Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Why Antarctica? Because it's there.


In 1911, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, attempting to become the first man to reach the South Pole, sailed with four men aboard the Terra Nova to Antarctica. After trekking halfway across the white continent and reaching the pole, Scott discovered a Norwegian flag had been planted upon it 33 days earlier by his arch-rival, Roald Amundsen. On the way back to their ship, Scott and his men perished from starvation and cold.

In 1915, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in Antarctic pack ice and sank, forcing him and his men to camp on ice floes. Once those melted, they were able to row lifeboats to Elephant Island where they survived on a diet of penguins. Knowing his crew faced certain death during the upcoming winter, Shackleton rowed a 20-foot boat 830 miles to South Georgia Island, whose mountains he had to cross, and, amazingly, found help who returned and rescued his men. 

On January 4,  2024, I boarded a Princess cruise ship to Antarctica. One morning, I was annoyed to discover the buffet had run out of apricot jam leaving me no choice but to slather my croissant with strawberry jam or orange marmalade, neither of which I am particularly fond. 

Great achievement always requires great sacrifice. 

I’m on Day 12 of a 16-day cruise to Antarctica. I arrived in Buenos Aires Jan. 3; boarded the 16-story Sapphire Princess the next day; spent Jan. 5 in Montevideo, Uruguay; then sailed two days to Stanley in the Falkland Islands where I spent a day on a windswept beach observing a colony of penguins. That was followed by a day-and-a-half sail to Shackleton’s Elephant Island, about 150 miles north of the Antarctic peninsula. 

That afternoon, the captain sailed 100 miles out of his way to take his 2492 passengers within a few hundred feet of the A23a, the world’s largest iceberg. One thousand feet thick, it is, at 1500 square miles, roughly 30 percent the size of Connecticut. (Having survived 30 winters in that God-forsaken place, I’m here to tell you Connecticut can be colder in October than the A23a the day I visited it.) The A23a broke off from the continent in 1986, promptly sunk to the sea floor, and didn’t rise until a few years ago, when it suddenly bobbed up like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction’s bathtub scene and began drifting north parallel to the Antarctic peninsula. At some point it will move into the south Atlantic and melt.

Over the next three-and-a-half days, as the Sapphire sailed along the Antarctic coast,  in and out of bays dotted with baby blue icebergs calved from glaciers, I saw thousands of penguins, countless whales (both blue and orca), seals, sea birds, towering white mountains and, happily, the reappearance of apricot jam the day after I assumed that, like Scott and his men, it was gone forever.

On Saturday, Jan. 14, the captain headed the ship north across the Drake Passage, and the next evening sailed past Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Yesterday the Sapphire docked at Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city (Puerto Williams, Chile, is a few miles farther south but with only two thousand inhabitants, it’s not technically a city), and today we are anchored just off Punta Arenas, Chile. Every day since we left Antarctica has been grayer, rainier and/or snowier and foggier than the day before but I didn’t come down here to get a tan— I get all the sun I need in Florida —  so the nasty weather is not only to be expected but enjoyable. 

Four days from now the Sapphire will dock in San Antonio, Chile, and I’ll fly home that night.

Why did I trek 8000 miles to the only continent that has no permanent inhabitants, no cultural activities, no restaurants and — horrors — not even a Disney theme park?

As George Mallory replied in 1924 to a reporter who asked why he wanted to be the first man to scale Mt. Everest: Because it’s there. (Like Scott, his quest ended in tragedy. It wasn’t until 1953 that Everest was conquered.) 

I’ve visited the other six continents. Antarctica presumably, will be my last unless some smart-ass explorer discovers another one that’s been hidden away all these years, by which time I may be too old to travel to it. 

Plus, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the thought of a pristine frozen continent twice the size of Australia that, until the 1700s, nobody had any idea  existed.

My mom’s aunt Grace, a teacher who died in the early 1960s, left behind a collection of every National Geographic magazine published between 1917 and her death. Mom, who couldn’t bear to throw them away, brought them home and stashed them in our basement. By the time I was a teenager, I had read them all, cover to cover, and was particularly intrigued with Antarctica and have yearned to see it ever since.

For years I’ve been begging my wife to join me on a trip, and I was starting to think I was finally winning her over until a year ago when a rogue wave in the treacherous Drake passage struck a cruise ship and washed a passenger relaxing in her stateroom out to sea. That did it for her but, to her credit, when I found a great deal in the late fall on a solo cabin, she told me to book it. So I did. 

Having spent four days sailing through the Antarctic peninsula and surrounding islands, I’m more intrigued than ever. It is — this is the only word for it and it’s inadequate — awesome, beyond anything I could imagine. 

There are two ways civilians can experience the continent: 

1. By a small expedition ship specially built to withstand the climatic challenges of the Antarctic. The expedition ships drop anchor just off the coast and shuttle passengers via zodiac boats to the shore, where they can walk among penguins and seals and in some cases, even camp out with them. A lovely idea but not one that appeals to this thin-blooded Floridian who dons a polar-tek whenever the temperature dips below 70. 

2. By a conventional cruise ship. Princess, Celebrity, Holland-America and several other lines offer “sail-by” cruises that pass within a few hundred feet of the shore as passengers stand on deck snapping pictures and watching wildlife through binoculars.

The cost difference for an expedition versus a sail-by? An expedition cruise can easily cost five, ten, even twenty times as much as a sail-by of comparable length. And while it would add another notch to my travel belt to say I put my boots to the ground on the continent, I spent more than 72 hours within a few hundred feet of it and saw everything I came to see, and more, from the upper decks of the ship. One day, I was so mesmerized by the scenery I stayed up there for 12 hours, ducking inside only for hot coffee or tea and fresh baked cookies.

Even though it’s summer in Antarctica and the sun never fully sets, it was cold as all get-out, but I came well prepared with a new puff jacket, gloves, battery-powered hand-warmers, waterproof boots, insulated socks, long johns (not easy to find in Florida, believe me), thermal sweaters and a leather flight cap with ear flaps and a chin strap that makes me look like a crazed kamikaze pilot. 

It can be a bit lonely, even though I’m surrounded by fellow passengers representing more than 40 countries from the other six continents. If I’m feeling sociable, I can share a communal table in one of the five formal dining rooms, go to the casino (which to my regret I did one night), play trivia, workout in the gym, attend a stage show, or grab a stool at one of the dozen or so bars scattered across the ship. When I want to be alone, I can eat at a single table in the buffet, or retreat to my stateroom and watch a movie and/or write a blog post.

The bottom of the world isn’t exactly the kind of place one goes to be social and, truthfully, I am enjoying the solitude, generally preferring my own company, doing exactly what I want to do when I want to do it. 

And with that, I’m going to wind this up so I can be on the top deck as the ship sails out of Punta Arenas in a few minutes. Looking out my stateroom window, I see the fog has lifted and there are, I’m told, snow-capped Andes peaks and glaciers to see as we head out into the Pacific for the long trek up the Chilean coast.

But before I do, I’d like to give a shout-out to my great aunt, Grace Matilda Tate.  The farthest you ever traveled from Montgomery County, Missouri, was to the teachers college in Kirksville, Mo., where you earned your teaching degree sometime around 1915, but you clearly knew there was a big world out there, a world you’d never see, so you subscribed to National Geographic.

You couldn’t have known that if you had bequeathed me a million dollars, you couldn’t have left anything that would have done more to nourish my young soul than those musty stacks of black and white magazines I spent hours pouring over, dreaming about a world I hoped would someday be mine.

And it has been.

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