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!”
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.