On Planet Antarctica

Somewhere between the iceberg the size of my hometown and the penguin chick that tried to undo my laces, I realized Antarctica is not like anywhere else on earth to such a degree that it seems not of this earth at all but another planet entirely.

I heard fellow travellers echo the observation. “It’s like another planet,” said a jaded retiree, a look of childlike wonder crossing his otherwise grumpy face as our ship rounded a point and one surreal vista supplanted another.

Describing it all to friends back home, I realized, would be a challenge because earthlings who’ve never been here lack an appropriate frame of reference. Perhaps statistics will help. Antarctica is bigger than the United States or Australia. It is the coldest continent (lowest ever recorded temperature: –89.6 C), and the highest (Vinson Massif reaches 4,897 metres, and the average height of the terrain is 2,300 metres, much of that being ice). Antarctica is the driest continent, with less precipitation than the Sahara Desert (the snow never melts, it just keep blowing around) and the windiest, with katabatic blasts (air blowing down off the mountains) having been clocked at 320 kilometres an ho.

Despite all of the above, Antarctica hosts the greatest concentration of wildlife. Mind you, most of it lives in the sea: millions of penguins (emperor, gentoo, chinstrap, Adelie); tens of millions of seals (fur, elephant, Weddell, leopard, crabeater, Ross); hundreds of thousands of whales (humpback, minke, blue, sei, Southern right, sperm and bottlenose); millions of birds (shags, albatrosses, petrels, terns, sheathbills); thousands of orcas and 600,000 billion krill. These shrimp-like creatures form the basis of a food chain that supports all animal life here, thriving in the higher oxygen concentrations found in cold water. It is estimated that these tiny krill collectively outweigh the entire human race.

No towns, and no hotels
Certainly Antarctica is the least accessible continent. There are no towns, hotels or commercial airports, and getting here is no walk in the park. From Ushuaia, Argentina, I and 32 other voyagers who had signed up for the mission boarded a compact vessel and headed out across the Drake Passage, the shortest distance between Earth and Antarctica, a notoriously violent stretch of water that might as well have been a force field around the White Continent; it rebuffed us. But our intrepid crew soldiered on, and eventually our sturdy boat arrived on the other side. “You shouldn’t expect such a special place to be easy to reach,” huffed one of the expedition staff.

Like our group, the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, chartered by Quark Expeditions of Connecticut and Toronto, is small. This proved to be a major advantage once we got there, for a small vessel and a small group makes for more nimble, more extensive exploration. She was built to withstand ice, which is a very good thing: our first arrival on the White Continent was at Iceberg Alley, a passageway into Antarctic Sound that is littered with hundreds of massive bergs.

Somewhere ahead, the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf was spitting out bergs and sending them toward us. It was like dodging a meteor shower. Captain Kiselev never left the bridge, nor did several passengers, enthralled by the careful manoeuvring between blocks of ice larger than the ship, most of their ominous bulk hidden beneath the sea.

The shapes of them were stunning, each one a sculpture. I was put in mind of ice-cream dessert – by their whiteness, I suppose – and the whimsical shapes: broad deep-dish pies (the size of a shopping mall), twirling frothy peaks like whipped cream (tall as apartment towers), sharp striated wedges like slices of million-layer cake, and round puffy soufflés (towering 50 metres above the deck). In the distance lie tabular bergs, those long flat islands with vertical cliffs that could fill Vancouver harbour.

The largest of these, B-15, broke off the Ross Ice Shelf five years ago – at 11,655 square kilometres, it’s the size of Jamaica. It has since broken into smaller pieces, the largest being 115 kilometres long, merely the size of Luxembourg.

Next page: Adapting to the cold

Like any good expedition, ours carried scientists who briefed us on the experiences ahead. We’d learned penguins have adapted to the cold by developing a layer of blubber as well as a coat of down covered in stiff water-repellent outer feathers. We followed suit, donning padded layers and watertight boots and waddled into the inflatable zodiacs for the first of many landings. The good food in the dining room helped with the fat layer and, wrapped in puffy nylon, I looked more like an astronaut than a penguin.

We motored ashore to a greeting party of thousands of gentoo penguins, like little aliens attending a formal party. They showed no fear, seeming to understand we came in peace. The large colony of fur seals showed no fear, either – or much hospitality. Quite huffy, actually.

Walking amongst them made me feel I was starring in my own National Geographic special.

Most tour operators to the region, like Quark Expeditions, subscribe to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), the members of which follow a strict code of low-impact behaviour, and staff members good-naturedly harangue passengers to abide. Leave nothing but footprints. “Do not feed, touch or handle birds or seals, or approach or photograph them in ways that cause them to alter their behaviour.”

This is not always easy. I once found myself cut off from the boats by hefty fur seals. Seals will bite. A bull rose from his slumber to lunge with an angry snort. I got the message: “Get away from my harem.”

Further along the rocky shingle, other travellers had simply parked on the beach and waited for the curious penguins to approach them. This is within the rules.

Many of the penguins were mottled with tufts of down-like feathers they dropped on the breeze. These were youngsters, gradually losing their fluffy coats in favour of the black and white tuxedos they’re famous for. They cannot enter the sea until every last downy feather is gone, for only the mature coat is waterproof.

The frightening statistics of Antarctic weather are not in evidence on the Antarctic Peninsula in austral summer. Even on my March voyage, the last of the season, the temperature climbed to 8 C, the sun shining from a crackling clear cobalt sky. Penguins flopped on their stomachs as if keeling over dead, but they were merely exposing the soles of their webbed feet to expel heat – the only areas save their beaks not covered in feathers. I unzipped my parka and noticed other passengers dropping layers on the rocks. We were like the penguins, after all – we were moulting.

Care for environment – challenges to travellers
The environment is guarded so strictly here that even taking a bio break is not permitted, since human urine is a foreign organic substance. Fortunately, zodiac drivers with radios are ready to zip back to the mother ship: Beam me up, Scotty, I have to pee.

The intimate size of our group made possible two or three landings a day; we could load up the zodiacs at a moment’s notice. Sometimes, we just went cruising. Near Enterprise Island, the water lay like a polished mirror, reflecting perfectly the Herculean landscape of mountains and glaciers above. Suddenly, a trio of minke whales broke the surface, cutting rivulets on the silver water. Even our staff naturalist, a veteran of the area, choked at the beauty and unexpectedness of the moment. While cruising Paradise Bay, one of the most outrageously scenic places I have ever seen, the surprising moment was quite different: a thunderous avalanche in the vertical peaks, hundreds of tons of snow falling with a roar like a jetliner crash.

The glaciers in Paradise Bay are immense, cracking and calving constantly. If just one of them were in Alaska, big cruise ships would flock to it. Glaciers of unimaginable scale number 244 on the Antarctic Peninsula alone, so numerous that one becomes inured to the sight of them.

We were fortunate to travel always in warm sunshine and entered the Lemaire Channel on a postcard-perfect afternoon, the sea a still sheet of glass littered with ice, reflecting the 1,000-metre rock walls rising on either side. The Lemaire, 11 kilometres long and only half a kilometre wide, is Antarctica’s most famous scenic spot, a must-see for every voyage.

We were invited to visit a few of the lonely research stations. Argentina’s Almirante Brown Station had been razed by fire in 1984 by a solitude-affected doctor after he was told he was being assigned another year of duty. At Camara Station, also owned by Argentina, we were welcomed into the living quarters of the scientists who make their quaint home there, baking bread and cookies amidst the data-gathering. And at Britain’s historic Port Lockroy station, dating back to the Second World War, we toured a small museum, one of the least-visited in the world.

The highlight of the trip was the night I slept on a snow cap. Quark Expeditions is the only tour operator that allows some passengers the opportunity to camp ashore to join the small numbers of humans who have actually slept on the White Continent. It’s first-come, first-served, and while I am no fan of camping, I jumped at the chance.

With down sleeping bags and two-man tents know as “Himalayan huts,” our group was put ashore at Dorian Bay. We each staked out a spot for our tents, set them up and then went walking around the landscape, as ethereally beautiful as any we’d seen so far. The setting sun projected a sheen of gold onto mountains draped in thick snow like clotted cream.

We were at last truly alone with the spectacular solitude of Antarctica. Yet the still air was never truly silent; there always came the rifle-like reports of cracking glaciers and the mournful braying, similar to donkey calls, of penguins.

True darkness only fell near midnight but with startling clarity, ideal for stargazing. One of our fellow campers was an astronomer on vacation from the famous Chilean observatory, La Silla. The stars showed just how close to the bottom of the earth’s axis we were, for they moved so quickly across the sky, their movement could almost be detected with the human eye. Our astronomer friend was able to help us identify some but, at this latitude, even he had difficulty. The Southern Cross was obvious, as was a beacon-bright Venus. Toward the northern horizon we located Scorpius.

And somewhere beyond that lay Planet Earth.