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Astronauts have called Antarctica a great white lantern at the bottom of the world.

chinstrap penguin, image
Photo caption
Chinstrap penguins earn their name from the black band running under their heads. They are also called ringed penguins and bearded penguins.

Anyone who imagines the place as an Alaska sunk at the bottom of the globe is in for a big surprise. The mountains, rather than resembling the Rockies, are volcanic, some still active, so that Antarctica looks more like a crystal Tahiti carved in ice and expanded to cover one-tenth of the earth's surface. It has the dubious honor of claiming 90 percent of the earth's ice, which imprisons 70 percent of the planet's fresh surface water. If Antarctica were to melt, global sea levels would rise 200 feet. The fossil record would advise caution in the purchase of beachfront property anywhere, for a temperate Antarctica once bore forests of ferns and 60-foot trees. In the Jurassic period, about 190 million years ago, it is thought to have been the core of a hypothetical supercontinent called Gondwanaland that may have included Africa, Australia, India, Madagascar, and South America.

Now Antarctica is alone, glacial, unpeopled, bereft of trees, necklaced in ice, dark six months of the year. It is the windiest, driest, coldest place on earth. How cold? The record is -128.6°F at the Russian scientific station of Vostok, on July 21, 1983. Antarctica is also home to the oldest rock yet found: 3.93 billion years old.

We were reminded that we were part of a privileged corps and that we were on an expidition, not a cruise.

I wrote in my journal: Thursday. We flew out of Miami on a night when the full moon turned red. Light refraction after a lunar eclipse created the phenomenon. All through that long night we droned toward Buenos Aires and on to Ushuaia, the snug harbor at the end of the world, on Tierra del Fuego. It was January, austral summer, yet the town shivered beneath Andean glaciers. Unlike other continents, which tend to dribble away into water, leaking and weeping in wet swamps and deltas, South America goes out in glory, in the baying toothy peaks of the Andes. Beyond this hunkered-down town lies the infamous Drake Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet.

Our ship was the Marco Polo, built in Germany to ply the ice-strewn waters of the Soviet Union, then refitted by Orient Lines as a four-star cruise liner. Over the next week, we would come to have great affection for its sturdy, proletarian qualities and its ability to negotiate treacherous waters and adverse weather with ease—all the while serving notable meals with never a drop of vichyssoise spilled, and staging cabaret shows with dancers strutting in sequins and feathers.

We headed out through the Beagle Channel into Drake Passage. Shipboard lectures by naturalists, explorers, and scientists who had wintered in Antarctica prepared us for our landings. We watched documentaries of early expeditions: the ships crushed by ice; the howling winds; the manic antics of men driven mad by cold, deprivation, and 24-hour darkness; the frozen remains of those who failed. We were reminded that we were part of a privileged corps and that we were on an expedition, not a cruise. Retired teachers, vacationing bankers, proverbial little old ladies in tennis shoes—all of us—suddenly walked taller, laughed more heartily. We were striding in the footsteps of heroes, brave and forsaken in the bitter cold, but with a good wine list and a nightly turndown.

Antarctica existed in the imagination long before any human eye beheld it. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) postulated that the world was round and that a landmass must exist at the southern extremity to balance the known lands of the north. Polynesian oral history relates that a great explorer, Hui-te-Rangiora, sailing far south of New Zealand in about A.D. 650, discovered a beautiful white land. British explorer James Cook was the first in recorded history to sail south of the Antarctic Circle, on January 17, 1773. As he pressed farther south, his small ship Resolution became a toy of the tempests. Cook reported "the rigging and sails all decorated with icicles." Turned back by pack ice, he never saw Antarctica. Peevishly, he wrote in his journal about the still-theoretical continent, "If anyone should have resolution and perseverance enough to elucidate this point, by proceeding farther south than I have done, I shall not envy him the honour of discovery, but I will be bold to say that the world will derive no benefit from it."

Despite Cook's assessment, a few individuals managed to derive considerable benefit from it. Unnamed sealers, venturing southward in 1820, found "soft gold," fur seals. In a few short years of intensive hunting, the sealers nearly reduced to extinction a species that had survived for eons in the most hostile of environments.

Whales suffered a similar decimation. In 1904, a Norwegian company established the first Antarctic whaling station at Grytviken on South Georgia Island. They slayed 183 whales, triggering a massive hunt. Between 1925 and 1927, some 7,825 whales, including blues, fins, sperms, and humpbacks, were taken.

Assessing history and the potential for use and abuse, 12 nations with interests in Antarctica forged a unique agreement in 1959. The Antarctic Treaty suspends all sovereignty claims and ensures that the continent will be used "for peaceful purposes only." To date, 43 nations have signed on. All wildlife is protected, and the lusty roar of bull elephant seals with harems of 40 to 50 females again echoes across the icy half nights.

Saturday. Sunlight on the Antarctic Sea was hard and bright and slick, like gunmetal, not the color of liquid. The towering waves were turquoise and foaming white, beautiful to behold in their fury. Two humpback whales leaped across the bow of the ship. I peered through the mist for a first sight of the white continent. Not yet.

Deception Island was scheduled to be our first stop, but the sea was too rough, so we pushed on to Half Moon Island, home to a sizable colony of chinstrap penguins. All landings were made by motorized rubber boats called Zodiacs, each of which holds about 16 passengers.

Sunday. In our rubber boats, we zipped about the bay among small icebergs, like gnats in a strange cocktail. Some icebergs were an ethereal blue. Ice rose all around us. It was snowing. The penguins, so formal in their attire, smelled rather badly and sounded like shrill dogs. The wildness and desolation were overwhelming, like a sense of great regret.

When we came back on board, attendants helped us with our boots and handed us mugs of hot chocolate or hot toddy. I gathered myself into a big woolen blanket and sat in a deck chair as the anchor was hauled up and we cruised along the frozen shore. On the sound system, mournful Irish uilleann pipes played, floating out into the lovely, lonely space through which we were passing. A man from Dublin came and sat beside me, proclaiming it all "very grand, indeed." He said he booked this trip because Jacques Cousteau, when asked about his favorite place in the world, replied without hesitation, "Antarctica."

Antarctica is for people who like extremes, for continent counters and baggers of trophy destinations.

Monday morning the sun actually made an appearance. The captain went up in the ship's helicopter to assess the icebergs in the 7-mile Lemaire Channel, reputedly the most scenic part of Antarctica. He decided it was a go, and we went through the channel. The captain then turned the ship around and sailed back, to make up for the last two cruises when the passage had been too hazardous to navigate.

The passage was narrow and twisted. Its icy walls closed in around us so that it was like being in a crystal chalice. Large icebergs floated by in the currents. Seals snoozed on them, drifting and dreaming to the whoosh of the sea. Penguins laboriously climbed up a great glacier then tobogganed down on their stomachs, plopping in the water, then jumping out to begin again. The white volcanic mountain peaks appeared haunted—Bali Hai in deep freeze.

We were due to go ashore Monday afternoon at Port Lockroy, a former whaling site and now a British research station. The British, suffered by the 3,000 pairs of resident gentoo penguins, still maintain a small presence there. A few Zodiacs made it ashore, but before our landing party could be called, the weather turned decidedly nasty and everyone was hurriedly trundled back aboard while the captain sought shelter for the night. The waves were monstrous and the wind so strong it blew the hail sideways. We were consoled with afternoon tea and scones and a lecture on scurvy, the bane of the early explorers. That evening, I dined on consommé, grilled tuna steak with a light lemon sauce, and chocolate mousse with black currant coulis. My husband, Jim, had scallop tempura with ginger sauce, suckling pig, and cherries jubilee. Afterward we sipped brandy and watched the revue. Nicky Derrick, a fifth-generation marimba player, and her husband, Adam, sang "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Back in our cabin, we sat cozily watching the storm. Snow piled up against the windows, shrouding the lifeboats. The wind was so intense it moved over the surface of the water like furious swarms of small fish. But we were warm and well fed, and we had music. By morning the tempest had passed and the captain returned to Port Lockroy, so those who hadn't gotten ashore could have a turn.

In wan sunlight the place was eerie. Huge icebergs in fantastic shapes loomed around us. One was shaped like Noah's ark with two seals curled on its deck. Others looked like Diamond Head, a fallen airplane, a cold, cold Sphinx. It was as if some great calamity had befallen the world, and in the night the frozen remnants had drifted silently southward.

As soon as our Zodiac was launched, a huge seal, probably a good thousand pounds, popped up right behind it, close enough to pet. It looked at us with big, sensitive eyes for a long time, then dove beneath the rubber boat and came up beside us. I was sure my Irish grandmother had sent a selkie (in Irish legend, a seal who can become human) to accompany me in this faraway place. Our nature guide said it was a leopard seal and it may have been perusing the menu. To them, people are enormous penguins, and they can kill and eat about six penguins an hour. At the same time, thousands of penguins waddled about like bemused prom dates on shore.

Another landing was scheduled, this one on the continent itself. Up to this point, we'd been messing around in the Antarctic islands. Katabatic winds, the notorious gales that swirl out of the South Pole, descended on Paradise Harbor, closing it. We sailed on to the more protected Neko Harbor, and in the teeth of the wind, the intrepid Zodiacs ferried ashore everyone who wanted to actually set foot upon the great white continent.

Antarctica casts a spell. It's like a magnet, a force field drawing you to itself, where you find that beneath the white snow, the ice, compressed by endless ages, is the purest blue. This is the allure.

Antarctica is for people who like extremes, for continent counters and baggers of trophy destinations. One man said, "I'm from Texas. When I started traveling, I vowed I'd see the other seven continents."

His friend laughed, "This is the perfect cruise for me—no museums, no malls, no cathedrals."

On our last day we were able to sail into the caldera of Deception Island, where the obsidian volcanic ash is streaked with white snow. Thermal activity heats parts of the bay to a simmer and we were invited to shed our parkas and swim. An older woman and a young girl hesitantly ventured in, and then the Japanese contingent stripped down and ran in with the enthusiasm of penguins, splashing and frolicking in the warm water while the air around them hovered just below freezing.

The next morning, we awoke safely moored in Ushuaia. The deck no longer rolled. We were back in the world of men and it was a big disappointment. We had ventured far and tasted the wildest wilderness, the place that drives people mad if it cannot drive them away.

Photos courtesy of Gilad Rom/Wikimedia

This article was first published in May 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.