We saw the British base and Norwegian whaling station at Deception Island on our first proper day in Antarctica. On our next-to-last day, we saw another, far more pleasant and even prosaic sign of man’s encounter with Antarctica: the British and Argentine “huts” at Damoy Point on Wiencke Island. What a place – unreal in that quintessentially Antarctic sense: snow, ice, ocean, mountains, clouds, sky… And of course seals and penguins.
The gentoo penguin colony was small
and, in the soft evening light, quite active. Many of the adults were tirelessly marching back and forth to collect more rocks for their nests.
On the long walking path between the landing beach and the huts themselves, a couple seals and a couple skuas were lounging, unperturbed by the parka’d pax going back and forth.
The huts themselves were tiny and charmingly rustic. The British hut was open to visitors and preserved more or less the way it had looked in the 1990s, when the Brits stopped using it as a station for scientific research and a base for supplying other nearby stations, like Port Lockroy (just a few kilometers over the ridge).
A sign at the door said, in essence, please clean your boots before coming in, please don’t disturb or take anything, and please close the door when you leave. So small and crowded was it that I couldn’t get a good angle for photos, but it looked and smelled like just about every backwoods cabin you might’ve seen. Except, no woods outside. I could imagine spending months there quite happily, hiking over the snowfields all day and hiding from the weather as needed.
The even smaller Argentine hut wasn’t open for visitors (perhaps because it’s actually still in use?), but honestly they have a superior hut-decoration scheme. Nothing really beats los albicelestes, even battered by the weather.
Nothing except maybe the wider, wilder landscape itself. Dorian Bay was a good reminder of just how small and insignificant humans are and should be.
The animal that was most reliably ubiquitous on the cruise was Homo sapiens antarctica, which when not aboard Minerva always wore its summer plumage. The photos of all of us passengers – “pax” in the crew’s lingo – crack me up. We look so un-Antarctically bright. But we were mostly warm and pretty dry!
Before the trip to Antarctica, I tried to read up on the birds we’d see, but by the old gods and the new, there are a lot of kinds of birds, and after some studying, I concluded that most of them live in or migrate near Antarctica.
So I tried to focus on penguins and the biggest, majestickest seabirds like your albatrosses and petrels. And even then, sheesh, there are like ninety. (Okay, according to my best field guide, about 30 – 7 penguins, 5 albatreaux, and 19 petrels, some of which, annoyingly, are called fulmars, prions, or shearwaters.) And then there are some terns, including the Arctic tern that migrates all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back, as well as the Antarctic tern which is lazy and stays in Antarctica all the time
Plus cormorants, which are also called shags, which the British passengers on the ship thought was pretty funny but which look just like the cormorants we see on prairie lakes in Minnesota.
The birds I didn’t read about before the trip but should have, though, were the skua. What freaking beasts! Though they lack the tuxedo coloration of your penguin or the insane wingspan of your albatross, their plumage is understatedly attractive.
On the wing, though – that’s when the skuas look like the predators they are, effortlessly riding the winds
And watching for a penguin to briefly neglect its egg or its chick. Then:
Turns out that skua eat a lot of things besides penguins, such as smaller flying birds like terns, fish they either catch on their own or steal from other birds, krill, even food waste that ships throw overboard. When edible calories are as scarce as they are in the Antarctica, you’d better be willing to eat anything!
Still, I could not stop thinking about and watching the penguin hunting. Our naturalists, sensitive to the spectacle of the skuas stealing and shredding adorable penguin chicks, talked quite a bit about it: “The skuas are just feeding themselves and their young,” “It’s the circle of life,” &c, &c.
All true, and even kind of touching. Skuas (like penguins!) mate for life and take assiduous care of their own young. Here, Mami and Papi Skua sip meltwater from a pool on Deception Island, then fly back to their nest to hydrate sus bebes.*
But the predation was also riveting, a passage in an Attenborough nature documentary that’s being lived out, not filmed. The skuas were beautiful in the air
And then they would plummet to the rocks and … Well, it was ugly. But natural.
* For some reason, I think that in the Antarctic Peninsula, todos los animales hablan español.
I rocked the parka ‘fit every day of the cruise, but I didn’t wear the parka itself all the time. I had to take it off whenever I did any serious hiking – the thing was just way too warm to wear during any kind of strenuous activity!
And I took off the parka whenever we had some sunshine – like here, during the glorious cruise up the Lemaire Passage, when I accepted some fellow passengers’ invitation to enjoy an afternoon drink:
And I took off the parka – plus everything except my glasses, my watch, and my swim trunks – to do the polar plunge at Deception Island. I had been worrying about this for more than a day, ever since the expedition leader said that we’d probably have the chance to jump in the water at Deception Island. I’m fine being cold, but I was worried about having a heart attack from the shock of the water. When the guides said that they’d have an AED on the beach, my fear of dying in the volcano was greatly lessened. (I never did confirm that they knew how to use the AED, or, come to think of it, actually see it on the beach…)
My lord, though, what a goddamn thrill to dunk myself in the Southern Ocean! As my face in the first photo suggests, the “active” volcano didn’t actually warm the water too much. In fact, our guides pointed out that since salt lowers water’s freezing point, this water was probably slightly colder than 32º F. The air was just about at 32, full of rain and sleet and snow.
Fun as hell, and honestly, not that cold, either. Plus, how many people can say they they did a polar plunge in actual polar water? Well, probably about fifty or so from our ship, which the guides claimed was an unusually high number. Perhaps Carleton alumni are especially brave (or dumb), or perhaps the group’s members were particularly amenable to shared adventures (or susceptible to peer pressure), or or or… Who knows!
I can’t say I won’t ever do another polar plunge, though I am pretty sure I won’t ever have another chance to say that a swimsuit is legitimate work clothing. Unless Carleton sends me on an alumni trip to Alaska or something…
Cycling and loving winter has given me a deep appreciation for good gear. As addictions go it’s probably less destructive but not much less expensive than drinking, drugs, or gambling. And it gives me the chance to smugly tell people, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” If I could say this in Norwegian, like some Northfielders can (and do), I’d probably collapse into a smug black hole.
I was thus both pretty lucky to have a lot of the “right” stuff for the Antarctic cruise (the value of wool baselayers cannot be overstated!) and somewhat dubious that I really needed the heavy-weather parka that the cruise line provided to everyone. Wouldn’t one of my weatherproof winter jackets suffice? I generously, landlubbingly decided to grant them the benefit of the doubt. At worst I’d get a sweet new jacket; at best I’d get a sweet new jacket that kept me dry and warm in Antarctica.
Well, it turns out those folks knew what they were talking about! The parka was incredibly effective at keeping me dry and warm while standing or sitting in some pretty bad great conditions: sideways rain, pelting sleet, 70-mph winds, snow flurries… Who knew? Besides, I mean, everyone who’s ever gone to Antarctica, been on the ocean, etc. The fabric was great, but the super-snug and easy-to-use hood was fantastic, the snap cuffs were marvelous, and the numerous well-designed pockets were wonderfully useful for phones, gloves, hats, hands…
As for the blue of the jacket? Pretty much the same color as old ice!
While we passengers were able to bring our parkas home with us, we could not keep two other cool bits of gear. Each time we went ashore, we wore insanely great insulated and waterproof Muck boots instead of regular boots. The guides specifically warned us not to bring, much less wear, any landlubbing boots (hiking boots, Sorels, etc.), saying that no matter how good you think they’ll work, they won’t work well in Antarctica. The knee-high Mucks, like the parka, were a revelation. Not only did they provide exceptional traction on snow, ice, wet rocks, and penguin shit, they were completely waterproof and amazingly warm, thanks to the liner and to wool socks. Because of course I did, I tested my boots (size EUR 48 – big clodhoppers) on one of our landings by standing for about ten minutes in shin-deep water that was about 30º F and chock full of ice chunks. Toasty warm! If I had the sort of life that involved frequent splashing in near-frozen water, I’d get a pair.
A life in which I could “need” Muck boots is imaginable, but I can’t imagine a life in which I’d need the amazing lifejacket that we had to wear on all of our landings. On our second night at sea, the ship’s guides provided a detailed orientation to the lifejacket that included such tips as
Wear it over all your clothes, but not over a backpack! Never wear it over a backpack! Reason: if it inflates, it won’t float properly under a backpack, and could actually drown you.
Make sure the straps – even the awkward one running between your legs – are snug before leaving the ship. Reason: you won’t be able to easily tighten the straps when you’re in the boat heading ashore.
Do not ever pull the inflation tab unless you’re already in the water! Reason: somehow the lifejacket senses water and inflates automatically when it’s immersed, or even just wet.
This last bit of guidance caused several passengers at the orientation to reflexively reach for the inflation tab, which in turn caused the guides to shout good-naturedly, “Do not pull the tab!” Relatedly:
Do not take the life jacket into the shower in your cabin to rinse off dirt or penguin shit, because the water will make it inflate and then you’ll be super embarrassed. (I was very tempted to do this on the last night of the cruise.)
The full kit – complemented here with a wool cycling cap from Minnesota’s 45NRTH (one of my very most favorite items of clothing) and by fleece-lined and water-resistant pants from Eddie Bauer (same) – was something to behold! Almost drowned out the dorky grin on our first landing.
I grew up on the edge of Lake Superior, and ventured out onto it a few times, but I always felt and feel most at home when surrounded by tall trees. After moving to Northfield, I had to get used to the prairie. I think I’m pretty comfortable now in wide-open spaces. The Southern Ocean, though, was an entirely other sort of wide open.
I guess I expected to see endless empty ocean when we set sail on Minerva from Ushuaia, a busy port. The commercial pier where we boarded Minerva was lined with other cruise and merchant ships, and not far from a marina that wouldn’t look out of place on any of the Great Lakes.
The Ushuaia harbor was crowded with big vessels. These cruise ships were supposedly full of passengers and crews who were waiting out their COVID quarantines.
But after we left the harbor and steamed down the Beagle Channel toward the Drake Passage, the only craft we saw was the boat the took the channel pilot off Minerva in the middle of the night. (I had just returned to my cabin after watching Ushuaia disappear behind us.)
The Practicaje was the last ship we saw for days. No ships, no other people, nothing but the open ocean. Well, the ocean and the sky. If Ralph Waldo Emerson is right that “the sky is the daily bread of the eyes,” then we gorged ourselves.
When we reached Antarctica, the mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife added to the feast, as I hope my post are showing. But through the couple hundred of us on Minerva felt like the only people in the world, or at least the only people in our part of Graham Land, we weren’t. Almost every day, we caught a glimpse of another ship.
The night of February 2, after our landing on the continent at Orne Harbor, we headed down the Gerlache Strait and passed two other cruise ships cutting away up the Schollaert Channel. They glowed almost obnoxiously in the midnight gloaming. I’m sure we looked just as artificial to them.
The next day, high winds prevented us from making any landings and forced the Minerva to keep moving. We sailed down the Neumeyer Channel right past the British “Station A” on Goudier Island in Port Lockroy, a tiny cove in the western side of Wiencke Island. Several sailboats were hiding behind Goudier in the cove. Their masts and the antennae of the Station A buildings stood out straight and sharp against the natural shapes of the coastline.
Later that day, still looking for shelter from the wind, we sailed around Cape Errera at the very southern tip of Wiencke Island. Another cruise ship was going in the other direction – one of the two ships we’d seen the previous night. The spectacular cloud plume off the headland suggests the strength of the winds that day.
The winds calmed on February 4, allowing us to try to sail down the Lemaire Channel, a passage famous for its truly jawdropping mountains. More on that cruise another day – suffice to say here that Lemaire’s fame drew other ships too. As we approached the northern end of the channel, we could see the the French cruise ship Le Lyrial coming in behind us.
Our captain found too much ice in the mouth of channel to risk a run, but while he brought Minerva about, Le Lyrial snuck past us, close to the cliffs, threaded its way through the icebergs, and successfully sailed down the channel. We watched its progress on the navigation screens aboard Minerva.
Minerva on the other hand spent the morning sailing counterclockwise around the islands that form the western wall of the channel. Just before noon, we emerged in the French Passage, a more open reach that feeds into the southern end of the Lemaire. The passage was full of ice that had been trapped there by the previous day’s winds. We had a grand outing, to be described in another post, but we also saw a tiny sailboat in the white floes and black water.
As with the boats we saw at Port Lockroy, the straightness of the mast looked alien. I wound up talking for quite a while with another passenger, an experienced sailor, about what that boat’s crew must have been doing and seeing. They were in hazardous waters, which meant they were either stupid or, more likely, consummately experienced. Either way, what an adventure they were having!
That little sailboat was the last ship I saw until we crossed the Drake Passage and headed back up the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, on February 6 – at which point I was quarantined in my cabin. I took a few bad photos through my water-splattered porthole of traffic in the Beagle and in the harbor after we docked, but nothing worth the pixels. Five days later, when my cuarentena ended, I walked from my hotel outside Ushuaia into the city and down to the harbor. The pier was crowded with beautiful vessels – several cruise ships, a Russian research vessel, an Argentine Coast Guard cutter, even a Greenpeace ship. Minerva had already sailed back to Antarctica.
The day after we visited Deception Island, we landed at Orne Harbor, a gorgeous inlet on the Antarctic Peninsula proper – our first (and only) landing on Antarctica the continent.
Our geologist guide Mary Savina half-jokingly pointed out that the notion of a “continental landing” is a kind of fiction that’s only true or not true because of the particular moment in geological time at which we visited. A few hundred or thousand years later in either direction, and maybe an island would be connected by land to the continent, or this bit of “the continent” would be an island. Point taken, Mary, but I stil enjoyed the thrill of being on Antarctica.
Orne Harbor was a spectacular place. The view down into the harbor, with Minerva anchored and waiting for us to come back aboard. I mean, good god: the ship! the water! the mountains! (Notice the tiny rubber boats heading back to the ship…)
But the literal and personal high point of the continental landing was the snowy, winding climb up a steep bluff to a narrow, wind-blasted saddle
that offered some glimpses of chinstrap penguins who were somehow ensconced in a rock outcrop hundreds of meters above the ocean.
From there, we could look south into the continent
And west out onto the Gerlache Strait, named for the borderline-insane Belgian explorer who was led (or mis-led) the first crew of sailors that overwintered in the Antarctic, not far from Orne Harbor.
Despite the 60-knot (70 mph) winds that howled off the ocean at us, I drank in that vista, which was the best I’d seen to that point in the cruise. The seething gray clouds. The stabs of sunlight. The distant snowpeaks. The deep blue ocean. The plunging white bluff (carefully monitored by one of our guides, who was determined to make sure none of us went too close). The icebergs. And amidst them all, reminding us that the world still existed, a Russian oligarch’s private yacht, steaming north…
After a long – but not long enough – time on the saddle, looking every which way and getting deliciously chilled
I finally decided to descend the bluff and return to Minerva. As I turned away, I spotted a lone chinstrap making its way from the rookery up and over a ridge and then, presumably, down to the water to feed on krill and fish that it would bring back up to its chick. The bird looked lonely as it wobbled alone along a path that it and others must have taken many times a day, indifferent to the blue-jacketed primates who were coming and going, but mostly going.
It’s apparently pretty easy to title books on Antarctica. On the other hand, if a book has “end of the earth” in the title, it’s probably pretty good.
The Sancton book is a gripping account of a near-disastrous 1897-1899 expedition led by Adrien Gerlache to the Antarctic Peninsula — discovering many of the places I’ll see next month, but also getting trapped in the ice and barely surviving.
The Matthiessen book comprises two long, beautifully written essays on eco-tourism cruises that Matthiessen took in the 1990s, one to the Ross Sea south of New Zealand, the other to the Antarctic Peninsula. I hope my experiences there are more like Matthiessen’s than Gerlache’s!
Finally, the Mulvaney book is, uh, a history of the polar regions. I haven’t finished it yet, but the sections on Antarctica look to cover both exploration and subsequent use of the continent for science, whaling and sealing, etc. Should be good!
As I read on Antarctic exploration, I keep reading about explorers’ efforts to go further south than anyone else. And so on New Year’s Eve at the bottom of the year, we can look at the history of “Farthest South” – efforts to go closer to the pole than anyone else.
As one might expect, Wikipedia includes a pretty good entry on “Farthest South,” and honestly, the striving – like that of Antarctica exploration generally – is fascinating to read about, inspiring to contemplate, and hollow to actually achieve. Quite literally none of the “farthest souths” went anywhere other than an empty spot on the map – and until 1900, only empty spots in the Southern Ocean. Not even land (or ice shelf). There’s more to say at another time about the fascinating, inspiring, hollow spot that is the farthest south, the pole itself.
But look at the fits-and-spurts non-pattern of this list of known farthest south records, which doesn’t include the legendary 7th-century feats of the Polynesian sailor Ui-te-Rangiora, who ventured far enough from to see icebergs, but does include the Yaghan natives of what’s now Tierra del Fuego, who probably sailed as far south as Cape Horn at the end of South America. Once the Europeans began trying transoceanic voyages, they set three successive furthest-souths in the 16th century but then only one in the 17th. Sailing so far south was simply too difficult and too unrewarding – not many places to colonize!
154 more years passed before James Cook set two farthest-south records, both on his second circumnavigation of the planet – and both measured with the famous marine chronometer that allowed sailors (Cook almost first among them) to precisely determine their position on north-south lines of longitude. Cook’s Second Voyage, in fact, was an effort to prove or disprove the existence of a Terra Australis, a huge unknown land at the bottom of the planet. Cook never saw that land, but he did sail far enough to encounter icebergs and other suggestions of a landmass even further south.
Cook died in Hawaii on his Third Voyage, and almost fifty years passed before another British sailor set a new record, then another twenty years before James Clark Ross went almost to 80º south in 1841 and 1842, reaching what’s now the Ross Sea, directly below New Zealand. As Britain and other European powers strived to colonize virtually all the rest of the planet, explorers had less interest in the southern continent itself, which was deemed to have value only as an object of scientific research – not as an object of colonization or even just economic extraction. (The whales and seals in the seas were valuable enough.) Answering calls late in the 19th century to finally investigate Antarctica proper, Carsten Borchgrevink set a new farthest south at 78º 50’ S on the ice shelf in the Ross Sea in 1900. Two years after that, Robert Falcon Scott went further down the shelf, finally passing beyond 80º S – a very forbidding few more degrees from the pole.
Seven years of increasingly intense international competition all around Antarctica (and, at the opposite end of the planet, around the North Pole) culminated in 1909 with Ernest Shackleton getting to within two degrees of the South Pole – a huge leap forward. And then Roald Amundsen finally made it to the pole at 90º S in January 1911, beating Scott by a few weeks. Amundsen brought his men back from the pole safely, but Scott and all his men died as they headed back north.
I have always loved maps. I have several laminated maps that I keep around as motivation to train for my winter bike races, and I like to buy one or two (let’s say) both to plan for trips and to remember the trips. I spend way too much time studying the maps generated by fitness-tracker apps of bike rides I just took, and even more time poring over Google Earth maps of places I’ll never visit.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time, then, finding good maps of Antarctica and now studying the couple that I’ve bought (so far):
The “Antarctic Explorer” map covers all of the continent on one side and the Antarctic Peninsula on the other, and offers a lot of interesting historical information on Antarctic explorers too. The other map, made by the British Antarctic Survey and “dispatched by post” from Stanfords London (“the world’s biggest map shop,” which, yes please!) focuses entirely on the peninsula and on its northernmost tip, a.k.a. Graham Land,
which was named for the Lord of the Admiralty who dispatched an early British expeditions to Antarctica in the 1830s. Sailors on that venture were probably the first humans to actually see the continent, rather than just infer its existence from wind, ice, and currents or to spot some of the many, many islands offshore. Ice ho!
As you can see in this video, Graham Land is as much water and island as continent. Our expedition’s ship (which, by the way, is not exactly a tramp steamer!) is going to thread its way through all these islands on the west side of the peninsula to about 65º south latitude.
The name “Graham Land” strikes me as old fashioned in a charming, goofy way, but mostly harmless since it doesn’t, you know, erase the name(s) that an indigenous people used for the place. (I want to say more about Antarctica’s humanlessness in a future post.)
Argentina and Chile – the countries nearest Graham Land – beg to differ with the name, por favor. The Argentines call whole peninsula Tierra de San Martín, after the general who established Argentina, Chile, and Peru as independent from Spain (at exactly the same time Lord Graham was lording in London). The Argentines call Graham Land the Península Trinidad or Tierra de la Trinidad (Peninsula or Land of the Trinity).
Despite Argentine’s appeal to the heavens, Chile totally wins the toponym debate by applying the name Tierra de O’Higgins to the entire peninsula. The wonderfully named Bernardo O’Higgins was the Chilean leader who worked with General San Martín to free Chile and who then served as its first ruler, the “supreme director. Honestly, forget Antarctica – someone should name whiskeys after this guy. I would totally drink a glass of O’Higgins or Supreme Director.
I should probably pencil those alternative names onto my maps, no?
I was surprised to see art on the walls of the small exhibit space in the art building! Turns out, it’s last year’s junior art students’ show – work they couldn’t exhibit last spring because the world melted down. Beyond its excellent name, the show includes lots of great drawings, among other wonderful stuff. If this is any indication of this cohort’s skill, their senior show in the spring should be great!
Friday, I was selected for the random “surveillance testing” of all students, faculty, and staff at Carleton. 300 of us will be chosen each week for at least this term, so everyone is going to have a chance to get tested a couple more times!