The drama and somewhat unintentional humour of first one and eventually three ships getting caught in heavy sea ice in the Southern Ocean has been closely followed since before Christmas. The images of the ship Akademik Shokalskiy held captive in the thick Antarctic icepack caught the attention of people around the world, if not always for the right reasons.
Photos of the Schokalskiy bear little resemblance to Frank Hurley’s images of the Endurance – the wooden ship of Shackleton’s famous expedition of 1914-17 – that was trapped and shattered in similar pack ice. Yet they raise the same question: why would anyone willingly travel to this barren, cold and dangerous landscape?
For the Schokalskiy voyagers, it was an opportunity to follow the route of another historical expedition, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Douglas Mawson. Both expeditions are examples of human courage and persistence in the face of incredible risks. Shackleton and crew travelled over 800 nautical miles of open water in a small lifeboat and then hiked another 50km over difficult terrain. Mawson completed an incredible 150km solo trek across wind-blasted Wilkes Land. But these expeditions are exceptional; most scientific and tourism-based Antarctic trips are incident free.
In December 2012 I was fortunate enough to participate in the Geological Society of America’s 125th Anniversary Expedition to Antarctica, lead by Cheesman’s Safaris. This was not a scientific expedition per se but nor was it just a cruise – more a destination field trip with an emphasis on both local and regional geology.
We sailed aboard the Akademic Ioffee, the slightly younger sister ship to the Schokalskiy. We departed on December 29 from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, and followed sections of Shackleton’s route in a fashion similar to the Schokalskiy retracing Mawson’s path. Many Russian oceanographic vessels built during the Cold War were converted into tourist friendly ships with dorm-style cabins, cinemas, lecture rooms, libraries, dining halls and – in our case – a hot tub and sauna on the upper deck. These amenities meant we were rarely hungry, cold or uncomfortable, other than from sea sickness.
Luckily both our crossings of the Drake Passage, the notoriously rough stretch of sea between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands, was relatively placid. But to leave the Falklands behind us and crossing the Drake is to officially leave civilisation and enter a foreign environment – even for those of us from northern latitudes accustomed to snow and cold.
It wasn’t the cold that made it feel so foreign. The southern hemisphere’s summer provided comfortable walking temperatures ranging from -2°C to 6°C. Rather, it was the variability in light, the clarity of the atmosphere, and the sight of creatures seen only in the pages of National Geographic.
Our first landing at Peggotty Bluff on South Georgia Island, where Shackleton also first landed, provided an abrupt introduction to what would greet us for the duration of the trip. As we stepped out of our boats, walking awkwardly wrapped in lifevests, GoreTex, and knee-high rubber boots, we found ourselves faced with territorial fur seals, huge but languid elephant seals bellowing their welcome, and gentoo and king penguins waddling across the shingle. Behind these amazing creatures were white snowfields, sheer black cliffs, and the diffuse blue and green hues of glacial ice.
Moving past South Georgia and further south towards the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic peninsula, the icebergs we encountered grew in number and size. At first appearing as small growlers showing signs of recent melting and erosion, those we passed grew steadily larger, becoming blocky, table-top icebergs that looked as if they’d recently calved from an ice shelf – although we knew that wasn’t the case. With increasing icebergs came increasing snow cover, which meant fewer opportunities to examine exposed bedrock and penguins. It was interesting to see how penguin diversity decreased as we approached the peninsula, and that the penguin chicks grew smaller and smaller, until we found on Cuverville Island Gentoo penguins still sat on eggs.
Geologically, the field trip focused on the interplay of tectonic plates in the region, as the rocks in this seemingly frozen landscape record an incredibly dynamic history. Dating from the ancient break of Gondwanaland, we found exposures of pillow lava that represented ancient oceanic crust exposed on South Georgia, volcanic creations like Deception Island, and Jurassic fossils exposed on the Antarctic peninsula. We were kept busy reading the story of geologic time recorded in the rocks.
Passing through the Gerlach Strait and Neumayer Channel, where sheer ice cliffs and soupy pack ice crowded around the ship, I pondered the fate of the MS Explorer – the cruise ship that sank in 2007 after hitting an iceberg in the Bransfield Strait. I can’t speak for the scientists aboard the Schokalskiy, but I still grapple with the tension between the financial cost and carbon footprint of the journey, and the fact that one year on I am still processing what I saw and experienced. The experiences on this trip weren’t limited to the animals or the rocks; I continue to be surprised by how much I learned about the rich history of whaling, political complexity of the Antarctic Treaty and how tourism crops up up in unexpected ways.
The opportunity to explore an extreme and foreboding, but fascinating environment such as Antarctica with minimal risk is why many people choose it as a destination, and why so many go back.