Want to get an email when I write a new post? Type your address here:

Contact Me

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Subject

Your Message

South, Very South

On the nights when the seas were rough, I lay in the narrow bed in my cabin and imagined I was riding on the back of a dolphin as it leaped and plunged through the waves. My cabin was near the bow of the ship, and each pitch and yaw was accentuated by the percussive boom of the anchor banging against the metal hull. Midnight sunshine whispered through thick, overcast skies, filling the space between water and horizon with a faint, gray glow that crept into my porthole, only to be blotted out by the splash of the ocean as the Sea Adventurer cut into the polar night.

Less than a month earlier, I slept on a different kind of boat, the small, inflatable kind, rocking on the subtler currents of the Colorado River under a blanket of warm desert air. My clients for the eight-day rafting trip through Cataract Canyon were doctors and world travelers who’d been to both the Arctic and the Antarctic, and we traded stories of the south as we floated downstream. At the end of the trip, they offered to put me in touch with the owner of the company they’d traveled with, and wrote what must have been an effusive letter of introduction, for I spoke to Dave for only a few minutes before he offered me a position as a sort of assistant-expedition-leader-in-training on his upcoming Antarctic cruise. This was late September. The ship sailed October 17th. I finished out the rafting season and on my few days off rushed to pack, to buy cold weather gear, to book plane tickets, and on October 15th was on a plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I’d worked in Antarctica before: six months as a dishwashing supervisor in the cafeteria at McMurdo Station, the US research base on Ross Island. This cruise was the sort of experience I dreamed of during the long, florescent-lit hours spent scrubbing pots and making schedules, and I boarded the ship in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, giddy with expectation. The cruise had been designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance expedition, in which Shackleton and 27 men were set adrift—first on sea ice, then in 22-foot life boats—when their ship succumbed to the crushing pressure of the pack ice off the Antarctic coast, and sunk. Our 19-day “Spirit of Shackleton” expedition would trace the men’s journey to Elephant Island and South Georgia Island, where they eventually found help at a remote whaling station.  Along the way we’d also stop at the Falkland Islands (or, the Islas Malvinas, according to the Argentinian government, whose sovereignty claim is being weighed in international courts), and wind up on the Antarctic Peninsula, the place where icy dreams come true.

Our ship, the Sea Adventurer, was big, but the Southern Ocean is bigger. Three hundred feet long, 53 feet wide, with space for 117 passengers and 72 staff and crew, the ship sailed smoothly enough, but from the moment we left the sheltered waters of the Argentinian coast, movement was a constant. Navigating the ship’s passageways was like walking through a fun house; the floor rolled, plunged, tilted underfoot. Gravity could shift mid-step, and if you caught just the right moment on the spiral staircase between decks three and four, you could become weightless. Showering was an adventure: try washing your hair when you need one hand just for balance. One night we lost the entire dining room. Plates, glasses, cutlery, three dozen bottles of wine, pots of soup: flung to the floor by a precise one-two punch of the waves.

For the first week, the waves rolled along at our back, pushing us gently east toward the Falkland Islands. Hiking along the islands’ low, spiny ridges and white beaches, we visited the largest colony of black-browed albatross in the world, saw Magellanic, Gentoo, and rockhopper penguins, sea lions, and dolphins. My job was to help loading and unloading the Zodiacs (the inflatable, motorized dinghies that we used to ferry passengers from the anchored ship to land), and to mingle with the guests along the trails and beaches, watchful for slips, trips, and falls and people who wandered too far afield. On the ship, I was client relations, making sure passengers’ needs were being met, making conversation with them at meals and on the decks during the long days at sea. I was one of 15 guides, most of whom were seasoned polar veterans with expertise in birds, mammals, history, mountaineering, botany; they took turns giving informative presentations during our days at sea. Dave, our expedition leader, handled the planning and timing of the cruise, working with the ship’s captain to take advantage of fine weather and sea conditions, and strategically avoid the bad. There was some weather, though, that we couldn’t escape.

South Georgia is a crescent-shaped island on the northeastern edge of the Scotia Plate, a minor tectonic plate that runs east–west between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. Steep, mountainous, and ice covered, the island is known for its katabatic, or fall, winds, formed when the prevailing westerlies collide with South Georgia’s glaciers, cool rapidly, and then fall through the island’s couloirs and valleys in hurricane-force gales. Our first morning at South Georgia, the winds screamed off the island, ripping at the sea’s surface and driving walls of white spray across the ship. From my bed in the ship’s bow, I heard the anchor drop and lift, drop and lift again, trying and failing to find a stable hold on the seafloor against the 152 mph gusts. We tried three times to find a sheltered landing site before retreating to the relative calm of the open ocean, where the ship traced long, slow circles for the rest of the day, and passengers took photos of the island from a distance. It was here that Shackleton and five men landed after 17 days at sea in their tiny lifeboat, on the ragged edge of death, only to realize that the whaling station they hoped to reach was on the other side of the island. In one final burst of desperate energy, they crossed the island’s icy interior, navigating by memory and intuition, and at last stumbled into Stromness Harbor, into safety.

When the winds subsided, we raced to take advantage of the weather and made landing after landing over the course of three days, exploring black sand beaches streaked with spring snow, and tussocky hillsides that hummed with the cries of thousands of king penguins. Fur seals watched us suspiciously, baring their red, rabid mouths and sharp teeth if we got too close. Elephant seals made enormous, flatulent noises with their mouths as they staked out territory and pursued mates. Nesting albatross chicks tested their 6-foot wings; a dozen different species of seabirds wheeled and keened overhead. At Grytviken Harbor, an abandoned whaling station on the northern edge of the island, we visited the grave of Shackleton himself, and of Frank Wild, his second-in-command. In driving, horizontal snow, I poured champagne into paper cups and joined the rest of the ship’s company in toasting the explorers.

If Shackleton’s journey to and across South Georgia Island is difficult to imagine, the privations felt by the men he left behind on Elephant Island are impossible. 800 miles to the southeast of South Georgia, Elephant Island is a hunk of ice-covered cliff. The beach where 22 men huddled beneath upturned lifeboats for four months has since been eroded away by the sea. From our spectator seats in the Zodiacs, it was impossible to fathom the months of wet, freezing misery the men endured, waiting with what must have been fading hope for the return of their captain and rescue. This, for me, was the most powerful part of the entire cruise. Standing in the places where this history transpired, where these men struggled and survived. The potency of these places was overwhelming.

Tabular ice bergs, monstrous, miles-long sheets of ice, announced our proximity to the Peninsula and its ice-choked waters. The ship’s captain, a white-haired German named Peter, ran them like a slalom course, getting us so close we could feel their icy breath. It got colder. Nights got shorter and brighter. And then we awoke one morning to perfect calm: we were anchored in Cuverville Harbor, surrounded by ice and snow and an eerie quiet. We were in Antarctica.

The Antarctic Peninsula is the stuff of dreams. Ice: white where it smooths and conceals the rough edges of the land, azure where it meets the ocean, glowing with cold fire in the bergs that choke the still, transparent waters between the peninsula’s islands. Snowy beaches hum and buzz with the cries of penguins. Leopard seals hunt like serpents in the shallows. Crabeater seals doze in iceberg cradles. The air sparkles with clean, crystalline light. For three days we cruised from island to island, short hops between different corners of paradise. We hiked up one ridgeline and slid down on our behinds, shrieking like children. We smiled at each other, speechless, in ecstasy.

And then we were heading north, back across the Antarctic Convergence, back through the Drake Passage, back to the world of warmth and humanity. With one more quick activity to commemorate our Antarctic adventure: The Polar Plunge. 27 of us queued up in the ship’s gangway in a horizontal snowstorm and like Noah’s Ark in reverse, jumped two by two into the ˗1°C ocean. There was a lot of screaming. Still, it seemed fitting, to symbolically close the trip with an icy baptism, to absorb the experience of Antarctica on a cellular level.

They say people never go to Antarctica twice. You go one time, or you go many, many times. This was my second trip…

For additional reading about Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, check out this great book by Caroline Alexander (http://www.amazon.com/The-Endurance-Shackletons-Legendary-Expedition/dp/0375404031) featuring photos from the expedition photographer, Frank Hurley.

4 comments to South, Very South

  • Dick Brown

    Susan,
    What an awesome write-up! The memories of the trip started rushing back as I read paragraph after paragraph. Thank you for forwarding your commentary.
    Dick Brown
    Ann Arbor

  • John Leonn

    Thank you for the great summary..While in Aus contact my brother + Marc & Sue Tack.. 18 Morrissey Street.. Ingham , North Qld. 4850.. Don’t have his phone number on me right now, but he is a councillor on the Ingham Shire Council…Should be easy enough to get…I will forward this e-mail to him so he has an idea of what an adventure it was… Thanks to you and 14 others….Ask
    him if there are any jobs in Ingham he can put you in touch with… Cheers & all the best… John L.

  • Allister Pedersen

    You have a wonderful writing style Susan. Who, but you, could turn the very uncomfortable feeling of sea sickness into a beautiful image of dolphins frolicking along in the seas. It was great to read your blog-Allister

  • steve santora

    Great write up Susan……Yep its hard to only go once…..Ive been twice and hope that I can go again in the future before I get to old or maybe when Im really old….Age is a matter of mind,,,,,if you dont mind it doesnt matter…..thats where Im at….Cheers.. steve

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>