For most of us, the land mass called Antarctica is a name we vaguely remember from school Geography, but if asked to name all the continents in the world, most of us would forget to name Antarctica among the continents. That was certainly true in my case, until a friend asked me if I would like to join him and a couple of others on this trip to Antarctica that they had planned. Now this guy belongs to the set of people who meticulously plan their travel, and indeed their whole lives painstakingly, get the best possible travel deals, and even pack their bags months in advance. I, on the other hand, am on a perpetual random walk through life, but have been through some wonderful experiences, thanks to such friends. A trip to Antarctica was vaguely on my bucket list, so when this friend asked me, I jumped at it. And then as I found out more and more, I realized that this trip was going to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
A trip to Antarctica was vaguely on my bucket list, so when this friend asked me, I jumped at it.
First some facts about Antarctica, the seventh continent on our planet. The most mind boggling fact about Antarctica is its size.I call it mind boggling because in spite of its sheer expanse, it has been relegated to one of the miscellaneous facts of geography in our consciousness. I had never imagined, for example, that it takes up 10% of the land surface on the earth, is almost 1.9 times the size of Australia, and 1.5 times the size of the US. It is covered by a layer of ice that averages about 2 km in thickness, and is 5 km thick at its thickest. The ice covering Antarctica accounts for almost 90% of the world’s fresh water supply, and yet it is called a desert because it receives even less precipitation than the Sahara desert. The lowest temperature of -81° C ever recorded on earth was recorded at Russia’s Vostok station in Antarctica. There is a treaty signed by 38 countries that prohibits any military activity, mining, nuclear explosions or disposal of nuclear waste of any kind. These 38 countries, of which India is one, have research stations in Antarctica. There is no human habitation there, except the people manning the research stations, numbering at most a few thousand at any time of the year.
As a tourist, you can get to Antarctica by air from a number of places, or by sea either from New Zealand or Argentina. We chose an ocean cruise from Argentina, mainly because it is the shortest sea route to get there. The Northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in West Antarctica is the northernmost point on the continent, and it juts out as if to reach out to shake hands with the Southern tip of Argentina across the Drake Passage. We joined the Quark Expeditions cruise ship which was to be our home base for the next 10 days, at Ushuaia, a small picturesque town with a population of around 60,000.
Ushuaia is bounded on the North by the Martial Mountain range, and has to its South the Beagle Channel, named after Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle, which visited Ushuaia during its survey of the South American Coast. It is the southernmost city in the world, and you can go to the tourist office in the centre of Ushuaia and get a stamp on your passport which says “Southernmost City in the World”.
The Endeavour, our cruise ship was a medium sized vessel with around 200 passengers and 150 crew members. It had seven decks stacked on top of each other, with a large restaurant, a library cum lounge, and a couple of large halls, where the tour company had organized lectures and presentations by experts about the history of Antarctica and the different species of penguins, whales and seals found in and around this part of the continent.
The crossing of the Drake Passage from Ushuaia to the Northern tip of Antarctica takes about 60 hours depending on weather and wind conditions. We had been warned that the sea is sometimes very rough on this passage, and advised to have sea sickness tablets handy. Luckily for us, we had excellent weather, and apart from some pitching and rolling of the vessel at night giving you an eerie feeling of being rocked in a cradle, the crossing was comfortable. There is nothing much to do during the day while you are on your way across the passage, except listening to the presentations, and going out on the deck and watching the albatrosses and different kinds of gulls following the ship and swooping down to catch fish every once in a while. If you are lucky, you can spot groups of Orca whales swimming alongside the ship. I did spot a bunch of whales once, but unless you have your camera ready at all times, you are likely to miss a good photo-op. Well, I missed it.
It is the southernmost city in the world, and you can go to the tourist office in the centre of Ushuaia and get a stamp on your passport which says “Southernmost City in the World”.
On the second day we had the first sighting of a large iceberg the size of a multi-storied IT office building in Bengaluru.
Icebergs are pieces of ice that have broken away from the mainland and drifted miles away.Just a month back it was reported that a large iceberg, about 500 sq km in size is about to break away. This is one of the top 10 icebergs ever recorded in terms of size. Needless to say, like many other disasters, global warming is supposed to be the cause. Closer to the shore you see icebergs that look like abstract sculptures in an art museum in varying shades of blue that the compressed ice takes when light passes through it at different angles.
On the third evening after leaving Ushuaia we pass by the South Shetland Islands, where we will stop on our return journey to Ushuaia. We reach Cuverville Island on the fourth morning, where we drop anchor. We will spend the next four days in this region, making landings at different places on the mainland and at assorted islands. During these four days, once in the morning and once in the afternoon the ship drops anchor around a kilometre or so away from land, and the 12 seater rubber dinghies called zodiacs are lowered by crane from the top deck of the ship into the water. Advance parties from the crew then go out to scout around for a suitable spot for everyone to land, and come back to the ship to get all the passengers. After spending a few hours walking around in the snow, watching penguin colonies and seals, we come back to the ship in the dinghies for lunch or dinner.
When I signed up for the trip, I had thought that it would take six months of arduous training of the kind I had done for my Himalayan treks in the past. As it turned out, this was more like a five star luxury cruise, with optional bits of adventure like a trek and some mountaineering, one night of overnight camping at one of the islands, and kayaking thrown in. As it happened, we were late signing up for these activities (apart from the fact that they came at an additional, steep cost) and they were all full up. So the only “adventure” that I was able to indulge in was the polar plunge, which I will come to in a minute.
So the only “adventure” that I was able to indulge in was the polar plunge, which I will come to in a minute.
When you mention Antarctica, you think of penguins, and we spent a great deal of time at penguin colonies in different parts of the mainland and islands, accompanied by a French ornithologist who has spent a good part of his life studying penguins.
There are three types of the birds found in this part of Antarctica. The Emperor penguins, which are the largest in size among the species and can be up to 4 feet tall and weigh more than 20 kilos, are seen in this region sometimes, though very rarely. The most common are the smaller varieties called Gentoo and Chinstraps, so called because of black strips under their chins.
The Cuverville island has several penguin colonies. This is breeding season for the penguins, and the female penguins come on shore and lay two eggs in a nest made of pebbles and stones. Penguins live as couples, and when the female lays an egg, either the male or the female incubates the eggs, and depending on the type of penguin, either the male or female goes out into the sea to get food. Also, when the eggs are hatched, one of the pair gets food to feed the chicks. The eggs, and after the eggs are hatched, the chicks have to be protected from predatory birds like skuas, who hover around the penguin nests and try to snatch the eggs or the chicks. Whenever the skuas come close, the whole penguin community starts flapping their wings and making a huge racket to drive the skuas away. I took a video of a skua snatching an egg and flying away to a corner to have a good meal.
There are designated penguin “highways” where tourists are instructed not to encroach upon. The snow is soft, and there are also human highways which the tourists are supposed to restrict themselves to.
There are designated penguin “highways” where tourists are instructed not to encroach upon. The snow is soft, and there are also human highways which the tourists are supposed to restrict themselves to. At some places the two types of highways cross, and if a penguin is coming along, the human is supposed to wait and let the penguin cross. Penguins always have right of way in the Antarctic. There is plenty of opportunity to shoot videos of penguins walking around by themselves or in groups, and I make good the opportunity and take a number of still shots and videos. I got a few 3-5 minute long videos of groups of penguins waddling along the highways back from their excursions into the sea, making their way back to their colonies, some of them with tiny fish held in their beaks. I was lucky to get one of a baby penguin walking to the edge of a trench, stopping, looking around as if to see if its parents were watching, and then gingerly jumping across the trench, rather like a toddler that had just learnt to walk would.
On one of the excursions on the zodiacs we went looking for whales in the Graham passage, and are we lucky! Our zodiac driver today is a pleasant, athletic Canadian girl called Ali who must be in her thirties. So what would you like to see today, she asks. “A blue whale,” somebody jokes. We soon spot a whale in the distance that looks like a hump back. You could not see its entire length except when it stretches out to its whole length along the surface of the water, which is rare, as it keeps diving into the water, when you see its arched back, and surfacing every half a minute or so. It must have been about 15 or 20 feet in length. These whales make a snorting sort of sound when they blow water out of their snouts and come out of the water for air before making another dive.
There are a few people in standup paddle boats a few hundred metres away from us, and a couple of zodiacs, and the whale starts circling around them about 20 feet away from them. I ask Ali if she has heard of any incidents of a zodiac or a kayak being hit by a passing whale, because a whack from a whale tail would send a kayak flying into the air. She says she has never heard of such an incident. The people in our zodiacs are envious of their luck as everyone thinks we would have to be satisfied with a look at the whale from a distance. Ali tells us to be patient, because you never know what will happen, and our patience is soon rewarded because the whale comes close to us now and begins circling us. Once it even dives and passes underneath our zodiac. We also spot a pair of Minke whales in the distance. There isn’t much point approaching them, because Minke whales are known to be rather skittish, and run away from boats.
The high point of the cruise for me was the polar plunge. The plunge was the last thing I had intended to do on this trip. I am not one of those people who take cold water showers round the year, and in fact I shower with warm or hot water even in summer in Pune. We had not signed up for any of the activities like skiing or mountaineering, thinking that Antarctica was not the best place to start skiing or mountaineering if you had never done it before. As it turned out, mountaineering did not really involve any heavy duty climbing, and I could have easily done it, but by the time the cruise started, the group was already full and there were no places left. When the crew announced the polar plunge, I began wondering if I should try it. I had read somewhere that a thermal shock could induce a cardiac arrest in somebody who has a cardiac history. I consulted the ship doctor if there were any contra indications, and he assured me that he had never seen any medical emergencies caused by a plunge. Surprisingly, a large number of people had lined up for the plunge, and I decided to do it too.
The ship is docked in the Lemaire channel. There is hardly any wind and the waters are calm. The sun is out, and the air temperature must be around 0º C. You had to wear your swimming trunks and walk up to the gangway, where one of the members of the crew strapped a belt to your waist with a rope to tether you so that you could be pulled back to the ship if you drifted away after you jumped off. There was a long line for the jump and there was a general sense of excitement and perhaps a bit of apprehension.
The jump itself happened in a blur – I must have been in the water for not more than 3 or 4 seconds. The first sensation you have is of salt water in your mouth when you jump into the freezing water. You feel a little disoriented, and before you know you are pulled back by the tether towards the ladder. The doctor waits at the entrance to make sure that everyone coming back after the jump is OK. Somebody covers you with a towel as soon as you come out of the water, and that’s it. You are done!
What we saw of Antarctica was barely a tiny sliver on its edge, but the sights there have left a permanent imprint in my consciousness, and it would take a much more skilled writer than I am to create that impression in the mind’s eye of the reader. Many times during those ten days, I experienced the feeling of complete peace, of having no thoughts crowding my mind, and of being totally in the present moment, completely at one with the icy peaks surrounding me. Trying to describe the experience reminded me of the Zen saying that you can point a finger at the moon to show it, but the finger is not the moon!