Antarctica. The Frozen Continent. How to write anything about a voyage to the world’s last great wilderness? There are a deficit of adjectives. I’ve heavily edited what I’ve written about this trip to cut down on overwrought descriptions that still fall short of adequate. Since we’re on a cruise (that they call an “expedition”) there’s also the risk of sounding repetitive. Every morning like clockwork, we were woken by a disembodied voice giving a friendly good morning, our current coordinates, and the day’s itinerary.
It’s very much a controlled environment. And it makes sense that it is. Antarctica is almost completely unspoiled, and in a rare agreement amongst the nations of the world there is an attempt to keep it that way. According to the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, a multinational regulatory committee actually patrols the coast, ensuring that guidelines for the uses of this great continent are met. Much of this is because quite literally what happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica. The climate is such that things simply remain. Trash, human waste, shipwrecks – all are preserved indefinitely. Until the continent someday starts to thaw.
Unfortunately that is happening. Vast sheets of ice are breaking up and melting, the reach of man is felt even here in the least hospitable place on earth. But to look at the landscape you’d never guess. The continent is still gripped by ice, locked tight and silent. Except for the occasional exhalation of whales or the chittering of penguins, the land is equally as silent as it is frozen. And this is summer.
We have never seen a more fascinating, dramatic, severe landscape. The whole trip was a frozen safari, a harsh environment but still teeming with wildlife. Every change of weather casts the land with a different temperament – bright and sparkling, misty and primordial, bleak and dark – and the weather changes often. Our first day on land we took off most of our layers and walked with bare hands and heads, a warm polar breeze playing with our hair. Two days later we wore all our layers under driving frozen rain, dripping and miserable. The same evening, a summer blizzard covered the ship in three inches of snow. A temporary skin of ice formed in the seawater around us.
Ever changing, still and monotonous, prone to violent outbursts, this is Antarctica, the best I can describe.
Despite our fears and the warnings of Helgita, the Drake was uncharacteristically placid. Our first day at sea was spent on lightly rolling decks, surrounded by a dense fog. We’d each taken a dramamine pill and woke a little foggy ourselves. I had strongly considered reaching back into the threads of my DNA containing the sea-salt of my Viking forefathers, pushing aside modern medicine and braving the passage au naturel. Then I put away my horned helmet, took a pill and went to sleep.
We made friends with a couple from Arizona who are birders and we borrowed some of their enthusiasm for peering out the windows to try and identify the aviators of the Drake. Unfortunately there were almost none to see. I found myself desperately wanting to glimpse a mighty albatross, of any kind, but the fog was so thick it was impossible. In the end I might have been happy to spot a seagull.
This first day was uneventful, filled with mandatory meetings about Antarctic etiquette (yield to penguins) and the proper way to board a zodiac (don’t fall out). We were introduced to the captain of the ship, Captain Peter, a dashing white haired German who lives in Colorado – almost as far from the sea as possible, he notes. He looked a little like Ralph Lauren, only more dapper in his spotless captain’s uniform.
We spent much of the day feeling a bit strange, either because of the Dramamine or just because we hadn’t yet found our sea legs. When we went to sleep finally, we felt we’d gotten through the hard part and were probably safe.
We just hoped the fog would clear up.