An Antarctica Cruise
by Margo Pfeiff
"You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic."
-Thomas Pynchon, V.
From the rhythmic flip-flop of the tethered plastic philodendron in the dining room, I knew we were still in the grip of a Force 9 gale. That meant a battering ram of 55-mile-an-hour winds and 22-foot waves. And by the diminishing numbers of little white bags that had ominously appeared throughout the ship when we left port, it was clear that not only the decks were pitching.
The few brave souls who showed up at lunch were treated to a moment when everything became airborne - passengers, coffee urn, minestrone soup - as we rode off the top of a wave. There was silence then a crash as the dining room darkened with submarine-green water in the portholes. "Bloody hell!" muttered David Jackson who had spent 26 years on oil rigs off Tasmania where he'd gleaned the experience to save his lunch by holding his plates aloft. "Pass the butter, please, mate."
Storm at Sea
It was our second day of a classic cyclonic gale in the Drake Strait where the Atlantic and Pacific head-butt at the foot of Argentina, producing some of the most vicious seas on earth. We were headed for the Antarctica Peninsula, the handle of that frying-pan-shaped continent, a volcanic finger linked seismically to the Andes and pointing towards South America, 600 miles away.
We had left the ski town of Ushuaia in sunshine and calm sea and lounged on the flying bridge while southern right whales breached, pairs of dolphins rode our bow wake, and Magellanic penguins leapt alongside. But by 5 a.m. things had changed. I awoke to see my tripod migrating from the loo to my bunk and back with rhythmic crashes. Also unnerving was the Russian crew member who strode unannounced into my cabin at 6 a.m. with a wrench to tighten down the bolts on my portholes.
A Russian Vessel
Our ship was the Professor Molchanov, a 263-foot-long Russian "research vessel" built in 1983 for rough northern seas where it listened for NATO submarines. After the Cold War it was strengthened for ice travel and chartered, along with its 20 Russian crew, for expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. Since the booking agent for my trip was one of Australia's leading adventure travel companies, 26 of my 32 fellow passengers were Aussies; there was also one American woman, three Brits and a Japanese girl with a passion for penguins.
The Molchanov was not luxurious, but homey and very comfortable. There was always too much good food in the dining room, and I spent hours on the bridge watching the winds sever the tops off waves and the bow crash into black waters. Built for science, the Molchanov had no salon with wide windows for seascape viewing. Instead -and far more interesting - the bridge was open to passengers around the clock and you could chat with and watch the Russian crew as they navigated and sailed.
Despite the rough seas, on-board life was busy. Every morning our naturalist, Dr. Gary Miller, lectured on seals, whales, seabirds and his specialty, penguins. Gary's awesome repertoire of penguin calls had us begging for more, and by the third day at sea he was hoarse. Afternoons were filled with Antarctic videos and a series of writers' workshops courtesy of passenger Bryce Courtenay, one of Australia's leading novelists.
Penguins En Masse
At 2:30 a.m. on our third night at sea I sat bolt upright in my bunk. It was suddenly dead calm. I leapt into my clothes and raced outside. Since we had traveled so far south, it was already light. Aglow with the red of dawn, the entire ship shimmered, glazed in an inch of ice. The horizon glistened with blue icebergs strung like aquamarine crystals against the black storm clouds we had just left behind. The sea was almost tropical turquoise and squirted up pods of Adelie penguins that became airborne for an instant as they porpoised en masse beside the ship. We had arrived at the South Shetland Islands that hug the Antarctic Peninsula.
"Good morning, good people." The soft Aussie accent of our expedition leader, Greg Mortimer, came over the PA system at 5 a.m. One of Australia's foremost mountaineers, Greg had made the first Australian ascent of both K2 and Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica. He brought his love of adventure to Antarctica and offers sea kayaking and scuba diving as well as mountaineering and ice camping options on voyages during the summer season from November to late March.
Our first landing came on Halfmoon Island, a sliver of land and snow in the shadow of the 6,000-foot snowy peaks of Livingstone Island. No PBS documentary could do justice to penguins in the flesh - so arrestingly cute that my heart melted.
While photographing the bleached hulk of a small whaling skiff I suddenly felt a tug on my backpack - a penguin less than a yard away was pulling on a loose binding. My newfound friend belonged to a rookery of chinstrap penguins, appropriately named for the black line that runs under the neck as if holding on a hat.
We were given three hours on the small island. I headed off alone across the snow past wide-eyed beached Weddell seals and great jiggling hulks of elephant seals that farted and burped and bore a startling resemblance to Jubba the Hutt from the Star Wars films.
The zodiac trip back to the ship skirted sheer 200-foot-high walls of a glacier flowing into the sea. When we approached a bright-blue iceberg shaped like a castle with tall spires, the wind flaked tissue-thin sheets of ice off the berg and sent them sparkling into the sun like icy confetti.
The Banana Belt
The Antarctic Peninsula is often called the continent's Banana Belt because of its moderate weather. In November - late spring - temperatures hovered around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, balmy in comparison to the Russian research station, Vostok, which clocks in with minus 27 degrees at the same time of year.
As a result, many of Antarctica's 200 scientific research bases are situated on the peninsula and South Shetland Islands. One such base is the Polish Arctowski Base at Admiralty Bay on King George Island, where we dropped anchor the following morning. The staff of 10 who had over-wintered here invited us into the bright yellow prefab metal building that serves as their headquarters. Inside, the decor resembled a cozy Eastern European chalet with pine paneling and wooden cottage furniture set beneath a photo of a smiling Pope and a painting of Polish Antarctic explorer Henryk Arctowski.
To take advantage of 20 hours of light and squeeze in as many as three landings daily, we awoke at 5:00 a.m., making our way towards a blinding white dome that dominated the morning sky. It wasn't just the early hour, but the awesome size of the ice sheet covering the spine of the peninsula, that left everyone silent.
It was our first landing on the Antarctic continent. This is the highest, driest and coldest of continents, where ice sheets up to two miles thick hold 70 percent of the world's fresh water in 90 percent of the world's ice. Ice islands of 12,000 square miles - the size of Belgium - have calved off this frozen continent, yet the biggest terrestrial creature is a flightless midge less than one tenth of an inch long.
Since it had been a very mild winter, few ice floes impeded our cruise down the peninsula. We held our breath between two icebergs that choked the already narrow walls of Errera Channel before anchoring at Paradise Bay.
In 35-degree sunshine that felt like summer, we enjoyed dinner outside where chef Phil Douse manned the Aussie barbecue on the stern deck. Timbo, our magician/ bartender, acted as DJ, Gary did a penguin walk/dance that drew hoots of approval, and I managed - with the bait of Russian music - to coax Captain Baturkin to waltz with me, elegant in my penguin-guano-stained gum boots. At 64'53'' S we had reached the southernmost point in our trip.
For many, a trip to Antarctica becomes a spiritual journey. I did not expect to be bowled over, but I was, on the morning we set off through a jigsaw of icebergs to reach Christiania Island. The air seemed scrubbed crystal-clear. Olive-green cliffs soared from the water, topped with the melted icing of hanging glaciers. Low icebergs sighed as they rose and fell in the seas at the foot of the cliffs. In the distance, pointed needle bergs didn't look quite real. The pristine quality of the place and its wildness seemed so precious I understood why nations feel so passionately about protecting this continent that belongs to everyone.
Our last day in Antarctica dawned gray and windy as we sailed towards our most desolate destination, Deception Island. A flooded volcanic caldera eight miles across, the sheltered harbor has just a single narrow opening called Devil's Bellows. A haunting black-and-white landscape of ash and snow surrounded the bay; in places the ground steamed with fumaroles.
Desolation of Whaler's Bay
We landed on the black beach of Whaler's Bay amid the ruins of a Norwegian whaling station that a century ago had been a town of 200 and the hub of activity in Antarctica. The British Ant-arctic Survey took over the site until ash from volcanic eruptions from 1967 to 1970 inundated their buildings. Even when the sun came out it was a spooky place.
We smelled our last stop even before we saw Bailey's Head penguin rookery on the outside rim of Deception Island. Up the barren hillsides every available inch of land was occupied by 80,000 to 100,000 pairs of penguins perched above their "nests," divots pecked out of the hard ground and striped white with ammonia-laden guano. There were penguins incubating eggs, mating, making "ecstatic displays" - a kind of "Honey, I'm home" announcement - and screeching at skuas, Antarctica's scavenger birds, who had stolen eggs and flown off.
Chinstraps are the busiest of penguins, always scurrying with a sense of purpose. Just before leaping into the last Zodiac back to the ship I turned for one final look at a wide pathway beaten smooth by a two-way flow of marching penguins. As the Molchanov raised anchor and turned north for the Drake I picked up the book I had been reading about a horrific 36-day Antarctic trek in 1911. In The Worst Journey in the World I found a quote by author Apsley Cherry-Garrard that perfectly described my last and lasting glimpse of Antarctica: "... these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt-fronts ..."
For more information, contact: World Expeditions: Tel: 888-464-8735 or 415-989-2212; Fax: 415-989-2112; E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org; Website:www.worldexpeditions.net.
• Antarctic voyages are not luxury cruises - they are eco-adventure expeditions. The ship's double cabins are comfortable, but the quad accommodations can be cramped, and washrooms and showers are down the hall.
• The Antarctic cruise season runs from November until March. Not uncomfortable, temperatures hover around the freezing point.
• Bring warm winter clothes - layers are preferable. Rubber boots are essential for Zodiac landings; you can bring your own, but they are also available on board. Sneakers and casual, comfortable clothes make perfect garb for onboard life.
• A waterproof bag for camera gear, notebooks and extra clothes is a good idea for shore trips.