Into the Great Unknown

antarctica

An expedition to the Earth’s most isolated continent is a mesmerizing and cautionary experience

Forget about those high-priced trips into space. You can travel to another planet without ever leaving Earth. Just visit Antarctica.

Even if you have traveled extensively—as my wife and I have—a trip to our least accessible continent will rival or exceed your most exotic voyage. You will return stunned by Antarctica’s stark grandeur and wraparound wildlife and fortified with a renewed understanding of the threat from climate change.

Obviously, you have to love nature. You also need to accept the potential hardships of the trips and the risks of being so isolated.

The rewards, however, make the trip well worth it. One afternoon, our ship moved slowly through a channel as a pod of killer whales rolled off the starboard bow and a pod of humpback whales frolicked off the port bow. You visit vast colonies of penguins that pay you little attention as they go about their business. You see hundreds of seals basking on ice floes, giving a curious look as the ship slides past. You see birds soaring endlessly on ocean currents.

And you see ice as you’ve never seen ice—in a gallery of colors and shapes. One afternoon, we left the ship to kayak among the icebergs and got close to examples of rare blue ice. It’s formed from older glaciers and absorbs light, thus giving the ice its unique color.

Antarctica is one of the last pristine places on Earth. As one naturalist on our National Geographic/Lindblad staff said, “It’s a privilege to be here.” Another, from England, said, “It’s a different game down here, mate.”

antarctica

Understand first that Antarctica is a desert, with ice instead of sand. Ice is everything in Antarctica, from habitat to spectacle to threat.

One morning, our captain ran the ship onto “fast ice”—attached to the shore—that was deep enough for the passengers to disembark and walk on it. The sun shone brilliantly. Visibility was unlimited. Stark, white mountains rose on all sides. It was magnificent isolation. With everyone silent, you could hear the ice inhale and exhale as the sea rose and fell deep below it.

Another afternoon, however, the expedition team cut short an outing because the ice suddenly had shifted. Unless we moved quickly, the ship would be trapped. As the captain said, matter-of-factly, during one pre-dinner lecture, “You don’t f— with the ice.”

Even the most ambitious cruise, though, doesn’t take you into the deepest, most inhospitable parts of the continent. Ships seek landing spots near and along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Our trip began as many do—from the port in Ushuaia, Argentina, in Tierra del Fuego. After the two-day journey through the Drake Passage—more about that later—our first landing was on Barrientos Island.

There we saw not hundreds of penguins but thousands. The island is home to gentoos—who appear to be wearing red lipstick—and their relatives, the chinstraps—named for the thin black line on their necks.

The penguins are all around you on the beach, coming and going from the water. They are all around you on the hills. They are in the distance on farther hills. If you have visited the Galapagos Islands, it’s like being around the sea lions and boobies. “Totally unafraid,” one naturalist said.

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Viewing a penguin colony is a sensory experience. You see them. You hear their high-pitched raspy calls, each one meaning something. And you smell them, though quickly enough the smell becomes just part of the experience.

From Barrientos, we went to Neko Harbor. Where the island had been rocky, this first stop on the peninsula was deep in snow, even in the Antarctic summer. So the penguins moved along paths carved from repeated trips.

Visitors often use the same paths. Penguins, though, have the right of way. If you miss a small black head bobbing along and block the path, the penguin often will pause and wait for you to move. It has business, and you’re holding things up.

Our stop in Neko Harbor fell on the day of the National Women’s March. My wife had brought a poster, and two dozen women joined her for a group photograph at the summit of our hike. Below, a glacier calved.

Next came Pour-quoi pas (Why Not?) Island, named for the ship that brought French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot to Antarctica. We had made it beyond the Antarctic Circle, which at 66.5 degrees is as close to the South Pole as the Arctic Circle is to the North Pole.

We were about 5,600 miles from Boca Raton, and it seemed as if we had time-traveled. Even some veteran staff members never had been so far south.

Pour-quoi pas is home to Adélies, the smallest penguins. They share the beach with seals, slide across the ice on their bellies and watch for skuas, predator birds that work in pairs. One tries to distract the penguin while the other swoops in for an egg or chick.

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You get history in Antarctica, too. After the ship started back north, we stopped at Detaille Island in Crystal Sound. It’s halfway down the peninsula. In 1956, Britain established a research station on Detaille. Just three years later, however, it closed—in a great hurry.

The supply ship sent word to the men on the island that they had 30 minutes to leave or the ice would close in and the ship would have to depart without leaving its supplies. Using sled dogs, the men traveled five miles over ice in that half hour and escaped.

Because of that hasty departure, much inside the huts remains from 61 years ago: a Hoover washing machine and “A Guide to Washing the Hoover Way;” stacked cans of Dollar Scotch Oats; a pair of long underwear hung over a clothesline near a stove. The U.K. Antarctic Heritage Trust has restored the station.

A short walk allows for expansive views of more penguins. We followed that up with a Zodiac ride around floating ice in Crystal Sound, having it a bit better than those mid-20th-century researchers did. The Orion crew offered hot buttered rum before we returned to the ship.

Did I mention the need to be flexible? On our last morning before heading back to Ushaia, the crew woke us at 4 a.m. for the passage through the Lemaire Channel. The sun, of course, already was high. Losing sleep was worth it. Before us stood snowy ice peaks rising from blue, pure waters flecked with more ice. It was mesmerizing and otherworldly, and it was over far too soon, because we knew that it was time to go home.

The ship that passed us in the channel was the first we had seen since leaving Ushuaia. We had spent six days hearing stories about Ernest Shackleton and others who had explored Antarctica at risk to their lives; we had come on one where the wine choices changed every night.

Going back, though, also meant our second trip through the Drake Passage. Three oceans—Atlantic, Pacific, Southern—come together south of Cape Horn. The resulting currents can make for very high seas, causing what travelers call the Drake Shake. On our trip, the waves were about 25 feet. Our captain called that an eight on a scale of 10. There’s no danger—the crew shuttered the stateroom windows, so high waves wouldn’t smash the glass—but you had to be very careful getting around.

Going south, it was more like the Drake Lake. Still, many passengers got seasick. The medical doctor on board was very busy. We used scopolamine patches, even though we never had been seasick. On the way back, everyone took the same precaution and didn’t miss any meals.

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Despite the many creature comforts and the expertise of the expedition staff, visiting Antarctica comes with risks. Temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere summer are 30 degrees in daytime. If you suffer a traumatic injury—heart attack, broken leg—high-level treatment is days away. You can buy insurance that covers an airlift, but that’s only from the port city. You should be in good health and take care when hiking.

For those who go, however, the experience is profound. Researchers have called Antarctica our least understood continent, but the Earth’s future depends on knowing more about it. Ice is melting at both poles. That will contribute to sea level rise, absent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps even more important, researchers say, is that changing ice sheets will affect the circulation of the oceans and temperatures worldwide.

Nick Golledge, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria, Wellington’s Antarctic Research Center, says, “The sea-level estimates (for melting Antarctic ice) maybe aren’t as bad as we thought…but the climate predictions are worse.”

So while Antarctica can seem as remote as a distant planet, it’s a vital part of our earthly home. The ice covers continents that formed between 500 million and one billion years ago. Only now are we starting to learn its secrets.

The best way to start understanding Antarctica is to be among the lucky few who go there.

This story is from the September/October 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.