How illuminating it is, to realise that we have a place in the world, where the past is preserved for thousands of years! In the ice sheets that cover the giant rock of this white continent, the history of the world has been written layer upon layer and preserved for posterity. If you so wish, you can look backwards a million years or more and see how the world has been changing over the years. While Antarctica has this power to make the past come alive, there is another aspect of Antarctica that roots you completely in the here and now. Here, I hope to share with you, these moments of meditative now, experienced in the continent of awe.
Looking back, how did I find myself some 15,000 km away in this land, different in every possible way from the city I call home? Places and people have fascinated me as long as I can remember. I have always been happy to dash off with Tintin or Asterix or Somerset Maugham, to some corner of the world. On these escapades, I prefer to shake my hands off the mission for moments, few and simply soak in the place and people I encounter, dreaming about being there someday. When I was finally working and living on my own in the US, I made it a point to travel as much as I could and was happy to find in my partner, Madhan, the same love for cultures and places. When our child was born, we both decided that as soon as he was old enough, we must travel with Haiku.
Being true to the promise we made ourselves, when he was all but one and a half, we visited our first continent, Africa. From then, we decided we would go to a place in a different continent, every successive year. And the final destination would be of course the mysterious Antarctica. Six continents have been covered and this year arrived. As a fortunate coincidence, Haiku’s school holidays happened to fall in November this year, as against the usual December holidays. Why would November be so promising? Because it was the start of the season to visit Antarctica. The land was emerging from a dark winter that welcomes no visitors and it was being born again in the long light of summer. At the same time, it was not yet a full-blown tourist season and therefore, perhaps a wee-bit more affordable to visit.
In the minds of our ancestors, Antarctica was this theoretical destination, as in there’s the Arctic, and to balance, there must be the Anti Arctic! So imagined ancient Greek philosophers. A concept of the mind purely! Indeed, it was astounding to read that the first time Antarctica was spotted and stepped on, was as late as 1820, a mere 200 years ago. Now, contrast that to the native people have been living just a thousand km away in the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina from about 10,000 years ago.
The stunning thing about these native settlers was that when the Europeans first arrived in the tip of Argentina, they were surprised to find these Yamana/Yaghan people, living in this frigid climate without a shred of cloth on them. They had no need for them! They had learnt a way of surviving this cold clime because of their diet and other lifestyle practices. But the Europeans not knowing this, wanting to civilise them, covered them in clothes and fur and next thing, you find them dying because of this seeming act of good intention. I learnt in my travels that the last of this tribe is a lone woman who lives in Punta Araneas, Chile. How could a thriving tribe be decimated like this? It may sound impossible to us, at the moment. But, that has been the reality in many remote corners of the world. What knowledge we have lost because these people were not handled with humility. There’s a humbling lesson in that, even before we begin our journey to Antarctica.
Most of what I was reading in history of Antarctica seemed to be claims by exploring teams from different nations that this land or this cove or even the entire continent belonged to their nation. One party would go land in a spot and plant a flag. Soon enough, another expedition party would arrive, remove the previous flag and plant their own. And on and on, goes the struggle to say this land is mine. Made me think of predatory animals marking their boundary. Then, there was the race to reach the south pole. In many of these stories of extreme adventure to be the first, one fact caught my eye. It’s well known that the first man to reach the South pole was the Norwegian Amundsen, who beat Scott, the British explorer by a mere 35 days. What’s not so well known is that Amundsen had previously explored the Arctic and he had lived with and learnt from the native people of the Arctic, the Inuit, all about their ways of life and how to manage the extreme cold. I believe it was this trait of putting aside notions of superiority of oneself or one’s race and learning from the wisdom and knowledge of the past, of people who have endured for centuries. If this kind of feeling had been shown to the Yamana, perhaps we would have learned so much more, even ways of adapting to the impossible with so little!
Taking a leaf from Amundsen’s life, I too tried to read about the stories of my contemporary travellers, who have had the dream of travelling to Antarctica and been there. So, thanks is due to all those bloggers and guides, who having sharing their experiences made this journey possible for us. Thanks to their guidance, we found a well-managed travel company in Freestyle Adventure Travel, Ushuaia and they in turn, made our journey possible on Quark expeditions ship Ocean Diamond, on their 10-day Classic Antarctic itinerary, which takes visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula and Subantarctic islands. Perhaps, the universe responds to inner intentions in mysterious ways but this intuitive decision ended up being one fortunate choice after the other.
In all the brochures and welcome manuals, the cruise companies make something clear: Do not come with expectations of what your Antarctic journey must be like. Do not make hard and fast rules for all the things you want to see and do, for Antarctica makes its own plans!
Drake Shake and Landing Lessons
This part of the world, being a land of extreme weather, all one can do is try to snatch moments of wonder in between. The first trial is by sea, through the Drake Passage, the roughest sea in the world, which separates the tip of Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula – They say the Drake could be a ‘shake’ or a ‘lake’. Most probably, it will be a shake, punctuated by humungous waves and if you are extra-lucky, something of a still lake, perhaps. Crossing this is considered a rite of passage for Antarctic travellers. For people who say a strict nay to seasickness, there’s the flight to whizz past. And yet, not the same experience! In between all the rocking of the Drake, the expedition team used it smartly for interesting presentations and seminars.
The first seminar, which is mandatory for every person wanting to land on Antarctica, is the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) Guidelines for visitors: All the dos and don’ts for people visiting the place. It’s heartwarming that we live in a time of such sensitivity. We should at this time accept that this sensitivity has come forth after years of atrocity against wildlife. Who were the first people in Antarctica and why did they come? The Sealers, who came to hunt for seal fur and then the whalers, who came to extract oil from whale blubber and now and only now, it has become a research outpost of the world. Demand from business had been driving all this and it was man and his needs at the centre of the endeavour to reach Antarctica. It’s great to have humans move away from the centre and to see wildlife there.
Laudable is how the cruise took care to meticulously remove all possible pollutants and native species from our clothes to make sure this pristine land remains undisturbed. I looked with respect and admiration, at the expedition team, with their vacuum cleaners sucking out the dust from our backpacks and any used shoes or outerwear we’d be taking ashore and even opening the little Velcro fasteners on all our outerwear to scour out seeds or alien life that may be hiding there. Not just that, every time before we landed and before we entered the ship, we were instructed to wash our boots in Virkon, a chemical that wipes out traces of microbial life. Will such microscopic attention to detail wipe away those years of disregard for other life? Perhaps, we are like Shakespeare’s Macbeth trying to wash away our inherited guilt!
As the ship nudged its way into colder water, the first iceberg was spotted. Sounded like drum roll, echoing the arrival of a much-awaited star! The iceberg seemed like a cross between a bus and a rhino and looked quite handsome in profile. Further on, there were amorphous ones too, as if having an identity crisis and deciding to be unformed, in the traditional ‘fit-into-a-shape’ frame of things.
The sea was a dark, greyish blue and the birds were dancing along the ship. Whenever I looked out through our room’s window, many a petrel would glide past elegantly. A strong wind whistled about all the time and even a few minutes out on the observation deck meant running noses, as if I was a sea bird myself, filtering the salt in the water through my nostrils!
After a day and a half at sea crossing the Drake, the first good news was that the weather was cooperative and we had made it in time to do an additional landing at Aitcho island.
Aitcho Island and Penguin Welcome
The Aitcho/Barrientos islands are on the South Shetland group of Subantarctic islands. The expedition geologist says they are all connected by the same rock underneath and so it’s indeed Antarctica already!
As I waited to finally set foot on the white continent, my thoughts kept going back to the Yamana, who could survive this cold without a single layer of clothing. Here I am, sitting in three layers and still needing more to step out. With those thermal, fleece and outer waterproof & windproof layers, not to mention the muck boots and personal floatation device resting atop, this was literally heavy dressing. It was a terror to wait wearing all those clothes indoors, in the heat of the ship. You just wanted to run outside. Thankfully, it was time for us to disembark and then we went on a zodiac, an inflatable boat that enables teams of ten people each to land on tricky terrain. There’s a rule that only 100 visitors are allowed at a time on Antarctica and ours being a ship of 180 passengers, we were split into two groups. One group would land on the island/peninsula and the other group would cruise around in the zodiac and then about an hour and a half later, it would be time to swap places.
The first day, it was our group that did the first landing. Penguin country was calling! Before I landed, I half expected to see a Penguin immigration officer. The penguins, however, were busy mating and building their nests for the coming young one. Speaking of young ones, Haiku was excitedly pointing out to chinstrap penguins. These little chaps in white and black could be nicknamed Policeman Penguins. There were also Gentoo penguins, with their red beaks and white blankets on their heads. Their names have an Indian connection in that it’s a combination of Gentile & Hindoo, symbolising the monks of yesteryears, who covered their heads in white! The penguins could be seen religiously picking little rocks to present to their partners and prepare for the arrival of their little ones. I learnt that the mother and father equally care for the young and they are indistinguishable, right down to the split in the middle of their bodies, which helps keep the eggs warm, taking turns between them both. Dad giving mum a bit of a rest and vice versa! Good pointers for human families with newborns perhaps!
We made our way back to the zodiac to do one hour of cruising and got to view these towering basalt rock formations soaring to the sky, in neatly packed columns. It was dark brown and we were told that it’s a volcanic rock that contracts after years of cooling into those arty shapes before us.
Looking further ahead, there seemed a chunk of extra-blue ice. Seemed quite close by but when we rode the zodiac, it seemed to go on and on. Perhaps the chilly winds and Einstein’s theory of relativity of sitting on a hot stove inverse! But when we got close enough, was it a sight! Such a calming, radiant blue! I learnt it’s that way because of the way the O and H molecules are packed so densely in the ice and that the way they stretch absorbs all the red of the light, letting out just the blue to delight your eyes!
Then, after dinner, there was this prolonged sunset starting around 10 and extending all the way into the wee hours of midnight. As I stood in the chill wind, the sky seemed to paint and sing for me. The glow of orange and red warming the coldest corners of the heart and making me come alive in every cell. This white world is a blank canvas… An inviting canvas! The birds are white, the wildlife is white and it’s up to the sun to stir some magic and scatter colour in the air. Warm strokes of the sun’s love in the sky above!
Hydrurga Rocks and Pole Path
Anywhere one lands, there’s so much to see that your eyes and brain seem to struggle with all the new information. This is a place epitomising the word ‘exotic’! No matter where we go in the world, blue skies, green trees and smiling people are something to be expected. But whereas here, there’s none of the familiar!
This day was to be at Hydrurga rocks, a small island populated by the last of the Chinstrap Penguins. Further down, we are not going to see anymore, we were informed. The snow was so white that it was quite a struggle for the eyes. There were some fur seals lazing about on the beach snow. They were not mature to be breeding apparently and were sunning their backs and willing themselves to grow. Then, there was the snowy sheathbill, which apparently eats penguin poo and is perhaps the only Antarctic bird that does not prefer to fly and also, has no webbed feet for a swim in the ocean too. Land-bound little one!
It was here on the island that I had the curious experience of observing the expedition team filling up the holes made in the powdery snow, because we treaded on it with our heavy muck boots. I found it enthusing to see this care endowed to make sure little penguins are not hurt by falling into these holes. All this care for wildlife, taken for granted for all these years, is the true progress of humanity.
Afternoon saw us go to another spot called the Portal Point, the first stop on the Antarctic Peninsula. Apparently, from here, someone could walk all the way to the South Pole. So, for the sticklers who distinguish mainland and island, this was the real Antarctica! Seeing the sea was a surreal experience. Broken, jagged chunks of ice of all sizes and shapes floating under an unbroken blue canopy! There were these lovely coves along the way, where I thought one could play hide and seek. ‘Nowhere to hide’, someone on the zodiac remarked! Crabeater seals were lazing around, hugging and crooning with each other, jumping about in the water and having a true vacation! The landscape was spectacular. Sweeping views of snow clad curves everywhere. The sun was a little sharp, strengthened by the echo of the white snow and the hole in the ozone, right above.
The night ended with an inspiring talk reflecting on ‘Where are all the women in the story of Antarctica?’ The talk narrated the odds and opposition women faced when aspiring to come to Antarctica. Learnt this interesting detail that man got to the moon before a woman could reach the South pole! Times have changed a little. Stories of women scientists like Ema from our expedition team, of her life working in remote, inaccessible regions, doing cutting-edge research in her field of study, as well as reading about Indian scientists in Antarctica like Aditi Pant, Sudipta Sengupta and the many who followed them, were truly inspiring. To add support, recent studies have found that women are actually well suited to explore and research in Antarctica, thanks to their higher body fat and better emotional perception. More power to women scientists, wanting to make a mark in this corner of the world!
Cuverville Island and Baleen Ballerina
The following day took us to Cuverville Island, swarming with Gentoo Penguins. As we were cruising around the island, there was drama all around, with penguins pushing each other on their way to the top or down to the sea, cackling loudly and making animated gestures with their flipper wings. The land was no less dramatic! Cragged faces of the ice mountain towered around. There were a few pyramidal shapes too. It was a beautiful sunny day at 5 degrees C with just 5 knots of wind. When it was time to get on to the island, there were these krill-coloured penguin highways and snow-coloured human highways, bordered with red flags, marked by the expedition team. We could go right or left or to the top. Our choice was the path to the top, with some spectacular views of ice in water. The whole sea seemed like a dark blue drink on rocks! With ice mountains extending their frigid fingers to take a sip now and then!
Walking in the snow with all those heavy clothes is the hard part of an otherwise moderate trek. Some Gentoos would come very close and with a curious look, walk away. After a bit of rest, it was journey to the next stop – Water boat point and Chilean station. The weather suddenly turned uncooperative. It was snowing and windy but amidst the dark clouds of bad weather, was a silver lining – the sighting of a humpback whale! A dainty dancer of distinct dimensions indeed! Seemed to me like the world’s largest ballerina, as it moved its fins and puffed out air bubbles and then ended the dance routine with the flourishing finish of its tail fluke in the air!
Looking into the water during the cruise, I found that some fragments of ice seemed to be different from others. As in, some were crystal clear and transparent like the ones in our refrigerators and the others were white, typical Antarctic glacial ice. Just as I was wondering, the expedition team member driving the zodiac, fished it out of the waters and spoke a little about it. Learnt that this transparent ice was simply frozen water and the other was compressed snow.
As we cruised along, we also spotted a very rare seal for this time of the year, an elephant seal, which is not supposed to be there at all. Mom has abandoned it and it has somehow found its way to the south. Big yearning eyes that made you want to stretch your hand and pat its head! I asked the expedition member whether they help such abandoned pups. The answer was a strict no and that they would let nature take it course, whatever that may be.
There is so much more going on between air and water in this part of the world. For instance, in air bubbles moving up a glacier and leaving snow prints all around and also the dance of the wind that carves intricate patterns and renders ice sculptures of floating ice. An artistic romance between the elements!
Danco Hill and Deep-sea Dwellers
Day 4 found us at Danco Hill Island. All that snow and ice in this place was sort of blanking my vision. Perhaps, it’s the true therapy to see life clearly! In Danco Hill, there was a route up leading to a summit. It was an excruciating zigzag walk but led us to the view of serrated glaciers, sawed off from the glacier cliff. The weather was a ‘warm’ 7 degrees and so the Parka actually felt hot making us sweat in our thermals. ‘Sweating in Antarctica’, oxymoronic though it may sound, is not so uncommon, given the layers of clothes we wear and especially when the weather decides to melt us with its smile.
The walk afforded us crossing Penguin highways. As instructed, we would never go close to the penguins but they would walk curiously close to us, look at us as we look at them, and then decide to walk away, satisfied at having got the human tour. Sliding penguins, diving penguins – there were penguins in all sorts of motion freeze!
It was such a mindful experience observing these penguins, quite like watching children in a playground! I recollect seeing one young traveller, lying stretched out on the snow, head resting on the her hands and gazing at the penguins for hours on end!
In the cruise afterward, a lot of wildlife said hello. There was a leopard seal pup hanging out there in the water all alone, which was again said to be a rare sight this time of the year. While we were floating back, someone spotted a cool jellyfish, bobbing up and down, a creature from the depths, soaring above. And then little ahead, there was another expedition team pointing to a loofah-like creature bobbing up in the water and Dr.Phil, our expedition team member, remarked that it’s even rarer to see such creatures than a whale or a dolphin in these parts. National Geographic from the deep comes live indeed!
On the afternoon cruise, saw blue-eyed shags nesting on the rock face as well as copper deposits leaking from rocks above, painting graffiti on the grey walls of the ‘malachite’ rock. An avalanche happened right ahead and only missing event was an ice shelf calving. No luck there but we did get to see a female adult elephant seal. A huge one, lying so resigned on that rock. As if she either had given up on life or she had understood all about life and feeling no push to go on. The final sight of the day were two mating Antarctic terns, decked up, one on the other.
With that, we headed back to the evening recap, which features seals and whalers that day. The history of the whaling industry was rather graphic and disturbing when we came to understand how hundred thousands of whales were killed for their blubber. All those acts of darkness just to light up lamps in the human world! As we sat there with somewhat dejected expressions, Ali, the expedition leader remarked that we must perhaps not be too judgmental on the whalers of the past and see that they were responding to the demands of their time and they did not know better. I said a silent prayer wishing that a generation hundred years from now, would not turn away with the same dejection at some seemingly harmless thing we may be doing today!
Lemaire Channel and Dive of Insanity
And it was the last day of excursions. There was a lot of doubt as to whether we will be able to sail through the Lemaire channel, as the path was narrow and probably filled with ice. Our ship was an ice-strengthen ship and not an icebreaker. If we were able to make it through, we would be the first ship of the season to do so. The ship that came the same way, the previous day, had to turn around and take a circuitous route. Will we, won’t we, the question was echoing in the air. But the captain was quite the miracle worker! As we all got to the bow of the ship to admire the channel in between the overhanging rocks on each side, the captain steered the ship through the channel. All the passengers and expedition members got to the bow of the ship to click a picture together. A moment that made me feel that this gathering was not of people from 24 different nationalities, but one world!
The final landing and cruising was to be on Petermann’s island. Surprise, surprise, a colony of Adelie penguins, the newest kind of Penguins we could see. We had gotten used to seeing so many Gentoos, we were like ‘Oh, it’s only a Gentoo’, if we spotted a penguin afar. This last day, the weather went berserk. The landing was amidst a blizzard. The snowstorm was a little extreme for Haiku’s blubber-less body! But he was determined to see the Adelie penguin, which was promised to be on Petermann’s island. After a bit of cruising, we landed on our final spot in Antarctica. The blizzard was pouring into our eyes. But, the Adelies beckoned. We trekked for a while, reached the colony and saw them, for a minute or two. It was quite a curious sight to see those hunched-up little penguins with brown beaks and a white circle around their eyes, co-existing with the Gentoos.
In spite of the inclement weather, I decided to walk up the saddle mountain, the last path on this island. Because I could and I didn’t think there would be another time. After pausing a few minutes to celebrate the rugged beauty of Antarctica at the very top, took a walk back, as I saw the expedition team do a sweep of the area, picking up all the flags they had planted and cleaning up behind me. On the walk back, I was entertained by varying shades of penguin intimacy! Truly love was in the air, as it came to be seen that two engagements and one wedding happened amidst our cruise group, in those 10 days! A final wave to Antarctic soil and back to the ship!
The next event of the day was the polar plunge at Pleneau bay, a place so reassuringly called as the ‘Iceberg Graveyard’! This meant complete suspension of one’s sense to take a dip in the freezing Antarctic waters! I was oscillating as to whether I should do it or not. Then, with Haiku’s ‘Amma, you must do it!’ decided to go for it. As I was about to step off, the expedition team member standing there remarked, ‘This must be the craziest thing you have ever done!’ And it was, right there on the top of my list! With folded hands, in respect to the ocean, I jumped. The cold water bit like a thousand scorpion peppers on my skin and the sea’s salt, so intense, was flooding my taste buds. When I stepped out after what seemed an eternity, every cell in my body felt alive and kicking! A little adventure to have faced something bigger than myself, even if it was for just a moment!
The evening ended with a meaningful toast by Ali, that acknowledged what a privilege it was to be here and to the wild land of Antarctica, that has inspired so many over the years.
Drake Back and Mind Travel
All the sights that we could see, we had seen in Antarctica. Now, it was time to embrace the two days crossing the dreaded Drake and being completely in the ship. I understand many cruise ships are a destination by itself, with their gigantic swimming pools and tennis courts. But in a destination such as Antarctica, the transport tends to pale in comparison. It’s more like a mother, a haven of safety, in the exploration of an extreme land.
In this ship, I experienced many moments of connecting with other minds from other places. I love these little bubbles of time when I conversed with members of the expedition staff, knowing about their lives, where they come from, why they chose this line of work and many other little things. I saw cultures colliding and emerging, as in the comment of a Chinese member about the American candidness. ‘They are so open! Do I really need to hear such intimate details?’ And then in the conclusion that their nature does make travel so much more fun!
Lunch on few days had a special surprise. Basheer, the hotel manager of the ship, who hails from Chennai, gave us this bottle of mango pickle. Outside there was snow and ice and on our plates, curd and rice with hot mango pickle! Home came to the seas of Antarctica, thanks to this gesture of brother Basheer.
It was the practice of having expedition team members join a free seat at the dining table. This was their way of connecting with the travellers and this led to fascinating insights about the lives of these members. Some moments that flash by: Discussion with Dr.Phil on the ethical dilemmas in tourism; conversation with Camille in a journey that waltzed through careers, computers and cultures; Jiayi’s poetic and introspective questions; story of Ema’s life as a microbiology researcher and the reasons she chose to work here over being a scientist; Nick’s witty and engaging delivery of wildlife knowledge; Nat’s humour and spontaneous translation abilities into Mandarin; Pato’s amusing narration of ‘Toby, the Polar Pig’ – So many enthralling memories of travelling through the minds of people and trying to see the world through their eyes!
In the presentations on our way back, learnt some curious facts. One, that Antarctica and Tamilnadu shared a coastline, just 180 million years ago. You could walk to the present Marina beach and step into the water and only, it won’t be the Bay of Bengal, but Antarctica, a tropical landscape with dinosaurs roaming about. Another fact, that a small dog-like creature from Pakistan, ‘the Pakicetus’ was said to be the ancestor of the mighty whale. Came to understand that beneath all the ice, some of which is 7 km deep, underground lakes and rivers flow. This is of special importance in understanding possibility of life in other planets or moons as in Europa, for instance, which has the same geographical features. Lectures on history brought forth Shackleton’s journey that left him and his crew abandoned on Antarctic ice for two years and the story of how he managed to return with all his men intact. No matter how many new pieces of information and knowledge I was able to absorb, in the end, it just made me reflect on how little I know. A mere molecule on the tip of the iceberg!
Antarctica belongs to no nation. The Antarctic Treaty declares that this is a region of peace, in which no territorial claims of the past shall be recognised, where no wars shall be fought and where science is the only priority. As of today, 53 nations have come together to exist in harmony in this corner of the world. If it’s possible here, why not everywhere, is the question that echoes in my mind. After all, Antarctica is a part of this world and inspired by this model, why can’t nations put aside their wars for territories and boundaries and embrace the limitless possibilities of working together?
Every year, the snow keeps falling in Antarctica as if to say, ‘Write afresh on the pages of history!’ Will our generation take up the challenge and choose to write a greener, cleaner world, so that thousands of years later, if people then were to take an Antarctic ice-core, they could find that this generation did choose better words and ways than the past? Antarctica’s snow waits to stand in witness for time eternal!