Frozen in Time
On his thirteenth voyage to Antarctica, a seasoned travel writer finds Shackleton's stark polar lands bursting with life, as beautiful as ever, and surprisingly unblemished by the growing numbers of tourists now visiting the Deepest South.
By Jeff Rubin
Snow flies sideways as we tromp up the beach, the white flakes contrasting sharply with dark volcanic stones. We hear—and smell—the birds before we see them. Their raucous trilling mingles with a distinct barnyard perfume hanging in the air. Suddenly there they are, crowded together on a steep, rocky slope overlooking the iceberg-studded sound: 20,000 Adélies, the archetypal black-and-white penguin, tending to their downy gray chicks in the brief Antarctic summer, which lasts from December to February. Several hundred gentoo penguins, a closely related species with distinctive white patches above the eyes, coexist peacefully nearby, equally bent on bringing up their next generation.
We've spent three days on a ship to get here, paid many thousands of dollars, and suffered seasickness in lumpy seas, but this moment makes it all worthwhile. “It just absolutely takes my breath away,” says Dick Weber, a retired schoolteacher from Coupeville, Washington. “Never in my life did I think I'd have the opportunity to walk around a group of penguins in the wild.”
I've joined 118 tourists on a 12-day Antarctic cruise to report on the state of tourism in this icy paradise. We're aboard the M.S. National Geographic Endeavour, a comfortable, 295-foot-long ship operated by New York-based Lindblad Expeditions, a leading operator of tours to Antarctica, with an excellent environmental record. A three-hour stop to view penguins at Brown Bluff on the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula is our first shore landing, and each following day will bring us to new places and new wonders.
Tourists are cruising to the Deepest South in record numbers, drawn by Antarctica's isolation, teeming wildlife, and spectacular scenery of ice and mountains. Don't worry about the cold: Travelers visit only during the summer, and they stick almost exclusively to the Antarctic Peninsula, where the average summertime temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit and doesn't dip much below 20 degrees. North Americans, who make up about 40 percent of Antarctic tourists, often return home to much chillier temperatures than they experience here. My home in northern Ohio, for example, regularly endures winter weather more frigid than summer on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Just six years ago a mere 9,857 tourists visited Antarctica. By contrast, during the most recent tourist season, about 23,000 visitors came ashore on Antarctica, and an additional 7,100 flew over or cruised by without setting foot on land. This influx is causing the nature of Antarctic tourism to change. In the past most Antarctic tour ships carried fewer than 150 passengers. Today among the fleet are giant ocean liners that can carry as many as 1,200. Tourists have long enjoyed the opportunity to watch wildlife after riding to shore in small inflatable boats called Zodiacs. Now they can also camp onshore, kayak alongside swimming penguins, scuba dive among icebergs, and mountain climb on peaks that have not even been named yet.
So far there's no indication that such tourism has done the continent or its denizens any harm, unlike so many other ecotourism hot spots. Nevertheless, governments from a number of countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and the tour industry itself—are thinking in earnest about ways to keep Antarctica as unspoiled as possible (see “Keeping the Ice Clean”).
Although this is my 13th trip to Antarctica as a lecturer and guidebook author, I never tire of the experience. Antarctica feels exciting and different each time: the ever-changing light, the myriad forms of ice, the throngs of wildlife, the overwhelming sense of remoteness. As British explorer Ernest Shackleton put it, “The stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner which can hardly be understood by people who have never got outside the pale of civilization.”
I always marvel at the beauty of the gigantic icebergs and ice shelves, found nowhere else on earth, that are sculpted into shapes both architectural and fantastic—Roman archways, medieval fortresses, sinuous works of abstract art. Walking in the snow-free Dry Valleys in the Ross Sea region feels like what I imagine it would be like to land on Mars: You see little except wind-eroded rocks and sand, with no apparent sign of life. By contrast, if you were to go to the emperor penguin rookeries of East Antarctica, you would be filled with awe at the sheer vitality of these birds, which somehow have managed to raise their chicks through the extraterrestrial cold of the Antarctic winter.
I've listened to the crackle and hiss of air bubbles rising from beneath melting icebergs, been blasted by the frigid winds streaming off the polar plateau, seared my skin with plunges in 29-degree seawater, and often been startled by the unexpectedly loud fffffff! of a minke whale's fishy exhalation as it surfaced right alongside my Zodiac.
Antarctica is surprisingly variegated. Icebergs, for example, are not merely white but come in hues ranging from jade-green to deep indigo to yellow-brown and white—they can even be striped. Entire hillsides blush a watermelon pink, tinted by the snow algae growing atop snowfields. Lichens paint rocks a bright patchwork of yellow and orange. Moss beds glow emerald-green in the sun. And at this high latitude, slow-motion sunsets saturate the sky with ever more orange, scarlet, and rose as each hour passes.
Also on bold display is the red of Alfred Lord Tennyson's “tooth and claw” nature. Giant petrels thrust their heads and necks deep into the carcass of an elephant seal pup, emerging with their feathers matted in blood. A leopard seal seizes an unlucky juvenile penguin, on its first and final swim, and thrashes it out of its very skin. Skuas—large, gull-like birds—team up to play a lethal tug-of-war with struggling penguin chicks, using their sharp hooked beaks to rip them apart.
Most tourists come to Antarctica for the abundant wildlife, and they're not disappointed. The penguins, seals, whales, albatrosses, and other seabirds have little fear of humans, thanks to the care we take to avoid disturbing them. On our journey south across the Drake Passage, which separates Antarctica from South America, a variety of seabirds appear to emerge from thin air to follow Endeavour. Graceful wandering albatrosses soar on 11-foot wingspans. Flocks of mottled cape petrels flutter in the wind. Tiny storm petrels skitter over the waves as they feed on zooplankton, appearing to walk on water, like Saint Peter, after whom this bird is named.
Whales, though once slaughtered here by the hundreds of thousands, are now sighted nearly every day. Visitors glimpse humpbacks, minkes, orcas, fins, seis, and—once in a great while—a rare blue whale, possibly the largest creature that has ever lived, weighing as much as 150 tons.
At Snow Hill Island, we tour a tiny wooden hut where six men from the Swedish South Polar Expedition of 1901–03 spent two years, the second one forced upon them by the wreck of their ship, Antarctic. Despite the important geographical discoveries made by this early expedition, it is best known for the amazing story of its members' survival, in three separated parties, on a diet of penguin and seal meat and penguin eggs. Behind the hut, the peninsula's oldest remaining building, we wander up a snowless ravine, plucking fossils of clams and ammonites from the gravel to show to one another. But we pocket no souvenirs—not even a tiny penguin feather. To help keep Antarctica pristine, we take only photographs and leave nothing behind—a guideline in place ever since the beginning of Antarctic tourism in 1966.
To reach volcanic Deception Island's hidden inner harbor, created when the crater's wall was breached by the sea thousands of years ago, Captain Karl Lampe pilots Endeavour through the narrow break called Neptunes Bellows, just 200 yards wide. The passage is made even trickier by hull-piercing Ravn Rock, which lies in wait just eight feet beneath the surface in the middle of the channel, so we steer to starboard as we enter. We land at Whalers Bay on a lava-sand beach cloaked in sulfur-scented steam and hike through the ruins of a Norwegian whaling station that operated from 1912 to 1931. The volcano, which is active but dormant, last erupted in fury in 1969, triggering a mudslide that swept the whalers' cemetery out into the harbor and destroyed an adjacent British scientific station. Terrified station members barely escaped a hail of volcanic bombs by carrying pieces of corrugated iron over their heads.
At Hannah Point, on nearby Livingston Island, gentoo and chinstrap penguins feed their voracious chicks as elephant seals repose in a wallow during their weeks-long annual molt, their scabrous skins flaking off in ragged pieces. The ponderous, belching masses bring to mind a group of flatulent, drunken frat boys.
Under gray skies the next morning in aptly named Paradise Harbor, we take to tandem kayaks, wearing seawater-activated emergency beacons around our necks for safety. Glaciers spill down the flanks of the mountains girding the bay, but the water is flat calm. Penguins swim by, porpoising out of the water before diving deep. On several drifting icebergs, seals rest, unconcerned, as we paddle past.
Back in the Zodiac an hour later, a group of us comes upon a humpback whale asleep on the surface, its blowhole agape. We kill the Zodiac's outboard and drift closer to the whale, a floating black island much larger than our boat. With raindrops dripping from the hoods of our jackets, we sit silently for a long while, savoring the serenity. Only when our driver restarts the engine does the whale slowly swim off.
Next we travel through the Lemaire Channel, and the cameras continue clicking. Nearly every tour vessel that cruises to Antarctica visits the passage, nicknamed Kodak Gap because of the vivid way the six miles of quiet water in this narrow, steep-sided channel reflects the mountains and glaciers towering above.
Beyond the channel's southern entrance, the pack ice thickens to “ten-tenths” density, meaning that it completely covers the sea. Weddell and crabeater seals slither from large ice floes as we push ahead. Captain Lampe eventually decides to reverse course, but not before several jokes about “spending the winter” circulate on the bridge.
We also get a rare look at some of the weird creatures that inhabit these cold seas, thanks to an opportunity offered only by Lindblad Expeditions. “Undersea specialist” David Cothran daily dons 120 pounds of scuba gear to brave the freezing seawater for a photographic fishing trip. Late one afternoon we gather in the lounge to view his bounty of digital video: feathery white crinoids, spindly sea spiders, brilliant yellow sponges.
Lindblad also contributes to science by carrying a team of researchers from the Oceanites' Antarctic Site Inventory on every Antarctic cruise. Since 1994 the project has been gathering biological data at dozens of potentially sensitive sites, providing an important database of information for nations working to develop guidelines for Antarctic tourism.
On our last day in Antarctica we visit Palmer Station, the smallest of three U.S. research bases on the continent, for a firsthand look at Antarctica's importance to science. While research at Palmer focuses on the marine ecosystem, atmospheric studies, and climate change, scientists at other Antarctic stations are studying topics ranging from astronomy to geology.
At Torgerson Island, just offshore from the station, we meet researchers from Palmer studying a topic of immediate interest: Is tourism having an adverse effect on the Adélie penguins of Tor-gerson and nearby islands? The results of the 30-year study thus far indicate that “tourists are having no impacts on Adélie penguin populations,” Bill Fraser, the principal investigator of the study, funded by the National Science Foundation, tells me later back in the States. Naturally, there are caveats, including the tiny number of visitors permitted to visit Torgerson compared with Antarctica's most popular sites. But Fraser isn't ready to say tourism is completely safe. “Although we're not seeing an impact [on the penguins],” he says, “it doesn't mean that an impact is not occurring.” It might just be too early to tell.
Climate change, by comparison, has led to a drastic decline in local Adélie numbers. Sea ice, a critical winter habitat for the penguins, is diminishing, while increased snowfall covers nesting sites until very late in the breeding season. The Adélies' disappearance is alarmingly apparent when I survey Torgerson's once-teeming rookeries (see “On Thin Ice,” Audubon, December 2003). During the past 30 years an area that once resounded with the braying of 5,000 breeding pairs has quieted to just 1,200 today. On neighboring Litchfield Island the 1,000 pairs counted in 1974 have all but evaporated; only 10 remain.
As we make our way back across the Drake Passage toward home, we have plenty of time to contemplate our incredible journey. “Antarctica is such a visceral experience, embracing all the senses,” says one of my fellow passengers, Mark Holly, an engineer from University City, Missouri. “It certainly will be with me forever.” I know just what he means.
Jeff Rubin lectures regularly about Antarctica's history aboard tour vessels there. He wrote the best-selling travel guide to the continent, Antarctica (Lonely Planet Publications, 2005).