10 March 2013 by Reto
Ice, ice, baby…
“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success” Sir Ernest Shackleton (polar explorer)
Avid readers of my blog know that I am an Antarctica enthusiast. Ever since I read the story of Shackleton’s last expedition as a young man, I wanted to see and explore the continent of endless ice. Despite being still somewhat expensive, over the last few years prices of Antarctic expedition cruises have dropped. Therefore, I felt it was now time to turn this dream into reality and visit the Antarctic continent. My Russian friend Evgeny joined, eager as well to discover this distant land. Starting and ending in Ushuaia (Argentina), ships bound for the Antarctic Peninsula have to cross the dreaded Drake Passage, a trip which is roughly 900 km long. “Rough” would actually be an understatement on a ship rolling about 20° to 30° for two consecutive days. This passage is considered one of the roughest seas in the world. Many people on board were seasick and stayed in their cabins. I was surprised to find out that I felt alright for the most time. Same for Evgeny. Not many passengers would show up for the scheduled meals. Evgeny and I spent most of our time reading or watching movies during the crossing of the Drake passage. On the third day, upon arriving at the South Shetland Islands, the ships movements calmed down considerably and we met for the first time the full group of people during meals. Later this day we touched land at Barrientos Island, using inflatable boats – commonly called Zodiacs – for the transfer from the ship to the shorelines. Here, we met for the first time some of the local inhabitants of Antarctic region, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. Also, we spotted an Elephant seal, dozing on the shores of the island. Further trips on subsequent days took us to Hydrurga Rocks, then Neko Harbour on Andvord Bay, where we made our first continental landing. Palmer Station on Anvers Island, the Lemaire Channel, Iceberg Alley near Pléneau Island, Detaille Island (where we crossed the Polar Circle), Perch Island, Petermann Island, Port Lockroy on Goudier Island, Jougla Point on Wiencke Island, Foyn Harbour and Telefon Bay at Deception Island were other sites along our route – to name a few. The tour guides on board consisted of biologists, geologists and other scientific staff who held lectures between the trips. Despite my low expectations, we encountered a big variety of wildlife during this journey, of which the biologist kept a public record on the ships whiteboard. Other than birds, we most notably saw whales, such as Humpback, Antarctic Minke and Fin Whales. A definite, yet unplanned, highlight was a group of Humpback Whales who decided to swim around our anchored ship for more than an hour. They came as close as possible which was an impressive (and very photogenic) moment. The various Antarctic scientific stations and historic sites added to the variety of landings and gave some of the rare shopping opportunities. To underline stereotypes about cultures: The American station (Palmer Station) did only accept credit cards for payment in their store, whereas the British station (Port Lockroy) would only accept cash. Actually, we didn’t really bother about either way to pay. And thinking of getting a credit card bill reading “Palmer Station Antarctica” might seem to be a souvenir in itself. I might frame the bill and hang it on the wall. Staff on all the stations were very welcoming, patiently explaining their infrastructure and the scientific projects they were working. At Palmer Station, one of the American scientists proudly presented the largest land animal of Antarctica – in a small glass tube. About 10 mm in length, the Belgica Antarctica, is an insect – a wingless midge. Somehow, this sighting didn’t end up on our ship biologists’ wildlife checklist. We navigated a total of 3395 km (or 1833 nautical miles) during this journey. Looking at the Antarctic map, we have merely scratched the edge of the continent. Probably this needs another trip to explore more. And I’ll gladly return again. After returning to Ushuaia – again through the Drake passage – I realized to which extent the success of Shackleton’s failed expedition was extraordinary. Sure, my environment on board was somewhat cozy – enjoying hot showers, fine food and 24 hours of coffee. Nevertheless, we had a good dose of extreme climate and persistent cold in a solitude place. I bow to Sir Ernest Shackleton.