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Dallum Bay, Antarctica, Day 9

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

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.

Across the Drake Passage, Day 1

The sky is gray, the air filled with a brisk wind and salt spray. A perfect day just south of Cape Horn. We are halfway across the Drake Passage and what is frequently called the windiest-place-on-earth is amazingly – and thankfully – calm. The gray/black seas are lumpy, the peaks of the waves tinged by white, but hardly the six to twenty foot seas that are common out here. A couple dozen albatross and petrels soar just overhead. We are about a third of the way — two hundred miles — into the crossing from Ushuaia, Argentina to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and, fingers-crossed; it appears we have dodged a bullet weather-wise. I’ve crossed the Drake dozens of times, always with a fair amount of trepidation. While big seas often equal good adventure, and I have nothing against adventure, but they can also be more than a little intimidating. And living without intimidation is a new goal of mine!

By midday tomorrow we should be taking footsteps on an island off the tip of the Peninsula.

I’ve been to Antarctica a couple dozen times; this trip is momentous because my introduction to the seventh continent was exactly twenty years ago right now, as part of my friend Will Steger’s Transantarctic Expedition. TAE, the last expedition ever by dog on the continent, was a big one: An international team of six men and thirty-six sled dogs spent 221 days on the ice, traveling 3,741 miles across the continent, from the tip of the Peninsula to the South Pole, across the Area of Inaccessibility to the far eastern edge. Among the expeditions many firsts and lasts, the spot on the frozen sea ice where that it began, near small black peaks known as Seal Nunataks off the tip of the Peninsula, is today open ocean. The ice where a Twin Otter from King George Island dropped the team has broken up and drifted off towards South America. What was then frozen sea guarding and protecting Antarctica’s glaciers – part of the Larsen B ice shelf – largely disappeared in 2002.

When it comes to traveling along the Peninsula it’s all about the ice. Each season the ice here is different. As the air and sea temperatures have warmed along the Peninsula – on average by five to nine degrees Fahrenheit, the greatest increase on the planet — the ice freezes later, melts earlier. But as I say, each season is different and I’m very curious to see what it looks like this year. What I’ve been hearing from friends who’ve already been to the Peninsula this early austral summer, they report seeing more snow and less snow, colder air than usual and many blue-sky days.

We are about to cross the Antarctic Convergence, an invisible line on the map between South America and Antarctica that indicates you’ve crossed into true southern territory and air temperatures drop fast. Despite the cold I’m going to try and spend as many hours outside today as possible, basking under the gray skies and in the salt spray, both of which remind me – always – of closing in on Antarctica.

Surviving Aitutaki

AITUTAKI, Cook Islands – I’ve been to Aitutaki before, a few times … though I have to admit that sometimes these South Pacific islands have a tendency to run together. Attu, Tahaa, Raiatea, Raratonga, all covered with lush green mountains, simple cement docks serving as welcome mats, a fringe of coconut palms paralleling a solitary ring road circling, sometimes it’s hard for my feebling memory to keep them all straight. Aitutaki I remember best from gray days, its welcome veranda – metal posts, faux palm roof – filled with young boys and girls dancing, practicing. I remember it too for its “starring” role in the “Survivor” series, which came here a few years back, camped out for six-plus months, the best thing to ever happen to the place economically.

I’ve seen “Survivor” impact on other islands. A crew of one hundred moves onto the island, often building its own living quarters, docks and marinas. They bring a fleet of small pickup trucks, speedboats and bulldozers. Much of which get left behind. They employ dozens, treating them well and paying them U.S.-television rates (about thirty times what the local fishermen were making spending ten hours a day in their mahi-mahi boats, harpoon in hand), spoiling them for those inevitable days post-“Survivor.”

Under a shore side tent a New Zealand woman – the Cook’s lean distinctly Kiwi, not French – remembers the “Survivor” crew’s coming … and going. “It left a lot of people more or less distraught. When they were here filming, there was big action everyday. Boats racing back and forth, people coming and going, money being spent. And then … one day … they were gone. They left boats and trucks and houses behind. But no more action, no more money.”

The first Polynesians settled here in 800, led by a voyager named Ru, who named it Utataki Enua O Ru Ki Te Moana (“the leading of the cargo people by Ru over the ocean” or “where Ru turned his back on the sea”); the first westerner to stop was Captain William Bligh, 1789, just seventeen days before his infamous mutiny – he would return three years later, searching for the men who had cast him adrift.

It’s a wild and rough day in the South Pacific, three to four meter swells under a deceivingly blue and unadulterated sky. It’s easy when the ocean here is living up to its name to be lulled into believing the entire Pacific region is ruled by calm. Days like this are reminders that wildness is far more common. Watching the wild, sun-drenched seas from a brand new cement porch built by and for the local fishing co-op, constructed super strong against the potential of tsunami and other storm waves, I wonder what Captain James Cook would have made of “Survivor.”

I marvel often about how many times my route around the world has crossed Cook’s path; that dude was truly a wanderer. On so many islands I’ve stopped at I’ve been greeted by welcome signs – made of bamboo, surrounded with half clam shells – detailing the historic arrival of Cook and gang.

Cook’s first assignment, in 1768, from the Royal Society in London, was to sail the Pacific Ocean tracing the transit of Venus across the sun – a task more scientific than economic. After rounding Cape Horn he made it to Tahiti for the first time on April 13, 1769, where the observations were to be made. Unfortunately the astronomer he carried with him was not up to the task and the mission was a failure. Over the next few years Cook criss-crossed the Pacific several times all the while keeping his southern eye open for a place we both have an affection for, then known as Terra Incognito Australis. Antarctica. While Cook never fully found Antarctica – spying large icebergs he confused with the continent – he got closer than anyone before.

His complete mapping of the Pacific left little for future expeditions; he died ignominiously in Hawaii, due to either cultural arrogance or confused i.d., dependent on which story you prefer/believe. Maybe Cook would have liked “Survivor”; certainly he would have much preferred being judged by some kind of tribal council than a bunch of Hawaiian tough guys swinging heavy war-sticks.