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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.

On Thick Ice, Ski Porn and OCEANS, the Movie

Regarding tourist ships stuck in the ice, apparently the “Captain Khlebinkov” is out of the pack ice in the Weddell Sea and headed back to Ushuaia, running just a couple days behind schedule. But after the incident was first reported, I had an email from a passenger who’d been on the previous voyage with the “CK,” reporting that the ship had taken a very similar route – near to Snow Hill, down the east side of the Peninsula, just into the Weddell Sea – and had gotten similarly “stuck” amongst the ice in windy, whiteout conditions. It was, she wrote, a fantastic adventure!

On the big screen, in Torello, Spain

On the big screen, in Torello, Spain

In Ushuaia, the ship will pick up another group of passengers and apparently is headed back towards the same region, the same risks. As the season progresses (i.e. warms) there’s more chance the thick ice will begin to move out, but there’s no guarantee. I’m obviously not on the ship, and don’t know what the captain knows … but … returning to a place along the Peninsula where you’ve managed to get stymied by wind – or lack of wind – and lots and lots of thick, old ice two trips in a row seems a bit odd, a bit risky. I’m assuming the company has sold the trip based on getting into the Weddell Sea and is delivering! We’ll watch its website to see how it progresses.

Meanwhile, I’m writing from the comfort of Paris, where yesterday I spent the day with filmmaker Jacques Perrin and his team who are set to launch their new, eight-years-in-the-making OCEANS film (premieres in France late in January and in the U.S. on Earth Day, April 22). I screened the movie last night and, following on the global success of their “Winged Migration,” OCEANS promises to change the way movie-goers view and consider the ocean. Since the film is still something of a work in progress (some reviews have started to trickle out) I’ll hold off on any specific comment. Suffice to say OCEANS is the ‘wildlife opera’ that Perrin describes, delivering the most beautiful imagery from the undersea world that I’ve yet seen.

I’m fortunate to be linked to the film in a small way, editing an anthology of ocean issues writings to accompany the movie’s release in the U.S. in April.

My route to Paris took me to film festivals in Graz, Austria, and Torello, Spain … so I’ve had a full ten days of travel and movie watching. Our most recent film – TERRA ANTARCTICA – played at both, to great, fun review, which is always nice. After ten days I’m not sure that I ever need to see another ‘traditional’ ski film again; you know the variety, verging on ski porn? Snowboarders and skiers hucking and chucking themselves off impossibly higher and more dangerous peaks, dropped there by risk-taking helicopter pilots and more than occasionally plunging to death in the rocks below. Given all that’s going in the natural world around, both the threats that are everywhere and the cultures that abound in those very same mountains, do we really need to see more young white guys and girls risking their necks on the steeps for the cameras?

Antarctic Tourism Season Begins with an Icebreaker Stymied by … Ice

It’s that season again – the beginning of Antarctica’s tourist season – and already there’s report of a ship struggling to free itself from heavy ice. The Russian icebreaker “Captain Khlebnikov” has apparently been slowed – though the company that manages the ship is being careful to say it is not stuck nor aground – by typical heavy ice on the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsula. According to company spokesperson the ship it is not in any danger; there are 100 passengers on board, most British.

According to the Associated Press the” Khlebnikov” will need to wait one or two days to resolve the situation. “The icebreaker’s crew is waiting for the weather to change and then the ship will resume its course. The passengers are in no need of assistance,” a spokesman told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. A film crew from the BBC is also on board filming material for a documentary called Frozen Plane; the ship is reportedly continuing its helicopter tours while stymied.

The ship is currently moving slowly, searching ice-free water, near Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, not far from where the Larsen B ice shelf famously collapsed in 2002. I was at Snow Hill twice last season, but not until about seven weeks later in the season when traditionally – but not always – more of the icebergs and pack ice have been blown out by big winds. Venturing into the Weddell Sea, even in an icebreaker, is always something of a crap shoot, no matter the time of year.

According to Argentine officials the “Khlebnikov” is trying to move slowly through the ice but the winds are too light to break up the ice pack, essentially suspending it in the ice and delaying its return to Ushuaia, Argentina, by three to six days.

“The icebreaker is trying to move and is waiting for more favorable winds,” said a ship’s spokesman. “After the winds get stronger, the ice grip will weaken … and it will break free.” Fingers crossed!

The cruise was advertised as a unique opportunity to watch Emperor Penguins in their natural habitat. The Finnish-built icebreaker has been used as a cruise ship for several years and carries two helicopters. Natalie Amos, a spokeswoman for the tour operator Exodus Travel, said 51 British tourists were among the ship’s 101 passengers. Paul Goldstein, a guide and photographer with Exodus, traveling on the ship, told the BBC News that the ship was trying to move. “We’re breaking ice,” he said Tuesday. “Obviously there’s frustration, but we’re going to get back perfectly safe.”

Rene Reibel, operations chief for the Argentine Coast Guard in Ushuaia, told The Associated Press that the icebreaker was moving amid floating ice and no one was in danger. “This ship was never stuck or run aground,” he said. “It’s floating, it has its engines and control.”

With tourism still growing along the Antarctic Peninsula groundings and tourist ships stuck in ice are becoming an annual happening. Last season it was the “Ocean Nova” and the “Ushuaia” which were stranded on rocks. In 2007 the Norweigan “Fram” lost power off the tip of the Peninsula and banged into a glacier. And of course in November 2007 the very first Antarctic tourist ship, the “Explorer,” sank off the tip of the Peninsula, spilling 185,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants.