Dallum Bay, New Year’s Day – Stopped off in this beautiful, ice-choked bay to say goodbye to Antarctica for this season. From here the route runs due north, across the Drake Passage, towards Cape Horn and the tip of Argentina. One of the beauties of traveling down south this time of year is that the sun barely sets. At midnight, like now, it is dusky … the official time of the sun’s rising is 2:20 a.m. This time of year it never truly gets dark.
Tonight could be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen the nearby Melchior Islands, bathed in the pink light of an Antarctic sunset. The blue-black sea is coated with grease ice, sea on the verge of freezing, giving it a coating like cellophane paper which undulates with the currents, and laden with small icebergs. The narrow, u-shaped bay off the Palmer Archipelago is lined with glaciers; the glaciers are thousands of years old and hundreds of feet tall. There’s no possible way any man has ever walked along this shoreline, which is what I love most about Antarctica. Still today, with 14 billion feet trodding the planet on a daily basis – headed fast towards 18 billion – much of this continent remains untrammeled, untouched.
The air is cold and clear; sucking it in burns my lungs but it feels good. There isn’t a place on the planet I’d rather be and I feel fortunate to be able to return, year after year. When we sail away from Dallman, I will be filled with both joy and regret. The former, because I know how lucky I am to keep coming back to this remote corner of the planet; the latter because I would prefer to stay longer, until the days here grow short, and dark.
Due to the sour global economy, tourism to Antarctica this season and last has dropped off. A couple years back it topped an all-time high of 45,000 arriving by cruise boat. This year I don’t think it will get much above 35,000. Maybe too, those with the economic wherewithal to come to Antarctica have already been. Until it becomes cheap to visit the seventh continent, maybe tourism numbers will continue to decline. We shall see. This season there are thirty ships bringing tourists to the Peninsula and I know that right now on the streets of Ushuaia, the Argentine port town where the big boats come and go from, there are “sales” in tourist agency windows advertising “last minute, cut rate” prices in order to fill empty cabins and beds on Antarctic-bound ships. What’s cut-rate? $3500, $4000. Which may seem like a lot for a ten-day to two-week trip … but then again … it’s Antarctica, the most remote place on earth.
It’s been thirty-three years since a New Zealand tourist plane crashed in Antarctica during a flyover, killing all 257 aboard. Today I read that a Qantas Airbus A380 – a “super jumbo” will make a twelve hour roundtrip flight from Melbourne, carrying 450 New Year’s eve revelers, for a glimpse of the ice. Birthday parties, anniversaries and wedding engagements will be celebrated in the air over the edge of the continent. Many bottles of champagne are part of the deal, for prices ranging from $999 to $6000 per person. “It’s a party flight and also an expedition,” the organizers boast. “Passengers are welcome to dance to the jazz band if that is what they want!”
Partying over Antarctica, 1.1.2010
What a long way we’ve come in the past fifty years, since the treaty that governs Antarctica was signed. Then, no one could have imagined tourism coming to Antarctica. Today, somehow the place seems to be on everyone’s “list.”
I pause and look around, turning 360 degrees in the cold dusk air. I see no one. A trio of humpbacks break the surface, their breathing sending spumes of vapor into the pink sky, heading towards the open ocean. I am privileged to be here, and I know it.
I wrote yesterday a short memory of the 1989-90 TransAntarctica Expedition – dreamed up by American Will Steger and Frenchman Jean-Louis Etienne, after a fluke run-in three years earlier when each was on his way to the North Pole. While TAE may have been the biggest expedition to Antarctica in years (they spent something like $12 million over several years to pull it off), each season there are various characters on the seventh continent with big dreams of their own.
My friend Eric Larsen is there now, and a half-dozen other skiing teams (no more dogs, alas), all closing in on the South Pole at the very height of the austral summer. My friend Kraig Becker and his Adventure Blog does a great job of keeping up with the expeditions; here’s his dispatch from yesterday:
“While the rest of us celebrated the holidays with friends and family in the comfort of our homes, the Antarctic teams spent the days on the trail, heading due south, and closing in on their goal – The South Pole.
“The most recent update from Antarctica come from the Kaspersky Commonwealth Team, where we learn that the girls are a mere 20 nautical miles from the Pole. The ladies have been out on the ice for 36 days, and it appears that they will hit 90ºS tomorrow. The team was hoping that they would be able to see the polar research station located at the Pole on the horizon today, but so far they’ve had no luck in spotting it, which is adding a bit of frustration on the final days of the expedition. The girls also say that they will never take hot, running water and flush toilets for granted ever again.
“The last update from Ryan Waters and Cecilie Skog haven’t sent a dispatch since Christmas Eve, when they were within 100 nautical miles of the Pole, and it is quite possible that they have arrived at their destination today or tomorrow at the latest. They celebrated the holiday with a half-day on the trail, and some time in the tent, but since then, nothing has been heard.
“Similarly, Eric Larsen, and his team haven’t sent a dispatch since Christmas Day, which was their 39th day out of Patriot Hills. Eric and the boys spent the day locating their final supply cache, before turning South once again. With their sleds full once again, it was slow going throughout the day, which was mostly up hill. They’re now within two degrees of the Pole, and they hope to reach their destination within eight or nine days, which would put them in on the 2nd or 3rd of January, if everything goes according to plan.
“Meagan McGrath also sent an audio dispatch on Christmas Day with updates on her progress as well. She says she had a fantastic day out on the ice, and is covering great distances in the past few days, and spent much of the holiday thinking of her friends and family, who she is missing badly, but is still enjoying her journey so far. There was no update on her location, but because she was forced to restart early on, Meagan is still a good distance away from the Pole.
“Finally, the Shackleton’s Unfinished Business Team have wasted no time in their journey to the Pole, and according to their latest dispatch today, they are now at 89.2ºS and covered 9.3 nautical miles today. At this rate, they’ll finish off that final degree in the next few days, and they’ll stand at the Pole for the New Year.
“It appears that the next few days will be a busy one at the bottom of the world. Watch for updates from all the teams as they begin to arrive at the South Pole. The Antarctic season for 2009 will begin to wind down in the next few weeks, but not before plenty of action on Mt. Vinson as well, where the climbers will be looking to claim one of the seven summits.”
My introduction to Antarctica, and first assignment for National Geographic, was twenty years ago right now. My friend Will Steger was leading, with his French adventuring partner Jean-Louis Etienne, a monumental first (the longest crossing of the continent, 3,741 miles) and a monumental last (the very last dog sled expedition in Antarctica).
We are republishing our book about the adventure, CROSSING ANTARCTICA, in honor of the twentieth anniversary and I’ve been thinking about those days a lot while on the ice this year. Lots has changed, particularly in regard to technology. Then, the team had a satellite beacon that tracked its whereabouts once a day; today those who ski to the pole are able to send live video and photos to their websites. Then, dogs pulled the heavily-loaded sleds, an homage to the early explorers of the continent; today, thanks to an amendment to the Antarctica Treaty in 1991, there will never again be dogs in Antarctica (the formal reason was to limit the potential for distemper to be introduced to the seal population, though I have always believed the banning of dogs was really targeted to eliminate private dog sledding expeditions from the continent). Then, the ice along the Larsen B ice shelf where the expedition began was hard and thick; today, that ice has been gone for more than seven years, broken off into thousands of bits. Then, maybe a few thousand visited the Peninsula by tourist ship; now it’s more than 40,000 each season.
These are Will’s journal notes from the last week of December, 1989. They had just left the South Pole and were two-and-a-half months from completing the seven-month-long expedition, the longest in Antarctic history:
DECEMBER 25, DAY 152
I spent today alone on the back sled, haunted by the fact that my dogs are sagging and unable to put my finger on why. It is no longer a minor problem—I am running fifteen minutes behind the second sled, so my team doesn’t get a break when the others stop to build snow cairns. I am late for lunch and into camp, which eliminates my spending even a few minutes with the others.
Since I am late into camp in the evening I automatically assume the tasks of the “Outside Man,” which includes cutting snow blocks for water. Tonight the blocks come from one of Dahe’s five-foot-deep snowpits, which he digs every thirty miles. It is the responsibility of each tent’s Outside Man to retrieve blocks from Dahe’s “well,” filling nylon bags with perfectly cut blocks. That simple chore is often the best time for socializing. You kneel at the edge of the pit, relax for a few minutes, all the while packing away snow and chatting with whoever has joined you at the “well.” Dahe is often still there, carefully scraping and bottling samples of snow and ice. Though our exchanges are brief, I always walk away from my visits to the “well” feeling satisfied. The scene reminds me of an African riverbank, with the natives gathering at the river’s edge to draw water for cooking and bathing. Except for the cold, our missions are very similar.
Once inside the tent Geoff wishes me a happy holiday, and we agree that the area of inaccessibility may be the best place to spend it, if for no other reason than it is always a White Christmas here.
Lunch, Antarctica, 1989. Photo: Will Steger
DECEMBER 26, DAY 153
It is amazing how we have acclimated to this weather. Overnight the temperature rose to -15° and we overheated inside and had to sleep with our bags fully unzipped. At home in similar temperatures it would be on the chilly side, even in the north woods of Minnesota. We’re all surprised that the winds have maintained their steady pace and that we are still crossing whitecaps of sastrugi. The surface is not that difficult for us to travel over; though Geoff’s sled tipped once today, it is an annoyance rather than a hindrance. It does make it a little harder to ski and you have to watch the sled carefully so that it doesn’t tip, but since the snow is on the soft side there is little worry of the sled’s breaking if it were to fall. The biggest advantage to our days remains the hard-packed surfaces (today we made twenty-five miles). I don’t think it’s going to be until 82° or 81° latitude, another three hundred miles, that we start seeing the wind cut back a little bit, which is fine with me, because less wind means deeper snow. The closer we can get to Vostok on hard surfaces the better off we are.
After comparing notes with everyone else, it seems that it is our thinking caps that are suffering most these days. The same thoughts keep recycling through your head, mile after mile, day after day, and you simply get tired of thinking. You can’t appease yourself by telling yourself it’s almost over, because it isn’t. We have become like snow nomads, with no sense of place; the only continuity to our days is packing up, traveling and unpacking. Our isolation is compounded by the spiritless, soulless emptiness of the landscape that engulfs us. If a person weren’t at peace with himself on a trip like this it would drive him crazy. If you were a primarily negative person it would be extremely difficult to survive in Antarctica. I used to think that space travel would be exciting; now I’ve had a glimpse of how exacting a psychological toll it must take.
We are expecting Brydon shortly after midnight, because that’s when the cairns’ shadows will be at right angles and easiest for him to follow. We stopped tonight as close to 86° latitude as we could determine, since that was the agreed-upon location for resupply. However, since radio conditions prohibited Brydon from ascertaining where we’d stopped, he left the Pole flying close to the ground, counting on finding our trail of snowmen.
We heard the plane before we saw it, and he flew right to us. He could stay just an hour, given the plane’s tightly calculated fuel allowance, so we hurriedly unloaded the Twin Otter and made arrangements with him to resupply us once more, at 82° latitude, on January 9.
Spied our first penguin chicks of the season today, on Petermann Island … fitting since it had been the home of both early explorers (Frenchman Charcot and his boat the Porquoi Pas camped here for two seasons one hundred years ago) and more recently researchers (the penguin counters from the Washington, D.C.-based Oceanites lived here in tents for five seasons, until 2008). The island is unique for the combination of breeding Gentoos and Adelies and blue-eyed shags, all living together, nest-to-nest, in a bird-world equivalent of very non-segregated housing.
The Adelies have been fleeing Petermann by more than ten percent a year and their numbers are down this year too, to just a few more than three hundred pairs … from five hundred a few seasons back. The Oceanites researchers predict they’ll all be gone from the island in another ten years. Why? Adelies love cold weather, and it simply isn’t staying cold enough, especially during the summer months. They love pack ice, and the sea isn’t staying frozen as long anymore. Meanwhile, the place is amuck with a booming population of Gentoos, a more temperate-loving bird, who are taking over the abandoned Adelies’ rock nests and booming in numbers.
Each season I ask my penguin-researching friends where they think the Adelies are off too and each season get a similar response: We’re not sure. It would be nice to think they’ve gotten the message that temperatures along the Peninsula are warming, are packing their bags and moving further south, where it’s colder. But that may be giving penguins too much credit. Some (many?) may simply be leaving here and not making it further south. It’s difficult to know because south of Petermann there are few scientists, very little regular monitoring. No one expects penguins to disappear from Antarctica — neither Adelie, Gentoo or Chinstrap, Emperor or King — but they are definitely on the move.
The chicks are about the size of a coffee cup, just two of them in the same nest. In the next week, ten days, the island will be covered with little squawkers. As I try to get a glance at the babies, I ask one of the researchers exactly how many penguins are on the continent. Same reply, No one really knows. Much of Antarctica is impossible to visit, so counting doesn’t take place. Aerial photographs don’t do the job. Estimates are there are about two-and-a-half-million Adelies alone; so let’s say there are somewhere upwards of five million of them scattered around.
A flying Gentoo
The first penguin? It was a flightless bird of the Arctic sea, also known as the Great Auk, which was very similar to a penguin in anatomy, although from a different order of birds and was hunted to extinction in the 1600s. When later explorers discovered similar animals in the southern seas, they named them the same way. Penguin itself has muddy origins; it originally seemed to mean ‘fat one‘ in Spanish/Portuguese, and may come from either the Welsh ‘pen gwyn’ (white head), from the Latin ‘pinguis’ (fat) or from a corruption of ‘pin-wing’ (pinioned wings).
I spent most of the day on the island’s highpoint, hiking up through a slot in the granite hills to look south over a dark sea made more ominous by gathering storm clouds. Though it was cold, twenty-degrees with a gusting wind, and the skies grey I stood for several hours watching the ice move around the near sea, like a giant game of dominoes, the winds and currents faced off against each other, with no winner in sight.
I spent part of this early Antarctic morning on the back deck of the ship reading a summary of the past eleven day’s events in Copenhagen, a long story downloaded at very slow rate from the New York Times. Between readings I looked up, to remind myself where I was, surrounded in a narrow bay by miles of glaciers running down to the ocean’s edge; icebergs calved off the glaciers littered the blue-black sea. It is this very calving and melting of the glaciers which should have been on the mind of everyone who participated in the climate talks in Denmark, because if they continue to dissipate at the current rate due to warming air and sea temperatures along the Peninsula, it will help raise sea levels around the world by ten feet or so.
A now typical summer day in Antarctica: Melting ice + Rain
Rather than being filled with optimism after this long-trumpeted confab, without much reading between the lines it’s clear that not a lot was accomplished in Copenhagen other than the expulsion of a lot more hot air. Some highlights from the Times summary:
· “A grudging agreement to ‘take note’ … not a blinding pledge ….”
· “A compromise seen to represent a flawed but essential step forward many of the delegates of the 193 countries that had gathered here left Copenhagen in a sour mood, disappointed that the pact lacked so many elements they considered crucial …”
· “President Obama called it a ‘modest step.’
· “… The chaos and contentiousness of the talks may signal the end of reliance on a process that for almost two decades had been viewed as the best approach to tackling global warming.”
· “… Virtually impossible to forge consensus among disparate blocs of countries fighting over environmental guilt, future costs and who should referee the results.”
· “… Even if countries live up to their commitments on emissions, a stark gap remains between nations’ combined pledges and what would be required to reliably avert the risks of disruptive change in rainfall and drought, ecosystems and polar ice cover from global warming …”
· “The Copenhagen accord … hardly moved the treaty process from where it was in 2007.”
· “Speaker after speaker from the developing world denounced the deal as a sham process fashioned behind closed doors …”
· “As his motorcade idled in front of the conference center, Mr. Obama took to a rostrum …”
(Per an earlier promise, I tried to search out some figures on the carbon footprint of the event, but found few specific numbers, though I did find others, i.e 1,200 limousines, 140 private jets, 15,000 delegates, 10,000 environmental activists and lobbyists, over 100 world leaders and 5,000 journalists. According to summit organizers the 11-day conference, including the participants’ travel, created a total of 41,000 tons of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” equal to the amount produced over the same period by a U.S. city, population 225,000. Next time, perhaps, try tele-conferencing?)
It’s interesting to ponder all this debate, which seems very far away from where I sit, from a place that is pretty successfully governed by international treaty. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by 49 nations, was and is clearly less complex than any international climate change agreement. But, amended in 1991 to exclude any exploitation of oil or minerals until 2041, the Antarctic Treaty is proof that countries can come together to try and protect a place. Whether or not they’ll ever do that regarding climate change also seems a long way off.
Sitting atop a bared brown rock on top of a thousand-foot hill looking out over a relatively ice-free harbor – Neko, one of the most beautiful along the Peninsula, though even as I write that I am reminded of how often I say this place or that is “the most beautiful along the Peninsula” – I’m struck by two things: How quiet it is and simultaneously how much ambient sound there is in the air if you just sit … quietly … and listen.
Neko Harbour, Antarctica Peninsula
I have long said that one of my favorite things about Antarctica is that it is truly a place that you can get remote. Take a hundred foot walk from the shoreline virtually anywhere along the Peninsula and you can be assured no one has ever walked there before. Climb a short hill, as I’ve just done, and the predominant sound is the beating of your heart. It is a perfectly still, calm day, sunny, 38 degrees F at nine in the morning. By noon it will be in the mid-forties, now-typical for the Peninsula this time of year.
Across the narrow bay, black rocky mountain peaks jut out of deep snow. The opposing hills would be incredible ski runs if you could hike up them without disappearing down one of the dozens of crevasses marked by grey shadows on the snow. A pair of glacial tongues roll down towards the sea each a mile-wide, built up over a many tens of thousands of years. The two hundred foot tall glacier walls drop straight into the cold black sea, which is dotted by small icebergs and bergy bits calved off them.
I have been to this harbor a dozen times before and each time it looks different. Often the currents in front of the sand-and-rock beach are fast, filled with moving ice, threatening landings. Big calvings off the glacies have been known to create eight-foot waves, washing everything – Zodiacs, penguins, humans – off the beach. The sea is blue black, highlighted by icebergs and the rings of aqua blue that rim them, reflections of the ice below the surface. The sky scudded by high clouds. Thirty miles to the north, towards the Lemaire Channel and Anvers Island, the peak of Mt. Francais – the highest peak along the Peninsula – pokes through the clouds, a rare sight. To the south stretches dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks heading for the Didier Channel … followed by many more dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks.
Each season I carry back from Antarctica too many mental images to possibly download. They’re all up there in my head, jumbled, roaming, floating. Thankfully they are permanently lodged and pop up at the oddest times – driving along Manhattan’s West Side highway, climbing in the Catskills, just falling asleep – which I always like.
But often it’s not the visual memories from here that stick with me most powerfully, which strike me at the oddest times. It’s the aural ones, the sounds of Antarctica.
The plop-plop-plopping of porpoising penguins. The blow of humpbacks, often heard before you see them breaching. The squawk of new mother and father penguins as they attempt to imprint their voices on brand-new chicks. The wind under the wings of a soaring pintado petrel as it sweeps just overhead.
But as I sit on this short hill above Neko Harbour, I’m waiting for my favorite Antarctic sound, which the Native Americans in Alaska called “White Thunder.” It’s the thunderous calving of the glaciers that occurs deep inside them. Loud, rumbling, often frightening. Whenever you hear that sound, you jerk your head around. But often there’s nothing to be seen. It’s the sound of glaciers evolving, breaking-up, but deep inside. The sound is not followed by falling ice, just … silence.
This day I wait and wait for that sound, but … nothing. Just after noon, after nearly four hours surveying the landscape from atop this rock, I walk down the hill with my friend Richard White. Just as we step down off the peak … out of sight of the end of the narrow harbor and its ending glacier for the first time in hours … when CRACK! Something’s broken off. This time though, it’s not White Thunder but more like Black Thunder. Real ice ripping off the glacier, falling into the black sea. Rippling waves and small pieces of ice emanating from the end of the harbor suggest it was a big piece of glacier that has fallen into the sea. Despite the beauty of the moment, it is that sound that will stay with me far longer.