The Deep South
We were just off Point Wild, fighting a savage wind and ugly swell when a leopard seal’s reptilian head appeared above the surface of the dark water. We had travelled three days across the infamous Drake Passage to get to Antarctica, the edge of the map, and the predator appeared as a sentinel or omen. Behind it, Elephant Island’s intimidating cliffs were interrupted only by a white-and-blue glacier contrasting against low, leaden clouds, the sky seeming compressed.
Point Wild could have no other name, but it was christened fairly recently after the explorer Frank Wild. A century ago, it provided unlikely shelter for the majority of the crew of The Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship which had been crushed by ice and sunk in the Weddell Sea. When Shackleton made his courageous trip north to South Georgia with five others in a lifeboat, it was left to his second-in-command, Wild managed the lives of 22 men on that little promontory. They suffered there through four months of austral winter, before Shackleton finally appeared in a large rescue ship, The Yelcho, like a mirage on the horizon.
Almost exactly 99 years later, I visited Point Wild as part of the Scotia Sea Springtime expedition on board the Polar Pioneer. Ordinarily, referring to a cruise on which passengers were fed three meals a day and cared for like enormous infants as an “expedition” would feel a little rich, but travelling to Antarctica leaves you feeling very much like you’re on a genuine adventure. The seas are rough, the shores untamed, and if you aren’t prepared for a little discomfort in the pursuit, then this isn’t the trip for you.
Prior to leaving the Falkland Islands to start the 18-day voyage, we were given an itinerary that headed east to sub-Antarctic South Georgia, before looping south west to Elephant Island and on to the wider Antarctic Peninsula. While the overall route stayed the same, the day-to-day plan was quickly discarded by expedition leader Howard Whelan in favour of something more daring. “We’re the only ship here – everyone else is north, afraid to scratch the paint,” he said when we got to our southernmost point. “But if you want the really good stuff, you gotta scratch the paint.”
Throughout the journey, Whelan and the Russian crew of the Polar Pioneer scratched plenty of paint to ensure we passengers got the most from our experience. We didn’t know it when we set out, but that meant we’d be awoken for 4am landings on frozen beaches; that we’d have to fend off belligerent fur seals while hiking to penguin rookeries; and that we’d make an audacious visit to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. “That’s the definition of adventure…” Whelan said at one point, “Outcome uncertain.”
Adding to the feeling that we were on a voyage like explorers of old, half of the days were spent at sea, crossing some of the roughest waters in the world – at times the ship was slammed so hard by waves that we could feel our innards compressed by the contact. Thought to be the only ship of its petite class sailing to Antarctica, in such conditions the Polar Pioneer was incapable of going anywhere fast, but it was always going, through the gloom of the brief nights and ever on through the long days.
Very quickly after leaving the Falklands there was no phone signal and no Wi-Fi. Like all addicts denied their fix, some initially found the withdrawal difficult, before reaching a sort of peace a few days later. To a person, we were soon relieved to leave the ugliness of the news cycle behind.
We were never bored. Even on the days when no land was sighted, the southern seas showed that life finds a way to thrive, no matter the environment. Of the thousands of seabirds that followed our wake, none did so more elegantly than the royal and wandering albatrosses. The more furious the ocean, the higher and more perfectly they flew; to see those huge birds performing so gracefully in the face of such violence was Antarctica’s first miracle.
The passengers were all wealthy, white and well-travelled: brokers, doctors, farmers, professors, nuclear physicists, widows and widowers, mostly retirement age or older. When South Georgia approached on the horizon, we were all just awestruck tourists, gathered on the open bridge to stare at the marvellous land ahead. Occasionally we were distracted by jumping seals or the blowing of unseen whales. Some claimed to spot penguins among the rolling waves too, and hurriedly raised their cameras to attempt impossible photos.
The islands of South Georgia are some of the most remote in the world, with a tiny contingent of British scientists the only people now living there. Yet the islands have seen almost endless drama since they were discovered – from early sealers and whalers, through the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, to the Falklands War, which started here in 1982 when the Argentine armada arrived to seize its first British territory.
These days South Georgia has returned to a largely organic state, especially as 2015 saw the successful eradication of human-introduced rats. That should see sea birds of all sizes benefit, though they already breed in such numbers that if they were people, South Georgia would have a larger population than Canada.
Of all the birds living there, none were more glamorous than the king penguins, the yammering, waddling regents of the sub-Antarctic. We met them in their tens of thousands on our first landing in South Georgia, in a predawn light on the vast Salisbury Plain. They were interspersed with bellicose fur seals making deceptively cute whinnying sounds, and humongous elephant seals, many of which had a kind of facial flatulence that had them snorting so heavily I could feel the ground shaking through my gumboots.
Penguins, though – they were the reason for many of us travelling in the first place, and on Salisbury they were so numerous as to appear like noise on a broken television. The second largest penguin in the world, the kings are only slightly smaller than the famous, marching emperors. While those giants were out of reach several hundred kilometres to the south, the rest of the wildlife more than made up for it.
Although humans have killed thousands of Antarctic animals in the name of various industries, we have only shared these lands for a couple of hundred years, an evolutionary heartbeat. As a result, we are not regarded as predators, so the seals, penguins, petrels and skuas treat us as they do each other, which is to say with a bored half-interest and only occasional hostility.
That allowed for spectacular photography and the unique joy of observing the bumbling ridiculousness of the penguins up close. “They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world,” wrote Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his 1922 memoir The Worst Journey in the World. “Either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner.”
Another three days were spent exploring South Georgia before we turned towards the Antarctic continent proper. The intervening time at sea gave us the chance to look out for more albatrosses and whales, and for those who didn’t fancy the freezing wind, the opportunity to attend lectures on the lower decks. Each Aurora trip has a combination of onboard experts to educate guests on photography or Antarctic ecology or the brief but colourful history of the continent.
Yet none of it could adequately prepare us for what awaited in what Shackleton called “the silent water streets of this vast unpeopled white city.” The day after Elephant Island we found ourselves sailing between mall-sized tabular icebergs that had drifted up from the Weddell Sea. Some of those icy titans were lined with a deep blue, as though containing veins of pure sapphire. When he found himself in similar conditions Shackleton wrote: “Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic of such a scene…” A hundred years later, it’s no easier to do it all justice – the words don’t seem big enough, and there aren’t enough of them.
What has changed over time is how the continent is perceived, from the world’s worst journey for Cherry-Garrard and other explorers, to a once-in-a-lifetime dream trip for modern tourists. It hasn’t taken long for perception to shift, but it has actually moved back towards an original idea, first formed by the ancient Greeks. They believed that in order to balance the world there must be a southerly equivalent of the Arctic. Plato toyed with the notion, as did Aristotle, who is thought to be the first to coin the word Antarctica. Perhaps it would be populated and green, perhaps it would be filled with untold riches, but it had to be there… Christianity then spent a few centuries trying to beat and burn such heretical ideas out of people, but the Greek teachings were preserved in Arabic, before being revived and relearned. Somewhere, there has almost always been an idea that if you travelled far enough south, you would find something magical.
And even if it isn’t the green, fertile land the Ancients foretold, it is surely the planet’s last pristine place. Our parasitic human habits haven’t taken place in Antarctica – with no people there’s no pollution, so the air and sea are a clear as can be. Being there felt like time travelling to some point in the past before we evolved, so that we could observe animals as if invisible. “Almost like Eden, like a golden time before The Fall of Man,” said the ship’s on-board historian Carol Knott with some well-practised drama. “I think we’re all seeking that idea of perfection, before humans.” I wondered if she felt Antarctica offered that? “I think people perceive it that way,” she replied, “and certainly it’s such a special place.”
More time passed, with icebergs and three more species of penguin and white mountains cloaked in snow, many bearing the names of legendary Antarctic pioneers. One afternoon we were suddenly beset by a windstorm that halved the ship’s speed, but even then we could stand on the bridge watching the tops being blown out of white caps, sunshine making them erupt in shimmering rainbows.
It was dead calm the next morning, and sunny too – being on deck was no longer arduous, or even particularly cold. As we stood outside photographing each other in that brilliant white world the atmosphere felt triumphant, but a couple of days later, when the Polar Pioneer raised anchor to make its final trip north, some passengers would stand on the same spot, weeping as though they were abandoning a great love.
Despite his vast experience, Howard Whelan knew exactly how they felt. “At the end of my first voyage to Antarctica, I remember the tabular icebergs were disappearing and the penguins were porpoising away from us,” he told me. “I just started to bawl my eyes out. I thought: what if I can never see this again? What if this is the last time I’m here?”
Over two decades of expeditions later, few people have spent more time in the Seventh Continent than Whelan, who is as in love with it now as he has ever been. “After 60 trips over 22 years, you’d think that I could become complacent,” he said. “And yet I feel so strongly about this place – as strongly as I did the first trip I did… It’s almost a spiritual thing, which to me encompasses all the senses, and the heart.”
As sentimental as he sounded, I didn’t doubt his sincerity. This was a man who climbed Everest without oxygen, who, as a teen, helped pioneer the Pacific Crest Trail. It was his undulled sense of adventure that saw the Polar Pioneer push so far, that allowed we lucky tourists to experience so much.
When we dropped anchor off Goudier Island (over 64 degrees south, farther south than Reykjavik is north) most of us knew we would never again visit such latitudes. Goudier wasn’t quite inside the Antarctic Circle, but the sky stayed light and rather than mourn the impending turn for home, it seemed a perfect place for a party. In the ship’s bar, music started playing. Some people reached for cameras, others charged their glasses and stood. A wild wind blew off a glacier and through the porthole. Then the passengers and crew of the Polar Pioneer danced like it was the end of the world.
A version of this piece was published in Aspire in January 2016