PALMER STATION, Antarctica — Fog so thick the Antarctic world was hazy, white on white, almost entirely obscured.
We assembled on the designated deck of our small ship for ritual boot cleaning — an environmental protection procedure done both when leaving the ship and when returning to it. There we waited to disembark. Minutes later, descending the gangway’s wobbly steps to a movable platform used for boarding rubber boats, we grew hushed. Only the sloshing glacial ice knocking against the platform made noise.
I had but one thought: Thank heavens I didn’t miss this.
I’m a worrier who spends too much time on life’s “what-ifs.” Before traveling to Antarctica, there was one big what-if on my mind, although it had little to do with Antarctica, itself. What I feared was becoming violently seasick sailing through the Drake Passage to and from Antarctica. As somebody who gets sick on a merry-go-round, I worried from the day my husband and I began talking about the trip.
Also, an Antarctic journey is expensive — likely twice that of other international trips we’ve taken. Why pay a premium to be miserable?
I still was worried when we boarded a small ship named Ocean Diamond at Ushuaia, Argentina, (pronounced “ooz-swi’-ah"). A city of 60,000 residents, Ushuaia is the capital of the Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina and self-describes as “Fin del Mundo,” or "the end of the world."
Separated from the continental mainland of South America by the Strait of Magellan, Ushuaia actually is the southernmost city on the planet and a common starting point for Antarctic trips. As such, it’s the last point of civilization before the storied Drake Passage.
Drake Passage was named for the English privateer and slave trader Sir Francis Drake, who in 1578 surmised there was a water link between the Atlantic and Pacific where the two great oceans mixed. Indeed, the Drake Passage connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic with the southeastern part of the Pacific and extends into the Southern Ocean.
Powerful currents from the Atlantic and Pacific encounter one another in the Drake Passage with no landmass anywhere to break gale-force winds that blow routinely. The waters are rough more often than not. Adding to discomfort are the 40-plus hours it takes to cross the Drake Passage from the southernmost tip of Argentina to calmer seas surrounding the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica.
The thought of such dramatic turbulence made me shudder. And yet, what kept nagging at my husband and me was that in years of travel, we’d never come across anyone who regretted the decision to go to Antarctica. Travelers referred to Antarctic experiences in superlatives. Assuming they knew something we didn’t, we finally signed up.
Our choice was Overseas Adventure Travel, which is linked to Grand Circle Cruise Line. We would be part of their next-to-last journey for the Antarctic summer of 2018-19, putting us in the last part of January 2019 and first few days of February.
Standard trips like ours include significant preparation. Many months prior to our departure date, we received serious-sounding medical forms for our physicians to fill out before we were deemed fit enough for the adventure. The small ship's crew includes a physician, but we’re told access to anything other than rudimentary medical care is impossible (getting to a medical facility takes two days). We’re also required to have emergency evacuation insurance of at least $50,000.
A few months ahead of time, we’re sent big red parkas and informed we’ll need waterproof pants and waterproof gloves. After boarding the ship, we will be issued neoprene boots because landings in Antarctica are wet landings.
Again and again, we’re reminded there’s wisdom in dressing in layers, particularly two pairs of socks for the boots. Strong sunscreen and polarized sunglasses are absolute necessities. (Note: We find ourselves rejoicing to live where people ice fish and sporting goods stores stock waterproof paraphernalia that’s also warm.)
Any activity in the Antarctic is tightly controlled. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators IAATO adheres to strict rules. The number of people allowed ashore at one time from small ships is limited and large cruise ships simply aren’t permitted. Nothing can be left ashore or removed from it.
Antarctica is a continent, but it is not a country. All laws and protocols are governed by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which was signed by 12 countries, including the U.S. Updated over the years, it has become known as the Antarctic Treaty System with several dozen more nations involved.
By treaty, Antarctica is “a zone of peace and science.” Ten nations have permanent bases in Antarctica, and 19 nations conduct research during the summer months. However, no human being has a permanent address in Antarctica.
We quickly came to love the rubber boats — Zodiacs, also known as rigid inflatable boats, which at different times took us on wildlife and whale-watching excursions, or to visit both Chilean and U.S. research stations, or to land on islands with penguins, seals and birds, or even to make stops on the Antarctic continent, itself.
In a bay at one island — with some penguins watching from a few feet away and others “porpoising” nearby (swimming and leaping in and out of the water like dolphins) — we took a polar plunge. This required stripping down from heavy jackets, clothing and boots to bathing suit and shoes before running into and back out of the water. Both shocking and exhilarating, the numbingly cold water made clear how fast hypothermia and death could occur in Antarctica’s unspoiled world of ice and snow.
Zodiacs were equipped with Yamaha 60-horsepower outboard engines and had room for eight to 10 passengers plus an expedition leader who doubled as the driver. Expedition leaders — who primarily were scientists — prefaced all Zodiac plans with the words “weather permitting.” Our good luck with weather resulted in two excursions every day we were in Antarctica.
Expedition leaders made Zodiac explorations more interesting and also enhanced our learning and understanding by giving onboard lectures. We learned about (and saw) large seabirds, including albatrosses, petrels, cormorants, skuas and gulls. Other lecture topics were plastic pollution, computer models of climate change, photography tips and stories of Antarctic explorers.
We also heard about “fat and fabulous seals” (we saw five types: fur, elephant, leopard, Weddell and crabeater), and penguins (we saw three types: chinstrap, gentoos and Adelies, and were utterly charmed by them). The lectures increased our appreciation for our twice-daily forays.
As we became familiar with glaciers, icebergs and ice floes, it was not hard to imagine enormous icebergs breaking away from glaciers, crashing into the sea and causing huge waves to rush forth like mini-tsunamis. Not that anything that dramatic happened to us. More typical calving scenes were glaciers losing ice in cascades (think “ice-falls” instead of waterfalls). The loud cracking sounds produced could be heard far away, sounds resembling those of a busy rifle range.
On that foggy January morning when ice filled the sea, expedition team members surmised the nearby Marr Glacier was “actively calving.” In other words, ice chunks of all sizes were breaking off, filling the surrounding waters with brash ice — fractured pieces of everything from small icebergs called “bergy bits,” to small fragments called “growlers.”
To our eyes, Marr Glacier was a blue and white towering ice mass in the distance (glaciers appear blue because red and yellow colors in the light spectrum are more easily absorbed than blues). But we learned Marr Glacier’s towering mass had lost more than 500 meters of “horizontal ice” since the 1960s, vast areas having receded as the climate continually warms.
'As it should be'
The name Overseas Adventure Travel gave to our trip was “Antarctica’s White Wilderness.” Indeed, a sense of wilderness is what we experienced that morning as the Zodiac’s motor moved us into white fog, steadily chewing through ice chunks and slush, slowly propelling us into Antarctica’s mysterious beauty.
In those moments, we felt intimacy with the continent’s polar grandeur, unsullied over thousands of years, the smallness of human existence and the magnificence of creation magically fused.
Ironically, my fear of crossing the Drake Passage turned out to be for nothing. Yes, rough waters when we began had us clutching hand rails and constantly picking up things that fell to the floor; however, we’d put scopolamine patches behind our ears before setting sail to prevent nausea and morning sickness, and the initial rough water gave way to smoother in a matter of hours.
On our return, we had the good luck of experiencing “Drake Lake” — the very unusual phenomenon of completely calm seas — so calm, in fact, that our captain detoured to show us Cape Horn. My “what-ifs” seemed silly.
I bought a notecard in the ship’s tiny gift shop with the following Andrew Denton quotation: “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. May we never tame it.”
Jane Ahlin lives in Fargo and is a frequent contributor to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's opinion pages. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.