Exploring Antarctica, the Last Wild Place
Departures - January 1, 2020
In the beautiful but forbidding seas around Antarctica, Maggie Shipstead develops a deeper appreciation for this remote and endangered land.
Morning in Antarctica. Gray clouds, black water, blue icebergs, black rock, white snow. Off Cuverville Island, a dollop of volcanic rock grandly back-dropped by the Antarctic Peninsula’s cascading glaciers and serrated peaks, the ocean was lively. Outboard-powered Zodiac boats buzzed passengers in bright orange parkas to shore from the cruise ship Seabourn Quest. The dorsal fins of two resting humpback whales stood out against a nearby ice cliff, and, here and there, patches of disturbance on the water’s surface sprouted dozens of swiveling penguin heads. Sometimes the birds dove to feed; sometimes they zoomed toward land, breaching the surface with porpoising leaps to evade lurking leopard seals. Hundreds of these penguins, members of the gentoo species, dotted the island’s slopes, my shipmates’ orange parkas moving among them.
I was surveying the scene from a high deck of the Quest as I waited for my turn to land. In Antarctica, by international regulations, only 100 visitors are allowed off a ship at a time, and, since the Quest carries 450 passengers, landings are done in shifts. Nearby, a man leaned on the rail and watched a group of penguins hurtle past, zipping in and out of the water. He looked at me uncertainly.
“They’re penguins,” I said.
Antarctica is so alien that our brains get addled trying to make sense of it, mapping the familiar (fish) onto the exotic (football-shaped swimming birds). It’s a secretive, inhospitable place. For much of the year, a vast moat of frozen ocean defends its perimeter. Its interior bedrock is shrouded by a lifeless white plain of ice averaging more than a mile thick. Explorers were so confounded for so long by Antarctica’s obscuring ice and savage weather that no one glimpsed the continent proper until 1820, and, well into the 20th century, no one knew for sure whether it even was a continent.
This was my second trip to Antarctica. The first time I went, it was from New Zealand to the remote Ross Sea region on a plodding, no-frills former research vessel. This time I was going from South America to the relatively accessible Antarctic Peninsula aboard the Quest, which had frills to spare, characterized as it was by Seabourn’s shipboard culture of abundance and courtly politeness. Every night at dinner, when I declined that last refill of wine, the server seemed genuinely saddened. My mother had come with me, and together we gave ourselves over to a sumptuous maritime lifestyle, plied with inexhaustible amounts of food and drink, with erudite lectures and earnest musical revues, with comfy chairs in pleasant lounges, with a menu of soaps in our huge marble bathroom that had an actual bathtub.
Our wish was everyone’s command, and at first the ease of it all made me, ironically, uneasy. My prior experience in Antarctica had been transformative, partly because weeks of heavy seas and basic amenities had bestowed on it an aura of rugged adventure. When I’d first boarded the Quest, I wondered how I would square the stark sublimity of the Antarctic landscape with creature comforts that reached the dizzying heights of an onboard Thomas Keller restaurant. I worried that such luxury might be a way for people to hide from the power of the place, from its profound and unsettling indifference to our existence. I was troubled, too, by environmental questions, like why our cabin was stocked daily with plastic water bottles and how to justify the sky-high carbon cost of bringing so many people—and everything required to keep them bountifully fed and cared for—to a place increasingly imperiled by exactly such human excess. But there’s value in the way travel forces us to grapple with our assumptions and weigh our compromises, even when the process is uncomfortable or inconclusive.
Our voyage began in San Antonio, Chile, and, three weeks later, ended in Buenos Aires. Six days in Antarctica sat in the middle of the itinerary like a spectacular, attention-grabbing ice sculpture, but there was drama to our southbound journey, too: a slow stripping down of the landscape, a leaching away of civilization. We hit the Chilean Lake District and the quaint island of Chiloé. We snaked through a maze of bleakly gorgeous Patagonian straits and fjords to the port city of Punta Arenas, and continued on to Ushuaia, an Argentine outpost on the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego.
From there, we sailed south into the notorious Drake Passage, roughly 500 miles of water separating the tip of South America’s tail from the crooked, northward-reaching finger of the Antarctic peninsula. Westerly winds, sweeping otherwise unimpeded around Antarctica, build up big swells and force them through this gap, creating complex, sometimes violent sea states. Antarctic cruisers not uncommonly return home with gruesome tales of seasickness, cascading dishware, and seatbelts in bed. Turns out? Not us. The captain scooted through during a window of mild weather, a rare “Drake lake,” with swells under ten feet. On a ship as stable as the Quest, the motion was slight, not even enough to slide a wineglass off a table.
Now we could sense the white continent just over the horizon, both magnetic and forbidding. Expedition staff members hung out on the windy stern deck for daily office hours, spotting seabirds: blindingly white royal albatrosses with 12-foot wingspans, hunchbacked giant petrels, groups of tiny storm petrels fluttering just above the waves. The temperature dropped. A patchy fog came and went as we passed through the Antarctic Convergence, where cold water from the north meets really cold water from the south.
When I opened our cabin’s drapes the second morning after leaving Ushuaia, I unveiled a monochromatic panorama of pearly cloud, obsidian water, and the black, crocodilian silhouette of our first landing site, Half Moon Island. When summoned over the ship’s intercom, each landing group followed a trail of penguin tracks to a platform where crew members handed us carefully into black-pontooned Zodiacs to be ferried to shore.
“I would kiss the ground,” Mom said, stepping onto the pebbly beach among bustling chinstrap penguins and lolling sea lions, “but there’s too much guano.”
So began our Antarctic routine. During the days, we landed. In the evenings, the expedition staff (our guides—scientists, historians, and adventurers) would line up as a sort of honor guard outside the ship’s auditorium, and we’d all troop inside for a briefing from Iggy Rojas, the expedition leader. While we sipped champagne, he recapped the day and explained the next, and two or three staff members might give relevant mini lectures—on penguins, for example, or krill—so people had to learn something whether they wanted to or not.
“Doing an expedition program in this environment means we have to be flexible,” Rojas told us. “Not only you, but us.” Our itinerary, he explained, would evolve. We were beholden both to the weather and to an elaborate, cooperative system by which we and other ships reserved landing sites. Sometimes conditions might prevent a landing, he warned us. “We try to give you both the adventure and the comfort, which is not easy,” he said. “It’s like trying to have the perfect marriage.”
True. But not everyone has the same idea of a perfect marriage. I’d come to a realization that sometimes comfort is what opens us up to adventure. Antarctica is overwhelming in its harsh beauty and its pitilessness, and, for some, the Quest’s luxury was the reassurance that allowed them to step into a fearsome environment without the defensive resistance that comes with fear. Sometimes people have to see a place to care about it. Traveling to Antarctica carries an environmental cost, but the hope persists that visitors will return home as stronger allies of the planet’s dwindling ice.
My mom, for one, thrived. She spent her 69th birthday among tussling fur seals on Deception Island, the caldera of an active volcano. She decided the gentoo penguin was her spirit animal. She liked our roomy bathroom and the fancy coffee bar on Deck 7. Together, we kayaked wearing dry suits and saw leopard seals swimming languidly around icebergs, presumably with bellies full of her spirit animal. She even overcame her trepidation about hiking up the peninsula’s steep, snow-blanketed glaciers.
At Neko Harbor, a spectacular inlet where craggy black mountains peered out from white balaclavas, she climbed steadily, trekking poles poking rhythmically into the snow, gentoo penguins waddling past as they attended to penguin business. We marked the summit with a triumphant photo.
“I’ve been thinking about whether this trip is life-changing,” she said later, “but I think I’d call it life-deepening.”
That night at dinner, our waiter, Bernard, asked if she’d done the hike. When she said, with evident pride, that she had, he lit up. “Me too!” he said. “I took so many photos. When I go home to Kenya, I will tell them, look, I climbed a mountain.”
It’s a great miracle of international cooperation that Antarctica was set aside in 1959 for scientific research and designated as belonging to no one, shared by the world. If I were in charge, I’d get rid of the plastic bottles on the Quest and, at the risk of being a total buzzkill, feature climate change more prominently in shipboard discussions. But, also, the truth is that the crab cakes at its Thomas Keller restaurant were incredible and the hot tub on the bow a giddy joy. Adventure comes in lots of shapes and sizes and thread counts. Antarctica is for everyone.