After a lifetime of travel that had taken me all the continents of the world, there are a few voyages that are truly memorable, the “best” of my professional life. At the very top of my list is a trip I made to Antarctica in the year 2000. This is the story I wrote later for the Copley News Service.
“Iceberg!” came a shout from the bridge.
“Iceberg!” A score of voices echoed the cry.
No, this wasn’t the Titanic. It was the M/S Explorer bound for Antarctica. And the sighting of our first iceberg—a pale looming behemoth that could easily sink a ship—was cause for excitement, not fear. We had traveled far to seek adventure, to follow in the footsteps of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen on the coldest, driest, windiest and loneliest place on Earth.
Our expedition boat, nicknamed “The Little Red Boat,” carried a hundred or so passengers from all corners of the globe: North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.
Unlike the intrepid explorers who had suffered hunger and cold, we enjoyed excellent meals and climate-controlled cabins with private bathrooms. But like those adventurers, we were drawn to the mysteries of The White Continent.
The Explorer had departed from the Argentine city of Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, just two days before. After navigating the relatively calm waters of the Beagle Channel along the border of Chile and Argentina, we hit the open sea and the dreaded Drake Passage, where the warm Pacific Ocean meets the cold Antarctic waters. Prepared with patches behind the ear and other seasick preventive measures, with gear securely stowed, we braced as the ship pitched and rolled in what came to be known as The Drake Shake.
The crew assured us that we were having an easy crossing, but some passengers were violently seasick, while others, like me, didn’t miss a meal, thanks to the wonders of modern pharmacology. (Only the patch seemed to work; ginger, bracelets, etc., did not.)
As we entered the cold, relatively calm waters of the South Atlantic, we suited up in polar fleece and red parkas and ventured on deck, where the summer (November-March) temperatures hovered around freezing. With cameras and binoculars at the ready, and with naturalist Brent Houston providing a running commentary, we spotted our first albatross, followed by some painted petrels, a storm petrel and a snow petrel, one of the rarest birds in the world. They were all sea birds; there are no land birds in Antarctica.
The ill-fated explorer Robert Scott once wrote of Antarctica: “Great God, this is an awful place.” And indeed the continent has taken the lives of many who tried to conquer it. Yet there is also intoxicating beauty in its stark and unique landscape: massive glaciers as old as time, bold outcroppings of volcanic rock, icebergs sculpted by Nature into splendid sea creatures, some as grays the bleakest dawn, others the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean.
An enormous ice cap—5.4 million square miles—covers the continent, swallowing mountains as high as the Alps. It was among the rocky “beaches” that remain that we left the Explorer and boarded our Zodiac (motorized rubber raft) for a landing.
Since so much of our itinerary depended on weather and ice conditions, the schedule was always subject to change. For example, the sound of ice crunching beneath the ships’ hull could either be a reminder of where we were—or a signal that an alternate route would have to be found.
Our first expedition was to Aitcho Island, where we came upon a rookery of nesting penguins—and immediately fell in love with Antarctica’s most famous sea birds. “Don’t disturb the wildlife,” we were instructed, “and don’t venture any closer than 15 feet.” But if the penguins should approach, and indeed they did, checking us out with curiosity rather than fear, then it would be okay to take pictures. We all did.
“You’ll soon get tired of taking their pictures,” one crew member predicted. I never did.
These hardy creatures inspired both amateur and photographers among us, as they refurbished their nests with stones they carried, one by one, as they tobogganed down snowy hills or plunged into the sea in their daily quest for food.
Penguins mate for life and share parenting chores. It was touching to watch the elaborate bonding ritual known as the “incubation shift,” whereby the male takes over the chore of sitting on the egg after the female had been on the job for a week or so.
We averaged two or three landings a day, often wading through knee-high water to get ashore. We hiked over snow-covered mountains, peered over a volcano crater, watched elephant seals at play and crab-eater seals napping on the ice.
We indulged in occasional snowball fights just for the sheer joy of it. We explored abandoned refuge huts still filled with canned goods—and marveled at the tenacity and endurance of the scientists and explorers who spent long, lonely months there, with only the sound of their own voices for company.
As for life in the present, we found that at Port Lockroy, established as a British base in 1944, now a living museum where visitors can see what life as like at an Antarctic station in the ‘50s and ’60s. More life in the present at the Polish research station, Arctowski, where scientists study marine biology.
Everywhere, we found the ghosts of Antarctica, reminders of those who had come before; an old whaling station that had once helped decimate entire populations of whales, but which now stood silent and still, littered with whale bones and oil tanks and derelict huts. A cross on a hilltop marked the grave of a British scientist. An island was named after a sailor who perished during an expedition headed by the Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache in 1897-98.
Our journals were quickly filling up, with names like Portal Point, Deception Island, Devil Island, Crystal Hill, Penguin Island. And wherever we went, we were reminded to respect the environment, to take nothing, to leave nothing behind but footprints.
Our wackiest activity was the (optional) swim in Pendulum Cove, the site of geothermal springs created by volcanic activity some 30 years previously. The result is an area of natural sulfur hot springs near the shore. To avoid being burned, the trick was to plunge in at the place where the very hot water mixes with the incoming cold sea water. The swim (or wallow, to be exact) was exhilarating, but although crew members stood by with towels, it was a real putting dry clothes over soaking wet bathing suits in the cold and icy wind. But chills were soon banished after a fast Zodiac run to the ship, where hot chocolate and hot showers awaited.
Almost every day was rich in contrasts. Sailing through the narrow Lemaire Channel one early morning, the weather was gray and overcast, giving an eerie quality to the snow-frosted mountains that flanked us on both sides. Yet the day before we had enjoyed dazzling sunlight as we cruised Paradise Bay in Zodiacs, gliding past nesting blue-eyed shags, past icebergs of such uncommon beauty as to command reverence and awe. Some glistened white with melting surface snow, others were pale blue, dense from years (centuries?) of compression, glowing beneath the water with an intense luminescence I had never seen before.
As the Explorer was an “expedition boat,” with all that implied, life onboard was very different from what is found on “cruise ships.” We had none of the entertainment and luxury amenities generally associated with cruising. There were daily briefings, recaps of what we had seen and done, excellent lectures by the onboard naturalists (geologists, ornithologists, etc.)—and such films as the commentary about the Antarctic expedition headed by Sir Ernest Shackelton.
Between landings, most of us perused books about Antarctica in the library—or hung over the railings hoping to glimpse Orcas (killer whales), humpbacks, seals and penguins. I loved the simplicity of onboard life, for it seemed to me that simplicity was the appropriate way to follow in the footsteps of explorers who had braved incredible hardships to journey the White Continent.
There were lighthearted moments, too. Like the luscious barbecue served on deck one day. Or the time Captain Demel brought the Explorer alongside a stunning waterfall off Vega Island—and then offered a bottle of champagne to the first person willing to take a shower in the frigid cascading water. Two young Canadians immediately stripped off their shirts and accepted the challenge, earning a round of applause—and the champagne.
Since the ship had an “open bridge” policy, we were always free to hang out with the captain and his officers, to ask questions and to take pictures from the bridge.
Throughout the trip, I never heard the word “bored”—only profound expressions of regret when it was time to turn back. This time, the Drake gave us a much rougher ride, with high winds and waves of 30 to 40 ships. As the ship tossed and rose and fell, I crawled up to the bridge for reassurance. I got that when I saw Captain Demel, unperturbed, sipping his morning tea as we approached Cape Horn, where so many ships had perished in the past.
When we docked in Ushuaia, I reluctantly took my leave of The Little Red Boat. We had been to the harshest, most unforgiving place on Earth—a journey I knew I would never forget.
FAST FACTS ABOUT ANTARCTICA
The landmass is greater than that of the United States and Mexico combined, but there are no native inhabitants.
Its surface holds 70 percent of the world’s fresh water, but the polar plateau receives roughly the same precipitation as Death Valley.
Designated as a natural reserve, activities here are governed by the Antarctic Treat of 1969. To safeguard this last true wilderness, members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators pledged to protect the wildlife and to respect the protected and scientific areas.
I had such fond memories of my voyage on the Explorer that I somehow imagined she would be around for another generation of travelers. It was not to be. On November 11, 2007, the Little Red Boat departed from Ushuaia, Argentina on a 19-day cruise. On November 23, the ship struck submerged ice and began taking on water through its cracked hull. At about 3 a.m., Captain Bengt Wiman gave the order to abandon ship. Two other cruise ships arrived on the scene at about 7 a.m. to begin plucking passengers and crew from lifeboats and rafts. All 154 aboard were rescued. Explorer, which had rolled on her starboard side, sank that evening.
Photos: Lillian Africano