Antarctica Stories

The End of the World: Exploring Antarctica with Those There Before Me

September 1, 2018

by Alison Spencer

Outside I saw nothing but churning water and oppressive grey skies. The late afternoon rainfall slowly increased in strength until a steady stream of water poured down from above. Two days had come and gone since boarding Le Lyrial back in Ushuaia, Argentina and not one moment passed without some reminder of our desolation. Wildlife consisted of, if lucky, sighting a lone bird flying behind the ship. Taking in our surroundings meant simply water, endless, extending as far as the eye could see.

As I sat, staring out into the beyond, I imagined myself as Shackleton or Scott sailing completely unknown seas toward a piece of land unexplored and untouched. The creaks and groans of their wooden vessels rang in my ears. I rubbed my scopolamine patch, imagining the likely seasickness suffered onboard. Attempting to imagine the fear and excitement of their adventure, picturing the sights and sounds of early explorations, my eyes grew heavy. Lulled to sleep in a bed and berth far more luxurious than those of early pioneers, our ship pushed onward.

Jolted awake, my eyes immediately glanced outside, hoping to determine the cause of my disturbance. On first look, all appeared as usual. Waves continued to splash along the ship’s side. Three cape petrels danced in the breeze. But as my eyes scanned skyward, I noticed the constant grey had started to lift. In its place, I saw what appeared to be wispy white clouds hugging the horizon. Unsure of the sight, I continued to stare, determined to figure out what I witnessed. The longer I looked the faster my heart beat, my body registering the sight well before my brain. It was land, Antarctic land. I was seeing the initial islands of the frozen continent, taking in the sight almost exactly two hundred years after Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen first did so in 1820. In this moment, and for the remainder of the trip, I’d become one of the special few to experience this still untouched landscape as those before me had.

I’d waited seven years for this moment. I’d incessantly asked for this trip. For Christmas. For my birthday. Any excuse I could, I’d ask. Since seeing a video of penguins back in 2005, I knew that Antarctica was a place I needed to see, to explore. While of course, I’d instantly fallen in love with the tuxedoed birds, I had this feeling, somewhere within me, that the continent embodied so much more. I felt drawn to Antarctica in a way I’d never felt about a destination previously. I read books. I listened to talks about global warming. I watched fascinating television specials. Yet, I also understood it to be a place unknowable simply from research. Sure, these provided me with factual information about the continent, satisfying my intellectual curiosities. But to truly understand, to truly know the essence of this frozen land, I knew I had to set foot on the continent, to see the landscape and be amongst the wildlife.

And then, last June, the pieces all finally fell into place. After deciding to take a year off from teaching to explore other opportunities, a mid-winter trip seemed feasible. My parents had also finally “warmed” to the idea of a polar vacation, a hard sell in the midst of a Minnesota sub-zero winter. The time had come and thankfully my parents recognized this as well, gifting me a two-week trip to Antarctica with Abercrombie and Kent. While I wasn’t quite sure what awaited or why I felt so entirely drawn to it, I knew undoubtedly, like those who’d already ventured, it would be worth the journey.

The following morning, I sat aboard a rubber zodiac, zooming toward shore and toward my first true encounter with the continent. Drawing closer to Port Charcot, a large cairn atop a hill came into view and almost immediately, the history of its existence floated into my thoughts. The heroic age of Antarctic exploration, when men from around the world set out to conquer and study the land. Pulling up and stepping off the boat, my feet sunk into the snow. The sun peeked through the clouds, its warmth rendering my layers unnecessary. I shed my hat and gloves, gear far warmer than anything Jean-Baptiste Charcot likely wore back in 1903 when he arrived at this very spot.

Within moments we stumbled upon our first penguins. Gentoos busily waddled up and down the narrow “highways” traversing the landscape. The wind whipped all around, filling the air with a constant scream. Guests scrambled toward the rookery, an overpowering smell indicating many more birds lived ahead. But I felt drawn toward the cairn, not just for the exercise but also because of the stories it inevitably held.

Trudging up the slippery slope, I pictured Charcot also climbing, climbing toward what would become his winter home. The crunching of snow beneath my boots brought me back to those who first walked this path back in the early 1900s. As part of this adventurous time period, Charcot set out to chart some of Antarctica’s untamed landscape. He studied the land, venturing from this home atop a hill to document as much of the continent as possible. After three years, he had mapped 600 miles of new Antarctic coastline, a coastline I now stood upon. Once at the cairn, I surveyed the landscape, taking in a view that the Frenchman first charted. Massive amounts of ice piled on top of, and at times nearly covered majestic mountain peaks, once part of the Andean chain in South America. Icebergs the size of moving vans protruded from the water, hiding their true immensity beneath the surface. Smaller ice chunks, of the deepest blue imaginable, bobbed in an almost grey coloured water. Occasional patches of green spread across the snow, additional evidence of penguins’ presence on this otherwise desolate land. Gusts of wind left ripples stretching across the water. Save for a few new or lost icebergs, I imagined that this view remained unchanged from the time Charcot first set foot ashore.

Over the course of the next few days, I spent my time as any Antarctic adventurer might. I photographed the penguins. I searched for seals. I stared mouth agape at the massive icebergs floating past, waiting for smaller pieces to plummet into the water. Every moment brought a new and unforgettable experience. In this place, the mundane transformed into the magical within moments. No memory better illustrated this than one-afternoon mid-journey.

Catching up on my journal entries, I lay comfortably on my bed. I’d just returned from a lecture and my eyes drooped, signalling an upcoming nap. Prepared to tuck me in, I instead found myself darting up to the sixth floor. Immediately upon hitting the wooden deck, my eyes scanned the water. There’d been a sighting, announced over the ship-wide intercom system. Earlier in the evening, the wind died down leaving the ocean’s surface as smooth as glass. Perfect for wildlife spotting. Even the slightest ripple sent my eyes racing over, in hopes of catching a glimpse. For what felt like minutes all I registered were icebergs. Beautiful unto themselves but not quite what I sought. Finally, my eyes settled on the right place at the right time. Three massive dorsal fins, like synchronized swimmers, cut through the tranquil water. Behind them, a handful more pierced the surface. Within seconds, twenty or so orcas surrounded us. Guests scrambled in all directions, unsure of where to best enjoy the unfolding scene.

The longer we watched, the lower the sun fell.  A golden glisten cast upon the water, broken only by the emergence of an orca. Amidst the shark-like fins rising above the surface, a lone Humpback fluke appeared. As its tail lifted into the air, water spilled down, like golden blonde hair falling onto one’s shoulder. My eyes struggled to absorb everything: the graceful mammals surfacing below, the sun growing in size and brilliance as it neared the horizon, the awesome peaks rising steeply from the water. Not a single other soul in sight. Just us, these massive mammals and miles of ice.

As we travelled through the Gerlache Strait I thought of its namesake, Adrien de Gerlache. This Frenchman’s 1898 expedition took some of, if not the very first photographs of Antarctica. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I rapidly adjusted my own camera’s settings. Taking photo after photo I found myself laughing at my struggle to freeze this moment in time. Here I was, standing on a ship, in waters named after him, attempting to capture its natural beauty just as he had done. True, technology has improved, making my work far easier. But this desire to eternalize the landscape, to document one’s presence at the end of the world in a photograph endured.

Our ship captain expertly navigated the strait in pursuit of the ever-moving whales. For hours we followed. The whales at one point appeared to have spotted, and subsequently approached, a lone penguin resting atop an iceberg. Knowing how orcas hunt, I braced myself for a truly spectacular scene. Even though the whales decided the potential snack wasn’t worth the effort, the beauty of the process was not lost. Their fluid motion in the sparkling water. The orange and yellow streaks that filled the sky, mirrored in the waves below. The impressive mountains darkening, becoming almost shadows framing, or highlighting, the vibrancy of our surroundings. Eventually, needing to continue our course, we moved on, leaving the whales to venture forth alone.

The majesty of Antarctica, a place I thought could not impress me any further, culminated on our final day. We headed toward Hannah Point, a stretch of land so dense with wildlife that visitation proved almost impossible. In fact, our ship would be the first to set foot on this land all season. While this knowledge should have fuel our anticipation, we couldn’t quite believe we’d witness anything new. We’d seen penguins. We’d seen seals. We thought we’d seen it all. But, in true Antarctic form, we could not have been more wrong.

Stepping off the zodiac, penguins immediately surrounded us. Chinstraps and gentoos waddled, stumbled and hopped about in every direction. Chicks scurried behind, attempting to keep up but also distracted by even the smallest object. I yearned to stay put, to enjoy these ever-entertaining creatures. But I also realized, having just arrived, more lay ahead. So, I followed the penguins, nature’s best guide, up toward their rookery. Rounding a bend, I found myself simultaneously mesmerized and overwhelmed as I stood amidst thousands of birds, their cries carrying in the breeze. Fluffy grey chicks touched beaks with their parents’ in search of their next meal. Sneaky penguins deftly, but not so subtly, reached toward neighbouring nests looking for a pebble to steal. Once snatched, they scurried away, presenting these rocks at the feet of their mates. Others sat on their nests defending against such thievery with open beaks. Ecstatic displays, involving proud chests, skyward beaks, and loud squawks, occurred nonstop. There was not a moment of rest for my camera or any of my senses. We even spotted the elusive macaroni penguin amidst the masses. Their yellow wispy feathers, like untamed eyebrows, eventually gave them away. The couple sat quite still, apparently uninterested in us and unfazed by all the activity happening around them.

Wandering back to lower land, we stumbled upon, or more aptly tripped over seals. So many seals. Southern elephant seals laid lazily about, enjoying the warm sunshine. Following a week and a half of excessive food and limited exercise, I saw much of myself in these blubbery creatures.  Not surprisingly, they did very little. We’d catch a sneeze or a snore. Sometimes they’d yawn, revealing their teeth and bright pink tongues. Otherwise, the simple act of sleeping seemed rigorous enough.

Amidst these creatures I thought back to the name of this place, having earned its title when the British vessel Hannah wrecked in the vicinity back in 1820. A quintessential sealing ship, those on board had one goal and one goal only, to return with seals. I paused to appreciate that one small aspect of Antarctic exploration had evolved over time, that my journey here didn’t perfectly mirror the explorers who came before me. I loved that I was here watching the wildlife that early explorers chose, or at times needed to hunt. And while thankful for this difference, glad that for the first time my expedition wasn’t exactly like that of Gerlache or Charcot, I hoped it would forever remain the only divergence between today’s exploration and that of the history books. Nothing else should or needed to change.

It’s thought that 2018 will be the year for commercial flights to this frozen land. Visiting will inevitably become easier and easier. More and more individuals will have access to and set foot on their seventh continent. But isn’t its attraction that experience of desolation? Isn’t it the remoteness, its inaccessibility that adds to the lore and to the beauty that is Antarctica? Left undisturbed for almost 200 years, its majesty comes from its untouchability.

If this is what defines Antarctica then to truly experience it, one must see and feel the frozen continent as those who first laid eyes on it did. As Andrew Denton, a lover of Antarctica once said, “If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.” Perhaps it was this, this unbroken, untamed element that drew me so entirely to the continent in the first place. Perhaps I even saw a bit of it in myself, hoping that my own spirit might remain just as wild.

Alison is a teacher and traveler. She first discovered her love of adventure back in high school and now utilizes every spare moment to explore and uncover what awaits beyond her doorstep. To Alison travel is much more than simply seeing somewhere. It is about the experience, about fully immersing oneself in a new place, surrounded by new people. With a camera in one hand and a pen in the other, Alison sets off to capture and learn about the world in which we live.

  • Reply
    Carlos Olaaka
    September 17, 2018 at 9:57 am

    Alison, thank you for writing such an organized article pertaining to your experience in the wilderness. I am inspired and determined to make it there one day. Equally Africa would surmount to the end of the world. Remote and enchanting in another way.

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