Thursday, December 11, 2008

Heading Home

The ship sails North towards Cape Horn and South America. We are heading home, over 8,000 miles from here—somewhere in the rolling waves of The Southern Ocean. Last night it almost got dark. To see night is to reenter the world.

What did I come here for? What am I taking home besides 3,372 photos?

I’ve witnessed the intimacy between beauty and danger. I’ve seen the fluidity of nature’s roles: liquid as solid, night as day. I’ve learned I love the open sea, and luckily don’t get seasick.

It is human to want to explore. The desire to see new things, be new places, and have new experiences is common to us all. It links the Filipino bartender to the staff photographer to the retired pediatrician from New Jersey. Our paths of travel and understanding are singular, but our wish to expand through our journey is universal. Susan Sontag said that the fear of dying is really the fear of not living fully. For the moment, I’m cured of that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Party at Sea

Before entering the Drake Passage and beginning our long journey home, we experienced an unlikely convergence. The National Geographic Endeavor, the sister ship to ours, was passing by on its way to the Antarctic Peninsula. The many marriages spanning the two ships, and the newly launched Explorer, were cause for assembly. We would meet in the Channel and have a party, the zodiacs ferrying crew and guests between the two ships.

After this season the Explorer will take over as the Antarctic voyager, and the Endeavor will retire to the tropics. I keep thinking of The Yellow Submarine, the passengers waving across the water at themselves as they pass by through time. The symmetry of two ships meeting at sea: the old and the new, one at the beginning of its journey, the other at its end.

Port Lockroy

Our last full day in Antarctica, we visited Port Lockroy – a decommissioned British Base from World War 2, now a museum, shop, and home to four people, four months of the year. A perfectly preserved time capsule, the pantry tins of marmite and sardines are still full, tattered copies of Readers’ Digest fill the shelves. Living in one heated room, in a tiny building, on an island in Antarctica, the layers of claustrophobia are deep. The volunteers depend on visiting ships for potable water and baths.

The funny thing is, four people, a hut, and a whole lot of penguins feels like civilization.


Icebergs and ships have a famously uneasy relationship. Icebergs rise up out of the ocean like mesas and rocks in the desert. Hiding their mass beneath the surface; six times what emerges above the water is hidden below. Because icebergs are much more than they appear, the general rule for ships is to avoid them.

There are a lot of icebergs in Antarctica. Every single drop of snow that lands on Antarctica remains here until it fractures off as an iceberg and floats North toward the world.

Icebergs are mostly white in hue, but some have areas of brilliant blue (an oddly tropical turquoise) and rare bits of black ice bob in the water. Under pressure of snow the ice becomes denser, reflecting blue first, and then the entire spectrum.

Cold slows the pace of many things: molecular movement, corrosion, metabolism, but icebergs are not sluggish monoliths. After several hours of tromping around Cuverville Island, home of the largest Gentoo penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, we took the last zodiac back to the ship. The ice had moved in while we were ashore, and the zodiac struggled through the quickly closing bergs. Ice moves quickly in Antarctica, and together with wind, they rule the seas.

Life in a Day

My everyday life is mostly the same. The routines, sights, and thoughts don’t change much from day to day. In Antarctica each day feels like an entire lifetime. I see dozens of things I’ve never seen before, experience a range of emotions I rarely feel. Immersed in this sea of new information, all my energy is focused on staying afloat. Like a baby or toddler, my brain is constantly absorbing and expanding, and the only pause is sleep.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Life comes from the water in Antarctica. What inhibits life on land—the cold and windy climate—enriches life in the sea. The Antarctic Ocean is the most nutrient-rich and biologically productive sea on the planet. It also hosts the simplest food chain, everybody eats krill. This crustacean is the base ingredient of every Antarctic animal’s lunch: fish, birds, penguins, seals, and whales.

To follow the wildlife we follow the water. We travel frequently by Zodiac; they’re the best way to get us on land and close to icebergs. In these black rafts I feel most vulnerable, clinging to the ropes as they whiz along the surface of the cold, cold water.

Twice we’ve paddled around in kayaks. This is a rare gift of independence—and silence. In the kayaks we can hear icebergs sizzle in the sun and penguins porpoise out of the water.

Our ship is a magnet for seabirds. Cape Petrels are our constant chaperones. At the edge of the ice, the pure white Snow Petrel swoops in for an appearance. Close to land, the Antarctic Tern darts and dives. Why are they attracted to ships? Maybe it’s the propellers churning up water, maybe it’s the way we push through the wind, or maybe it’s because we’re a sign of life.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Antarctic Circle

We crossed the Antarctic Circle at 7:30 this morning: 66° 33’ 39”. A cheer went up on the bridge. From this point South, on the longest day of the year, the sun will not set.

This is the earliest in the season the crew has ever crossed the circle, the furthest south they have ever ventured at this date. The effects of global warming experienced firsthand.

What is the allure of this arbitrary line? Is it the distance from the rest of the world and the rarity of venturing there? The barely faded footsteps of Captain James Cook and the first Antarctic explorers? More than two million people live North of the Arctic Circle, the more accessible sibling, but there are no permanent residents South of the Antarctic Circle.

In this twenty-first century, it remains a terrestrial frontier.

Pack Ice

When the sea’s temperature falls almost two full degrees below freezing, the salt crystallizes out of the water and the surface of the ocean freezes. This is pack ice.

We were wrapping up a photography workshop when the ship started to list strongly. I knew right away the stabilizers were off, which meant we were in the ice. I ran to the bridge. What I saw was astonishing. The entire sea was clogged with ice floes. It was no longer the sea, but now the parched and cracked earth of the desert, the pockmarked surface of the moon. This enormous body of water was masquerading as its inverse.

It doesn’t appear to be fluid or passable, but the ship moves through these loosely joined puzzle pieces Like cannon fire, the ship collides with ice. Glasses clang, the ship rattles. Waves don’t break through. Instead, the entire surface undulates like the surface of a cake, cracked and solid on top, but molten just beneath the surface. Is it solid or liquid, or something in between? Antarctica is made of oobleck. Captain Skog calls it porridge; to me it looks like a primordial stew.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Why Here?

Some people expand your world. Usually they are teachers, sometimes they are parents, hopefully, they are friends. These people push you in some way—encourage you to grow. Maybe it’s intellectually, or culturally, or even physically. And sometimes, it’s geographically.

We are here because of our friendship with two remarkable people. Helene Frichot and (Captain) Leif Skog exposed us to this Southernmost Continent through their intense bond to it in work, love, and life. Before their presence in my life, it never occurred to me to conceive of a voyage to Antarctica, let alone realize it. Antarctica is part of their everyday world, and they are gifted and passionate ambassadors of this remote place. Coming here has changed me—or at least invigorated me. The remoteness of place, the ruggedness of ice and seas, the strength of forces, the stark beauty, alert me of the drama of this planet and the miracle of living.

We came here to Antarctica for many reasons, some superficial, some not. The obvious one is the occasion of our 40th birthdays and our ten years of marriage. The less obvious is my heightened feelings of life’s brevity since my father’s passing. I wear my mortality like a new haircut, it feels strange, but I’ll get used to it, and it will transform as it grows in. Antarctica is a new hairstyle, a different hat; it alters what’s there, rearranges what I can’t change, directs growth in a new direction.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Storm at Sea

There was no landing on Deception Island, and there will be no landings today at all. We are in a storm of hurricane proportions in the great Southern Ocean. The wind gusts are over 100 miles per hour and the swells over 20 feet high. It’s the captain’s show now, no naturalist lectures, no bird watching, no penguins—the action is on the bridge. Beyond the storm, the only conversations are of the James Caird, the 22 foot rowboat Ernest Shackleton and five men sailed for 16 days and over 1300 kilometers in seas such as these.

Lunch was sparsely attended. One person fell to the ground, glasses and silverware flew off the table, tables upended, and dishes smashed in the kitchen. The waves crash over the windows, and the spray reaches the bridge. It’s much less dramatic from the bridge, as one feels truly on top of the storm, but it’s much more intoxicating and mesmerizing from that perch. The robust frothy waves gallop in from all sides like an endless herd of horses or buffalo—powerful and unstoppable.

Deception Island

We sailed into Deception Island this evening. An active volcano, the island is doughnut shaped—the doughnut hole, the flooded caldera of the original volcano. To enter the cove, the ship must maneuver through Neptune’s Bellows, a narrow passage narrowed even further by Ravens Rock, a large rock just under the surface of the ocean. More than one wreck has occurred here. Deception Island is a favored landing spot because of its unique geology, hot springs, and old whaling station, abandoned after the volcano’s most recent eruption in 1969. Too deep and too windy to anchor, the captain and his crew steered the ship in a circle all night long.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

First Steps

We loaded into the Zodiacs ten at a time, swathed in layers of Gore-tex and neoprene like Antarctic space suits. The opening in the side of the ship was an opening to an inhospitable environment, a breach in civilization. We sat on the edge of the oversized inner tube, bouncing along only inches from the frigid water. Looking back at the ship from the zodiac was like seeing Earth from space, watching our safe haven recede further and further away.

Stepping out onto Aitcho Island felt like stepping out onto the moon—if the moon was densely populated with penguins. Chinstraps and Gentoos strut along with complete disregard for the humans gawking and clicking away; celebrities ignoring the paparazzi. Rookeries blanket the island in small breeding colonies. The penguins have only one chance a year at parenthood, so they get a head start by revisiting their old nests. Penguins are very particular about their domestic environment, and like to gather specific rocks and arrange them just so; home decorating Antarctic style! The wind whipped across the island, freezing our fingers, chaffing our skin, but the penguins didn’t stir. They remained, lying on their eggs, on a pile of rocks, on an island in the middle of the Antarctic Ocean; the indigent inhabitants of a hostile land.


Today, our third day at sea, we finally came upon land. It was just after breakfast and we were gathered in the lounge for an ornithology lecture. At the shout of land, everyone ran to the bridge and foredeck to witness the sight of glaciated rock rising up from the ocean—the South Shetland Archipelago. Seeing land after two full days on the open sea is exhilarating. It’s been fewer than one hundred years since Captain William Smith and the crew of the Williams discovered the Shetland Islands in 1819, and it’s easy to understand the elation of the crew upon first seeing these islands. It’s so wild and remote in the Antarctic: we’ve seen no other vessels, no other signs of life except the seabirds that follow the ship. Out of nowhere, like heat lightening in the sky, there was land.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Explorer

History warns against the Maiden Voyage.

We join the Explorer on her first trip to Antarctic waters. Another Explorer, the hardy red ship that began tourist travel to the Antarctic in the Nineteen-Sixties, was also the first ship to sink in Antarctic waters. Which it did almost one year ago today in a location very close to where we are now.

But our ship is no stranger to polar conditions. She began her life as a Norwegian ferry above the Arctic Circle, before her purchase, gutting, reinforcement and renovation. The Explorer is elegant in design and performance. Her stabilizers, two underwater wings that extend 15 feet beyond the ship, eliminate the port-starboard motion. 6000 gross tons, over 300 feet long, she carries with her 90 passengers and an equal number of crew. Captain Skog says she is in the prime of her life.

The Southern Ocean

At the Southern tip of South America, the closest point to the Antarctic continent, we boarded our ship the National Geographic Explorer. Only an inch or so away on the map, the Antarctic Peninsula looks so near, but the shortest distance of our entire journey promises to be the longest—and the hardest.

All the oceans of the world mix in the Southern Ocean. Some say that all five oceans are really one, merging as they do down here at the bottom of the world. The Southern Ocean rings the Antarctic Continent, and you must cross it to reach the Southern Continent. Unlike the Arctic, which is a sea surrounded by land, the Antarctic is a continent ringed by an ocean. Uninterrupted by land masses, the winds blow strong and westerly.

It is the end of our second day at sea, and we are still crossing the Drake Passage. Petrels and Albatrosses follow the ship, hundreds of miles from land. They swoop and dive, seemingly immune to the great winds. It’s hard to type, the swells are about twenty feet high right now, and the wind is 26 Knots. Leif (Captain Skog) says this is normal, and it will get much rougher tonight, with waves thirty feet high and winds to 40 Knots.

We have already crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the physical boundary into Antarctica. This is the place where the warm waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic Oceans meet the cold waters of the Antarctic. The convergence is marked by a sudden drop in the temperature of the water and of course, the air. The water drops from six degrees Celsius to three, a seemingly small difference, but really quite significant. The cold water of the Antarctic is “poised between solid and liquid.”

Monday, December 1, 2008

Passing Through South America

To get to Antarctica, we needed to travel the length of South America. We began in Santiago, in the heat of early summer. Rimmed by the rocky peaks of the Andes, Ammi mused on returning in winter to ski. In the Mercado Central we ate pulpo—thick slices of octopus sautéed with narrow slivers of red pepper, and slurped a bowl of baby eels out of a scorching iron pot. We wandered the vibrant streets of the Bellavista neighborhood before winding up the road to La Chascona, the city refuge Pablo Neruda shared with his third wife Matilde. Neruda’s casa is playful and surreal; a gutted television functions as a diorama for silverware, a pair of comically oversized men’s shoes decorates the barroom.

Down at the end—or the beginning, of the continent is Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Magellan named it from the many fires of the local Yamana tribe while circumnavigating South America in the Sixteenth Century. Ushuaia is on an island nestled in this Patagonia region of South America, and separated from the rest of Argentina by the Andes. This grand mountain range extends from tip to toe of the continent and continues again in Antarctica. A length of knitting that picks up again after a dropped stitch. The vistas of Ushuaia are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Long Channels of water run along chains of mountains, like bony fingers extending into the sea. Nothing here is familiar. The forests are Beech, peat bogs dot the landscape, the birds fly North for the winter.

We were excited to get right on the ship and set off for Antarctica, but instead boarded a catamaran to cruise the fjords of Tierra del Fuego. The unusual landscape and piles of sea lions quickly transformed our stymied feelings into ones of awe. This is the first lesson of Antarctica. It isn’t direct, and you cannot move quickly over the great distance to get to your destination. You must pass through many places to get to Antarctica, and that journey is essential to the voyage.

Friday, November 28, 2008

66° South

The existence of Antarctica wasn’t confirmed until 1820.

The Southern Continent was an assumption, a theory, a guess proposed by early Greek philosophers who, knowing that the earth was a sphere, reasoned that a large land mass covered its Southern half. They named this land mass Terra Australis Incognita - The Unknown Southland, and its proposed outline on charts until the Nineteenth Century was labeled ED (existence doubtful) and PD (position doubtful).

Captain James Cook first set off to explore the extreme Southern latitudes in 1768. He didn’t find it, but he did prove where it was not. Two years into his second voyage in 1775, Cook made it to the Antarctic circle, 66° 33’ 39” South, and beyond another five degrees. He declared that no good would come to anyone who persevered further.

And so we head to Antarctica now, an easier travel, but still long, even by today’s standards: three flights, three countries, two continents, and 24 hours, just to reach our ship’s port of embarkation. We journey from Seattle to Dallas, to Santiago, to reach Ushuaia, Argentina, the Southern tip of South America—and the closest point to the Antarctic Continent.