The big chill

Author: patrick carlyon
Photography: chris chen

It is the march of the penguins. Three pairs of thermal socks. Double layers of thermal underwear. Two woollen jumpers, a scarf, a beanie, gumboots and bright red 'wetskins' that shield the body from unexpected sprays of Antarctic water. Trussed up in a life jacket, like a line of overstuffed pillows, we waddle up and down the ship's wobbly gangway on a twice-daily basis.

Our arms jut out because of the cushioning. Our hands grasp for any hold to stave off visions of plunging into the icy ocean. We slip and stumble into the waiting Zodiac boats that then skip and bounce through fields of icy soup. And, despite the padding, we each slap our hands together like the flippers of a circus seal, to remind ourselves that they are still there.

When a humpback whale suddenly blows water nearby, we fumble with our camera cases - and give up. It's too cold. Someone else will get the shot - given all the flashes and beeps, dozens already have.

Numbness creeps from the feet up. We are hunched together, braving a wind chill of -20C, wretched in a pong of wet wool. Maybe this is how that heroic loser, Robert Falcon Scott, finally nodded off in a blizzard. Yet, in an instant, again and again, our neurotic fancies are dispelled. In this scene of never-ending adjectives, the lure of the Antarctic takes hold.  

Graham Charles is a Peregrine Adventures expedition guide: he deserves a lead role in a Solo soft-drink commercial. He opens the throttle on his Zodiac and skits between chunks of brush ice, pausing often with the engine cut to listen for crackling glaciers.

One day, we are bobbing around near Neko Harbour where katabatic winds blow through the junction of seven glaciers. The water's surface clinks like cubes in a glass. "I want everyone to sit still," Charles says. "No photography. Just sit still and listen. You have to listen to the silence of Antarctica."   
If there is a revelation on this trip, it is now, when the fumes of the four-stroke engine disperse and the scene reclaims a solitude broken only by our presence. We are interlopers in an ancient realm. Whales breached here before Jesus rabble-roused in Jerusalem. Seals basked on icefloes before Mohammed found Allah in a cave. Penguins flipped in and out of the water before wheels turned and atomic bombs mushroomed. 
Just getting here reveals how much we don't belong. A total of 14 days away from Sydney yields about four-and-a-half days on the Antarctic Peninsula, south of Argentina. The sole satisfaction of flying Aerolineas Argentinas (the only carrier to Buenos Aires), for more than 40 hours, is that not once does the plane crash.

Our 10-day voyage starts at the town of Ushuaia, which could be the backdrop for the quirky TV series Northern Exposure. Our expedition is the last voyage of the summer, meaning most of the staff have been living onboard the Akademik Ioffe, a 117m-long ship designed for scientific testing, for nearly five months. Fortunately, their good humour is infectious. They, like the paying customers, want to be here. They do not pretend that this is a luxury cruise and no one, it seems, expects it will be.  

Onboard, conditions are kinder than expected. The twin-share cabins mean one person sleeps on a bunk, the other on a fold-out sofa bed that is more comfortable after one or three single-malt whiskies at the bar. Meals for more than 100 people are served in the dining room, basically an upmarket mess hall. All the meals, from the heart-attack inducing to the healthy, are self-service. The ship is overstocked on salad and, if dinner portions in the final days are any guide, it's also running low on duck, lamb and beef (you get three or four menu choices).
There is a sauna (very soothing after our Zodiac excursion) and plunge pool. Someone mentions a gym. Quickly, we feel overfed and underworked but this is soon fixed. The cure is called the Drake Passage. For up to two days, both there and back, passengers can be seen rushing from presentations and lectures with their hands locked over their mouths. It's not the coffee, even if the substance on board referred to as "coffee" might be better applied to shining shoes. Seasickness is very egalitarian.
Yet such details get lost in the memory. What remains are the images: a leopard seal slapping a gentoo penguin against the water's surface again and again until the prey sheds its skin like a discarded sock. "Not so Happy Feet now," says an Irish wag, risking cries of condemnation as the carcass bobs up. Or when penguins torpedo themselves onto an iceberg, some plopping down on their fat chests and cartwheeling back into the water. Or the sight of a solitary emperor penguin, presumably lost, flapping its fins on an iceberg and swivelling from the shoulders, like a teenage boy learning to disco dance.  

Then there are the unexpected booms straight out of a Napoleonic war when pieces of glaciers, looming like towers of Swiss cheese, snap off to become icebergs. They reflect shades of blue so sharp that the ice appears to have been lit from within. The icebergs resemble familiar shapes - a man's face or a cracked wine glass - as readily as clouds. In every one, one passenger says, lurks "Shakespeare, Picasso and Spielberg". 

If a jaunt to Antarctica leaves a ripple in the mind, it is that not only does mankind not belong here but that the important moments in mankind's history are not necessarily important.  
Mankind was not built to survive in such extremes. This may help explain our historical urge, as with Mt Everest and trips to the moon, to conquer Antarctica. Yet being here, ironically, inspires the question of whether people should be here at all, given the creeping logistical and environmental concerns triggered by the continent's tourism explosion. 

Something like 6000 tourists a year visited the Antarctica Peninsula in the early 1990s: an estimated 40,000 people came last summer. There are about 40 ships taking tourists around, retirees mostly, with fat super funds, and tales have begun to emerge of ships queuing to anchor in this port or that harbour. Five years ago, most passengers were scientists or birdwatchers. Now, most passengers are Mr and Mrs Ordinary, from anywhere, sating one or the other's lifelong hankering to see a penguin, say, up close. They are known by everyone else as 'tickers'. They tend to list the Galápagos Islands or Alaska as their hot spot destinations.
Most operators (including Peregrine) comply with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators regulations, which list many requirements such as leaving no evidence of land visits (including no eating or smoking on Antarctic land). When the crew of a Spanish cargo ship was apparently sighted smoking and littering onshore a few months ago, they were photographed and reported. Commercial interests, the argument goes, actually help to preserve Antarctica from the ravages of mankind.

Yet the effects of tourism are almost impossible to gauge. The range of Antarctic experiences offered continue to grow: on this Peregrine tour, the option of camping overnight on Antarctic ice was abandoned only because of bad weather. Three incidents, including a ship sinking and another ship being blown into a glacier, marred the previous summer of activity. "There will be more [accidents] as there are more ships," says Jacques Sirois, a Peregrine expedition guide.     

It could be argued that passengers who seek (and often find) their personal epiphanies do so at a cost far beyond their hip pockets. Many tourists return home to preach the preservation gospel, yet Sirois, a biologist, argues that the air and sea travel - as well as the onboard comforts - of an Antarctican holiday is roughly equal to 50 per cent of the average Western person's annual carbon footprint. It then figures that those visitors who are motivated to see the receding Antarctic glaciers (they have shrunk 10 to 15 per cent in the past 50 years), and changing wildlife (some colony sites for adélie penguins have been taken over by gentoo penguins, which thrive in slightly warmer surrounds) are the ones who are contributing directly to the problem.

Sirois says the "human tsunami" has had the biggest impact on Antarctica. The theory goes that man's capacity to pollute is boundless. At a Ukraine base station, Vernadsky, bought from the British for one pound in 1996, penguins huddle near rusted barrels and debris dumped over the course of decades. In the base bar, pop singer Belinda Carlisle blares on a stereo perched next to the 'southernmost souvenir shop on earth'. Homemade vodka goes for just over $3 a shot. It's a lark but it points to a deeper truth: where people go, commercialism follows. 

Like others, Sirois argues that tourist numbers must be capped. Yet the solutions for Antarctica will never be simple. The greatest tangible threat is the mining of its minerals, which, under international treaty, cannot happen until at least 2040. Countries such as Argentina and Chile have long postured for greater claims: this has extended to governments coaxing citizens to give birth in Antarctica in an effort to bolster territorial claims. At least one scientist envisages oil platforms off Antarctic islands later this century.

The issue of climate change is just as muddled: no one can prove for certain, on the basis of annual or decade-long comparisons, that the globe's deepest freezer is endangered. When great chunks fall away - in March, a 570 square kilometre piece of the Wilkins Ice Shelf broke off - climate change is blamed. Roman Sokolovsky, our Ukraine guide at the base, says there has been more sunny days of late and has noted the lack of the usual crust of ice between nearby islands last winter. Clearer evidence of climate change can be found at the other Pole.

Without doubt, man has tampered with the ageless rhythms of Antarctica. Pioneers have come here for almost 200 years. Some, like Ernest Shackleton and Scott, have monuments to their efforts preserved for eternity. Today, their feats and failures are still considered hopelessly fascinating.

Sealers and whalers, however, are not celebrated. They chartered much of this wonderland but after bludgeoning most of the seals and harpooning most of the whales, they left. But they, too, have monuments. When the gusts quell at Whaler's Bay at Deception Island, you can imagine their ghosts wandering among the rusted boilers where whale body parts were crammed for reducing. The wooden buildings slump like forgotten shearing sheds. The cross for a Norwegian whaler, Hans A Gulliksen, is possibly the loneliest memorial on earth.
Barring strong winds, excursions are offered in all conditions on our trip. Yet all passengers reserve (and sometimes exercise) the right to refuse - unlike the hardy pioneers. They weren't served appetisers every afternoon, they didn't hit the bar after dark to argue about accents with the Irish mob  (the record bar bill on the ship belongs to Kelvin, a New Zealander, who earlier this year emptied 192 beers in 10 days) or indulge in a session of Photoshopping. The pioneers did not have a springs bath dug into the beach for them. Or a stream of lectures and presentations - including 'From Naughty to Nice: Sexuality On The Ice' - to fill the dreary passage of travel. Or a nice man in a Zodiac to scoop up a passenger who capsizes while out in his sea kayak (the victim makes a speedy recovery).
An Antarctic holiday reawakens an appreciation for sensory pleasures. Showering doubles as an extreme sport. Some passengers overdose on seasick-ness pills more stultifying than Kevin Rudd's election night acceptance speech. Few, if any, aboard grumble but we do compare our ailments at meal times.

All rise on morning three to congregate silently on deck. The ship has entered the Lemaire Channel. Hills rise on either side of us like chocolate muffins iced in sugar. They look close enough to eat. Mist hovers. The water reflects the hills in silvery tinges. The stillness is so complete that it appears we have sailed into a photograph. The languid arch of a humpback whale almost constitutes an unwanted distraction. Now the sun peeps out. No one disputes a whispered claim that this is the most photogenic scene on earth.  
A few hours later, we waddle down the gangway. Peterman Island and a colony of gentoo penguins beckon. As warned, we smell them before we spot them, dotting the rocky shores like sentries. They eat rocks to weigh themselves down in the water but the chicks will die if they don't start swimming soon. Bestowed with human qualities, they resemble a subset of Generation Y-ers: fat, dumb and happy.

Jan Castell, from Melbourne, has been planning this trip for years. Penguins are a childhood obsession she has never outgrown. Her mother always offered to pay for her trip: now Jan is spending part of her inheritance. The cuffs of her pants are splattered orange with penguin guano when she returns to the ship. Her face is flushed and tears flow. "I can confidently say that this has been the best morning of my life," she says. "We've got five or six more days of this. I mean, how many 'best' mornings can you have?"

The ship moves around the peninsula over the coming days. The destinations depend on the weather, yet our sense of isolation grows no matter where the ship's captain, a Russian sporting Jeff Kennett's hairstyle, chooses to go. Passengers are locked in together, until the end, no matter what, barring life-threatening illness. There are no mobiles, a sporadic email service, no internet access or newspapers, and the niggles of communal living are heightened by the freezing temperatures outside.

This is a package tour only because it has to be. The staff constantly imbue passengers with historical tales and facts of nature. Their patience for dumb questions appears limitless. Steering a Zodiac, Sirois is easily the giddiest person aboard. His French-Canadian pronounciation of words borders on the salacious. Icebergs will always have "Pizzazz!" he says. His glee on spotting a "shag", a species of bird, invites a slew of double entendres. "Do whales ever run into icebergs?" one not-so-bright passenger asks him. "Do you ever walk into trees?" Sirois replies.  

Phone numbers are exchanged by passengers on the final morning of the trip, when many are dustier than usual after last night's farewell drinks. Something distinguishes this crowd from a usual cruise: everyone has been drawn - not to the pleasures of the journey - but to the destination. This camaraderie might be credited to the staff, who keep coming back year after year to squander jobs and family lives that convention dictates would be more rewarding.

Expedition leader David 'Woody' Wood, a Melbourne barrister who rarely sees a courtroom, speaks of the Antarctic "addiction". For him, the enforced isolation is enticing. A bill not paid? Quibbles with a lady friend? They're still there, of course, but until the ship returns to dock in Argentina, there's nothing to be done about them. "In Australia, you have no choice," Woody says, of following the news. "But the only thing that matters here is the journey."

Is it a journey that more and more people should undertake? Many, who have made it, would say no. But it doesn't make much sense to tell people that they should not experience something because we ourselves have experienced it - and don't want the purity of that experience ruined by interlopers who follow. Perhaps a similar logic applies to 4WD motorists who bang on about saving the planet.

Antarctica is a frontier where mankind was never supposed to go. Yet the march of the penguins will continue. As so many others have done before them, they will wear bright red 'wetskins' and survive only on expert guides and a credit card. They will discover a place that has long revealed the follies of human nature. And, perhaps, they will see that Antarctica will continue to do so for some time yet.


Getting there
Aerolineas Argentinas flies fives times a week  from Sydney to Ushuaia, via Auckland and Buenos Aires, from $2000 plus fuel surcharge and taxes. (02) 9234 9000. Peregrine Adventures' Antarctic Circle Quest is a 14-day tour (costs from $8240 plus fuel surcharge of $936 per peson) on an expedition vessel, travelling from Ushuaia, the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego, into the South Shetland region and throughout the Antarctic Peninsula. 1300 791 485.

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