sun sets over Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. (Erik
A Cold, Faraway Place
Exploring a Lonely Antarctic Beach
March 1 —
It was 10:30 in the evening when we arrived in Antarctica, and the
sky was still as bright as a summer day.
Actually, it was summer, January in the
Southern Hemisphere. But rather than the comfortable climate of,
say, Hawaii, it was a nasty 10 below.
was hitching a ride aboard the Chilean Navy frigate Aquiles, which
was making a routine training mission to the southern continent, and
I now sat in one of her clunky lifeboats bound for the Chilean base
Arturo Prat on Greenwich Island, part of the South Shetland
Archipelago lying off of the long arm of the Antarctic Peninsula.
We landed on a rocky beach where a
troop of Chinstrap penguins gazed at us curiously as we lumbered out
of the boats. The flightless birds seemed to be just hanging out
minding their own business, and didn’t appear particularly happy to
about a dozen buildings on the base, flat uninspiring structures
that reminded me of a suburban prefab office complex. There was also
an assemblage of storage sheds painted a hideous day-glow orange
that didn’t jive at all with the environment. I assume they were
painted that way so they’d be easy to find in a storm.
| Greenwich Island is part of the South Shetland
Archipelago lying off of the long arm of the Antarctic
Peninsula. (ABCNEWS.com/ Magellan
After a week of seafaring across
Drake’s Passage — reputedly the roughest swatch of sea in the world
— I found it an odd sensation to have my feet on solid ground again.
At least I’d been able to fend off seasickness during the trip,
which is more than I can say for about three-quarters of the other
passengers, who were often found on the upper deck bent over the
rail. They weren’t sightseeing.
area where we landed was all ice, rock and sea. The ground was
carpeted in a pillowy red lichen that made an odd sighing noise
under my feet. To the immediate north, a small Catholic shrine was
perched on the top of a hill, used by the dozen or so people who
live and work on the base. The island was very narrow here, just a
quarter of a mile across.
I walked to the other side of the
island in a few minutes, and found a gravel beach where a small
squad of penguins stood idly around like short French waiters.
Scattered around on the beach were
whole scores of penguin corpses, the little rib cages bleached white
by the sun and cold. I could tell they were penguin bodies because
their small velvety flippers had been left intact, even though the
bones had been picked clean. I learned later that the penguins had
been attacked by a fellow bird called the Antarctic Skua. A massive
brown bird like an overgrown seagull, the skua is the only bird that
regularly travels to the South Pole — even the penguins don’t dare
go so far south.
I walked down the beach alone
for about a mile, but the cold became intolerable. Massive gusts of
subzero wind swept down from the mountains and slammed into me like
blows. I kept my head down and pressed on up the beach, unsure of
what I was going to find. I came upon a herd of enormous elephant
seals lying barking and belching like a group of fraternity brothers
on Spring Break.
author explores the cold way, way down south. (Erik
Black clouds swarmed
on the horizon and snow began to fall, so I quickly headed back to
the base. Not long after, we were told a storm was coming that would
make passage back to the Aquiles impossible, so we’d have to hurry.
We’d been on the base for a good part of the day, and I’d hoped we’d
be able to stay the night, but the captain of the Aquiles wanted
everyone back aboard.
Looking for Life Jackets
We tumbled back
into the lifeboats and were about a half a mile out when I realized
something was missing.
sir?” I said to the sailor who stood in the bow. He was flapping his
arms in a gesture that was either an effort to keep warm or some
Chilean navigational technique. “Aren’t we supposed to be wearing
life jackets?” My lips were frozen, and I wasn’t sure if the Spanish
came out correctly.
“Que?” he said.
“I said, aren’t there supposed to be
life jackets? For passengers?” He shrugged and I searched my memory
to be sure that I had used the right words: chaleco salvavidas.
Another sailor nearby scoffed, “Why do you need a life jacket? If
you fall in this water, you only have about twenty-five seconds to
live. We’d never get to you in time.” I saw a faint smile cross his
lips as he exchanged glances with his buddy sitting across from
Thankfully, we made it back to the
Aquiles safe and sound. We slept soundly that night on board the
ship and then spent another few days sailing around the islands,
landing at another Chilean base and saying hello to the Russian
research tam at Bellingshausen. The next week, we headed back to
Cape Horn. It was very cold, but because I had so much travel still
ahead of me, I was happy. Happy to have visited, and happy to be
leaving this cold, faraway place.
Getting to Antartica
Not all trips to the Southern continent
require hitching a ride on a Chilean Navy vessel. However, if
that is your desire, the Chilean Navy has opened up trips on a
sporadic basis. The best way to get on one of these is to
visit the main ship pier in Punta Arenas, which is reachable
by plane from Santiago on LanChile.
The majority of ship-based
tourist expeditions depart from and return to Ushuaia, the
southernmost city in the world. The trip across the Drake
Passage can take up the first three days or more of a trip
that usually lasts between 7 and 15 days.
Most Antarctic tour outfits
charter Russian-owned research vessels that have been
converted for expeditions. Travelers should book with
companies affiliated with the International Association of
Antarctic Tour Operators, a member organization founded in
1991 to advocate, promote, and practice safe and
environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic.
British-based Adventure Network
International (call 44-1494-671-808 or fax 44-1494-671-725)
flies Hercules C-130s from Punta Arenas to an ice runway at
the Patriot Hills (80 degrees S 80 degrees W ) in the heart of
Antarctica. From here, you fly two Twin Otter aircraft and a
ski-equipped Cessna to reach the South Pole. If you’re less
adventuresome you can fly in a Qantas jumbo jet over
Antarctica from Australia without landing.
Abercrombie and Kent (call
630-954-2944 or fax 630-572-1833) operates the 96-berth
One book on the area I
highly recommend is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible
Voyage by Alfred Lansing (Carroll & Graf, 1986). The
book tells the true story of Ernest Shackleton, who set out on
a transantarctic expedition in 1914 aboard the ship Endurance.
Lansing’s account of how the ship was crushed and sank in the
Weddell Sea and the epic tale of the expedition’s struggle to
survive is a classic adventure.
— Erik Olsen