Posted by: Sarah Lidsey | September 9, 2010

Pilgrimage of the Heart: Antarctica

Lemaire Channel

Traveling to a foreign land can be rigorous and challenging, a form of pilgrimage in itself. It is a real journey to get to Antarctica and the pleasure of feeling the passage from one place to another is hard to describe.

From South America, the main jump-off point for Antarctica is Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world. I flew there from Chile where I’d been horse-back riding for a couple of weeks, camping with a small group in Patagonia. After weeks hunkered down in the often howling winds of Torres del Paine – a remote, vast, windswept reserve – the smart hotels and chic shops that are interspersed with outdoor supply stores and basic food suppliers on the main street of Ushuaia, seemed quite shockingly decadent and out of place. This, even though the majority of the people on the streets were affluent western tourists, with only a small minority of us looking like we had lived well in the clothes we stood up in for some considerable time. Though the accoutrements of sophisticated living were all around me, I felt that I was walking back into another time and place, like a newly arrived trekker, soaking up the atmosphere of great expectation that pervades the streets in this outpost of a town squeezed in between water and mountains.

As I approached this journey I was quite concerned about being stuck with a boat load of people for a protracted period of time, and so I searched around and eventually elected to go on as small a vessel as I could with as reputable a company as I could find, even if a limited budget rendered having my own cabin impossible.  Quark Expeditions’ name continually came up as being the best outfit around for tourism in the southern seas, and so I decided to join them and sail on their last trip over to the Antarctic for that season.  I was assigned to the Akademik Shokalskiy, a small Russian run ex-research vessel converted to carry a maximum of 50 passengers.  The ship was amazingly comfortable, the crew were friendly and welcoming, and the staff who accompanied us were knowledgeable, adventurous and incredibly nice.  As we set off from Ushuaia with 26 guests, 3 lecturer-guides, and the ship’s crew, my fears of claustrophobia melted away

Ushuaia

In Ushuaia there is near constant movement with boats arriving and departing on an almost daily basis and people and goods move up and down from the town to the jetty, and back.  Joining this energetic stream of sailors, suppliers, and passengers was exciting.  Once on board I settled into my cabin, and then, as the horn sounded and we pulled away, I went on deck, watching civilization recede as we set off down the Beagle Channel towards the open waters beyond and a completely foreign existence that was to be mine for the next couple of weeks.  We had a two day journey ahead of us just to reach another land mass, one in which we would leave the safe haven of Tierra del Fuego, and the South American continent, and cross Drake’s passage, a notoriously rough stretch of water that separates the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica from the seas above it.

The first 24 hours were mesmerizing.  I ‘rugged’ myself up in all my warm and waterproof kit – hat, jacket, boots, scarves and more – and found spots in the lea of the wind to watch the Albatrosses, Petrals, Terns, and other birds skim past us, no doubt hoping that our engines would stir up something nice in our wake.  The temperature was icey, but the experience was too good to miss, and I couldn’t tear myself away from the birds and the open water beauty.  In the end I only came down into the warmth when my hands started to hurt with the cold.

All seemed to be going well until the second morning when we woke to huge rolling seas, and what was the beginning of a sizeable storm that lasted for the whole of that day. Our boat pitched and rolled north-south, and east-west on every wave!  Almost everyone took to their cabins miserable with seasickness.  I ventured out once, went three flights up to look at the waves crashing over the bridge, but retreated fast.  It was spectacular, but too much for me.  I’d lost my sealegs, and I retired completely until the storm passed.

Penguins on Danco Island

The next morning all was quiet when we awoke, anchored in the silent shelter of the Southern Shetland Islands, a ribbon of islands breathtaking in their beauty.  Their underlying dark landmass is accentuated by the bright white snow, and glacial ice faces rising up above the depths of the blue-black ocean.  Icebergs dot the seas, their bases and sometimes their entire bodies a surreal aquamarine color that is almost unbelievable, but which is caused by a shift in the oxygen/hydrogen balance held within the frozen mass.  As extraordinary as the landscape is, the quality of the air is more so. It is so pristine as to be primal in the quality that it holds.

In the Antarctic you experience all the laws of nature in their purity. It is intoxicating, as memorable as any visible feature and with an immediate and powerful feel to it.  Life there feels at once precious and wholly functional.  There is no waste, and no room for sentimentality.  You live, you die – that is its reality.  I felt this rhythm of existence several times while on this trip, and came to respect it and expect it.  The first time I was aware of its shear raw brutal force was while watching a group of penguins.  I was shocked at the swiftness with which life changed to death, but from then on I accepted the natural order of things in this very different environment.

The majority of penguins we saw were Genatoos, a sweet gregarious bunch of mid-sized birds who were endearingly surprised by and curious about us.  Their life looks pretty idyllic, but there are real and ever present dangers both for the chicks waiting in their rookeries for their next meal, and for the parents heading out to catch it.  On land, there is precious little cover, and the beaches are constantly patrolled and raided by skuas, huge vicious looking gulls that take any unguarded chick if they can, and seem to be violent and merciless killers – mobsters constantly terrorizing the local population.  At sea, killers lurk – Orcas, and leopard seals – canny to the movement of these little birds, cruising quietly in to make a kill.

It is an incredible sight to see a Leopard Seal hunting – brutal, rapid and clinical in its execution.  One afternoon while visiting the Penguin rookery on Couverville Island, I did.  The noise around me was constant as I stood, enrapt, amongst the adolescents shedding their final ‘baby down’ before they could go off on their own. Looking out across the bay, everywhere else, everything else appeared quiet, even serene.  The mirror-like stillness of the water was disturbed only by the out-going penguins….that is, until I spotted a seal swimming swiftly round a headland. What caught my attention was the purposeful intent with which it cruised in.  Until then the seals that I had seen – elephant, fur, and Crabeaters – lazily passed their days on or around small iceflows.  It was late in the day, and the adult penguins were popping off like porpoises into the open water completely unaware of this sleek monster about to intersect their path.  Suddenly there was a splash, and then a great commotion as the seal, with the neck of a penguin firmly held in its teeth, beat its prey violently from side to side like a cowman might crack a whip on either side of his horse to galvanize it into action.  In only about four beats the penguin was dead, and already skinned by the force of the blows. In another second it was gone, swallowed by this efficient killer.  On this day the attack was followed by silence and stillness, the seal sunk beneath the water and it was as if nothing had ever happened.  The penguins hadn’t deviated from their path at all.  They were still porpoising out into the same stretch of open water, and all looked well with the world.  It was shocking and amazing to see.  The swiftness and mundanity of the passage between life and death was brutal – here one minute, gone the next – brought home by the efficiency and speed of one of the most dangerous killers of the southern ocean.

Wilhelmina Bay

Later that evening we docked in breathtaking Wilhelmina Bay.  Crabeater Seals were basking on iceflows, the fins and spouts of a few minke whales were visible in the distance, and as the sun sank in a pink glow over the horizon, I basked in the beauty all around me, washed through with a feeling of respectfulness for all life, reminded that each moment is important and precious, that each moment carries life and death.  I have to say I also thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t sitting squarely, undefended, in the Southern Ocean food chain.  If you want to stay alive in this neighborhood constant vigilance is necessary, because death in these waters is quick and comes from many quarters.  Even the frequent fall of sections off the ice walls can create havoc, causing small tidal waves that could sink a small dinghy with ease, and nearly did one day while we were in ours keenly watching penguins again, this time rafting for krill.  The Ice cleaved away and fell almost noiselessly.  A wave formed and moved out quickly.  It was only because of the fast reflexes of our guide that we managed to get far enough away from the violent swell not to be capsized.

Whether on site or from afar, man creates the biggest disturbance in the Antarctic.  At present our footprint is only visible in a few places, and largely on the edges of the vast landmass, but the effect of our disregard for the planet in general is more obviously felt in the melting of the ice and in general pollution of the waters, contributed to by vessels like mine. Despite strict rules that govern all commercial operations, tourism also means that the likelihood of a serious oil spill from cruising vessels is growing. Global warming impacts the existence of the Ice shelf itself, as well as the life of arguably the most important life form at the bottom of the life-chain here, krill.  If the krill die – which they may well if the waters warm significantly – then many species seem likely to decline with them.

Deception Island Whaling Station

We saw other echoes of man’s past activity in this region. There are a few old wooden relics of whaling boats, and we visited a much larger site on Deception Island, where the ruins of a now derelict whaling station still stands on the interior shores of this submarine volcano.  On passing through The Needles, the entrance of the natural harbor that is the caldera of the active Deception Island volcano, I felt an overwhelming sense of the history of this place. Thousands of slaughtered whales were dragged here over the last century or so, to be processed by the factory ships that operated in these sheltered waters. On shore great tanks were erected to store the additional oil ‘harvested’ from boiling up their carcasses. Until 1931 Humpbacks, Southern Right whales, Blue whales and others were killed in large numbers in this area, after which it was no longer profitable to operate this type of factory station, and all activity stopped.  As we stood at sunset on the hot sands above the volcano’s core, it wasn’t hard to imagine the carnage as the soft red rays turned the deep waters there a bloody hue.

On a number of occasions when whales were moving through the waters close to the Shokalskiy, our guides called us

Humpback Whales

quickly into action. We pulled on our seafaring clothes, and moved into the zodiac dinghies.  We motored out into the possible path of humpbacks and Southern Right whales, letting them choose either to continue towards us or veer away.  I hope that the impact of an eye to eye contact that I had with a humpback whale as it dived beneath the dinghy I was in, turned on its side and looked back up at me, will stay with me forever.

A few days later, as the first of the winter ice began to form in the bays, the Akademik Shokalskiy turned again for Ushuaia, and as we headed out into Drakes Passage for the return journey, I went on deck and stood, like a mascot of old, in the bows of the boat, leaning out, arms spread, flying with each rise of the bows above the surrounding seas, shape-shifting into one of the Albatrosses that I had been watching, and feeling for the last time the exhilarating primal atmosphere of the Antarctic, and the unpolluted waters of the ocean as the salt spray washed over me with each dive back into the swell.  The impact of this place is profound. For me it was exhilarating, raw, life changing, life affirming, and humbling.

I am lucky!  In my case as a human being in a western country of such great privilege and affluence, I am likely to be able to live out life peacefully, unlike the threatened waters and animals of our oceans and seas. As well as gifting me with its amazing energetics, my pilgrimage to the Southern Shetland Islands of the Antarctic, the southern tip of the Andean range, underlined to me the preciousness of that gift. I felt the invitation given to all of us to be aware, responsible, mindful and respectful of the value of each life form on this planet, putting aside our own egoistic, selfish or commercial interests in service to the whole….in service to LIFE.

‘Travelers cannot find deep meaning in their journey until they encounter what is truly sacred.  What is sacred is what is worthy of our reverence, what evokes awe and wonder in the human heart and what when contemplated transforms us utterly.’ Phil Cousineau

©2010 Sarah Lidsey.  All rights reserved.  www.sarahlidsey.com

For a passage to Antarctica contact: Quark Expeditions – www.quarkexpeditions.com                                                                                                                                                                                         A book I loved – Sara Wheeler, ‘Terra Incognita’ 


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