Antarctica: Losing Yourself and Finding Everything Else

May 16, 2019

Nothing can prepare you for the epic underside of our planet. I keep a list of the things I’ve seen that were, at first, nearly impossible to grasp. A few of these landmarks took seconds—even hours—to comprehend: the Grand Canyon, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, Ethiopia’s underground rock-hewn churches, Miss Brazil flipping her hair at a barbecue, Machu Picchu and the ice-wrapped Himalayas. After hiking through Nepal’s mind-boggling landscape, I forecast that sensory overload as matchless. Then, I beheld Antarctica.

This frosted otherworld hypnotizes with glimmering, blue-green icebergs drifting among glacial citadels. Whales hiss, seals snore and penguins return your gaze. This everlasting winter wonderland gives new gist to finally “hitting bottom,” way down under. Extremes of climate, landscape and awe found on no other continent await those who venture here. The 1,800-mile-long Transantarctic Mountains rival the Rockies in height, but only the crests break through the ice sheet. The boom of cracking glacial crests echoes through valleys as chunks of ice fall hundreds of feet into sea water.

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There are glaciers elsewhere: the lingering bits in Montana’s Glacier National Park are predicted to melt by 2030. New Zealand’s Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers, attractions I marveled at in the ’80s, now seem puny. Alaska and Norway have significant offerings, but Antarctica is a glacier that’s roughly the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined—and constantly calving icebergs into the ocean. It’s a live show.

The UN-sponsored 1959 Antarctic Treaty mandated that this continent only be explored with peace in mind—no hunting, fishing, industry, exporting, oil drilling or weapons testing. However, lawlessness prevailed here before 1959. Antarctic shores are littered with whale-bones, the unsettling legacy of a now outlawed whaling industry. The white continent lingers as an example of how our planet intended on enduring the eons. Your mind wanders during your time amid the ice. The wildlife, surviving despite being utterly vulnerable among relentless challenges, reminds us that pining and whining wastes precious time.

When you step ashore, you’ll no doubt encounter penguins—upright birds that can’t fly— that often seem as playful as puppies. Mingling with them, provided they’re willing, is enthralling. Penguins quack like a band of trumpeting kazoos while flapping their wingfins gaily. Photographing them is similar to shooting a moderately amused child; you lose them if you break the spell. Their quack soundtrack melds with whimpering seals (hairy, puppy-faced dolphins with flippers and reeking of musky low tide), screeching gulls, pleading terns, thundering glaciers and the air-releasing whooshes from whale blowholes. This is nature. Most shore excursions are about the environment, but a few of them visit research stations that double as shopping binges. Royal bargain: At Port Lockroy, a British research station, international-anywhere stamps cost $1. Similar landings and offerings to mail via Chilean post cost $5 while Argentina charges $7 for their stamp. Hmm.

And then there’s the actual trip to get here— via what can be some of the earth’s most torrential wave action. The Drake Passage is the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and it separates the South American continent and the Antarctic Peninsula. Splash in its funneling of the circulating waters around the bottom of the world, and you have Earth’s strongest current; it makes the Gulf Stream seem negligible. The westerly winds, uncompromised by mountain ranges, can blow up to 100 miles per hour. Imagine navigating this 100 years ago. Even today, there’s still no one to stamp your passport here.

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Ships rolling in waves make some people nap. Even when not on the brink of a nap, most passengers are mellower on the boat than they’d be at home—the only tension is possibly missing something gorgeous. Someone on watch is always willing to discuss life at sea, whale watching or storm navigating, even at 4 a.m. Barring ice-bashing tight spots, the captain is usually available for a chat.

Once back on land in Ushuaia, you might experience a bit of greenout—the alarm experienced by long-term Antarctic visitors upon returning to terra firma and seeing grass and trees. “Dock rocking ” is the swaying sensation felt on land after being at sea for a long time. Mine resembled a two-beer buzz and lasted days. When you wake up from your Antarctic dream, enlightened and bewildered, you’ll miss the sweet air. Penguins are happier than clams—now you know why.