I’m standing at the window of my cabin aboard the MS Hanseatic at 10:00 PM on Wednesday, January 15. This morning’s pre-dawn wake-up call for departure from Buenos Aires should have taken its toll by now. But the fascination of the Beagle Channel, with its mountain landscape rising sharply from the smooth waters of the strait, now silvery gray in twilight, will not release its hold. In the distance, a long, tattered veil of cloud wafts along the last rank of peaks in the Andean chain extending down along the southern tip of South America. Patches of snow high on the flanks of the mountains assume a spectral whiteness, as if to signal that the direction south is toward winter, after all. Above us and for as far as we can see, the sky is a rumpled quilt of grays banded with dusky blues, a sleeping sky. In the Channel, a few dolphins glide up and down along the surface in the distance, their dorsal fins knifing through the gray sheen, then slipping out of sight again in the steady rhythm of travel hither and yon in their element. It is a world at peace at this hour, at this latitude, a harbinger, perhaps, of a land content with its distance from the rest of the world, a place without “settlement,” without any of the nearly inescapable traffic of our lives, save our own droning movement through it toward our dreams of wildness and of Antarctica.
The 81 members of the latest Lifelong Learning expedition to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands first gathered at the Caesar Park Hotel in Buenos Aires on Monday, most of us traveling the night before from the USA on United Airlines Flights. The group represented five organizations—Smithsonian, World Wildlife Fund, Duke University, University of Chicago, and Washington and Lee University, The hotel was entirely comfortable, an island of five-star elegance in the rather depressed capital of Argentina. The city itself was in the grips of a high summer heat wave, with temperatures in the 90s and the air thick with humidity. However uncomfortable long exposure to the sun might have been, it was good to be back in summer for awhile. After receiving our room assignments at the Lifelong Learning hospitality desk, a few of us ventured out for brief walks in shirtsleeves from the hotel. Most, however, went straight to bed for a spell of the blessed horizontal. Later, after naps and showers, we gathered in a mezzanine ballroom for a pleasant reception and the opportunity to meet our companions on the voyage ahead. Near the end of the hour, our tour director, Cecilia Unger, an athletic Norwegian adventurer with an energetically attentive air, took the microphone for the purpose of a brief orientation. After we heard a list of gentle advisements and the schedule for the following day, each organization’s lecturer/host introduced himself and spoke enthusiastically of the coming adventure. In the end it would be a wonder that we could find any sleep that night.
On Tuesday morning, we had a four-hour city tour through the day’s increasing heat. Divided into three groups, each with a guide and a motorcoach, we first visited the Ricoletta Cemetery, famous as the final resting place of Eva Peron, whose tomb remains a pilgrimage site for her admirers. More impressive perhaps were the elaborately sculpted tombs for generals and politicians (synonymous in Argentina), structures large enough to accommodate family mourners. Despite the remarkable opulence of many of the tombs, the Cemetery gave us our first glimpse of Argentina’s economic crisis, for the aged caretakers had been furloughed without pay. Now they loitered together along the lanes, watching the tourists stroll by, waiting for small gratuities from the bereaved to care for the tombs of their loved ones.
Thereafter we drove through the diplomatic area of Little Palermo, one of the more exclusive neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. In Palermo, with its huge park, we saw many joggers trudging through the heat of the day, many of the middle-aged men shirtless and well past the point of exhaustion. Here we visited a lovely rose garden accessible by a quaint wooden bridge over a man-made lake. Nervous about the time, our guide Anna Maria hastened us along—no time to smell the roses, evidently. Once aboard the coach again, we pushed on through several of B.A.’s busiest streets— Liberdad Avenue, 9th of July Avenue, Plaza de Mayo—each with monuments commemorating victory over oppressors. Throughout the drive, however, we saw frequent evidence of a new kind of oppression, Argentina’s current economic predicament. A pervasive melancholia seemed to show on the faces of pedestrians and those standing in long lines outside banks reinforced against the frustrations of their patrons. A weary anxiety was evident also in the pleas of beggars accosting anyone who looked vaguely European or American. The architecture of the city, perhaps most gloriously realized by the Colon Opera House, revealed B.A.’s former wealth as South America’s “most European city,” but that by now was history, indeed. La Boca, near the Porto Madero, a charming and colorful neighborhood of art galleries and antique shops, did brighten the overall impression momentarily, as did the British-funded new construction in the Retiro business area. But the general feeling held that if B.A. was to retain its reputation, reprinted in our itinerary as a “vibrant city,” it would need a blood transfusion.
After a free afternoon for independent exploration, we gathered in groups again for the drive to the tango show and dinner at El Querandi. The restaurant theater obviously caters to the tourists, an operative disposition that gave it a grim efficiency at first impression, though once the musicians and the dancers took the stage El Querandi came dramatically to life. The program offered a history of the tango, purporting to show how the dance has evolved over the past 100 years. The distinctions seemed largely athletic, for the choreography became increasingly energetic as the program unfolded. The dance itself seems to have begun as an oddly contentious mating ritual, during which the male is cast in a severely domineering attitude, as focused and intent on his prey as a matador, while the female appears to resist, all the while matching his every move, thigh against thigh, until at last in a posture of exhausted—though perhaps triumphant—submission, she collapses in his arms, the male poised artfully in assumed mastery over her. “Take that” seems to be the final visual pronouncement. The meal that followed was somewhat anticlimactic.
Wednesday morning’s transfer to Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego began well before dawn with a startling wake-up call at 3:15. Once reasonably upright and mobile, we took our breakfast together in the ballroom set aside for the group, the service staff looking rather glum. We were on our way to the domestic airport at 4:45 and then aloft and headed south some 90 minutes later on a packed Aerolineas Argentina charter flight. Perhaps due to the weight of the typical American traveler’s luggage, we needed to make a refueling stop at an obscure airport halfway to our destination—one wonders what the pilots said to each other as we waited on the tarmac, still confined to our seats. We finally broke through scattered cloud over Ushuaia at 10:30. The view of the tiny city, nestled between soaring, snowcapped peaks and the tranquility of the Beagle Channel, was quite wonderful. In its unhurried, almost languid descent, gliding first toward the Sampaio Mountains of Hoste Island (Chile), then slowly settling into position to land on the strip just past the sun-flecked waters of the Channel, the plane seemed almost reluctant to abandon flight. We had different thoughts, of course, eager to know the area at eye level. Soon after landing, we eagerly piled into two motorcoaches for a tour of the area.
Ushuaia, the “world’s southernmost city,” lies at the foot of the Martial chain of the Andes, which at this latitude run west to east along the Beagle Channel. With a population of 50,000, Ushuaia consists mainly of small, colorful, corrugated-roof houses, built for the snow. Many of them seem to nestle closely together, as if in a clutch against the elements. Some of the homes, located on land owned by apparently whimsical landlords, rest on sleds. The town’s harbor and main street constitute an intersection, a dropping off point for trekkers, cruisers, and ski bums intent on Patagonia. According to our guide, a local resident, those who live here at “the bottom of the world” seem to enjoy extremes—one can go no farther south and still hang out with friends. Founded as a prison town, today Ushuaia boasts a casino, myriad souvenir shops, and a disco. The town at the end of the line rocks on.
Once we made our way through the rather hunkered-down banalities of town, the grandeur of the Tierra del Fuego National Park took a firm grip on us. We drove along the National Highway past Mt. Olivia (4,200 ft.) to the Carbajal Valley, stunned by the splendid Patagonian landscape. Here the Andes reigning over the valley rise to an elevation between 3,000 and 4,500 feet. Geologically, the mountains are relatively young. Saw-toothed peaks and ridges rake against low-hanging cloud. Some are snow-covered, others mantled with swatches of leftover snow melting into rivulets that eventually gather and tumble into cuts, cascading down through their own mist into beech forests, thick as grass, that cloak the mountains up to 2,000 feet. On the valley floor are vast boglands ribboned with glacial streams rushing toward the Beagle Channel and the sea. Our guide observed that several of the trees on the bogs have died due to the introduction of beavers, who have no natural predator here and now number in the tens of thousands. Some time ago, the gray fox was introduced to control the problem, but the gray fell in with the native red fox, who has no taste for beaver. Don’t mess with nature, our guide pronounced, in this land where Darwin is part of the pop culture.
After a few quite satisfying stops for photos, we took our lunch of barbecued lamb at a ski resort restaurant, Los Cotorras. Afterwards, though an excursion to Lake Escondido (“Hidden Lake”) was planned, the guides decided to offer only the spectacular view from a ridge high above the lake and then turn back to the town for a little independent time prior to embarkation. We were happy to comply, for the plan allowed us a shopping opportunity. The price of goods in Ushuaia, however, bore no relation to the depressed economy of Buenos Aires. The allotment of time proved overly generous, especially with the grand Hanseatic awaiting us in the harbor, serenely composed in her berth, promising a home “farther south.”
We embarked finally at 4:30 PM in a sudden shower, several smartly attired crewmembers greeting us below the gangway with rum-laced tea and a final radiation of our personal effects. Once aboard and following our stewardess to our cabin, we quickly discovered the opulence of the Hanseatic. Here was an expedition ship designed for the upscale traveler, with plush carpet, warmly paneled corridors, polished brass rails and light fixtures, and handsome appointments throughout. The cabins were both commodious and cleverly designed for comfort and safety in all sea conditions. One wanted quickly to unpack, settle in, and then rush about in a happy exploration of the ship’s many amenities.
Before long we were summoned to a safety briefing and lifeboat drill, hastened by an alarm we would hope not to hear again. This rather chilling occasion was followed none too soon by drinks in the Explorer Lounge, during which the Hanseatic, releasing its lines, turned its bow thrusters toward the pier and eased out into the Channel. We were underway at last, heading southeast toward Cape Horn. During the latter part of the cocktail hour we had an introductory briefing by Geoff Green, Expedition Leader, a handsome, compact, affable outdoorsman from the Robert Redford school of natural ruggedness, well-traveled in the Antarctic, and possessed of all the right stuff, including a permanent ball cap. Dinner followed in the elegant Marco Polo Restaurant, the young German and Eastern European table staff dashing about with brisk efficiency. Dinner was entirely pleasant, the menu offering a diverse selection of meat, fish, and foul, as well as a “healthy menu.” In the spirit of the latter option, all portions were on the smallish side and artful in their presentation. What the Hanseatic rationed in volume it made up in refinement.
Most of the group retired to their cabins shortly thereafter. It had been a full day, after all. The long twilight, however, may have kept some at their cabin windows—some few still too excited about the trip ahead to yield to the hour, hands and foreheads pressed against the glass, gazing in sleepy rapture at the stark beauty of this last stretch of the Americas.
The day broke clear and bright with light to moderate seas. We had emerged from the Beagle Channel during the night, a mild disturbance to those fearing seasickness, as the ship began to heave and shudder slightly against the rollers coming in against the coast of Tierra del Fuego from the South Atlantic. By morning, however, the sea seemed friendly, and the Hanseatic drove on through gentle swells toward the Falklands. Curious Petrels, gulls, and Albatross glided around the ship, lifting slowly against the wind, their wings steady, then wheeling and diving in the breeze over the bow in a steady circling of our otherwise solitary crossing.
This was a day designed to allow passengers to adjust to sea conditions, as it is always salutary to have a day at sea early in a voyage. A good percentage of the group confessed to spells of seasickness, though the sea conditions were described by veteran sailors as quite mild—an evaluation that bore little comfort to those fearing worse. The reception desk distributed several packets of pills. On this day, we also enjoyed several lectures in the ship’s superb auditorium, Darwin Hall. David Fletcher, a tall, jovial, barrel-chested Englishman who had spent several years in both the Arctic and Antarctic, offered a generous slide lecture on the Falkland Islands, our first destination, explaining the complex history of their settlement and political affiliation. Not surprisingly, Fletcher had no sympathy for the Argentine claim to the Falklands (known to the Argentines as “the Malvinas”), characterizing their brief invasion and occupation of the islands as quixotic at best. Later in the morning, Geoff Green managed the compulsory session on guidelines for visiting Antarctica, followed by a zodiac safety briefing. It was perhaps a young expedition leader’s favorite hour, for it combined patient instruction of one’s elders on the proper respect for a pristine natural environment with an explanation of the right management of equipment—good “guy stuff” indeed. Green allowed that he himself owned a zodiac, the nautical equivalent of a Hummer.
After lunch we gathered in the Explorer Lounge to pick up our parkas and rubber boots, an occasion that resembled a fire sale at Macy’s. Thereafter, Jim Hopson of the University of Chicago offered a lecture on the evolution of penguins, seals, and whales. All once lived on land, he explained, the penguins—cousins to the Petrel—having evolved from flight to a submarine environment, while seals once ran about like dogs. Whales are related genetically to even-toed ungulates, distant cousins, therefore, to hippos. They have vestigial legs, and their blowholes were once located as nostrils properly at the end of their snouts. A mere 15 million years made all the difference. Late in the afternoon, Marco Favero, the Hanseatic’s sardonic “birder,” delivered a slide lecture on seabirds of the southern ocean. The magnificent Wandering Albatross, the world’s largest flying bird, was clearly the star of the show, though Marco did his best to bring attention to the hardly pronounceable “Snowy Sheathbill,” the subject of his doctoral dissertation.
On this evening, Captain Ulf Wolter held his welcome cocktail reception and dinner. From a distance, Captain Ulf seemed barely old enough to pilot a zodiac, let alone the finest expedition ship on the seven seas. Indeed, this was his first cruise as captain of the Hanseatic, a distinction carefully suppressed at this stage of the voyage. He seemed possessed nonetheless of a sociable charm—with an overlay of Prussian restraint—greeting all passengers in the receiving line with a firm handshake and the offer to pose with them for a photograph. His introduction of the principal members of his crew, most of whom were German, expressed the light-hearted familiarity common among shipmates. Only the one Swiss member of the bridge staff had to explain how he had come to love the sea.
Dinner followed and then another early retirement with yawns. We had been rocked in the cradle of the sea all day. It was time at last to yield.
This was a great day—“the first real day of the expedition,” according to Geoff—with two zodiac landings and a long hike. The wind had come in from the west during the night, bearing a sheet of cloud and pushing us along toward the Falklands. Toward dawn, the sea had settled, more or less. New Island, the westernmost of the Falklands, came into view at around 6:00 AM.
Our first landing was at Settlement Harbor, the home beach of a sheep farm on New Island owned by artist, author, and conservationist Ian Strange. With an eager eye to land, we gathered at the disembarkation station as instructed at 7:30 AM, shod in rubber boots and bundled in parkas, with a mysterious life preserver, shaped like a sausage, draped about our necks. We boarded the bobbing zodiacs in groups of ten, striking out thereafter for the 300-yard dash to the beach, passing the quaint ruin of a shipwreck on the way in. We had come for the Rockhopper Penguin rookery, which lay on the other side of the island across a narrow neck of grassland. The upland path across the neck introduced us to tussock grass—enormous clumps of thick green vegetation—and several families of Upland Geese. A couple of hares, their black ears upright to the sudden commotion of our arrival, darted from cover to cover, checking us out.
Once at the rookery, which is situated on the leeward side of high windward cliffs, we observed our first penguins, a large grouping of the diminutive, slightly comical “Rockhoppers,” who do indeed hop from rock to rock in nimble acts of self-propulsion that belie their apparent clumsiness on land. Rockhoppers are also given to what seem to be fits of laughter—their mode of territorial communication—which end with a coarse cackling sound, their heads thrown back and wobbling to and fro. The lacey-browed penguins returned our gaze with mild interest, apparently confident of “safety in numbers,” the penguins’ first line of defense. Their numbers grew as we moved along the periphery toward the edge of the cliffs, where we also studied a number of Black-browed Albatross, surely one of the most beautiful birds anywhere. The heads, necks, and breasts of the Albatross are snowy white, while above the eye is a long black line, almost Egyptian in its cunning. Emerging from another line, pencil thin, that surrounds the base, the Albatross’s long, pale yellow bill ends in a blush of pink as the bill curls downward. Several of the Albatross had large fuzzy gray chicks, still months from flight. While we stood gazing in happy wonder at this close community, several of the web-footed birds waddled awkwardly toward the edge of the cliffs and then, in a splendid reversal of ungainliness, took to the air and soared out over the surf, which crashed and leapt up against the rocks below. It was a remarkable scene—and a good long while before we could tear ourselves away.
Once back on the ship, we enjoyed cups of hot bouillon at the Observation Lounge, only to be encouraged by another of Geoff’s public address announcements to cast our attention to the captain’s deft maneuvering of the ship through a narrow channel between the islands. The sun was shining brightly now on the West Falklands, and the day was coming into its full glory. We all crowded up against the topside rail of the observation deck. Once the maneuver was accomplished, we traipsed the length of the ship and took a fine barbecue lunch on the deck aft of the Columbus Lounge. At 2:30 PM, we returned to our boot stations to prepare for our second landing, this time at Carcass Island, owned by Rob and Lillian McGill, for the three-mile hike from the western cove beach across the treeless landscape to the McGill farmhouse.
Once ashore, we observed a loose rookery of Magellanic Penguins, which burrow in the soft peat soil above the beach. Magellanics are somewhat more suburban than their cousins, the Rockhoppers, and apparently find greater security in the close comfort of their burrows than in a crowd. After studying a few of the rather demure individuals for awhile, we pushed on with our groups across the spongy peat turf, carefully avoiding the penguin burrows, then up into the grasslands rising to the island’s central ridge. This proved a bit of a huffer, indeed, especially in the loose-fitting rubber boots necessary for a zodiac landing. But once we had climbed the long hill and begun to move at our own pace along the open path following the ridge line, the adventure took on a less arduous rhythm. We eased into a slow shuffle, numbed by the magnificent scenery all around us.
There was a moment, perhaps a string of them, when, from the vantage point of the path high above the sound, the entire creation came into a luminous focus: the blue sky mottled with wispy white cloud; the darker blue of the bay below wind-streaked and shimmering in brilliant sunlight; the humpback islands across the strait rolling toward a horizon culminating at land’s end, far to the south, with a hazy cliff heaving into the wind like a cresting wave; the exquisitely white crescent beach arcing in towards us from the far peninsula; a small cluster of Magellanic Penguins gathered there in the distance like specks of upright driftwood, while, just this side of the waving tussock grass, families of Upland Geese grazed watchfully, moving slowly up the slope that rose past us on and on to the ridge and a final outcropping of rock, radiant in the sunlight, the highest point of Carcass Island, which seemed at such commanding height the first pediment of heaven. On the path behind and ahead were dots of orange—our fellow travelers making their way through this grand expanse of earth, sea, and sky. It seemed that we, along with our anchored ship, now made small and delicate by the immense panorama, had come into a proper ratio with the sublime.
Our eventual arrival at the McGill farmhouse had its rewards as well, this time in the form of an afternoon tea with cakes and cookies. The tea was dispensed by Rob McGill himself, standing by his stove, while Miss Lillian and an aunt busied themselves about the kitchen—the amazing assortment of delectations neatly arrayed on the dining room table had been produced at home, after all. We lingered about in our stocking feet for a good long while, the sun streaming through a small and evidently precious stand of trees, a rare sight in the Falklands, which the McGills had nurtured from birth. Then, well rested and fortified by the tea and cookies, we donned our boots and parkas once more and strolled out to the beach for the zodiac transfer back to the ship. It had been a good afternoon.
Later on board, over evening libations, we had a cheery recap of the day led by Geoff and featuring informed recollections by David Fletcher, Rich Aronson, Sylvia Stevens, Will Martin, and Marco Favero. There would be little on this trip that would escape the assiduous attention of our escorting naturalists. Indeed, we would have much about this day to ponder, well through the evening and into the night. At the very least, we had finally made our acquaintance with penguins, the first representatives of a population that would soon outnumber us.
At the recap session last evening, Geoff mentioned that when we arrived at the main island of East Falkland early the next morning we would try to make a landing at Volunteer Point to observe King Penguins. The uncertainty of the landing was due to the possibility of rough sea conditions. The daily program announcement cautioned, “Due to a very exposed beach, the chances of making this landing are quite slim.” Indeed, the last several attempts to visit Volunteer Point had been canceled because of rough tides or windy conditions. As it turned out, our luck held—“good karma” had already become our mantra. The day broke sunny and calm, a marvelous sunrise full of good tidings. Geoff made his first cautiously optimistic announcement just before 6:00 AM, as the landing would have to be made very early in the day. Roused by his good will and quiet enthusiasm, most of the group prepared themselves for the zodiac landings as planned—these might be the only Kings we would see on the expedition. The air was chilly as we disembarked, bundled to the chin, but the sun was warm and bright on our faces, and the green plateau just above the beach looked positively balmy.
The landing was somewhat more problematic than our previous disembarkations, as we had to wait for the right wave to ride the breaking surf in to Geoff and his squad of handlers on the shore. Once on our feet again, we discarded our life vests and trudged on to the rookery a little more than a mile off. A few Magellanic Penguins nervously observed our passage, obviously less familiar with humans than their neighbors on Carcass Island. After a 30-minute stroll, we came to the rookery above the far end of the long white sand beach. If we had been glad earlier for the opportunity to make the landing, the sight of the Kings made us positively euphoric. King Penguins are quite elegant: taller than their cousins, well-groomed, and dignified in their bearing, they have an artful coloration, with a lovely yellow-gold highlight at their neck and upper breast and a sleek, subtly iridescent gray back. Their chicks grow quickly large as princes, though they remain cloaked in a thick, downy coat of brown feathers for the better part of a year, with the result that Kings can breed only biennially. We saw a great many of them at the rookery, standing about, as is their habit, some of them calling to each other with heads and beaks pointed straight upward, others quietly resting in an upright position on their eggs. The only departure from an almost comical sense of decorum were the antics of a pair who had slipped away from the group to mate, the male mounting, with precarious ardor, the prone female and standing at the rear of her back before bobbing briskly into his business—the overall effect resembled a penguin on a zodiac.
We stood about photographing the Kings for at least an hour before heading back. The walk back along the beach to the landing point was blissful. Long breakers were rolling in against the entire length of the white sand beach. The sun behind them shone through in the green body of each lifting wave, and the white veil thrown back at the curl of every breaking crest danced in the light. Several mentioned what a marvelous find such a beach would be in the Caribbean. It was tough to compare, of course, for we were thousands of miles and a hundred memories away from all that. This was the radiant here and now, the pure province of penguins, Skua, and Oystercatchers, a fishing ground unspoiled by the litter and attitudes of commerce. It was comforting to know that there was still an abundance of such places in distant latitudes.
On our return from Volunteer Point, we sailed for Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, taking a late breakfast along the way. We arrived in Stanley Harbor, around 11:00 AM, David Fletcher, citizen of the world and former resident of the Falklands, taking the ship’s microphone to talk us into port. He pointed out several of the “mountains,” less notable as elevations than as battlegrounds during the Argentine conflict. The houses along the Harbor represented a delightful array of colors—green, blue, yellow, and red—a village by Van Gogh. David later explained that visiting naval vessels would kindly (though not necessarily intentionally) share buckets of paint with the locals when they came to call.
Geoff gave us three hours to visit the town for shopping and the option of lunch. He also recommended to us the Falkland Island Museum, a 30-minute walk along the waterfront. This was a good suggestion, as the route took us past many quaint guest houses fronting lovely English gardens redolent with Scotch broom, iris, and pansies. We also passed the town’s Cathedral with its whalebone arch, a variety of monuments, the post office, the home of the “Penguin News,” the Government House, and the decaying wreck of a wooden ship (the Jhelem) that had come to a weary end in the comfort of the harbor after a hard beating in the Drake Passage some 130 years ago. The Island Museum at Britannia House had a certain domestic charm—lots of memorabilia in glass cases from long ago Falkland days, a restored “symphonium” plunking out tunes from the turn of the last century, and a couple of small rooms devoted to the Argentine conflict. These displayed a few poignant letters, maps and illustrations, military paintings and citations, a grim array of captured weapons, and a reconstruction of an Argentine bunker complete with guitar. Some members of our group were shown a special exhibit of a typical Antarctic station behind the museum by a staff member apparently less harried than his colleagues by the sudden arrival of so many foreign visitors.
The last tender from the jetty completed our visit in Stanley at 2:45 PM. Several minutes later, the Hanseatic slowly eased out of the harbor bound for Elephant Island and Antarctica, some 620 nautical miles to the south. Ahead lay many wonders and—we were reliably reminded—the Drake Passage. For an oblique view of one aspect of the former, we had Rich Aronson, lecturer for the Smithsonian, whose ebullient slide show on “McMurdo Station and Diving in Antarctica” followed, or otherwise interrupted, brief naps. Aronson’s boyish wonder at the difficulty and thrill of diving below Antarctic ice was engaging, as was his breathless cataloging of the complex task of managing the most mundane concerns in the frigid cold of McMurdo Station. His slides were excellent. Shortly thereafter, Bill Schlesinger, lecturer from Duke, spoke on “Causes and Consequences of Ozone Depletion,” a very fine academic lecture that successfully risked our general ignorance of chemistry with clearly explained data and charts. The message was inescapably alarming, of course, though Schlesinger was kind enough at the end to find data-based reasons for optimism over the recent effects of the Montreal Accord.
Meanwhile, the sea had begun to roll and the sky darken with a thickening overcast. We were entering the gray oblivion of southern sea latitudes, and the wind was freshening. Still the mood aboard seemed buoyant, as most people had their “sea-legs” by now and a vast store of brighter expectations. The day’s recap in the Explorer Lounge was again cheerful, David Fletcher regaling us with highlights and recollections of life in the Falklands, Sylvia Stevens with further elaborations on the nature of penguins. The room was full of questions, another expression of the energy and good will of the group.
“Exultation is the going / of an inland soul to sea,” Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Past the houses—past the headlands— / into deep Eternity.” Later that night, we retired behind closed curtains. There would be nothing to observe for awhile but the lonesome rolling of the eternal sea.
This was a day of lectures hastened by swelling seas. We were cutting through the Drake Passage, the 600-mile stretch of ocean below Cape Horn wherein the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific are stirred. The Hanseatic plunged ahead untroubled at 14 knots toward the Antarctic Convergence, where the warmer waters of northern oceans collide with the denser, colder water of the Antarctic. Predominantly westerly winds, “the West Wind Drift,” driving incessantly around the polar region keep the waters apart for awhile. Exactly when we would cross the line, at which point the ocean temperature would suddenly plummet, was anyone’s guess. By mid afternoon, the winds had increased to Beaufort nine—55 mph, with 15 foot seas. A low pressure system had come into the Falklands behind us, bringing clouds and rain. The huge clockwise swirl of winds from the system produced unusual southeasterlies for us at this latitude. The Captain described this as good for the Drake Passage. Meanwhile, from the observation deck, waves occasionally broke over the bow, pelting the bridge with spray—for Captain Ulf, it was merely a Sunday afternoon drive in the park.
Each of the four lectures was quite absorbing. David Fletcher, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, began the series with a passionate introduction to Antarctica, drawing from his abundant experience there. Trained in youth as a mountaineer, he had come to Antarctica after years in the Arctic, first as a dog sledge driver, eventually becoming commander of two of Britain’s Antarctic survey stations. The eloquence of his advertisement of Antarctica as the Earth’s most beautiful continent was made compelling by an extraordinary collection of slides, many of them poignantly beautiful—rare blue and green icebergs, panoramic sunsets, the stunning minimalism of “blue and white days,” and the remarkable hardiness of wildlife observed in groupings or close-ups that warmed the heart. But perhaps the most memorable images depicted the spine-chilling dangers of the continent. Especially haunting was a series showing the deadliness of a crevasse—almost impossible to detect and then to escape, let alone survive. To know Antarctica, he pronounced in his vowel-rounding Northwest England accent, one must see it for oneself, and in the seeing one should never look away, “else it would be all over in an instant.” From that moment forward, we resolved to stand close to him.
Franz Gingele, an environmental geochemist on summer vacation from his teaching post at Australia National University, spoke later in the morning on the subject of “Antarctic Ice.” In a droll, somewhat diffident presentation, delayed unfortunately by instructions from the audience on the proper illumination of the room, Gingele presented marvelous photographs of a variety of icebergs as well as illustrations of his work with ice core samples. The samples are especially useful for investigating the history of global climate. That one could peer into earth’s history as far back as 250,000 years by studying the composition of ice was quite a riveting idea, and here was a man who could “smell” it in the ancient air locked within bubbles trapped in frozen snow.
Thereafter, we had a “World Cruise Lunch,” during which we stumbled and lurched from one international food station to another, as uncertain of our footing in the heaving seas as of what they would be eating. At 3:00 PM, we enjoyed another lecture, this time on the international politics of “Environment Conservation in Antarctica,” by Will Martin, Fellow of the World Wildlife Fund and international lawyer. Though the U.S. record of leadership in environmental protection is not unblemished, Martin observed, we are key supporters of the coalition that has kept Antarctica neutral, a vast continent committed wholly to scientific research and ecological tourism. The afternoon ended with another well-crafted slide lecture, “Penguins: Past, Present, Here and There,” by Sylvia Stevens, one of the Hanseatic’s two ornithologists. Sylvia’s love for each of the 17 varieties of penguins is especially evident in her charming slides—and contagious. In addition to excellent photographs, she brought in a few samples of penguin material, including a feather. Especially instructive with the latter was that only the tip of the plumage was black, thus indicating the thickness of the penguin’s layer of feathering.
Throughout the day, we were accompanied by a couple of Wandering Albatrosses, magnificent white birds with dark wingtips and a total wingspan that can exceed 10 feet. They glided effortlessly beside the ship, riding the wind in a mystery of aerodynamics, alternately dipping into the deep troughs between the waves, sweeping through them with one wingtip a fraction of an inch above the sea’s surface, then rising into the teeth of the gale, as if suspended in a dead calm—a mesmerizing dexterity of flight. Typically solitary, they are known to travel tremendous distances and have been clocked at over 7,000 miles on a single foraging flight. After a fledgling youth, they spend their first several years flying alone throughout the ocean, returning to their natal colonies only occasionally to practice courtship rituals. At nine or ten years, they mate for life—the phrase “an Albatross around one’s neck” does NOT arise from this predilection but from “The Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge. It is estimated that over their typical lifespan of 60 years, they travel upwards of 3.5 million miles—“million.” As they glided by at cabin level, wings outstretched, masters of their element, they seemed to ponder ours. What were they looking for, a handout of fish? Or were they merely curious of our incarcerated species? Where, they might have wondered, had we come from? Where, we would have asked in return, had they traveled . . . yesterday, last week, last month? How old were they, and what did these bright eyes know of the infinite sea? They might have wondered further if we could fly. No, we would admit, and then wonder how the miraculous gift of flight actually felt. Watching them in such effortless grace, such mastery of Antarctic winds, we felt in our shoulders an ache to know.
This evening, the five organizations sponsoring the expedition held a reception for their travelers in the Observation Lounge, high up on the foredeck. One had to be fully confident of one’s sea legs to attend, as several heavy rollers pounded over the ship’s bow, pelting the lounge’s splendid array of windows with a resounding barrage of spray. Better to be a bird in the Drake Passage than a sailor. Some retired early on this night, content to hunker down and rest up for the long-anticipated arrival in Antarctica early the next morning.
One must have the mind of winter . . .
and have been cold a long time . . .
. . . not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind,
in the sound of a few leaves,
which is the sound of the land,
full of the same wind,
blowing in the same bare place for the listener,
who listens in the snow,
and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there,
and the nothing that is.
-- Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”
The first ice came into view at 5:55 AM. We had been watching Cape and Antarctic Petrels darting in the wind alongside the ship when a blue ice “bergie-bit”—about the size and shape of a Volkswagen—bobbed by, the heaving sea lapping at its sides. Drawn to the window for a larger survey of the surroundings, we spotted, a mile or so ahead, a huge tabular iceberg, a white monolith glowing between low hanging cloud and the leaden sea. The sea had suddenly become a wondrously different place. We were transfixed—first one iceberg, and then another, then a whole flotilla, each one unique, appeared on the horizon. As the Hanseatic hummed forward, undaunted, a brilliant realm of ice opened to us. However often we had seen photographs of the Antarctic, to behold it now in a fourth dimension was to discover a wholly new world, a dominion of white rimming into blue.
Less than an hour later, through our binoculars, the sheer gray cliffs of Elephant Island came into view, their flanks hoary with snow, their peaks hidden under a thick layer of cloud. The Island, famous as the final, inhospitable refuge of the Shackleton Expedition, presented us with our first sight of Antarctica. It stands as the first sentinel of the long chain of rocky uplift islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. We showered and dressed, eager to get up to the observation deck for the Hanseatic’s panoramic perspective. By this time, the sun was beginning to break through the cloud, another extraordinary blessing with the weather. Once outside, however, the icy wind cut through our loosely fastened parkas, the cold stinging our hands and fingers. After a few quick photos, we retreated to the bridge, where Captain Ulf stood smiling at his command station, heading the Hanseatic dead on toward Point Wild. All around us, as far as we could see, lay huge icebergs, some of the tabular bergs as large as aircraft carriers, others at the horizon resembling pinnacled islands of white.
Though we could have spent a good while observing the ship’s slow approach to Elephant Island, at Geoff’s strong encouragement we all repaired to Darwin Hall to hear David Fletcher narrate the tale of the ill-fated though ultimately heroic Shackleton Expedition of 1914-16. Fletcher clearly is an admirer of the renowned Antarctic explorer, and his account of the harrowing ordeal, well-illustrated with many photographs taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley, kept many of us on the edge of our seats. This was true even with those who had read the story, most recently retold by Caroline Alexander in Endurance (2000). It was a very fast hour, and as Fletcher concluded his panegyric on Shackleton’s extraordinary leadership with a final flourish, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Sir Ernest Shackleton,” the audience erupted in applause.
Meanwhile on the bridge, Captain Ulf kept driving the ship toward Point Wild, making small maneuvers to keep a course clear of the ice. As the Hanseatic made its cautious advance, the sky cleared above us into an immense dome of blue, with a bank of gray cloud rolling back in the distance in every direction. The sea seemed to absorb the light, deepening into cobalt. In nearby bergs, we could see veins of aquamarine, virtually incandescent in the sunlight. Others revealed entire walls of aquamarine, the color that deep ice assumes under great pressure when all of the air has been compressed out of it. Many of the pinnacle bergs had evolved into fanciful shapes—like sculpture by Brancusi—by alternately melting and capsizing (rotating end to end). At the front of the bridge, Sylvia Stevens stood spellbound, gazing at the dazzling array of ice before us. “We’ve always seen some icebergs here,” she observed, “but never this many, and to see them in sunlight is really a lucky break.”
About a half mile off the shore of the Point with its flanking glacier, we encountered a fiercely intensifying gale, the frigid “katabatic winds” that charge riotously off glaciers, roaring down to the sea. Glaciers generate a thermal convection that results in winds, hastened by gravity, rushing to displace the warmer air below it. Ice-chilled air is heavier than the relatively temperate air over the sea, which remains just above freezing. Once an Antarctic wind gets moving, there is nothing to discourage it. Gusts of 100 mph were recorded at the bow, where several determined passengers had positioned themselves for unobstructed photographs. The eye-watering winds lifted the sea’s surface into scudding ribbons of foam. On nearby bergs, small Chinstrap Penguins stood about in casual groupings, preening their feathers, unperturbed, as if they heard no misery in the sound of the wind.
Closer in to Point Wild, named after Shackleton’s most trusted lieutenant, we got a good view of the actual location of the four-month encampment by the 22 men of the expedition who had awaited Shackleton’s return. Though it was a most desolate place, we had hoped to make a zodiac landing here. But while the sea had calmed considerably since we had emerged from the Drake Passage early this morning, we were now beset by the glacier’s relentless katabatic winds. These made a landing quite impossible. After a good long survey of the inlet, Captain Ulf let the wind push the ship backwards out to sea again, gliding sideways at four and a half knots, until the ship needed to negotiate a passage back out through the icebergs and into the open sea.
Captain Ulf then set a course around the northwest end of Elephant Island for an afternoon arrival at Cape Lookout on the south side. On the way we could see the majestic 7,000-foot central peak on Clearance Island, emerging from furling cloud. We also observed an astonishing variety of icebergs, some occupied by tiny Adélie Penguins, others imperiously high and vast, still others taking on the form of enchanted islands with graceful towers and caves of blue ice—homes for Sirens, perhaps, calling us in. Once at Cape Lookout, however, we were plagued by swells from the nagging southeasterlies. The Hanseatic lowered a zodiac, and Geoff along with some crew members made a test landing. That barely accomplished, he wisely decided to call off the visit. So it was back to Darwin Hall and another fine lecture by Sylvia Stevens, “Whales of the Southern Ocean.” Sylvia gave us a lively overview of the various species and the defining characteristics of the different whales, most notably those in the sea below 40º south, where most of the whales breed. She offered as well a quick, largely unsympathetic summary of the history of whaling, with special focus on the tragic depletion of the earth’s whale population—especially the Blue, Right, and Sperm Whales, once twenty times as numerous.
Soon thereafter, as if part of the grand scheme of things, a pair of whales were sighted. These were Humpbacks, apparently a mother and a calf. The sighting stirred tremendous excitement on the ship, and a great effort was made by everyone to rediscover the pair. Captain Ulf brought the ship around to search them out. About ten minutes later, two spouts broke through the surface and hung in the air. These vapor clouds reappeared several times over the next few minutes, with the occasional bonus of a stubby dorsal fin rising briefly and then sliding back under the surface. There was a great commotion of anticipation in the Observation Lounge, everyone holding a pair of binoculars or a camera, hoping for a breach. Finally, the whales appeared one last time, turning on their sides, their long pale flippers extended upwards as if to wave. A moment later, a fluke lifted above the surface, then disappeared under the waves. That, we soon realized, would have to do, for now they were gone.
Later at the recap, Franz Gingele spoke further on ice, Marco Favero on the flight of birds, and David Fletcher on the Larsen-Nordenskjöld expedition, another tale of a ship crushed by the ice, a crew marooned through an Antarctic winter, and a heroic rescue. Figuring in the story was Paulet Island, a small eruption of volcanic rock at the top of the Weddell Sea, our destination tomorrow. This was enough, perhaps, to stir a morbid curiosity as well as a teasing reminder of how good we had it now, a hundred years later, here in the secure embrace of an ice-hardened hull, soft upholstery, and a vodka-tonic.
Sleep this night could be happily postponed. At these latitudes, the light lingers late into the night. Captain Ulf had taken his heading for the Antarctic Sound through a gray sea bearing hundreds of icebergs. Aboard the Hanseatic, the excitement had passed, and the ship had settled into a final quiet. It was midnight. Now was the time for wakeful dreaming. The icebergs slid by in the twilight, each one mysterious and beautiful. The winds were calm. Silence pervaded the Antarctic, a palpable, blue silence.
Such silence was not merely the absence of sound, but a pervasive awareness of the presence of God.
Dawn came early and irresistibly this morning. We were one month past the winter solstice, so the brief night is more accurately understood as a prolonged dusk. After navigating through the Antarctic Sound during the wee hours, we had entered the calm of the Weddell Sea, sliding slowly through a vast wilderness of ice, the remnants of the Larsen Ice Shelf. No longer at the margins, we had at last arrived in the Antarctic, alone in a realm of immeasurably vast horizontals comprised of white ice floes, large as farms, and gray, low-hanging cloud. A fierce wind occasionally ripped through these planar levels, no tree to catch it, no grass, nothing to fly after it and drag it down, only a few gray, snowy peaks in the distance to whistle it through. The distances had an aching lonesomeness, remote, beautiful, inevitably hostile in their indifference. Yet, close by the ship, the passing ice made a veritable Rose Bowl Parade of floats, a fantasy of shapes. Several of the bergs loomed over the ship, but most of them were smaller, undulating white islets bleeding into blue-green below the surface. A few of them bore Weddell Seals and Adélie Penguins, creatures in gray, white, and black roused from sleep and suddenly alert to our rude intrusion.
At 7:00 AM, the Hanseatic anchored off Paulet Island, an especially bleak volcanic islet, and dropped its fleet of zodiacs for the morning landing on the penguin beach. We descended into the close intimacy of the boot lockers, bundled up, and boarded the first zodiacs at 7:30. The Adélies must have known we were coming, for they seemed to launch forth a tremendous barrage of squalling calls and putrefaction. Indeed, one is first aware of the proximity of a penguin rookery through one’s nose. Adélie Penguin guano has a pungency that is both pervasive and penetrating. And yet when we caught our first sight of the button-eyed Adélies swimming along at a frenetic pace, then hopping up on the shore, we could not help but find them adorable.
According to Sylvia, Paulet Island is home to approximately 150,000 breeding pairs. The breeding season was by now well underway. Many of the Adélies had produced fuzzy gray chicks, now nearly the size of the adults and, in their appetites, every bit as assertive. The footing on the island was tough, due to the surface of loose slate slicked with guano, but the visit went well enough, without loud complaint from either visitor or host. To protect ourselves from the cold, we had dressed as if for Mars, and this had helped to prevent sudden or otherwise aggressive movement. The air was bracingly bad, but the sight of untold thousands of penguins and the quaint ruin of the Larsen hut gave us all sufficient distraction from our discomfort. We spent a good hour tramping about stiffly in our rubber boots shooting photographs before returning to fresh air at last and the guano-washing lockers of the ship.
Once back on board and fortified with morning tea, we were ready for another lecture. As a follow-up to Sylvia’s talk on whales, Will Martin offered an explanation of the International Whaling Commission’s efforts to regulate whaling. Will noted that the IWC’s success in getting the member nations to ratify a ban on the harvest of whales was a triumph in species conservation, though the implementation of the agreement had taken four years after its adoption in 1982. Since that time, however, exceptions to the treaty have become the rule. Through a loophole in the agreement, Japan still harvests 450 Minke Whales a year for “scientific purposes,” selling the left over meat at $300 a steak—a happy “coincidence,” the Japanese might argue, of research and retail. Under international law, Norway and Iceland have taken formal exceptions to the moratorium on commercial whaling, which allows them to avoid the ban and resume their commercial takes. Natives in Greenland, Russia and Alaska continue their traditional small scale whaling under an exception for aboriginal whaling.
Following lunch, Jim Hopson spoke on “Vertebrate Fossils in Antarctica.” His talk illustrated the fascinating continental drift of Antarctica away from Gondwanaland in the company of the nascent continents of South America and Australia, a process beginning 150 million years ago. The fact that there are land animal fossils in Antarctica, ones that bear close relation to those found in South America and Australia, as well as very ancient fossils resembling those from the original neighborhood of Africa, proves the geological argument. Jim made the clever though somewhat poignant connection with the ill-fated Scott expedition, explaining that Scott’s insistence on collecting fossils on the way back from the South Pole delayed and thus may have helped to doom the expedition.
By mid afternoon, the Hanseatic had reached Hope Bay, located part way back through the Antarctic Sound, for the visit to the Argentine Station of Esperanza. The station’s setting was magnificent: behind it, a group of towering snow-streaked mountains mantled in cloud and flanked with immense glaciers; before it, the yawning bay, strewn with blue-ice bergie-bits and “growlers” (the remnants of nearly melted bergs). The station itself, a collection of small, orange buildings scattered on a low slope of broken talus, clear of snow, seemed at once brave but on the whole rather puny—a fair depiction of the presence of man in the Antarctic.
The station’s current population stands at 52, not the largest in Antarctica, especially for research purposes, for only six of the residents are scientists. What is remarkable is that 23 of its citizens are children, ranging in age from three to eighteen. Argentina can claim the first person actually born in Antarctica, a fact that will undoubtedly plague the child at myriad identification checkpoints for the rest of his life. Several of the children—robust, somewhat shy and restless, and inevitably underdressed for the cold—were waiting for us when we made our zodiac landing at the station’s rocky jetty. We must have seemed to them the latest collection of travelers from outer space, all of us dressed in fluorescent orange parkas, our heads concealed under thick hats and hoods flapping in the wind, our necks hung with cameras and binoculars, and our rubber-booted feet unsteady on the earth. They eyed us curiously for awhile and then ran off (who knows where?). We made our precarious way up the slope of the landing and then into “the town,” which consisted of a school, a small chapel, a hospital, a central meeting facility with a post office, and about fifteen houses. We wandered about for awhile, snapping photographs, trying to imagine a week here, much less an entire year, which is the general term of residence. Several of our group visited the penguin rookery behind the settlement, as if this morning’s memory somehow needed refreshing. Most of us ended up in the “casino,” the central meeting hall, where some of the more entrepreneurial citizens were selling home-made souvenirs—stenciled t-shirts, caps, key holders, and patches. A few managed to send postcards from the post office to eventually astonished friends back home.
It can be safely conjectured that we beat the “last boat back to the ship” deadline by several minutes. There was no reason to linger here: the wind was cold and spiked with the acrid fragrance of “rookery,” and our own floating home, anchored benignly in the bay, seemed irresistibly to beckon us. But Esperanza had offered us our first true landfall on the seventh continent as well as some hospitality, and for that we felt some gratitude, even in the chill of estrangement. Later, as we withdrew on bobbing zodiacs and cast backward glances on the community, nestled there under the titanic oblivion of the Antarctic environment, it seemed to come into its name, “esperanza”—“hope,” and in that for all of us as fellow members of the human community a certain nobility.
Once we were all aboard, the Hanseatic swung around to the northeast, sliding out of the bay, and then to the northwest toward the long Antarctic Sound. As we sailed along the bay the sun began to break through the clouds, igniting the huge glacier to the west, large as a county and unfathomably deep, too vast to photograph, let alone comprehend. Immense tabular bergs rode like giant frigates around us, the sea lapping at the blue-green of their lower concavities. The raking light of late afternoon made the icebergs especially brilliant as they rose in every direction above the calm sea. At the recap in the Explorer Lounge, Sylvia and Marco tried to command our attention as they summarized the penguin and seabird highlights of the day, then Geoff spoke of the South Shetland Islands, the next day’s destination. But the windows of the lounge drew us repeatedly to the here and now, the transcendent spectacle still available to us on land and sea, “highlights,” so to speak, of a more halcyon elevation.
Later that night, as we emerged from the Sound and slipped out into the Bransfield Strait, the sky cleared to a robin’s-egg blue, leaving a bank of low gray cloud clinging to the coastal peaks of the Palmer Peninsula behind us. The light of the western sky lit fires in a few high cirrus clouds over the horizon, then played in soft pinks and corals against a few cirrus to the south. The sunset and subsequent twilight lingered well towards midnight, as if darkness itself neither could nor would encroach on the beauty of such a scene. As the Hanseatic sailed silently, reverently, through the vast sculpture garden of ice still brilliant from the light in the west, the view from the Observation Lounge was utterly enchanting—a sunset cruise that would never be duplicated, never be forgotten.
On the way to Livingston Island early this morning, a dense fog shrouded the sea. But once close to our destination, the fog magically lifted, revealing a long coast overrun with a calving glacier. Farther on we found an inviting little harbor with a beach not only clear of snow but backed with a fragile stand of grass under lichen-covered cliffs. Spotting the island brilliant in sunshine and the tranquil sea conditions ahead, Geoff could no longer contain himself, “In all the years that we’ve been coming here,” he enthused over the ship’s public address system, “we’ve never had conditions as nice as these.”
With that encouragement, we all soon donned our gear for the landing near Hannah Point. Once ashore, we discovered a group of Elephant Seals, thick with blubber, all of them bachelors, sprawled on the beach in a placid community of corpulent lethargy. They were now collectively in the 40-day moult cycle and were apparently content to sleep away their post-breeding spate of feeding until they had achieved their sleek new coats of thick brown hair. The bulls can weigh as much as five tons and require, thereby, an occasional refitting. Untroubled by our presence, they dozed in the sun, the visual definition of “phlegmatic.” Occasionally, one would lift his head in a sort of life-is-good yawn, but, since there were no cows around, that was pretty much the extent of their activity. One did decide to change his arrangements, an impulse that required a journey of about 100 feet from one companion to the company of the larger group. Rumpling along on his belly, the transfer took several minutes, each ten-second interval ending perhaps in a further reflection, as his valved nostrils opened and closed, on why his species is not a land animal. Marco confirmed that Elephant Seals can move about 30 feet before they have to rest. Nonetheless, we kept our distance.
At this site we also studied some fossils that Franz had uncovered on the beach—bits of petrified wood as well as several stones revealing ferns and other plant life from the incredible past. Thereafter, we boarded our zodiacs again for the short transfer to Hannah Point where we studied a large rookery of Chinstrap Penguins, our best chance yet to observe their nesting and feeding behaviors. They seemed quite undisturbed by our presence, sharing the path with us between their nesting area and the beach, wobbling along, their stubby wings outstretched for balance. At one of the rookeries, Sylvia posted herself to point out a solitary pair of Macaroni Penguins, with their Mardi-Gras eye adornments, nesting in the midst of Chinstraps, quiet and still, as if to keep a low profile from having arrived at a party inappropriately dressed.
Following an early lunch, we disembarked at nearby Deception Island, which draws its name from the enormous sea-filled caldera that has made the volcanic island virtually hollow. Our first landing was at Bailey’s Head, at the site of a towering outcrop of sedimentary rock guarding a long stretch of black basaltic beach. At the water’s edge, the beach steamed with the still smoldering volcano not far below the surface. All along the beach were hundreds of Chinstrap Penguins, most of them rousting about in squads of ten or so, either emerging from the heavy surf or just about to take the plunge. Up from the beach is a smaller, dry caldera, as huge as an Olympic stadium, with hundreds of thousands of nesting pairs. Here again, we delighted in traipsing the same two-lane highway as the penguins, following the slow but steady progress up the slope of those returning from the sea, their silky white bellies full of krill, their black wings outstretched as if to embrace the air, up and up into the caldera toward their nests and families. For most, the walk had only just begun, for a vast number of nests were still several hundred yards farther up onto the slopes of the caldera—“prime real estate,” Sylvia called it—requiring in some cases more than an hour for the penguins to reach. How the Chinstraps found their homes amidst such numbers was a wonder of nature. And how their families knew that they would return was a question for the heart. It was not lost on us, however, that perched along the beach and on rocky outcroppings overlooking the route were the Skuas, morbid undertakers of the kingdom, attending their course, reminding us of the penguin’s inevitable mortality. If a penguin were injured by a Leopard Seal or otherwise began to fail, the Skuas were there—there to keep nature clean.
Thereafter, we sailed to the far end of the island, the white majesty of Mt. Fairweather, many miles away on Livingston Island, gleaming in our wake. We entered Deception Island’s central caldera at Neptune’s Bellows, a narrow, picturesque natural gateway to the vast harbor within. Here, we visited the ruins of a Norwegian whaling station, abandoned 70 years ago, and then used by the British as a watch post for Germans during WWII. After the War, the facility became one of the stations of the British Antarctic Survey—a posh spot, one would think, with its natural harbor and high cliffs protecting residents from Antarctic winds. And yet, one felt a kind of spookiness here, with the harsh, forbidding walls of rock, the gritty evidence of the butchery of whales, and the proliferation of volcanic ash. Ultimately, the British also left Deception Island after several unhappy years, chased in this case by further eruptions of the volcano—as if the Antarctic cold were not enough, one had to deal with fire!
Leaning on a piece of runway equipment at the far end of the site, David Fletcher explained, “The weather here was always terrible—don’t think that today is in any way typical. For some reason, winters here are always stormy.” He looked out across the long crescent beach littered with the ruins of the station, huge rusted tanks for whale oil, a wrecked rendering plant, and a few trashed wooden buildings. “The place always had a bad feel about it.” He paused. “There have been only two suicides in the history of the British Survey. Both were here.”
We walked the beach for about an hour, kicking along through the dusty black grit of “beach sand,” poking our heads into the abandoned buildings, and climbing the slope at Neptune’s Window for the view of the sea and the rocks below. At the last point, some members of our group witnessed the grim work of a Leopard Seal capturing and killing a penguin. To lighten the mood, however, several folks decided to take up Geoff’s offer of a little swim on the beach. Geoff’s landing team dug a small pool on the steaming basaltic sand at the water’s edge. A few who had worn swimsuits under their gear braved the cold air, hopping first into the frigid waters of the bay and then into the basaltic cauldron, yelping and cooing all the while. From this day forward they would possess a rare distinction, the blue badge of courage signifying a swim in Antarctica!
Later at the recap, Geoff spoke of our continuing good fortune with the weather, exclaiming that our landing at Bailey’s Head had been the only one of the season—this explained the presence of so many crewmembers joining the walk with us at that site, including Captain Ulf, who on this day had doubled as a zodiac driver. Sharing the microphone with Geoff at the session were Marco, Rich, and David, all of them similarly enthusiastic. Then Geoff spoke of the day ahead, our last in Antarctica. We would be heading south again, down through the Gerlache Strait, ultimately to Paradise Bay. Like life itself, one would hope, the pleasure of paradise would lie as much in the journey there. So it would be, late again this night, as we sat gazing out on the inextinguishable daylight from the high windows of the Observation Lounge. Here and there on the placid sea, puffs of spray rose against a backdrop of drifting ice and distant snow-covered mountains. Surprised by joy, we had entered the peaceable kingdom of the whale.
Several days earlier, David Fletcher had wished for us a “blue and white day.” It arrived in all its splendor early this morning. The Hanseatic had entered the Gerlache Strait shortly after midnight, and now as the sun rose higher in the ice blue sky, casting the mountains and the glaciers into high relief, we could behold the Antarctic in all of its stark grandeur. Cliffs of gray shale and schist, many capped with thick, overhanging bonnets of snow pack, towered over the strait. Between them, vast fields of cracked and shattered meringue, the myriad glaciers frozen at precipitous angles to the sea, each field slivered with blue light glowing like neon within. Several mountains of gnarled basalt revealed ancient volcanic activity, while other cliff faces were formed of sheered sedimentary rock, twisted and wrenched at tortuous angles, revealing the earth’s titanic forces of compression and uplift eons ago.
But the overall effect was beauty. It was so lovely to be gliding through this wonderland of mountain, snow, and ice framed between competing blues of sea and sky. It seemed a world frozen in its purity, as if nature had a free hand to pave the magnificent slopes of ice fields as she wished, to carve impossibly steep mountains, and to play with her palette of blue light as if she feared too much of white would be a tedium. The sun had a hand in the matter as well, washing the crowns of glaciers with a soft sheen of light brighter than the sky, casting shadows across the cliffs and crumpled glaciers to give them dramatic definition, and then drawing our eyes up through a snow-swaddled valley toward a mountain-top miles in the distance shimmering with a sunlit veil of cloud. Indeed, it seemed that all of the elements conspired on this day to celebrate the eye, the organ that rightly made Darwin shudder, this miraculous gift of sight.
Our first landing was at Paradise Bay, aptly named, after all. Here at the end of the bay, amidst the vertical splendor of steep mountains, glaciers, and ice bergs, lay the former Almirante Brown Monitoring Station. It has been closed for several years, due in part to Argentina’s economic woes but also to a fire set by a disgruntled station physician who, for reasons left obscure, was not allowed to return home after completing his year of service. The remaining small orange buildings of station, their doors sealed and windows boarded up, seemed to be still suffering from a wounded pride. We tried not to stare.
The true splendor of the morning, however, was the zodiac tour—a kind of “ice safari”—through the waters at the end of the bay. The beauty and wildness of Antarctica lay all around us—ice at eye level, the crystalline depths of the sea just beyond our gloved hands, glossy Gentoo Penguins swimming just off the bow of our zodiac in a kind of bloop-bloop motion of leaping and diving along the surface, majestic glaciers and mountains high overhead in a new and vivid clarity, and, when the zodiac engine was off, the grand silence all around. We studied a rookery of Blue-eyed Shags nesting with several chicks on the cliff near the station, then puttered out into the middle of the bay near a gigantic glacier splintering over water strewn with ice. High overhead near the crown of a peak fronting the bay, we spied a small avalanche spilling snow through clouds of powder, a flow like a waterfall that, due to the distance from us, appeared to be happening in slow motion. Meanwhile near the glacier, we spotted a Leopard Seal, slithering about under the surface of the bay, poking his large reptilian head above the surface from time to time, and then slipping underneath for tantalizingly long dives. We next located two Crabeater Seals basking in the sun on a small berg. Moments later, to our surprise and delight, the Leopard Seal decided to join them and, in a belly-flopping vault, heaved his long, sleek body over the edge of the berg and crawled, caterpillar-style, a few feet forward toward the seals. They seemed to pay him no mind, for they would not be spooked. After a few minutes, the restless visitor slid into the sea again in search of greater amusement.
Several minutes later, we found more of our own amusement on the steep slope of a rocky peak behind the station. By climbing in a steady tramp-tramp through occasionally knee-deep snow, most of us eventually managed to reach the summit, some 500 feet above the bay. There, we beheld such a splendid vista of the surroundings that the view alone seemed to weaken our knees. Franz was there to help with photographs—fine enough for postcards—and to make sure that no one, intoxicated by the panorama, took a header over the edge. Far below us, the Hanseatic, humbled by the sheer magnificence of the setting, lay in wait, like a parent at a playground. We took our own sweet time in the happy frivolity of the excursion, the air balmy and the sun bright, then decided to do the blissfully long snow slide back down the steep slope on the seat of our pants. Afterwards, we stood about cheering our companions through their slides. It was a brief return to the exhilaration of childhood, our snow gear thick and damp, our cheeks rosy and tingling, the heat from the exertion of our bodies rising through our collars. May all parents everywhere be blessed—life at last in the brilliant open air was grand.
Once back on board and on our way through the picturesque Neumayer Channel and the afternoon landing at Petermann Island, we were summoned again to the great outdoors, this time on the observation deck for a light “après ski” refreshment of hotdogs and beer—not bad at this latitude. While the light repast may have taken the edge off our appetites, one could at least enjoy conversation over the lunch that followed an hour later. Not long after that, Captain Ulf opened the Hanseatic’s forecastle, the anchor deck at the bow, where several gathered to observe the ship’s passage through the narrow, ice-strewn passage of the Lemaire Channel, a mere 1,600 feet wide at its narrowest. With massive blocks of glacial snow-pack clinging precariously to the steep mountains on either side of us, we held our collective breath while the Hanseatic slipped lightly and quietly through.
Petermann Island offered us our final landing in Antarctica. Wisely, no one would stay behind on this excursion. Once again ashore we came upon dense rookeries of penguins (Gentoos and Adélies), a Blue-eyed Shag population sharing a nesting area with a community of Gentoos, and some wonderful views of the surroundings. Across the channel stood two especially impressive mountains: the precipitous Mt. Scott—a climber ’s dream—and, lofty and serene in the upper distances, Mt. Shackleton, snow-covered and flat on top. Most of us trudged through the snow on the long slope leading to a high snow-pack bluff overlooking the western side of the island. Along the way, we encountered numerous Gentoos sharing the route with us. They had worn deep paths in the melting snow by their constant peregrinations back and forth from rookery to sea, though some of the area was marked with long shallow channels made by their sliding across the surface on their bellies. However ungainly they appear on their feet, penguins live much of their lives in motion, and in that, especially in horizontal attitudes, they are highly adept. At the top of the slope, the view out to sea, once again supervised by Franz, afforded us the densest field of large icebergs we had seen—as if Brancusi’s studio had become a city. In the declining light of late afternoon, the view was mesmerizing.
We spent a good long hour on Petermann, our last close encounter with penguins, our last opportunity to be really “in” Antarctica. During our time there we spotted two other, smaller vessels in the channel, the 100-passenger Explorer and a 50-foot sailboat, the Koutec, with a crew of Swiss having just climbed Mt. Scott. On the way back to the ship, we had another brief zodiac tour of the area. On this excursion we were able to slip alongside some icebergs, gliding up and over the dazzlingly blue ice below the surface to touch the crumbling margins of the berg itself glistening with melt. One of the bergs was especially striking, a 50-foot vertical monolith towering over a blue concavity walled in graceful arcs of white ice. Thousands of years of snow had produced the weight necessary to compress the glacial snow-pack to the density needed to create this ice, which, perhaps just a few weeks prior to our arrival, had finally calved into the channel. Now, in its final incarnation, drifting out to sea as a slowly melting iceberg, the ancient ice had been transformed by wind and water into a wondrous integrity of line, color, and shape, a natural work of art.
A few minutes later, perhaps reluctantly, we boarded the ship, dragging ourselves to the changing room one last time to rinse and stow our boots and hang up our life vests. The Hanseatic hoisted anchor and then swung out from the channel into the iceberg wilderness of the French Passage and the open sea. Soon thereafter, Geoff called us to the Explorer Lounge again for a recap. The superlatives were entirely supportable, of course. This had been a great day all around, and the room held a lingering exhilaration.
We were primed for every last bit of natural history and lore still available from the staff. David Fletcher took the microphone to discuss the history of Petermann Island as a research post and then, drawing upon his background as a mountaineer, a few of the tragic mountain-climbing accidents in the region. Sylvia spoke of seals, explaining the differences between sea lions and true seals, then musing further on her beloved penguins. Later, Geoff anticipated the journey home, intoning “the Drake Passage” with an appropriate portentousness.
Indeed, the ship was already beginning to roll some, and whitecaps lifted in the freshening winds off the coast of the Peninsula. The sky turned gloomy, reflecting our sinking mood. One last tabular iceberg, spectral at this hour, rocked slowly on the seaward horizon murky with fog. During dinner, the far snowswept cliffs of the continent receded in the distance, well off the stern. We were homeward bound. Heavy sighs all around.
We rolled pretty much through the night in heavy swells. The ship creaked and thumped as she dove into some of the deeper troughs but on the whole rode reasonably well. The morning report from the bridge put the winds from the northeast at 35 mph with 20-foot seas. Later in the afternoon, the sun broke through the overcast, revealing the deep blue sea heaving to a broad horizon all around. It was ocean travel all right, and it could have been much worse, of course. We could have known it from the deck of the Koutec.
This was a classroom day, with five lectures scheduled. About a third of the passengers showed up for each, one hand on the ship, the other poised for further balance. The rest of the passengers were obviously ensconced in their cabins, where they could watch the lectures on closed circuit television. In the morning Will Martin discussed the alarming decline of world fisheries, citing increased human population, improved fishing technologies, the growing wealth of nations, freedom of the seas, and, therefore, the absence of sufficient international regulation and state conservation. It was a grim report: if the Chinese develop a Japanese taste for fish, in a few years we’ll all be eating hamburger. Following Will, Marco spoke about the carnage caused to the Albatross population by long-line fishing. Because of the dispersal of fish bait on literally thousands of hooks that trail after these boats, large flocks of Albatross follow, trying to snag the bait before it sinks with the hook into the sea. Unfortunately, the Albatross occasionally get hooked themselves and then drown as the hook sinks. The solution, Marco explained, lies in faster sinking hooks and “streamers,” which apparently discourage the birds.
Bill Schlesinger spoke later in the morning on global warming, again using a variety of data to make a convincing case that the earth is definitely warming. The cause, familiar to most of us, was the greenhouse effect produced by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting largely from the burning of fossil fuels. Bill’s data offered a dramatic historic chronology, provided in part by the air trapped inside ice core samples taken from Antarctica. The beginning of the industrial revolution showed the first marked increase in carbon dioxide, the second half of the 20th century the most precipitous increase. Why was the press still waffling on such compelling evidence? Bill surmised that it was the need to report the other side of the argument—rather like the equal time given to the Flat Earth Society?
Following lunch, which featured the dizzy chaos of a Bavarian-style buffet in the Explorer Lounge, Rich Aronson offered “Climate Change and Marine Communities in Antarctica.” Here again Rich used a fine array of slides depicting underwater life and fossil collection, all of them taken by him, by which he illustrated, with characteristically bubbling enthusiasm, the dependence of underwater populations on shifts in global climate. The final talk was given rather bravely by Jim Hopson, who confessed, as the room continued to roll and pitch, “I’m not sure that I’ll be able to get through this.” Color returned to his face over the course of his remarks. “Reevaluating Scott: Hero or Bungler” was essentially a report on recent scholarship explaining the failure of the Scott expedition. Our own “expedition,” lest we forget, had barely touched 65º south, and at that we had contemplated the seemingly impenetrable margins of frigid cold, horrendous weather, and the vast distances of a continent. Scott had made it all the way to the Pole, 90º south, and got caught in an unfortunately prolonged storm on the way back. “The Antarctic takes no prisoners,” David Fletcher had reminded us, though on the question of Scott he would have been there to plead his case.
At the recap, Geoff managed to keep his balance while the Explorer Lounge rose and fell with nagging swells. Occasional surges lifted our stomachs, eliciting exclamations of distressed glee from the audience. Undaunted, of course, Dave took the microphone with the story of an intrepid American, one Lincoln Ellsworth, who wanted to be the first to accomplish a flight over the pole. The story is one of hapless missteps and false starts, but also of dogged determination, and Dave told it well. Ellsworth finally succeeded in 1935. As the Hanseatic continued to heave and boom into the mounting wind, the next question on at least a few minds in the audience was, would we?
The Drake lived up to its billing this morning. At 3:00 AM, various items in the cabin began to relocate themselves. A few utensils and books thumped to the floor, cans and bottles in the fridge rattled, and the walls began to chatter back and forth to each other as the ship rose and fell, plunging ahead. Open curtains at 6:00 revealed mountainous seas rolling in, rank upon rank, from the northwest, thundering against our port bow, with enormous rollers building to feathery, wind-swept crests ominously high over our cabins, then lifting the ship with a pitch to a dizzying elevation above the next set, the horizon roiling with whitecaps visible a mile or so off, then sending us crashing down with a yaw into the trailing trough, the horizon obliterated by the next mounting slope of sea. The bridge camera on the television monitor showed huge swells crashing over the bow, a windshield wiper sweeping back and forth as if Captain Ulf were aware that we wouldn’t want to miss any of the action, this world without stasis, this swaying to and fro and heaving up and down in the laughing embrace of the sea. One simply had to hang on. If one had to get anywhere, it was best to crawl, with an eye on the sky.
While discomforting at first, there was some consolation in the fact that we were facing these conditions at the end of the trip rather than at the beginning, which could well have been discouraging, indeed. It was also comforting to be told that by late afternoon or evening we would be in calmer seas past Cape Horn and then, by tonight, in the Beagle Channel. But in another, more immediate sense, the sea revealed to us the magnificence that had made the Drake Passage famous. Not to have encountered her in this mood would have deprived us of another sense of immensity, the quest that, among other objectives, had first drawn us out of our neighborhoods and workaday lives for this very trip. There was nothing to fear except perhaps a little queasiness, for the ship would master this storm, as it had done storms worse than this. Meanwhile, nature had presented a final grandeur in grays and whites, rocking us deeply in her cradle on this parting stretch of the road home. Nearby, Storm Petrels, soaring just over the scudding surface of the mounting waves, showed our minds how to play.
As it turned out, the Passage rocked us all day long. Captain Ulf was forced to slow the ship significantly—from fourteen to eight knots—in an ongoing battle with the seas. Ultimately, he had to alter his course, abandoning plans to call at Cape Horn, discretion being the better part of navigation in this case. By noon, the sun came out, making the spectacle perhaps more dazzling in appearance, though just as relentless. The seas did not begin to settle until very late in the afternoon. By 6:00 PM, it was polite enough to allow us to dress for the Captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner. During his opening remarks, Captain Ulf mentioned that the winds had reached 91 knots (105 mph, Beaufort 12) during the height of the storm, with waves cresting at 45 feet. Ever the diplomat, he explained with an apologetic smile that he had decided to close the bridge to visitors only after the seas had begun to wash over his station—not the best time to entertain the anxious musings of amateur pilots.
With calm seas at last, our gatherings on this final evening were in every way festive and bright, a couple of bruises and a sprain notwithstanding. Following Captain Ulf’s report on the journey—2,500 nautical miles total sailing, with a consumption of 3,200 eggs, 240 bottles of wine, and 1,639 cans of diet coke—each of the organizations on the Lifelong Learning expedition thanked the Captain, Expedition Leader Geoff, and the many members of the crew and staff for the excellent care they had provided us all. Following dinner, we returned to the lounge for a performance by the Hanseatic’s “Shanty Choir,” a loose and largely unrehearsed assembly of crew and staff committed to the vague prospect of entertaining us with song, much of it auf Deutsch. With light and willing spirits, we all had a very enjoyable time of it. Chief Officer Roman Obrist served as master of ceremonies and kept us laughing. The final number was sung by one of the Philippine deck hands, who stole the show with a hammed-up, karaoke-style rendition of “My Way”—a sweetly appropriate reminder that, wherever we go in this world, on land or sea, evidence of America’s cultural imperialism is readily available to remind us of home.
We slept well that night, relieved of the day and full of good memories, soothed perhaps further by a vague sense of accomplishment, for our journey was coming to a good end.
The next day, at dawn, we found ourselves docked in Ushuaia. The decks of the Hanseatic had become unbearably still.
* * *
In the end, what did it all mean? The facts surrounding Antarctica resound: the highest, windiest, driest, coldest continent, the fifth largest, yet one possessed of 80 percent of the earth’s fresh water and 90 percent of its ice. Yet these are only “surrounding facts,” relative distinctions. During our visit, Antarctica had come into sharper focus also as a laboratory for understanding many of the earth’s natural processes, its history, and the astonishing diversity and resilience of its life. However remote, she offered as well several alarming clues to the earth’s fate, as the continental ice shelf withdrew gradually more each year under the greenhouse effect and the ice betrayed the increasing residue of our carbonized civilization. Here also we had come to understand the gnawing effect of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer of our atmosphere. A giant hole had formed over Antarctica, allowing intensifying showers of ultraviolet light to radiate the delicate ecosystems of the planet. From such evidence, further questions mount, until they become truly ominous, for they pertain to life itself. Numbed by the gradual disappearance of krill, the world’s most numerous animal, would the penguins and whales one day slip into perfect hiding? And would we ultimately follow?
But what did it mean? These things and more.
There is a notch of metamorphic rock at the far northeastern corner of Petermann Island where the Blue-eyed Shags build their nests beside those of the Gentoo Penguins. It is a good place, a launching height above a little tongue of the Lemaire Channel washing over some rocks below, a peaceful community of different but like-minded birds nesting in a place protected from the cold winds that pound the windward shore on the opposite side of the island. We had come to Antarctica during the brief breeding season of the Austral summer, and here, as at most of the other landings of our trip, the birds had chicks in or near their nests. This was no exception, for the gray fluffballs of a new generation of Gentoos already stood near their parents, and young Shags, fussed over by theirs, were already coming into their feathers. On one of the Shag nests, however, a parent sat on two very small chicks, stirring now, their fuzzy wings awkwardly splaying out of the hardened mud and stones of their nest. “These will not make it,” Sylvia observed, “for by now it is too late in the season for them to survive the coming winter.” But the Shag parent did not know that, or if she did she did not care. She sat on the nest, adjusting herself for her chicks’ comfort and warmth, her eyes outward toward the waters of the channel. In her blue eye one could see it, the mind of winter, the bone-shaping drive of instinct, and the enduring power of love.
In the end, Antarctica was a place of great beauty.
-- Rob Fure