To the Rollercoasts of Antarctica
In Ushuaia I discovered it was a good thing I had booked a bed ahead. The hostel was full of people who were going on the same boat as me, and while the average age for passengers on the Antarctica trips normally is about 60, this crowd had remarkably many young people. My French friend Alix had been hanging around the hostel since I left to go trekking. She had talked to some of the people that had gotten off Antarctica boats in the meantime, and shared a number of good tips with me, most importantly the need to invest in as many Dramamine seasickness tablets as I could possibly afford. Next, it was likely that we did not need to buy rubber boots just for the trip, as the previous boat passengers probably would have left theirs on the ship when the previous trip ended. We WOULD need those rubber boots, however, as whenever we'd go on shore, we'd be using small Zodiacs (rubber boats) that often would only be able to take us within wading distance of the shore. When I was a kid back home in Norway, we used to go "sailing" on small icebergs near land in the late winters, and often we got stuck out there. The solution then was to just take off shoes, socks and pants and wade back to land barefoot, to prevent our parents from discovering what we had done. That might work less successfully in Antarctica as well, I suspected. I did not want more things to carry around than absolutely necessary, so if I could avoid buying a big pair of rubber boots, that would be ideal.
In addition to boots, the cheapo recommendation was to get a pair of normal household rubber gloves to put on outside normal gloves, to deny icy water direct contact with the skin, an important freeze factor in case of cold winds. Another necessity, due to the very bright light you get in a world of snow and ice, was a very good pair of sunglasses, that would expose the eyes to as small amounts of light as possible.
My only worry on the morning of departure to Antarctica was that after my rather unfriendly encounter with the hostile and presumed poisonous mountain cacti in El Calafate, I had developed numerous open wounds and strange blisters on the weirdest places on my body. Nothing was to stop me from going South, though, so I just went ahead and did my shopping and got onto the ship that had arrived in the harbour in the early hours of the day. I was the first to enter the cabin I would share with three others, so I picked what I thought might be the best bed, totally at random and without any rational reasoning behind it whatsoever. The only important thing was really to get a lower bunk, I reasoned, as that makes any falling out of the bed less painful than from the top one. The three others soon followed, and we were all backpackers; one Japanese, one Swiss and one Israeli, and they all seemed quite nice and normal to me, apart from the fact that they were all on their way to Antarctica.
I did indeed get a free pair of leftover rubber boots. Therefore I was now practically ready to go, and did the only thing that was left to do before the voyage could begin; I went back on shore and found an Internet cafe where I quickly put down my will in my on-line guestbook and left a proper good-bye to the world, just in case.
And off we went. Almost 120 passengers onboard the Mariya Yermolova. There were all sorts, spanning from retired Americans with blue hair and golden shoes to British mountaineers with an Everest conquest or two behind them, via the most deodorant-shy, sandal-wearing backpackers thinkable and a rather large group of low-budget Israelis, some of whom had hitch-hiked through South-America to get here, asking whether there was a discount if they were willing to sleep in the life-boats. There was a crew of 53 Russians to keep the ship afloat and the engines running, and there were 12 experts from various fields to keep the rest of us safe and informed about what we were experiencing. There was a Russian-speaking doctor, heavily equipped with motion sickness pills, hoping in vain nobody would need his help. There were experts in the polar fields of seals, whales, birds and ice. There were a pair of Argentinian, maniac Zodiac drivers, Pablo and Pablo. There was a man that visited Antarctica for the first time more than 50 years ago in a much less luxurious vessel. All in all, it was an incredible and international collection of individuals, unlike any I have joined before. This journal, however, is about the journey and the places, not the people, so we will only return briefly to some of those individuals in the following.
After a quick briefing ("This is a Russian ship, so things are not always not working the same way as they do at home") and a much needed lifeboat drill, dinner was served. It was quite the feast, and even though we had been thoroughly warned about fairly rough seas ahead, none of us let that stop us from filling up. Some of the backpackers had spent as much for the ticket to this trip as they would spend on their whole multiple-month stay in South America, so they were especially eager to make sure they got value for their money. Now, while Eat-as-much-as-you-like normally is a good deal on shore, I'd say to future Antarctica trippers that it's probably better to leave some room in there for the food to move around in, as it is very likely that you will be needing that space, suddenly. I tried, but was insufficiently motivated and failed to save that space.
After dinner it was quite a nice and relaxed evening. People started to get to know each other by exchanging travel stories and playing chess and board games. The Japanese immediately started writing postcards. The Israelis had disappeared, wandering around on the decks below looking for the way to the Promised Cabin, I imagined. (The more plausible explanation is that ship rules stated that all alcohol to be consumed in the common areas was to be bought in the bar. I guess that cheaper, South American liquor was intensely consumed in the cabins.) Those not in a mood for talking browsed through the ship library, which offered an excellent collection of Antarctica-related books. The cool part of the crew had started working on their images, steadily building a crowd of groupies around them, while the serious part of the crew had gone to bed, knowing very well what the future would bring. When I discovered that a person who looked very much like the captain was sitting in the bar, wearing his uniform and a drowsy smile, I went to bed as well.
The part of the Southern Ocean that separates South America from Antarctica is called the Drake Passage. It comes in two versions, both named after Francis Drake who in the late 1570's discovered that there was in deed a water passage south of Tierra del Fuego. One version is nice and calm, quiet and pleasant, and is called "the Drake Lake". The other one, not quite as soothing, goes by the name "the Drake Shake", part of the Screaming Sixties (latitude) experience in which you get to pay your Drake Tax over and over.
We did, of course, get the Drake Shake in ample portions. Before I went to bed, at about 11 in the evening, I took a walk up on the top deck, and it was a beautiful night with no lights except for the crystal clear sky above, with its thousands of stars. I could glimpse Tierra del Fuego passing by on our right, no, starboard side, and I waved at it, knowing I would return to it safely. After all, I HAD kissed the toe on the Magellan statue in Punta Arenas for luck, which is the only way to make sure you will come back there someday, alive. Quite happy, I went to the cabin and laid down. I stayed awake for a while, listening to the creaking sounds from the walls of the ship and the messages going over the intercom to the crew, in Russian. In fact, it felt slightly like being in a James Bond movie, and soon I was in a deep sleep, dreaming of critical missions and friendly females in supporting roles.
At 4:04 in the morning, I was woken up when someone pushed me rather violently around in my bed. It turned out there wasn't anyone around, and most definitely not any female supermodels at that. I realised we were out in open sea. Still, I was sufficiently drugged on Dramamine that I was able to fall asleep again, kind of. But at 06:42 I woke up yet again, when the Japanese in the top bunk fell onto the floor like a kamikaze sleepwalker, landing on top of everything that had been on the nightstand the evening before. "I has trouble", he said, but was brave enough to climb back up again.
At 07:30 I did not have breakfast. Others stumbled up to the galley and tried to eat. Some gave up and returned to bed when after a while their feet started to get wet from all the milk, coffee, tea, cereal and unmentionables that was floating around on the floor. Some gave up eating but did not have the energy to get back to their cabins and just stayed up on the wood benches in the library for the next couple of days.
At 09:30 five people went to a lecture about the whales. I clinged to my bed, while trying to sleep.
At 11:30, fifteen people went to a lecture about the albatross. While the albatross is an interesting bird, no doubt about that, the audience was most amazed by how the lecturer most of the time actually managed to stand upright and deliver the presentation. I clinged to my bed, while trying to sleep.
At 12:30 about 20-30 people tried to have lunch. In the end, all they managed to eat was tomato soup out of cups. How the guys in the kitchen managed to make the tomato soup in the first place I can only theorize about. I clinged to my bed, trying to sleep. I had made a very tiring trip to the bathroom, where I had filled my bottle with cold water, while I with great fascination observed the water coming out of the faucet at very unusual angles.
At 14:00 there was a lecture about the geography of Antarctica. "Bring a blanket, a pillow and your barfbags", the voice on the intercom said. I actually slept. On the floor.
The doctor reported that during the last 6 hours he had handled 30 intense inquiries about motion sickness remedies, a new record! We were all so proud, and even more so when we learned that we had waves of 8-10 meters hitting us over and over again, straight on, so that we so far had only been able to move at about 8 knots per hour. Upon hearing this I cheered happily, enjoying the rollercoaster ride in my bed to the fullest. I was the perfect size for the bed, or vice versa, as I could lie down on my stomach with my hands over my head, holding tight on to the top end of the bed, while I could at the same time "stand" on the lower end of the bed, so that I was in a locked position. There I was, being pushed and pulled up and down in my bed, having to concentrate on using my arm and leg muscles to balance myself in order not to fall out of the bed. The challenge was big enough that I forgot to be sick. The only thing that bothered me slightly was when the Russian maids came into the cabin every now and then and did some dusting and tidying up and saying "Zorry to yoo" and smiling at me the way I imagine a devil in joy would smile. Actually, the whole situation was kind of cool, me being a prisoner in my bed with Russian messages on the intercom that I could almost understand, like "Zbigniew masjinistr *mumblemumble* schdavodsj KAPUT!", with some frantic conversation going on in the background.
I learned how to time the use of my muscles with the thunderous bangs of the whole ocean hitting the side of the boat with tremendous force, and in a weird way I found the whole situation very much like how I had imagined a trip to the Antarctica would be. I now understood something that had puzzled me when I recently had read an interview with a Norwegian woman that had set out on an expedition in which she would cross Antarctica on skis. When asked what she looked forward to the LEAST, she answered "The boat home".
In the evening we changed our course to go more along WITH the waves instead of against them, and suddenly I was able to actually walk around a little bit, but I still chose not to eat anything. The only thing that worried me a little bit the next morning was that we were still only halfway to Antarctica, and I had already consumed half my supply of Dramamine. Noone were allowed to go outside, but to clear up my mind a bit, I went to the bridge and saw that we were now making 14 knots per hour, which was about maximum velocity for the ship. The equipment did not seem very high-tech to me, but the Russians were rapidly filling the ashtrays with cigarette butts and drank black coffee from big mugs with pictures of naked ladies on them, so I figured everything was the way it should be. The large number of buttons available, with texts on them like "Insinerator" and "Exhcaust pipes", had to be enough to get us through this storm.
The day otherwise brought a lecture on the subject of penguins and a presentation about polar expeditions fifty years ago, given by Bob Dodson, who first visited Antarctica in 1947/8 as part of the private, American Ronne expedition. Although that trip took place not yet a lifetime ago, from what Bob told us it was definitely in a different world, where getting to Antarctica was even more strenuous than it had been for us for two days now. Getting back to the present, all passengers onboard the ship had to attend the IAATO briefing. IAATO is the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. They run an informative Web site at http://www.iaato.org/. The IAATO has a strict set of rules that must be followed by all tour operators that take people to Antarctica, this in order to keep the Frozen Continent the way it is. It's all sane rules, like "Do not bring explosives", "Keep a safe distance between yourself and the wildlife" (they have a hard time explaining this rule to curious penguins, though), "Do not bug any scientists you may encounter, unless they want to sell you strange artifacts from their own country at ridiculous prices" and "Do not walk below or inside the glaciers, as they are quite big and heavy and sometimes they fall down". The best rule, in my opinion, is that no ship is to have more than 100 people on shore at any time, which means that the penguins will always be in majority by far. This way everyone are guaranteed a great experience no matter what happens.
By now we were clearly in calmer, Antarctic waters, spotting our first icebergs in the early evening. Everybody seemed to feel comfortable with the sea again, except for a seven year-old that was well on his way to spewing into all of the sofas onboard. I did manage to save a couple of barfbags from the boat, but sadly they were just generic ones, all white and not particularly sturdy. Still, I added them to my collection for sentimental reasons. After 40 hours of sleeping I felt good and fit, ready for some days with little rest.
We arrived at Hannah Point in the middle of the night, and we were far enough to the north that even though it was summer, the night was dark. Fully rested, I got up at 5 and went outside, finding myself in the middle of one of Those Moments. The sky was semi-clear, filled with a few very bright stars and some thin, thin clouds here and there. The boat was anchored in a huge, calm bay, surrounded by mountains and flat areas all covered in perfect, white ice except for a narrow, dark strip along the water. To our east a sunrise was just beginning, and the professional photographers, of whom there were quite a few onboard, had lined up, seemingly about to burst with excitement. Our Antarctic experience was about to begin.
The sunrise was spectacular; the star-filled darkness was replaced by an amazing play in red and orange from behind an 1800 meters tall ice-covered mountain. The light made the glacier behind us blush intensely, as if it had suddenly been caught picking its nose when it thought it was alone on this perfect morning. I could hear the honks from a gathering of seals somewhere in the distance, and could not wait to be introduced to the orchestra. We had a really quick breakfast before we were sent off the boat into small Zodiacs, adding immensely to the already present James Bondish atmosphere, and all of a sudden we were on a whale safari. We were at the same time being surrounded by and trying to surround four humpback whales that had chosen, like us, to go to this bay for breakfast. A grown humpback whale can be more than 15 meters long, a Zodiac can not, and we did get close enough to the whales to make it really exciting to find out where they would surface next, each time they dived. In spite of their size, the whales looked really graceful moving around in the water. As a Norwegian, I guess I can say they looked good enough to eat. That said, I really hope the whale population in the Southern Ocean will recover and be there to see for all future. While the humpbacks and a few other species are numerous both here and elsewhere, species like the blue whale have come really close to extinction due to human short-sightedness, and given the enormous oceans, it will take a long time for the ones left to find each other and do what they have to do to increase their numbers. So I wished them good luck, and then we went on shore.
I was not quite prepared for the large welcome party in tuxedos that awaited us at the beach. Sure, they had not really cleaned up the place, it was literally covered with their droppings, but I felt very welcome to be there none the less. There, just around Big Damn Rock (I love the obvious logic behind the naming of places in Antarctica), I was introduced to the gentoo penguin, the chinstrap penguin, the crabeater seal and a more than enthusiastic expedition leader, Laurie. Ironman Laurie Dexter, had surveyed most of the beach already and could tell us there were more pissing and farting creatures just over the hill, and wasn't this glorrrious everrryone?, he asked in his cheerful Scottish accent. It certainly was. With screaming terns overhead, arctic ones that had traveled even farther than me, I walked up the hill to get an overview of the bay and plan my hours here at Hannah Point. My camera can't do it justice, but trust me, the giant ice in all its shades of blue (even hyperintelligent ones, I believe), the dark blue sky and sea, the white mountains and penguin guano, the scant shimmer of green from moss and grass in a few places and the wildlife moving around everywhere, it all made the scene one I shall never forget.
When I reached the top of the hill I met Alby. He had dragged himself all the way up here because he wanted to go fishing, and when Alby wants to go fishing, he first has to go to the top of his (literal) runway, and then start running downhill, flapping his wings wildly, until he actually gets airborne or fails and has to try again. Funny birds, albatrosses.
I don't need to describe penguins to you. I am sure most of you agree that they are among the funniest creatures to be found in the wild, right up there with the lemurs and the orangutans. What you may not have realized is what slaves of routine they are. Even though they move a lot faster in water than on land, they seem to be spending their days either just standing on a rock or a piece of ice in order to not get too cold or too warm, OR they will be out fishing, OR they will walk up and down the beach in a very clumsy and entertaining manner. Now, when they start walking, they know where they want to walk, and that is where they WILL walk, no matter what happens. If there suddenly is an obstruction in their way, they won't try another way, they'll just stop where they can't get any further and stare accusingly at whatever is in their way, whether that be another penguin, an elephant seal or a stupid tourist wearing brightly coloured water-proof clothing that to a penguin may seem like quite an edible colour. And there they stand until the offender moves, so that they can continue their trek.
You may have seen pictures of tens of thousands of penguins just standing around. I don't think they're just standing around. Instead, I think they are all standing in each others way, blocking everybody's progress. And there they will stand until someone dies and falls over, goes fishing or is abducted by aliens (humans, martians, whatever). When that happens, they all move, until another deadlock occurs. This is much the same way your "multi-tasking" computer system works, actually. Sometimes it moves, sometimes it hangs, and if it hangs, it is because two devices want to access the very same resource at the same time. Maybe Antarctica is really just one big computer. Or maybe the whole planet is? If so, I think we need an upgrade real soon now. Hm. Back to Hannah Point now.
Moving slowly from one funny animal to another, I eventually had walked over to Walker Bay, which actually sports an open-air museum. On some flat rocks just below a steep mountainside there are lots of fossils on display. According to the IAATO rules, you're not really supposed to pick up or move stones around, but here's a nice violation of that rule. As thousands of people throughout the years have come to this part of Livingston Island and walked around, some of them, researchers and tourists, every now and then have happened upon stones that really are fossilized trees, trunks or stones with fossilized animals in them. Taking stones away from Antarctica is a big no-no, but leaving the interesting ones in a spot where it is easy for others to find them seems to be accepted. I saw more fossils in twenty minutes here than I had seen outside of museums in my whole life before altogether.
After almost four incredible hours on this beach, the noise of the beached seals was for a few seconds drowned by the howls of Mariya Yermolova, telling us that if we weren't back on the ship within the hour, we could look forward to a whole winter of solitude here on this beach. We all returned, one happier than the other, and everyone had seen something incredible. It had been a good first landing.
On our way to the next island, we gorged on pizza and enjoyed amazing wintery views passing by to our port and our starboard whether we watched it from the bow or the stern. Or just "everywhere", in a language that makes more sense. Far in the distance on this exceptionally clear day we could see the actual mainland, and a large number of islands with really tall mountains on them had been clustered here and there for us to behold. This joyride was nice and slow, with just a few moments of utter excitement when suddenly a whale jumped out of the water nearby, for a short moment flying through the air. All the Americans went wild, screaming "BREACH!!!", except for one of them, who happened to be pointing his camera right at the spot where the whale surfaced. He just jumped up and down and said "Fuck!" repeatedly for quite a while, although I think he meant "That shot will probably pay for my childrens' education, I'm such a lucky man. I wish I had a cheeseburger".
Deception Island is an unusually fitting name, as it isn't really an island, but the top of the collapsed cone of a fairly sleepy volcano that just pops out of the ocean here at the southern end of the South Shetland Islands. The real story behind the name is that while it looks like a normal island from outside, there is at one place a narrow entrance called Neptune's Bellows, that, once conquered at the cost of the captain's nerves and sanity, will lead a ship to the best shelter possible to find in this part of the world, Port Foster.
Captain Sergey Sviridov took us safely into the dormant volcano, and we were shipped ashore in Zodiacs once again, this time to Whalers Bay. The Tourist Thing to do here is to dig out a small pool in the sand just at the waterfront and let the sea water be heated by the thermal energy that is working hard practically at the surface here. That way you can get a nice temperature going in the water, and take your southernmost ever dip into the sea. Having bathed once or twice before in my life, I decided to go exploring instead. As you may have guessed, Whalers Bay takes it name from the early 20th century, when this was Ground Zero for the slaying of Southern Ocean whales. Whaling boats brought their catch here and had it processed, first on land and in later years on floating factory ships. Left on the beach are just a few whale bones, a couple of small boats semi-buried in the black, volcanic sand, and the remains of a small village where the whalers lived during the whaling seasons. Through the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of whales, fortunes were made on this beach.
Among the things one perhaps least expects to find inside a volcano in Antarctica is an airstrip. Nevertheless, there is one, complete with a hangar and the remains of an old airplane. In 1928, Australian Hubert Wilkins came here, sponsored by the filthy rich media magnate William Randolph "Citizen Kane" Hearst and a Norwegian whaling company, with the goal to fly as far into the Antarctica as possible. He almost lost one of his two planes as it slid into the sea after a landing on the ice. He killed numerous sea birds with his propellers and thereby also almost himself as well after trying a take-off from the water. It became very clear that he would need an airstrip on land. Quite a while later the airstrip was there, nice and flat, only diverging from other airstrips in that it had a couple of bends here and there. From this airstrip they surveyed parts of the Antarctic Peninsula that noone had visited before. The very same Wilkins went on to buy a discarded World War I submarine from the US Navy for 1 dollar, named it Nautilus after the submarine in Jules Vernes' "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea", and tried to sail it to the North Pole in 1931. Luckily, someone in his crew sabotaged the boat just before they were to dive under the ice north of Spitzbergen, and they all came back alive. Wilkins is probably the least known of the great explorers of the planet's extreme north and south, and deserves more attention than he has gotten. You can read more about him here.
Another crazy thing Wilkins did was to make a territorial claim of the island to the Falklands Islands Dependency, thereby making it "British" territory. During World War II, British and Argentinian naval ships repeatedly came by and put up their own signs and removed the counterpart's signs of ownership from the island. In 1943 the British established a permanent meteorological station here, thinking that now surely Argentina would respect their claims. So in 1948 the Argentinians of course built their own base here. Tension increased throughout the years until Britain in 1953/4 put a number of Royal Marines onto the island for the summer to "keep the peace". Seeking action wherever action can be found, Chile in 1955 also built a station here, and this tiny island was suddenly territory claimed by three different countries. The volcano got so annoyed by this stupidity that in 1967-70 it blew off enough steam to make all three countries evacuate all their people from the island, and ever since then Deception Island has been a friendly place to visit.
Neptune's Window is the name of an opening in the volcano's walls a short climb up from Whalers Bay, and from there I had a great view towards the Antarctic mainland, our next destination. The climb up there was much like walking on the Moon, I think, minus the reduced gravity. The area is littered with strange black/brown sand and rocks, and there is no grass or signs of life except for the sounds of heavy-breathed people coming from above and below. Watching the Continent beckoning on the horizon was quite the efficient teaser to get us back on the ship. I spent the rest of the day on deck, and could witness increasingly larger icebergs passing by, some carrying seals, some carrying large colonies of penguins and some carrying just the promise of big ice ahead. On this first day I had spent 4 films of 36 pictures each, photographing, being just about on schedule for not running out of film on this trip. Others had spent 20+ films, and looked considerably more worried than I did.
Night was accompanied by noticeable waves again, and they stopped hitting us just in time for me to get up and watch the sunrise. As dawn went down to day, a scenery formed around me of the Antarctica I had always imagined. We were on our way into a small fjord surrounded by majestic mountains, with the highest one, Mount Francaise, rising three thousands meters almost straight up from the sea. We were going slow, because the waters around us were full of icebergs, several many times larger than our ship, even just the parts of them that shows above the surface of the water, which is about one ninth of their full mass...
Too excited to down very much breakfast, we soon were on our way to make a landing on the actual Antarctic Continent, my sixth one. The landing was at Neko Harbour, which isn't more a harbour than Great Britain is great. It's a small, rocky beach with a bluff and a tiny cabin with some Argentinian propaganda on it. Still, this being my first contact with the actual continent of Antarctica, it felt like a pretty special place to me. An incredible number of penguins were standing around. The young were molting, which means they were getting rid of their baby down/feathers by the process of, well, just standing around and waiting for it to fall off. The adults were moving to and from the sea, bringing food to their chicks.
Now, just like humans do, penguins only really like their own children and certainly do not want to have anything to do with the upbringing of individuals equipped with any other than their own genes. Unfortunately, grown up penguins, after a life of doing nothing but standing around surrounded by infinite numbers of other penguins, have gone penguin blind; They just cannot tell the young apart. This of course makes feeding their chicks a pretty complicated matter. Since communism never made it to Antarctica before it went out of fashion, nature had to figure out a solution, and what it came up with is a pretty entertaining show I expect to become part of the Olympic games as soon as they add another ring to the Olympic logo; The Fodder Race!
The key to understanding the Fodder Race lies in knowing that while parent penguins cannot tell the difference between the young penguins, the young penguins, on the other hand, are in deed able to recognize their true parents. However, while the chicks know which penguins they are supposed to demand food from, they are also pretty ravenous creatures, always eager to trick somebody else's parents into feeding them. So when a proud parent penguin comes back from the sea with its beak full of delicious sushi, it first looks a bit confused around, as if it is trying hard to remember where it left its chick when they last shared some quality feeding time. When it is pretty confident it remembers where that was, it waddles to that spot and proclaims to the whole world that here there be food. At this signal, a number of seemingly starved chicks start running towards the parent in the only way they know; with no style or grace whatsoever, falling over, sliding suicidally, crashing into non-moving objects like rocks, other penguins and annoying tourists. Just as the crowd gets near the parent, the parent starts running as well, away from the crowd. And there they go, one parent ahead of a herd of young penguin buffaloes, running and cheeping and running and falling and running and tiring and running and giving up and running for up to several hundred meters, until in the end there is only one chick following the parent, very likely to be its true beloved child. They share a short moment of family love, the chick claims the first price in the Fodder Race, seafood, and soon the parent is off to the sea again. It is quite a show, the number of silly-looking falls and collisions is very high. Thank you, Mother Nature!
The tiny, rocky area of Neko Harbour is threatened by giant, imposing walls of ice from all directions except from the sea. The ice is steadily moving forward, but just as it is about to engulf this little piece of beach, after having spent millennia sliding all the way there from far, far away, it is hindered by the water, which sees to it that the glacier called Antarctica is swept out to the ocean, piece by piece. This process is cause for another impressive local show; The Wave. When the glaciers calves, resulting in tons and tons of ice breaking off the sides of the glaciers and hitting the water, the result is a number of big waves forming. These waves will immediately seek out and attack anyone stupid enough to think "Hey! Cool! Look at the size of that thing!" and stays around to watch the big thing grow. In other words: They go for the humans. The penguins, on the other hand, have learned, most probably through a mechanism Darwin would approve of, that when the sky is clear and there suddenly is a very loud sound, like thunder, it is probably a good idea to start running, no matter how stupid one may appear in doing so, towards higher land and then stay up there until, well, until one forgets why one is standing midway up the mountainside and starts thinking "I think I'll go grab a fish or sumthin'".
My best ice experience ever happened just as a particularly photogenic seal was making its way up from the sea onto the beach, and some of the rather professional photographers onboard had set up their expensive equipment on the waterfront to capture the moment. Just as the shooting was about to start, the glacier right on the other side of a small bay decided to chop off a pretty decent chunk of ice, and announced so with an over-whelming rumble. The seal decided to head back to sea, the penguins started climbing, and the people started thinking "Hey! Cool! Look at the size of that thing!". The scene was very similar to what you sometimes get in The Muppet Show, with the people looking like Kermit standing confused in the middle of a huge, chaotic crowd of creatures (the seals and penguins) that run around, screaming. Anyway, as I was standing there, thinking like a human, I was deeply impressed by how this mass of ice broke loose, fell down, dived into the water, disappeared, came flying back up again, smashed into pieces by crashing into the mother glacier and thereby triggered a much greater piece of the ice to break off. And THEN the crew that had survived previous trips to the Antarctica started yelling "GET AWAY FROM THE WATER!". We all did, except for the Japanese, who are used to ignoring messages they don't understand anyway. They just kept photographing until they ran out of film and discovered that all the others from the ship had joined the penguins midway up the mountainside. Luckily it went well, the only damage caused was a few wet feet and some minor heart attacks. But it was very, very, very spectacular.
Since I was midway up the mountain anyway, I continued climbing up to about two hundred meters above sea level, where I was treated to an amazing view over the fjord. Another thing I suddenly realized was how much penguins stink. As I gradually climbed higher and higher, I came further and further away from the guano-covered lowlands, and the stench subsided. I am not sure if it is just the penguin shit that smells, or if maybe the feather grease they excrete also adds to the aroma of a penguin beach, but it sure is a smelly business to visit with penguins. When you first see penguins in the wild that is so exciting that you most likely will ignore it, but when the excitement wears off a bit, you'll certainly notice. The way they do their business is another funny detail about them, by the way. When they feel nature's call, they just bend over a little, squint a bit and then they fire! The result is a looong, white streak behind them, sometimes with something red and/or yellow in it. A penguin-inhabited beach is full of these lines, sometimes so full of it that it gets real slippery, forcing people to imitate the way penguins walk to avoid falling. Be warned!
After sliding down the mountainside in my supersonic, superyellow waterproof trousers, it was time for another Zodiac cruise on the bay. Having seen the mighty icefall a little bit earlier, it was with a certain degree of scepticism I enjoyed the ride just below these dominating walls of ice that hang out over the water at a slight angle. The Zodiac driver probably knew what he was doing, maybe, and we came real close to the ice. We lay totally still and in silence for a while, so that we could hear the "noise" coming from the ice that was slowly melting in the water. Actually, if you fill a big glass or a casserole with really cold water, pour lots and lots of icecubes into it, put your ear as close to the water as possible and close your eyes, you will experience something incredibly close to the sound that to me is more Antarctica than any other sound is, and that includes seal-farting and swearing in Russian. I know it sounds a bit stupid, but it works, trust me! (And hey, if you really DO try this, won't you drop me a word and tell me what you think about it? Please?)
Later we moved on to nearby Bahia Paradiso, Paradise Bay. Apparantly there has been made an error when they translated the name of the place from Penguish to Humanish, as there were very few penguins around to greet us, compared to how many penguins there would have been if they really thought of this as a paradise. Still, to people who appreciate ice, it is an excellent place to go Zodiac-cruising among the icebergs, and so we did. While the penguins were few, the seals were many here. They were as curious about us as we were about them, so we spent quite a while circling each other out there. Having seen enough ice for a while, I spent some time on shore as well, climbing to the top behind the Argentinian Almirante Brown station, and sliding down again in my superpants. Four times. Great fun, cold butt.
In addition to a couple of closed, unmanned buildings, the station here also sports some ruins, and the story behind it all is a funny one, sort of. Once upon a time, in 1984, time had come for the annual "change of guards" at the station. This year's crew had finished their duties, the supply ship brought a new crew and new supplies, and the retirees looked forward to going back home to Buenos Aires and eat big steaks every day, followed by intense tangoing, night after night. It turned out that the Argentinian Antarctic Logistics Office had unfortunately forgotten to send a doctor with the new crew, or maybe they all in the new crew were doctors, except nobody were medical ones, and someone had messed up and gotten it all wrong somehow. Anyway, a crew cannot spend a winter in the Antarctica without a doctor, so it was quickly decided that the doctor who should have gone home now would just have to stay one more winter. He was not very happy about this, so he just walked into the main building in silence, seeming to accept his terrible misfortune.
The unloading and loading of the ship was completed, people said goodbye to each other and the ship started to leave. As the people on the ship gathered on the stern deck to wave goodbye to this magnificent land that soon was to turn dark and unfriendly, they saw thick, black smoke rise from the main building and the people back at the base waving back at them frantically. And that is how everybody from the Almirante Brown station got away from a winter in the dark that year, spending the time in Buenos Aires splurging on dance and steak, except for the medical doctor, who had to spend quite some time in the madhouse instead.
My last day in Antarctica was also the southernmost one, and started out with great promise when I went up on deck and found us slowly gliding south through the Lemaire Channel. Lemaire, by the way, never set his foot in this part of the world, instead he explored the Congo River in Africa. I am sure there are good reasons for naming this water passage after him anyway. While I believe even the Congo is not as wide as this channel of water between the mainland and Booth Island, it almost felt like going on a river, with beautiful mountains rising on both sides of the boat, their orignally snow-white sides coloured a reddish orange by the morning sun.
We made it through the channel and landed at Pleneau, an island possible to walk all the way around. It was a rewarding walk too, with altogether four different kinds of penguins to see; gentoos, chinstraps, Adelies and a lone King penguin. The King was about twice the size of the other penguins, so I figured the reason he was there was that he was a pro on the local basketfish team or something.
The real attraction at Pleneau is the iceberg graveyard. The waters here are pretty shallow, but the surrounding ocean is a very deep one. From the west and the south big icebergs come sailing, and here they become stranded, taking on the most surrealistic, incredible shapes and angles. All kinds of blue can be found here, in the water, in the sky and in the ice. The blue in the ice is what you get when you take a piece of ice and compact it through thousands of years, squeezing out the air and leaving just compacted water molecules. If the ice is old enough, it will have moved all the way from bright white through various types of blue and green, ending with looking just about black when in the water. Some of the icebergs you meet in Antarctic waters may have "lived" for as much as ten years since they broke off the mainland ice. All icebergs slowly melt, mainly from below in the water, and as the weight balance is shifted by the melting, ever so seldom the icebergs will quickly turn over. When an iceberg has turned at least once, you can see parallel lines running along its sides. These lines are the results of countless bubbles of air being released from below the surface as the ice melts, each bubble finding the most efficient way to move up to the surface, engraving these air paths on their way. On top of the icebergs there are often many seals to be found, attracted to the small pools of fresh drinking water, much the same way animals in Africa seek out water holes to survive.
No visit to the Antarctica is complete without a look into how the people that actually live here spend their days. We first made a landing at Wordie House, a now abandoned museum-style little cabin, where we could have a good look at what the accommodation standards on this British scientific station were like fourty or fifty years ago. This was actually where they, not too long ago, first discovered the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica for the first time, making this little hut quite the historic site. Nowadays, though, the scientific activities have been moved to the nearby Ukrainian station, Akademik Vernadsky. Inside Wordie House there is old furniture, the log books for the station dating all the way back to 1957. There are old cans of tinned food in them, the ozone measuring instrument is still ticking away, the worn books in the shelves are proof that the winters here could be long ones. This touch of human history felt very nice after so much scenery and wildlife.
Over at Akademik Vernadsky we felt very welcome, as they gave us a tour of their facilities, which took about 5 minutes. Previously this station was known as Faraday, and was British property until 1996. Then Ukraine bought it from Great Britain at the price of one dollar. This was a bargain for the Ukrainians, who now finally got a place where they could send their weirdest citizens off to for a year at a time. If their weirdness does not wear off during the year, they just have to stay another year. Many of the people on the base had spent many years here already, but still were quite strange people. Strange, but very friendly ones, mind you! They even run a bar here, where they serve all kinds of drinks, as long as you ask for either blank or brown vodka. If you're a woman and willing to donate your bra to their collection, you'll even get your first drink for free. These guys don't get out very much, as you surely can imagine.
I bought a patch for my backpack, now covered with about 30 patches, so that the patches now actually are worth far more than the backpack itself. Another way to become a big spender here was to use the local post office. For one dollar a piece, you can buy stamps and postcards here and have them sent off to your friends and family via the Ukrainian postal services. I mailed 12 cards from here and although I have to shamefully admit I seriously doubted they would ever reach their addressees, true to the word, 12 months and 13 days later I started receiving mails and phone calls from excited receivers of postcards. You may not be able to make any sense of anything the Ukrainians at Akademik Vernadsky say, but you can trust them to do their mailing all right!
Thus ended my short but in all other ways perfect visit to the Antarctica. As the adventure ended and the Drake hell broke loose around me again, I took farewell with my fellow passengers and went down to spend the next few days in bed. There I rocked back and forth, occasionally falling out of the bed, all the time smiling and thinking about everything I had seen, letting all the impressions find a place to rest inside.
Am I happy I went? Definitely.
Will I go again? I doubt it; even though it is beautiful, it is also a hard thing to do both because of the rough ride across the Drake Passage and because of the financial effort it demands. Besides, there are so many other places to go visit at least once before I go anywhere twice.
Should other people go? Well, it is an incredible experience, something I wish everyone could have a taste of at least once in their lives. But really, part of the beauty here is that Antarctica is so untouched, unspoilt, so pure and clean, that the best thing would be if people would just trust those who have been there on that instead of go and see it for themselves. This way Antarctica can continue to be the biggest place on Earth that we have not yet damaged too much.
According to myth, the crew held several excellent presentations on our way back to Ushuaia. I know nothing of this. I only went out of the cabin twice, once to pick up my passport, now with Antarctica stamps in it, and once to drop off the suggested US$10 pr day tip to be shared between the crew members. They certainly deserved the money. While I had been impressed by their skills and knowledge throughout the trip, I was even more impressed by myself for crossing the Drake twice in devilish conditions without puking at all. By staying in bed, reading, sleeping and drinking water, I made it through quite comfortably, and have no painful memories from this period at all.
When we finally passed Cape Horn and came close to the land on Tierra del Fuego again, the sea calmed, and I could get up and yet again wave at the green bushes and grass that I discovered I had missed very much. When we passed Puerto Williams on the southern side of the Beagle Channel, a large Chilean navy ship came right at us and followed us for a while to make sure we did not enter their waters. Stupid, but I guess they don't have too much to do down there. Anyway, we made it back to Ushuaia, took farewell with each other, and soon we were all heading north in all directions.