Voyage to the Bottom of the World
by Hal Higdon
An Alumni Antarctic Adventure offers an icy delight
"Why would you want to go to Antarctica?"
Before our departure to the White Continent, it seemed so many of our friends asked that question. Not always stated was the fact that Antarctica at the bottom of the world can be a very cold place. Winds of 150 mph and temperatures 50 or more degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) are not uncommon at the South Pole, at least during the Antarctic winter in July.
But we were going in January, the Antarctic summer. And we would be exploring the Antarctic Peninsula that reaches upward toward the tip of South America, still a long distance from the actual South Pole far inland. When my wife Rose and I suggested to our friends that we would encounter sunny days with temperatures in the 30s, they didn't always believe us. And I wasn't sure I believed it myself, particularly after receiving a Christmas card from friends who had traveled to Antarctica the previous year only to be bombarded by 30-foot waves crossing the Drake Passage, the 400-mile stretch of water separating Antarctica from South America.
Too late to cancel. Rose and I were participating in an Alumni Adventure sponsored by Carleton College, my alma mater. Of the hundred participants on our ship, nearly half were Carleton graduates, a tribute to Laurence McKinley Gould, president of that college during my stay on campus. Dr. Gould had been second in command on Admiral Richard E. Byrd's 1928 expedition to the South Pole. When the college offered a trip to Antarctica, the opportunity to visit this remote corner of the world seemed too good to miss.
Our voyage began at Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. We boarded the National Geographic Endeavor late on an afternoon with the sun still high in the sky. We were traveling with Lindblad Expeditions, a Swedish tour company that provides a first-class cruise staffed with scientists and naturalists, who describe what you're seeing during frequent trips ashore. Figuring this to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we splurged, getting a cabin with two portholes for viewing scenery.
After unpacking, we reported on deck for an obligatory life preserver drill. Next, I located the library with computers for sending e-mails via a satellite connection. During our voyage, I would post daily messages to my Internet blog. Dinner proved delicious, as it would through our voyage. The waiters, mostly Filipino, went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. Despite Lindblad being Swedish, the Endeavor boasted an international crew with members from Germany, Great Britain, Croatia and other parts of the world.
Before leaving, on the recommendation of our physician, we had purchased seasickness patches that you attach to your neck. The cost: $40 per person, but we were crossing the Drake Passage, arguably the roughest stretch of water in the world. Our preparations seemed unnecessary when we awoke the next morning and looked out our portholes at a smooth ocean. Trip Dennis, the Endeavor's Tour Leader, confessed that the crossing is rarely that smooth. "We got lucky," he said.
Weather circulates around the Antarctic Continent counterclockwise, a half dozen stormy lows tracking each other. We fortunately slipped through between lows. Ocean currents below circle clockwise. Water temperatures drop to several degrees below freezing, because salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water. Warmer waters from the North collide with the cold currents, sliding past, converging with them so to speak, but not merging.
Crossing the Antarctic Convergence
This is the Antarctic Convergence, and while the political boundary of Antarctica is pinned at 60 degrees latitude, the geophysical boundary is actually at this convergence of water. A single geographical degree represents 60 nautical miles. Within that distance, water temperatures can plunge nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Air temperatures drop accordingly, from 45 to 35, noticeable as we stood on the stern.
The next morning after reaching the South Shetland Islands, we went ashore, and for the next ten days we would depart the ship two or three times daily. Wanting protection against the weather, I donned every layered item I had brought topped by a parka provided by Lindblad Expeditions, bright red so our guides easily could spot us against the white landscape. "We don't want to lose anybody," explained Trip. I also wore mukluks, a life preserver and a backpack, containing camera, sketching equipment and extra gloves. Thus dressed, Rose and I clambered into Zodiacs for transport from ship anchored just offshore to the beach. Zodiacs are rubber rafts, powered by an outboard engine and specially designed for hard use in Antarctic waters cluttered with chunks of ice. They can
carry a dozen passengers and driver. Once ashore, we removed our life preservers, donning them again before being transported back to the ship.
Our first landing was on Aitch Island, also our first encounter with penguins. A hike up from the beach brought us to mounds of rocks where penguins clustered--male and female--guarding their chicks. We had been warned not to get too close, but our presence hardly seemed threatening to the colony. Several seemed as curious of us in our red parkas, as we of them in their tuxedo-like plumage. They would waddle close, cocking their heads sideways to see us out of one side eye or the other.
March of the Penguins
Seemingly, penguins move awkwardly ashore. Maybe so if viewed in films, such as last summer's March of the Penguins, but after seeing these remarkable birds in their natural environment, I realized they are quite swift. They waddle, but they can move fast, particularly if another penguin enters their space, resulting in a pecking duel. Penguins do a lot of pecking.
I saw one penguin ascend a sheer rock face. No human climber could have kept pace with him. Chinstrap penguins, such as those we first encountered, possess very strong claws, good for climbing. In the water, the birds swim swiftly, skimming along the surface like porpoises. Exiting the water, they jump onto ice shelves ten feet or more high, like corks popped from champagne bottles.
With all my layers, I definitely felt overdressed. The sun was out, the temperature probably 40 with relatively little wind if you stayed off the ridges. I unzipped my jacket and removed bulky ski gloves, extracting a sketchbook so I could draw some pictures of the bay, the rock cliffs and the penguins. Rose used a throwaway camera purchased just before leaving to take pictures. Photographically, we definitely were outclassed by shipmates wielding digital cameras with telescopic lenses.
During our time in the Antarctic, we would see massive penguin colonies. On one stop, a naturalist estimated 100,000 nesting pairs. Since each pair had one or two chicks, that came to 350,000 penguins, almost within eyesight. On another occasion, the captain slowed the ship and everybody clambered onto the deck at 5:22 AM, many wearing night clothes under their red parkas, just to see a single pair of Emperor penguins, standing on an ice flow. These are the penguins seen in March of the Penguins and they seldom venture north of the Antarctic Circle, so seeing them was a rare treat. Other penguin breeds seen were Adelie and Gentoo penguins. Rose seemed to be able to tell one breed from another; I never could.
We also saw whales, at one time a mother and calf frolicking off the bow of our ship. The calf, according to Ingrid Visser, a New Zealand whale expert, probably had been birthed last June or July off the west coast of Columbia or Peru and had come down with Mum to feed in the Antarctic. The calf could not yet dive deep, so Mum did the food gathering. At one point, she disappeared below for four minutes, feeding on krill, shrimp-like creatures, an inch or two long, one of the main food sources in these waters, the bottom of the food chain so to speak. Penguins also feed on krill. And seals feed on penguins and krill. And whales feed on seals and penguins and krill. It's nature's way.
The calf, nervous with Mum down so long, started jumping, quite a show. But neither whale saw the Endeavor and its red-parka inhabitants as threats. We were not whalers. We were not going to sink a harpoon into them. The calf was about 20 feet long; Mum, about 35 feet. Ingrid said it would be another half year or more before the calf would move on to its own life.
My encounter with the giant skua proved less pleasant. It happened on Devil Island, which got its name from twin peaks near 600 feet high on each side of our landing. I climbed the first without incident, but halfway up the side of the other I approached too close to a nest guarded by a giant skua, a bird near the size of an owl. I looked up and saw the skua aimed straight at my head. The skua hoped to scare me off, the invader. I ducked, and the skua swooped past without striking and floated through a 180-degree turn to make another run at me. I didn't know the location of the skua's nest so didn't know which way to move. Another swoop; another near miss.
I held my hand high overhead since Gillian Dennis, our guide, claimed skuas aimed at the highest point of the body. Eventually as I moved away between swoops, the bird lost interest in me.
Later, while on the beach walking back to our pick-up point for return to the Endeavor, Rose spotted another giant skua perched on a rock. It was pecking at a dead penguin chick snatched from the chick's mother. When we described this later to shipmates, several winced visibly. Penguins are oh-so-cute, and our friends didn't want to think of one becoming a skua's meal. But skuas need to feed. Life can be cruel in the wild.
Stranded over the winter
Sliding across the smooth surface of the western Weddell Sea later that evening before a sunset near 11:00, I was stunned by the emptiness of this part of the world. Surely, this is how Antarctica looked thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years ago, even back to an era 150 million years ago when the Antarctic landmass broke away from the Earth's single, super-continent and drifted southward to begin accumulating the glacial ice that makes it the White Continent today.
I learned all about plate tectonics and continental drift during a lecture by Carleton geology professor Shelby Boardman. Geology aside, our voyage to the White Continent was more than an exercise in scientific theory, something we could have achieved watching the Discovery Channel back home. Our voyage needed to be experienced emotionally. It is fine to know why Antarctica is there and got that way. More important is our own reaction to the experience, what happens while standing on the stern and watching icebergs slide by, albatrosses soaring overhead.
The next morning we stopped at Paulet Island, historically significant because of twenty-two Norwegian explorers stranded there over a winter, eventually to be dramatically rescued. They built a stone shed for protection, and all survived.
We examined the remnants of that shed and wondered, with our elegantly served meals and satellite connection to civilization, if we could have done the same? Those of us from Carleton remained inspired by the memory of our late president, Laurence McKinley Gould. I wonder what he would think of us following in his footsteps?
Creatures from the Black Lagoon
A loudspeaker announcement the next day alerted us to our arrival at Neptune's Bellows, a slender channel into Deception Island. Rose and I grabbed our red parkas and rushed on deck. The fog was thick, the narrows narrow. Rocky cliffs hovered overhead. I prayed our captain knew his job. We passed the wreckage of a beached boat, signaling one captain who failed to check his charts before sailing through.
Life is easier for Antarctic travelers today than when that boat floundered in the channel. Our luxury cabin offered a hot shower and cozy bunks. The Endeavor featured fine dining, a gym, a massage therapist, a library, a satellite email connection. During our journey, I posted a daily blog to the Internet that attracted several thousand views. Should our captain miscalculate and run aground, rescue would be rapid. Early explorers whose ships got stuck in the ice often had to wait an entire winter for rescue, if and when it came.
Our captain navigated Neptune's Bellows flawlessly, and we cast anchor beside a black lava beach. Deception Island is actually an active volcano. The black lagoon into which we had sailed was the caldera of the volcano. We changed into bathing suits to go swimming. Given the temperature of the Southern Ocean (29 to 30 degrees), that seemingly would require some courage were it not for thermal currents that oozed up from beneath the rocks. Shedding our red parkas, we submerged ourselves, being careful not to sit too close to the thermal currents. I put my hand down on one and had to yank it away to prevent being burned. Later, we wrapped ourselves in towels and stood on the beach sipping hot chocolate laced with Schnapps. Dr. Gould never had it that good.
After lunch, we moved to another area of the lagoon, site of an abandoned whaling station. The lagoon, protected from winds and waves, served as a perfect harbor. Whalers would bring their ships loaded with blubber to be converted into oil for the lamps of China. Read Herman Melville's Moby Dick if you want to learn all the uses for slaughtered whales. Toward the middle of the twentieth century, petroleum products began to supplant whale oil. Then in 1970 the volcano burped, creating a mudslide that destroyed the whaling village. We wandered the village's crushed buildings, wondering whether they were part of man's pollution of the Antarctic, or part of its historical record.
We sailed early the next morning through the Lemaire Channel, nicknamed "Kodak Alley" because of the scenery. Alas, dense fog shrouded the snowy mountains that seemed to explode upwards from the still waters. We landed at Petermann Island, dropping three scientists from Oceanites ashore. They would spend the next thirty-three days doing research, mostly counting penguins. In March, on its last voyage of the Antarctic summer, the Endeavor would collect them for the return home.
We went ashore briefly, roaming over snow and ice, our first experience hiking on anything but rock. Back onboard, we resumed our day's goal: to reach the Antarctic Circle, that line below which the sun never sets during the summer solstice. Latitude for the Circle is 66 degrees, 33 minutes, 39 seconds, and since we were midway into the 65's, the goal seemed achievable.
The sea was smooth as glass, everything above the horizon reflected below the horizon. We sliced past icebergs and ice flows, but the White Continent seemed anything but white. The depth of blue you see within many of the icebergs cannot be found on any artist's palette. Toward the end of the long day, we slowed, then stopped. We had reached 66 degrees, approximately 30 miles from the Antarctic Circle, but we would go no further. Ice blocked our path. We spent an hour or two exploring in Zodiacs, sneaking up on seals snoozing on ice flows. Dinner was delayed. On the Endeavor, schedules were flexible, capable of alteration if some opportunity for sightseeing presented itself.
Such an opportunity occurred at 11:00 PM as we cruised back northward. Orcas sighted, announced Trip Dennis, our tour leader. He invited us to come up on deck in whatever we were wearing--or not wearing. After nearly a week seeing penguins, seals, skuas and petrels, did we really need witness one more whale? Rose thought so. She started throwing on clothes. I couldn't remain in the cabin. Without bothering to don underwear, I put on jeans, sweater and the ubiquitous red parka.
The Endeavor drifted on the calm sea. It was not one Orca, but a pod of maybe a half dozen. Orcas, known also as "Killer Whales," actually are dolphins, easily identifiable by their white-striped faces. They circled a piece of pack ice with a Crab-Eater Seal lying in the center, trying to distance himself from the predators as much as possible.
Blubbery seals weigh as much as 800 pounds, a good Orca meal. As we watched fascinated, the pod circled the flow, pushing it, rocking it, going beneath and butting the ice's underside. Suddenly the flow split in half, the seal scrambling to the larger piece, but with less margin of safety between him and the Orcas, who occasionally poked their heads high above the water to regard their prey.
More rocking and pushing. Then two Orcas created a wave aimed at the flow tumbling the seal into the water. A groan rose from our group, most of whom were cheering for the seal's survival. I was backing the Orcas, but stayed silent.
We thought the seal dead, but suddenly it reappeared on another flow, seemingly having eluded his pursuers underwater. Or had he? Because as we continued to observe, it now appeared that the so-called Killer Whales were playing with their prey. Incredibly, one of the Orcas had grabbed the seal and spit it back onto another flow.
"It's a training session," explained whale expert Ingrid Visser. "Mum is teaching her babies how to hunt."
The whales repeated the exercise, dumping the seal into water, spitting it onto another flow. This time, four Orcas worked together and pushed a huge wave toward the flow, swamping it. We next saw the seal in the mouth of an Orca, now bloody, dying if not dead. We got to bed after midnight, the sky still not yet dark.
Kayaking among icebrgs
We chose kayaking for our next day adventure at Port Charcot on the north side of Booth Island. On kayaking days, our guides towed a kayak-laden raft to a staging area. In groups, we moved to the raft and boarded the kayaks. Our guide warned us not to get too close to icebergs, which sometimes roll over without warning. Glaciers can calf icebergs onto your head if you float too close to shore. We paddled cautiously around the flows and small bergs, but the wind rose while we were downwind from the raft. The pull back took all the energy we could muster.
Our return passage through the Lemaire Channel, this time on a clear day, allowed the photographers to capture the beauty of sun-splashed mountains. In the next bay, we sighted two dozen Orcas heading south. We turned and trailed them for an hour, stopping late afternoon at Paradise Bay, site of a former Argentinean
research station. We climbed a snowfield to a rocky pinnacle, tobogganing back down on our behinds.
Another icy landing a day later occurred at a former British airstrip overlooking Port Lockroy. The airstrip was slanted uphill; the climb in lightly packed snow, proved arduous. One by one, people in our party turned back and returned to the Endeavor. I felt compelled to push upward with a small group, but for the first time during our trip, I felt cold because of wet feet. Snow had entered over the tops of my mukluks. Tired, I stumbled often as my foot plants struck deep snow. I turned and headed back to the Endeavor. Unlike explorers a century ago, I could return to a warm shower.
We climbed into a Zodiac and motored to a station manned by researchers from the British Antarctic Survey. In addition to keeping a penguin count, they also operate a gift shop for cruise ships that visit on the average of one a day during the summer season. We purchased gifts for grandkids. Port Lockroy would be our last footplant in the Antarctic, before sailing into Dallmann Bay as prelude to the Drake Passage separating us from South America. Following my exhausting hike, I lounged in the library, reading a book titled The Race to the Antarctic. When whales were sighted and my shipmates gathered on the bow to watch, I joined them wearing only a sweatshirt. I was warm again.
Breath of the behemoth
Then Trip announced we would launch Zodiacs to get closer to the whales. Still fatigued, I might have returned to the library and my reading, but each different adventure seemed to top the previous one. This time proved no exception. At one point, a humpback whale surfaced so close to our Zodiac that I could feel the spray from his blow against my face, almost taste the breath of the behemoth.
But it was time to return to what might be described as civilization. We remained in placid Dallmann Bay long enough to enjoy dinner; morning found us again crossing the Drake Passage, twenty-foot waves testing our ability to not get seasick. I attached a seasickness patch to my neck for the first time. The waves lessened the further north we sailed.
We spent our final day on the Endeavor hanging out in the lounge and listening to lectures. I finished my book on Polar exploration, amazed at the difficulties faced by the first ones who viewed the White Continent. We docked the next morning in Ushuaia. Then the worst part of the trip began: airport to airport to airport. From Ushuaia to Santiago to Miami, where we climbed in our car for the final drive north to our winter home near Jacksonville. As we cruised the expressway, I wondered what the late Larry Gould would have thought of our two-week Alumni Adventure. Given its luxury, he might have thought us sissies, but I suspect he still would have appreciated our following in his footsteps.
ANTARCTIC ART: Hal Higdon plans to develop some of the sketches he did while touring the White Continent into finished drawings and paintings. The original sketches shown above also eventually will be offered for sale. If interested in acquiring any of this art, please contact: RoadrunnerPress@halhigdon.com.
- To view a Lindblad videotape of the Orca attack described above, click here!
- This second Orca video was shot by one of the Carleton passengers; click here!
- Seven Continents, Seven Massages
- Hal Higdon's portrait of Larry Gould