18th we finally stood on the peninsula itself in an absolutely stunning place called Neko Harbor. The approach was magnificent â€“ we entered Andvord Bay, whose surrounding hills and mountains were completely white with snow and glaciers. In contrast to the swells in Bransfield Straight, the waters were calm and dotted with picturesque ice formations. Besides the penguins on the far shore, the atmosphere was quiet and calm. As we cruised down the Bay, a pod of rare beaked whales (we could not tell which species) â€“ we counted at least ten â€“ passed us on their way back out into the channel. The rhythmic surfacing and swimming in formation was beautiful to watch. What a privilege to witness such a thing!
We spent several hours walking around Neko harbor, enjoying the oftentimes hilarious antics of the Gentoo penguins. Several of us trekked up a snow-covered ridge to a spectacular overlook and admired the vast white expanse. Not long after the climb, a moderate snow started falling from the low cloud cover. This added the perfect touch to the capper of the visit: a polar bear plunge where several of my shipmates (and my husband, whom I once considered to be a relatively sane person!) took a quick swim in the iceberg-filled waters just off the beach â€“ waters that were still liquid at zero degrees Celsius due to their salinity.
As we tried to find an anchor spot in Neko Harbor, the effects of global warming were demonstrated to us quite dramatically. Standing on the bridge next to the computerized chart system, the shipâ€™s position showed us to be on top of a glacier. In reality, however, the glacier front had receded at least 500 yards in just 20 years (since the area was surveyed). We were all reminded of how quickly things are changing â€“ particularly in the Polar Regions.
In all, we spent four days in and around the Antarctic Peninsula and its islands. We enjoyed a spectacular sunrise cruising around Challenger Island, and were thrilled (if not a little scared) by a pair of humpbacks that surfaced not even 20 feet from our zodiacs! We then entered the active volcano whose caldera forms the â€œCâ€-shaped Deception Island â€“ and felt the warm-to-hot waters lapping at its inner shores. We noted how its former whaling station is already half-buried by the sporadic lava flows. In a few years, perhaps there will be no sign of human presence there at all.
All too soon, it was time to leave. On our way to the Drake Passage, we enjoyed the usual stunning scenery cruising past the South Shetland Islands and through the English Channel. Many of us were apprehensive at the days ahead as the Drake is notorious for its rough seas. Our expedition leader told stories of past voyages where passengers were confined to cabins while their ships battled 60 foot swells for hours on end! We were lucky in that our seas usually didnâ€™t exceed about 15 feet, but the swells came at us from such an angle that the ship had both strong pitch and roll motions. No injuries, fortunately, but numerous drinking glasses and dinner plates found themselves crashing to the floor!
So now Iâ€™m back in Ushuaia, waiting for my flight home, and thinking about all the South Atlantic has to offer, and how precious it is. It is easy to become discouraged in the face of all the environmental challenges we face right now, but visiting areas like these remind us of the stakes in the fight for our planet. Despite the immense forces shaping our planet, each of us needs to appreciate how fragile these places can be â€“ and how utterly dependent they are on the choices of our species.
Weâ€™ve estimated that each passenger on this voyage generated 1.75 tons of carbon by coming down here. During the final days across the Drake Passage, together with the Natural Habitat Adventures staff and the passengers, we brainstormed ways of making this expenditure worth it. Natural Habitat offered this trip as a carbon-neutral, in that they purchased carbon off-sets to compensate for the shipâ€™s emissions. Many passengers also offered to evaluate their personal carbon footprint at home.
You can find some helpful hints on how to reduce your own carbon emissions and learn about what World Wildlife Fund is doing to fight climate change on our website: http://www.worldwildlife.org/climate/involved/individuals.cfm. Hopefully these writings will contribute in at least some small way to your appreciation of our planet, and serve as inspiration to take further action to preserve whatâ€™s left. Just by reading this, you obviously care about the kind of world we will be leaving to our children, and youâ€™ve undoubtedly already taken steps to reduce your footprint on this planet. I would encourage you to continue to the next steps and if at all possible, visit the Antarctic and other wild places (but only with responsible and fully-certified ecotourism operators!) to enhance your personal appreciation of whatâ€™s at stake. And, most importantly, share your experiences and be an inspiration to others to take action. After all, weâ€™re all in this togetherâ€¦
Iâ€™m signing off now â€“ thanks for accompanying me on this voyage, and I wish you safe and healthy travels.