Adventures in Antarctica: Part 2
Follow history’s most intrepid explorers to a land
of icebergs, glaciers and inquisitive penguins
By Alan Fox
"I'm just getting outside and may be some time."
-- L.E.G. Oates to his companions
When Oates failed to return, they left the small, makeshift cabin to search for him, but the roaring blizzard had swallowed him whole. The year was 1912, and Robert Falcon Scott's expedition had managed to reach the South Pole only to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had already been there and gone.
Bitterly disappointed at their failure to be the first to reach the pole, they began the 800-mile overland trek back to the coast, but bad luck and worse weather made the journey perilously slow. Suffering from frostbite and snow-blindness and running low on food, their strength waned and Oates' health deteriorated. At the end, he realized his friends would never make the supply depot if they moved at his pace, so he willingly marched to his death to free the others to push on.
But the storm did not let up, and the others could not push far.
Eight months later, the frozen bodies of Scott and his comrades were found about 20 miles from where Oates had left them, barely 10 miles from the supply depot. The spot was marked and the tent was collapsed around them and covered with snow, their final resting place.
We left our first Antarctic landing spot, Penguin Island, in search of the rarest animal on the continent: the human.
For two hours we sailed in calm waters, never out of sight of soaring white mountains and glaciers. In midafternoon, the Minerva dropped anchor off the Polish research station Arctowski, a complex of a dozen wooden buildings on a narrow strip of flat land between the shore and a steep hillside.
Man first set eyes on the white continent only 200 years ago. For decades explorers sailing south were turned back by the worst seas and storms and ice floes they had ever seen. When Antarctica was finally discovered, so were the harshest conditions on the planet. Only a handful of life-forms thrive here -- penguins, seals and whales among them -- and the mortality rate for those early human visitors was high.
Today, in the summer, there are about 5,000 people scattered across Antarctica, a continent that is bigger than Europe or the United States, in isolated research stations like this one. In the winter, the number drops to about 1,000.
We motored to a rocky beach landing on a Zodiac as the icy wind looked for openings in our hoods and red parkas, then hiked to a colony of adelie penguins under darkening skies. The chicks were almost fully grown and wandering far from their nests, and we'd heard we might get to see a chick enter the water for the first time. Like humans, penguins have to learn how to swim, and apparently the process can be quite entertaining.
We spotted a small group of chicks painstakingly making their way down the rugged hillside toward the water and watched with great anticipation as they hopped and waddled to the very edge of the ocean, laid down and went to sleep.
There were molting seals near the water, with large patches of skin missing. During the molting process, seals shed their old coat of skin and hair and grow a new one. It's an annual process and takes about a month, during which the seals are less active and uncomfortable.
We walked to Arctowski and were met by friendly Polish scientists and welcomed into their small and spartan mess hall and living room. I noticed that many of the items in the rooms were brightly colored, possibly to offset the monotonous white and gray of summer and blackness of winter.
The Minerva and the two dozen temporary residents of Arctowski have a symbiotic relationship. In exchange for letting the ship's passengers get a glimpse of life in Antarctica, the Minerva brings potatoes and other hard-to-come-by provisions when it calls, to supplement the vegetables that can be grown in the station's greenhouse.
I climbed aboard a Zodiac for a ride back to the ship and watched as the lonely outpost grew smaller. I wondered what it would feel like to be there when the ocean froze and anyone left behind knew that, for better or worse, he was there for the long, dark winter. Officially the research areas at Arctowski include glaciology and meteorology, but I suspect there is also an informal study of cabin fever taking place.
Back on board, we recapped the day's events with other passengers and the expedition staff in the Darwin Lounge and enjoyed a drink in the Shackleton Lounge and an excellent meal in the main dining room.
Tonight, on a silvery sea, the Minerva is again sailing south.
Explorers must always precede vacationers, and I am indebted to those who risked their lives and braved the unknown a century or two ago, for otherwise, we would not be here today.
Hundreds of miles ahead of us, high on the Ross Ice Shelf, Robert Falcon Scott and the other members of the second expedition to reach the South Pole are at peace in their frozen time capsule.
L.E.G. Oates was never found, but the story of his selflessness lives on.
To see photos from this portion of my cruise, please click here.
Antarctica's Wild Side
"If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on Earth that is still as it should be."
-- Andrew Denton
The skua circled the gentoo penguin rookery like an aerial grim reaper, searching for an opportunity. With a 52-inch wingspan, this great, brown predator cast a wide shadow. Below, on a rocky knoll on a windswept island in Mikkelsen Harbour, worried adult gentoos tried to shield chicks in their nests with their own bodies.
There are no trees in Antarctica, and thus no twigs or leaves for nest-building, so these gentoo nests were built with stones. I knew from my briefing onboard the Minerva that the skua was after the 2-week-old chicks.
I spotted the ship's outstanding ornithologist, Patri, standing in the snow about 30 yards from the colony, and walked over to express my hope that we would not see a chick snatched away during our visit.
"Skuas are beautiful birds," she smiled, "and they must take care of their own families. It's part of nature." So much for any misguided thought I might have had about shooing the bird away.
In this strange new world, we were a bit like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, unable to interfere in the affairs of the places we visited no matter what we encountered. That's probably a good thing, I thought to myself, as I stared down a snow-covered hill to the bones of blue whales that littered the beach.
Blue whales are the largest animals on Earth today and have been recorded in excess of 110 feet in length. They are believed to be the largest animals ever to have lived, including dinosaurs. One hundred years ago, men came to Antarctica to slaughter seals and whales by the tens of thousands, driving species such as the blue whale to the brink of extinction.
Boats entered this natural harbor with their dead trophies lashed to their hulls, and on that beach the whales were skinned and their blubber was boiled down for oil. The rest of the carcass was set adrift as waste, called a "skrot." As I gazed out at the snow-covered mountains and calving glaciers lining the harbor, I was grateful to live in a different time.
Today, Antarctica is governed by a treaty signed by all major nations with the goal of preserving the status quo and preventing contamination, commercialization or militarization of the continent. The treaty's authors have not been entirely successful, but tremendous progress has been made.
Fishing in Antarctic waters is regulated, and a global moratorium on whaling has been successful in sharply reducing the harvest of whales, though Japan still kills about 1,000 Antarctic whales annually. The Japanese take their whales in the name of "research," though whale meat ends up in sushi restaurants throughout the country.
To limit the impact of cruise ships on Antarctic wildlife habitats, vessels carrying more than 500 passengers are not allowed to take any passengers ashore. On smaller vessels, no more than 100 passengers can go ashore at one time. The 198 passengers on the Minerva are divided into two groups, and each group goes ashore twice a day.
At the stairs to the Zodiacs, before leaving or entering the ship, we step ankle-deep into an antibacterial liquid to prevent cross-contamination. We do not touch or leave anything ashore and of course do not feed or disturb the wildlife, which has no apparent fear of humans and seems almost indifferent to our presence.
Certainly these gentoos on Mikkelsen were oblivious to our party, riveted instead on the skua hovering overhead, searching for one unattended chick. To my relief, there were none, but the bird landed anyway and approached a penguin at the outer edge of the colony.
Penguins are defenseless against the beaks and claws of skuas, and as the bird walked menacingly close it eyed a chick that was almost buried beneath its parent. But the bond between parent and offspring was strong, and the animated, squawking penguin refused to leave the nest. The show of bravado -- essentially a bluff -- proved effective. The frustrated skua eventually took flight, and I decided to leave while the gentoos were still ahead.
I walked down the snowy hillside, picked my way through the massive whalebones, cleaned my boots in the "guanomatic" (fixed brushes on a wooden platform placed in shallow water, for the removal of penguin guano) and boarded the Zodiac for the Minerva.
An hour later, standing by the rail as we left the harbor, we were treated to whales the way they were meant to be, playfully breaching and slapping the water with their pectoral fins. It was a magnificent sight, the kind of spectacle that makes you appreciate that you are part of something bigger. Still, it was only a warm-up for an afternoon that would exceed anything that had come before.
To see photos from this portion of my cruise, please click here.
Wonderland on Ice
"I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave."
-- Ernest Shackleton, in a small, open boat in Drake Passage
We had just crept to the edge of the rocky lookout point when we heard the crack of a glacier calving and turned our cameras to the source. Directly below and across from us, a 100-foot-tall wall of blue ice had separated and was collapsing into the water, its thousand-year march to the sea complete.
After a great splash, the ice disappeared for a few moments, and then almost in slow motion, chunks of all shapes and sizes bobbed to the surface and spread across the small cove. No words were spoken, but a dozen cameras clicked continuously, a comical kind of background music that I had come to expect whenever spectacular photo ops presented themselves.
We had hiked a quarter of the way up a snow-covered mountain in Neko Harbour, sticking to a trail of hard-packed snow blazed by excursion leaders from the ship. The day was cloudy with a temperature in the mid-30s, but we were overdressed and hot from the exertion.
I desperately wanted to continue to the summit for a chance to see the interior of the Antarctic Peninsula and not just the mountainous coastline, but our guides had politely ruled that out. This was as high as we would be allowed to go.
I backtracked across the snowy bluff until I was a couple of hundred feet from the others, removed my red parka and plopped down beside the trail to cool off and drink it all in. But the surface of the snowcap had melted and refrozen in a solid sheet, and I immediately began to slide down the hill. I pounded the ice with my boot and dug in on the third or fourth try, before picking up much speed, and pulled myself back up the slope to flat ground.
Suddenly I understood why we weren't continuing to the summit.
I turned my gaze to the harbor below me, speckled with icebergs and lined with glaciers, and the lovely, miniature Minerva anchored offshore. We had visited a gentoo penguin colony with chicks and prowling skuas at the start of our climb, and the passengers who had passed on the hike and remained there were now little red dots by the water's edge.
My lofty perch provided a very different perspective from what we had experienced the day before in a dreamlike place called Cierva Cove, where icebergs are brilliant blue and as tall as skyscrapers. In our Zodiac, we had scraped across the floating chunks of ice (brash) and paused to marvel at 10-foot-long leopard seals lounging on bergy bits (small icebergs). Majestic mountains of snow and ice enveloped us, dwarfing our tiny raft, but more than any other aspect of Cierva Cove, it was the light -- ethereal and beckoning -- that I will remember.
Oh, and one other thing -- the penguins in Cierva Cove can fly.
If Antarctica can bewitch with its beauty, it can also be deadly. It was 94 years ago -- almost to the day -- that ice formed on the sea and trapped Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, as he made his way toward Vahsel Bay and the first planned trans-Antarctic expedition.
For 10 months, including a long, black winter, the vessel drifted slowly with the ice pack. When the spring came, shifting ice crushed the ship and sank it, but not before Shackleton had evacuated the crew, sled dogs, three lifeboats and provisions. They lived in tents on the floating ice for five months longer, supplementing their dwindling food stock with seals and penguins (and sled dogs), ever on the move to avoid splits and fissures in the floe that might have engulfed the entire party.
They drifted northward past our current position, on the opposite side of this narrow peninsula, until the ice finally broke up, allowing the launch of the lifeboats. What followed was the greatest epic of survival in the history of Antarctic exploration, and included a crossing of Drake Passage in a small, open boat. I read the book "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" by Alfred Lansing in preparation for this journey, and I strongly recommend it.
This is our next-to-last day in Antarctica, and we have settled into a routine that includes two daily shore excursions, lectures, excursion recaps, trips to the bridge, trips to the spa and meals in the ship's formal and buffet dining rooms. Lunch is served inside and alfresco, on the aft pool deck.
I have been impressed by our approachable and communicative captain, Giovanni Biasutti, our energetic expedition leader, Suzana D'Oliveira, and the many experts and specialists on board. The staff and crew are friendly and competent, the ship is comfortable and orderly and well run.
Since leaving Drake Passage, the seas have been calm and sometimes glassy, like sailing in a lake. But the weather here is temperamental, as Ernest Shackleton once learned, and there is a storm approaching.
Our Antarctic wonderland is about to change.
To see photos from this portion of my cruise, please click here.
A Place Like No Other
"Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated by love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden path by the lure of little voices, the mysterious fascination of the unknown."
-- Ernest Shackleton
Sometime overnight we turned north along the Antarctic Peninsula, the beginning of a long journey home for which none of us was truly ready. On a gray and blustery morning, we called on Deception Island, the remnants of an ancient volcano that collapsed into itself, eons ago. The island is aptly named, as it appears to be a solid land mass from the outside when in fact it is a snow-covered cone rising from the sea.
For many years, passing mariners failed to notice a narrow opening (Neptune's Bellows) through the circle of rock, leading to a sheltered harbor. As we sailed into that harbor today, we found the ghostly remains of an abandoned whaling station on a black, volcanic shore.
We took Zodiacs to the beach and hiked for a mile or so before climbing to the top of the cone for a better view of the entire caldera and the ocean outside. Then it was back to the landing site, time to fulfill (or back down from) a promise (more of a dare) that the men in our group had made to each other in a warmer, sunnier time.
We'd been told on board the Minerva that there was a small area of sand at the water's edge that was heated by geothermal activity and warm to the touch. It was windy with an air temperature in the low 30s and dark clouds staring down as we stripped to swimming trunks and hurried to that spot on the sand.
Completely flat and out of the wind, we were perfectly comfortable there on the ground, though even lifting one's head was chilly. We decided to take it up a notch and waded into the freezing water up to our knees for a picture before quickly returning to the beach and the warm spot of sand to recover.
I'm not sure exactly what was going through my mind -- it's possible the memory has frozen solid -- but the next thing I knew I was walking back into the water by myself, up to my ankles (brrrrr), knees (yikes), waist (ye gods) and into a headfirst dive and total immersion (AAAAIIIIEEEE!!!!).
For someone who lives in a near-constant state of distraction, I found all of my attention instantly focused.
I surfaced and took a couple of strokes toward shore before finding the bottom, and as I trudged in the coarse, black sand my body began to feel heavy and dull. In moments I was standing on the beach, soaking wet in the frigid wind, and it actually felt good to be out of the ocean!
Watching the Discovery Channel series "Deadliest Catch," filmed in the Bering Sea, I learned that a fisherman going overboard without a wetsuit would be dead from hypothermia before a crab boat could turn around to pull him out of the water. Now I know exactly how that water stings.
The wives in our group were of course too intelligent to accept this "all-in" challenge, so it was up to my Vacations To Go colleagues Emerson Hankamer and Troy Bringle to follow my lead, and they did not waver. All told, two dozen passengers went into the water, and about 10 became completely immersed.
Then it was on to Half Moon Island, a long and narrow strip of land with a chinstrap penguin rookery on one end and play-fighting fur seals on the other.
During our trip from Deception Island, a storm front moved in, and we came ashore with powerful winds and driving rain.
The island was muddy in some places, and the rocks were wet and slippery. We held our hoods to keep them from blowing off our heads in the gusts and did our best to keep our backs to the horizontal rain. Halfway through our excursion, the rain turned to swirling snow, adding a touch of authenticity to the scene and obscuring our view of the Minerva, anchored just offshore.
Our group of seven lingered to the end, not wanting to lose a second of our time in Antarctica, until we were herded to the last Zodiac by the guides. As we climbed on the raft, we could see that the rising waves were testing the strength of the Zodiac handlers. After granting us safe harbor for four days and nights, Antarctica was spitting us out, the perfect ending of a great adventure.
In a few months, the skies will grow darker still and the ice and snow will cover every sound and cove and bay we have seen this week. Today is but a taste of what will be.
Back on board, we set sail for South America, and the captain announced that those who use motion-sickness medications might want to start looking for them. We did.
Soon, we will reach the unprotected waters of Drake Passage, and the storm is intensifying. Snow is piling up on the decks, and the Minerva has begun to creak and groan with the heavy swells.
That's fine with me. I did not want to find the ocean calm inside Drake Passage, and I have no desire to return from Antarctica with a tan. I've found that it simplifies things tremendously if you can travel with the goal of seeing things as they are and not as you wish they were.
I can't say who should come to Antarctica and who should not, but it is my hope that those who have read this account will know whether they are ready. Some will hear the call and others won't.
I want to thank the talented captain, staff and crew of the good ship Minerva. It takes a special kind of person to live gracefully on the sea, away from family, and those who brave these treacherous winds and waters deserve extra recognition.
We did not walk in the footsteps of Amundsen or Scott or Shackleton or Oates, but we stood in their long shadows, and made footprints of our own.
Tomorrow, we shall feast on the Drake -- or vice versa -- and tonight, she prepares a ride that we will remember.
To see photos from this portion of my cruise, please click here.
There are two types of passenger ships that visit Antarctica. Traditional cruise ships, like Regent's Seven Seas Mariner, get close enough for great views of the coast while offering a full range of amenities and entertainment. There also are much smaller expedition ships that take passengers ashore, such as the Minerva. For the 2009-2010 season in Antarctica, the Minerva will be chartered by the world's top luxury tour company, Abercrombie & Kent. ( Regent Seven Seas Cruises is ending its Antarctica charter program aboard the ship.)
Both types of Antarctic cruises can be booked through Vacations To Go. Call (800) 338-4962 to speak to a travel counselor, or visit Vacations To Go to see a complete list of itineraries, with ship descriptions, departure dates and rates.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2009. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.