The White Continent will blow you away. See for yourself

FOR A place that seemingly has nothing — no cities, no hotels, no restaurants — Antarctica sure is full of sights unlike anywhere else in the world.

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When the captain announced through the PA system that there would be an ice island floating by soon, I finally emerged from my cabin after nearly two days. The captain’s earlier predictions of “some stormy weather” felt like a massive understatement in retrospect – I would have called the raging 10-12 meter waves something else entirely.

The enthusiasm that the passengers exhibited on their way to the deck was palpable and contagious. Excited chatter filled the hallways as everyone was bundling up in preparation for the frigid air waiting outside. It wasn’t the ice island itself that we all were so excited about, it was what it signified; we were getting close to the Antarctic Peninsula.

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I don’t normally get excited about something as trivial as ice. I’ve lived most of my life in countries with harsh winters so I’ve seen plenty of ice in my life, too much, I might have argued. When my friends and family wanted to know what was the best part of my trip to the White Continent, I knew they fully expected me to squeal “penguins!” as the answer. To their surprise and mine, it was the different ice formations that impressed me the most.

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Nowhere in the northern hemisphere had I seen such ice formations ranging from millennia-old crystal clear fragments to icebergs with an unrealistically blue glow. Neither had I ever imagined I would witness an iceberg capsizing while I sat at sea level in a zodiac, truly feeling the power of nature.

4

Of course, I would be blatantly lying if I said seeing penguins wasn’t one of the highlights of the trip. Several years before my visit to Antarctica I had been to a zoo that housed penguins, polar bears, and lions – all of which were very far removed from their natural environment and climate. That day I decided it would be the last time I visited a zoo and made a pledge that if I wanted to see wild animals, I would travel to their natural environment. Seeing colonies of tens of thousands of penguins in the wild was infinitely more rewarding than seeing ten of them performing at a ‘penguin parade’ on the concrete streets of a zoo.

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And what wildly entertaining creatures penguins are! My trip took place in November when these birds were in the nest building phase, trying to find rocks for their new accommodations – and occasionally stealing some fine rocks from their neighbour. We were instructed to keep a safe distance from the penguins in order not to disturb them but the birds weren’t aware of any such restrictions. They would curiously walk close to us to check us out and then went on about their busy lives ignoring us completely.

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The Antarctic spring was warmer than I had expected but it’s hard to imagine just how resilient these animals need to be to thrive in the ever-changing weather on the coldest, driest, and windiest continent. Our zodiac excursions took us to see some places twice but it was impossible to tell because the weather changed the scenery so drastically. One day the clouds were hanging so low I could nearly touch them from the zodiac and the next day the bright and sunny weather revealed the towering mountains that surrounded us.

7

After a few days of exploring the seventh continent, it was time to navigate our way back to the southernmost town in South America, Ushuaia. Antarctica is said to be once-in-a-lifetime destination but that is just untrue – there is no way to see all that it has to offer on one short visit.

Trapped in ice

Trapped in the ice

For two weeks the ship Akademik Shokalskiy was trapped in thick ice in East Antarctica.

 

For two weeks — from 24th December 2013 while operating for an Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) — the ship Akademik Shokalskiy was trapped in thick ice in Commonwealth Bay, East Antarctica.

 

The story of that event and the eventual evacuation of the passengers onboard by Chinese helicopter to the Australian icebreaking ship Aurora Australis became worldwide news at the time.

I was the doctor and photographer on that Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) and found myself at the center of what became a media storm. Unfortunately, that drama rather overshadowed the reasons behind our expedition journey south to the white continent.

Our ship, the Akademik Shokalskiy became trapped in ice for two weeks when a storm blew thick pack ice into a previously open lead in the ocean.

 

The AAE was a science-based expedition from the University of New South Wales, Australia that relied on private funding from paying passengers and university grants.

The aim was to travel to the area of Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctica to repeat and compare scientific observations with those made by an Australian geologist and explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, who first landed there 100 years earlier with the ‘original’ AAE.

On what must have been the Edwardian equivalent of today’s space travel, Mawson and his team had established a base hut there at Cape Denison — a location that has now been proven to be one of the windiest places on Earth. Over the following two years, the team made important oceanographic, geological, and meteorological measurements. An example of such measurements is illustrated in the image below (right) where a member of the expedition is firing a dart into the skin of a seal to collect full thickness skin and fat samples that can then be analyzed to assess nutrition and chemical exposure status.
 

Left: Salps are most abundant in the Southern Ocean where they sometimes form enormous swarms, often in deep water, and are sometimes even more abundant than krill.

 

Clearly, we had more creature comforts than Mawson and his men, yet visiting the coast of East Antarctica is still a difficult proposition, and it felt very remote, geographically speaking. The desolate landscape with its multi-hued, blue ice features and the intense, 24-hour light of such a southern latitude made for a wonderful, yet challenging environment in which to photograph.
 

 

Antarctica is undoubtedly a beautiful place, but one that changes remarkably in mood with the weather. Delightfully inquisitive penguins are a constant presence at the edge of the ice, and their charismatic personality means I never tire of photographing them.

 

Much is still unknown about the frozen continent, partly because of its incredibly harsh conditions, and along with the expedition’s findings, my photographs were intended to help focus attention on the scientific investigation into climate change in Antarctica.

 

I’m a believer in sustainable tourism to Antarctica. By controlling access and overseeing rules designed to minimize the environmental impact of visitors there is the opportunity to allow people from all corners of the globe to safely experience the beauty of these landscapes and wildlife in this special continent.

 

The International Association of Antarctic Tourism Operators (IAATO) provides regulatory oversight of the mostly ship-based tourism to this important continent, and all ships must provide educational content as part of their tourist charter.

This exposure to teaching from experts while out in the field and the first-hand, raw experience of this remarkable continent serves to imprint upon visitors the importance of Antarctica to the Earth as a whole, especially when it comes to the continent’s vulnerability to the impacts of a changing climate directly linked to man’s activities.

On returning home, I felt better prepared and inspired to speak up on behalf of the white continent and to help spread the message to others that Antarctica is a place we must protect at all costs.

 

Antarctica: Pole to Soul Part 7

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Spectacle surrounds me. The majesty of the land, sea and skyscapes almost overwhelms. It is hard to process the sensory assault of sights, sounds and smells, the frigid touch of the air, the taste of salt on my lips. The vistas that addle the eye, the moist hollow exhalation of a humpbacks breath, the fishy farmyard tang of penguin guano. But this is not just data. It is raw, visceral and emotive. The most incredible thing about Antarctica is how it makes you feel.

Insignificant. Miniscule. Perhaps shrunk from our egotism we feel our real size, vulnerable hair-less apes don’t seem so big and clever in a blizzard. Antarctica is so immense, both in terms of its expansive geography and riotously rugged topography, you can’t help but feel small. Our cruise has barely brushed the tip of the proverbial ice-berg, the slender finger of the Peninsula that reaches out to tickle Tierra del Fuego. The mountainous Trans-Antarctic massif is massive, but almost entirely buried beneath a smooth all consuming cloak of ice often thousands of metres thick. Whisk it away and Antarctica is not a single land mass but a vast archipelago of mountains and basins. I feel infinitesimally tiny.

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Transitory. The ice is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old in places. Air trapped in cores drilled out from the sheet shows us the mix of gases in our ancestral atmosphere. Up to six hundred thousand years ago. At that time our hominid heritage was still grubbing about with rather rudimentary intelligence somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. I am but a blink in the eye of this ancient world. I feel stupidly young.

I am touched by beauty. The creativity wrought by the elemental pairing of hydrogen and oxygen is astonishing. I see the bonds between them that make up the majority of me, us, unleashed to a world-shaping potential. It is exhilarating as monstrous glaciers grunt and grind over the rock before calving to build castles in the sea. And what castles.

Nature is a restless sculptress. Her tools are primary forces; the wind, waves and sunshine. Even the bubbles trapped in the ice carve grooves as they’re released. The ocean bristles orgiastically with flamboyant but ephemeral creations. Bergs like enormous cuboid edifices of blocky brutalism. Pinnacled cathedrals. Frozen ramparts and battlements of fortified ice, or the sinuous, sensuous curves of sleek-surfaced transports of delight.

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With nine tenths of their mass underwater in shallow bays the bergs ground, littering the horizon like a compromised armada. They list, heel, roll, right themselves again, crack, split and fragment. Shattered faces scatter light. Compressed ice shines deep bottle blue from within. Textures range from gritty composites to scalloped delicacy. I am inspired by the timeless artist’s imagination.

Of course I feel cold. This is obvious but important. Unlike the Stygian sub-zero savagery of winter the summer is mild. Temperatures hover around freezing. However the chill contains a thinly veiled threat, knowing that a sharp-toothed wind can bite deep into your bones in minutes.

Fear occasionally surfaces. This is forbidding and foreboding territory. Perhaps it is but a healthy respect for our interloper status? I feel alien. An imposter. Ill-equipped. This is not home. There is no warm embrace of earth. No green reassurance. Ice scours the land of almost all life. The only terrestrial growth to speak of is the incredible engine of icy locomotion that flows from the shores. In contrast the sea teems.

The water is olive-tinged with the explosive growth of planktonic diatoms. Crab-eater seal fur and Orca skin glistens verdantly due to the attached algae. Krill graze this harvest, and they power a bounteous marine food chain of gargantuan productivity. I am astonished by the rich fecundity.

Above all else I feel unbridled joy. Hope. Not all planets can be as beautiful as this one. Antarctica is like stepping into another world. I sense that same shift in consciousness that explorers or even astronauts feel. The overview effect of interconnection, interdependence and indivisibility writ large. My heart expands, fills with elation. I stand outside myself and know that in this moment there is only exquisite splendour. It feels amazing.

Ed Gillespie is Co-Founder of www.wearefuterra.com, author of ‘Only Planet – a flight-free adventure around the world’ and in the Antarctic…

Follow Ed Gillespie on Twitter: www.twitter.com/frucool and via #pole2soul

This blog is part of a series. Read other instalments via the author’s profile page.

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