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Antarctica Safari without Borders

A Quark Expeditions Russian icebreaker introduced me to the earth’s overwhelming polar underside: stadium-sized, sculpted blue and green icebergs drifting past…

Finally Hitting Bottom

Penguins are happier than clams. Now I know why.

Antarctica is a frozen otherworld safari without borders. A Quark Expeditions Russian icebreaker introduced me to the earth’s overwhelming polar underside: stadium-sized, sculpted blue and green icebergs drifting past, thundering, skyscraper-height glaciers over jagged mountains pouring into a sea of breaching whales and affable penguins. This continent gives new meaning to hitting bottom, way WAY down under.

The planet’s final frontier is 1.5 times larger than the United States, and that circumference doubles during the winter freeze. Its ice sheet is our largest body of ice – an area of about 13.3 million sq km formed through snowfall accumulating and compressing over millions of years. It holds ninety percent of the earth’s ice and seventy percent of its fresh water. At its thickest, the ice is over 4.5km deep, a colossal cap covering the continent and exerting massive influence on world weather, substantially more than the Arctic region ice cap.

Here there are birds that can’t fly (penguins) and mammals that can’t walk (seals); a pollution-free environment where the wildlife returns your ogle. There’s no native population, so any environmental degradation is caused solely by outsiders. With limited history of abuse excepting whalers and seal clubbers active until the mid 1900’s animals don’t fear humans. Wildlife endures unimaginably harsh climate conditions. The UN sponsored, 1959 Antarctic treaty mandated that everything south of 60-degree southern latitude may only be explored for peaceful purposes: no hunting, fishing, industry, exporting, oil drilling, or weapons testing. Mingling with penguins, however, penguins willing, is permissible.

Floating into this winter wonderland of crystal glacier palaces is a powerful sensory overload. Amazingly, Antarctica’s February daytime temperatures were warmer than New York’s, with the mercury rising above freezing and sometimes into the 50’s. Serrated, Rocky Mountain style geology juts up from the ocean, with quarter-mile thick glacial shelves creeping though their valleys and slowly but surely spilling like frozen waterfalls into salt water. In the midst of it all there are beaches where several Zodiac excursions make landfall daily. One stopover was on a bleak, disused whaling station.

Every landfall was absolute splendor. A privileged guest on solo hikes, I met three thousand Gentoo penguins quacking like an army chorus of kazoo trumpets, flapping their wing-fins aimlessly and showing off their regal posture. A few of them napped. The Kazoo/quack soundtrack melded with whimpering seals, yapping arctic gulls and terns, the thunder of fracturing glaciers and the steam-release phish from whale blowholes. Whalebones were scattered on the beach as far as the eye can see.

At first, this colony of Gentoo penguins seemed to be only spying their omnipresent foe, five fur seals snoozing on five nearby boulders. Strolling calmly and keeping a respectful distance invited them to waddle within a foot of my seat on a rock, return my stare, and inspire a peak wildlife encounter. After a five-minute staring match, the four in the front row tilted their heads curiously, kazoo-ed me, tilted their heads back to the other side, and kazoo-ed again. A curious ciao.

Penguins cleverly tackle the issues of their environment. Though they can outrun most humans, they seem a tad goofy on land. But with their wings evolutionarily transformed into flippers, penguins are a bird group well adapted to aquatic life. They are incredibly efficient swimmers and divers who feed in high seas, so they are, in a way, fish out of water while waddling around their coastal nesting colonies.

They handle their emotional quandaries with games of tag. In Darwinian terms, these frequent games of tag are actually parents running away from two or three closely pursuing, hungry chicks to see which one is stronger and faster (or hungrier), and more likely to survive the winter. The reward for determined tag victors, winner of the selection procedure, is mom or dad regurgitating a snack in their mouth. Sometimes a sprint-waddling parent or chick trips and falls forward onto their belly and immediately initiate a paddling motion to maintain their same speed as paddling toboggans on the snow or ice. Mother Nature’s least remunerated entertainers are also the ultimate survivalists.

In their first summer of life, these black-and-white suited comedians molt: stand around waiting for their new suit to arrive, i.e., shed fluffy baby feathers and grow into waterproof skin. They stand around leisurely shooting the breeze, it seems, accepting your decision to do the same thing. Photographing penguins is similar to focusing on a moderately amused child, you lose them if you break the spell.

Visitors are urged to maintain a respectable fifteen-foot distance from all wildlife (I respected this, but didn’t shoo curious visitors). Territorial fur seals would first bemoan my presence by whimpering like cold puppies. The protest mounted with throaty, menacing growls and culminated with mock lunges and whompy gallops toward me. I’d witnessed several mock, snarling, biting and head-whacking wrestling rituals, and when one of these 300-pound beasts made a few thumping gallops in my direction, I ran.

On another solo excursion, hiking for hours along a 100-foot wide, black pebble beach sandwiched between a soupy bay of iceberg bits and a ½ mile-high glacier, another penguin theme materialized. Antarctic shores are littered with whalebones, the disturbing legacy of a merciless, now outlawed whaling industry. Often, you see several penguins holding court, ceremony style, near upright whale vertebra. Once you develop an eye for it, you notice many penguin tributes to departed whales. They guard the bones. So as I sat there with two hundred penguins, some guarding whale remains, others umpiring tag or anticipating seal awakenings, it also dawned on me that this penguin/seal coexistence is a metaphor for some American marriages: the hunter lazily lounging amongst their prey.

Fur seals resemble handsome, mouse-faced dolphins with amphibious flippers and a rotting sardine/musk scent. Know someone like that? Rousing sleeping seals is like waking someone hungover. [Note: Female leopard seals, for instance, outsize and outweigh males times two at 3.6m/590kg]. The penguins colonize within feet of the potentially deadly seals, but keep the peace. Many potential volatile situations are brushed under the carpet, likely to surface later in therapy.

The Lords of the Ice breed and breathe here. Antarctica is the iceberg factory of the southern ocean: lips of gigantic glaciers slowly creep forward to oceanic edges as rivers of ice and break off in chunks ranging from car-sized bits to the 183×15-mile behemoth that recently broke from the Ross Sea ice shelf, and has since broke into a few pieces, each one still bigger than Connecticut. On average, there are 350,000 bergs in the Southern Ocean. Some are perfect rectangles, icy sea buttes, other are Gaudi-esque sculpted masterpieces – every one of them a beguiling Rorschach test. Ninety percent of an iceberg looms underwater where nearly frozen seawater melts, polishes and sculpts the undersea portion until the berg becomes top-heavy and flips/inverts to expose unfathomable frosty art. Organic material trapped in ice dictates color hues from green to blue to black ice, which is actually crystal clear. Then the mighty wind takes its turn sculpting. Constantly evolving glaciers and icebergs resonate with personality: their soundtracks include creaking doors, bellowing groans, quaint moans, accelerating clicking, big bolts being tightened, and hammering. None mimicked cell phones, alarm clocks, newscasts or human whining.

Getting to and fro the ultimate disconnection from civilization requires crossing the infamous Drake Passage – the tourist filter. The two to three day journey from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica leaves Ushuaia, Argentina via the Beagle Channel and spans the turbulent intersection of the Atlantic and Pacific with predictable gale or storm force winds and gigantic swells. This ocean crossing over an undulating plain of dark blue aquamarine might heaved, pitched, rocked and rolled the ship as if it were inside a slow motion paint-shaker; the tilt alarm sounded when rolls exceeding 40-degrees. Crossing the Drake, as 30-foot swells crashed across the deck and onto the bridge’s windshield, I bonded with the captain and brushed up on my Russian. Standing outside on the roof of the bridge, in the midst a raging sea of tidal waves tossing the 69.7m x 12.8m ship around like a toy, was more than an adrenaline rush. I sensed a tinge of what pioneering explorers faced for years: the unknown. The Tilt-O-Whirl obstacle course encouraged most of the 45 passengers to be either strapped into their beds or lumber about the ship wearing mild panic faces and be far less chatty than usual. Locomotion for the daunted during the crossing resembled severely intoxicated, loopy, spastic zombies. The journey to Aunt Arctic was queasy for some, but not the Albatross, who can weather any storm, have wingspans approaching 12 feet, and go 7 years without touching land.

Departing the peninsula for the return trip to the tip of South America was a grand finale: groups of penguins swimming like porpoises, seals peering from mini iceberg islands, whales breaching in every scan of the horizon, flocks of low-flying birds, and a setting sun behind alien clouds. All on cue. By the way, several species of whales are making comebacks here. Though they’re upstaged by penguins, it’s equally earth-shaking when your kayak or zodiac gets close enough for them to roll over on their backs and look at you. You can even smell their breath. Whales won’t flip a boat over unless it disturbs a sleeping whale.

There’s no one to stamp your passport here; the white continent remains as ripe for exploration and adventure as when the first Europeans reached its icy shore two centuries ago. This is how our faultless planet intended on passing time, enduring eons. Polar travel is a flash into an inexplicable, magical ice kingdom dream. But it’s not all magic down here. In this age of extinctions, the southern ocean’s icy breath blows a wake up call: global warming and the ozone hole widening over Antarctica are arguably the most alarming problems facing all life on earth. If this ice sheet were to completely melt, the accumulated water would lead to a mean sea-level rise of 60m throughout the world, drowning many of the major global cities and leading to massive displacement.

I came face-to-face with the urgency of melting ice. The U.S. government is in total denial that our neglect is accelerating the melting of the icecaps, especially after the Kyoto Protocol was ratified and the USA was the only first-world holdout.

Your mind wanders during ice time. Caught in this argument for the ages, I said “wait” to no one in particular. At that, the penguin before me nodded to his pal, quacked in my face, spun on a heel, and waddled away to resume holding court by a whalebone.

Bruce Northam’s Globetrotter Dogma provides 100 canons for escaping the rat race – bookstores or via Bruce’s site

Bruce Northam

He's an independent travel journalist and author who has journeyed through more than 100 countries on seven continents.