Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Antarctica -The spell binding desolation of the frozen wilderness...

I confess to have given in to hyperbole– being summer it was really less frozen than you might imagine, certainly if your sole experience is watching March of the Penguins and docudramas that revolve around Shackleton and his calamitous endeavours.

Also, it isn’t really that desolate, not if you count the penguin inhabitants, who are, on the whole very noisy neighbours. In fact, the breeding beaches are more crowded than Oxford Street on a Saturday morning. One of the most amazing things about these flightless birds is that regardless of how many you see, they seem to become more fascinating, not less, with each encounter - to the extent that your average Antarctic photographer might have nearly 90% of photos that include a penguin. The balance would consist largely of icebergs…

There are a great many motivations for joining an expedition and that these are as diverse as the accents you hear on board a ship bound for Antarctica, there was at least one representative nation from every continent.

The Antarctic expeditionist will be driven by a composition of: the experience of exploring the last frontier and a sense of the spirit of the pioneers of the white continent, to see rare wildlife such as humpback whales and the not so rare Adelie and Chinstrap penguins and to be one of a small number of humans to have set foot on the seventh continent, since only 20 000 people visit each year.

And (cue violins) to add a touch of the dramatic to somehow own a piece of the magic of Antarctica… it seems that from the first certainty of the existence of the continent, when von Bellinghausen clapped eyes on its ice-fields in 1820 to the Scott.- Amundsen race, everybody has tried to bagsy bits and pieces of it.

Antarctica’s status is regulated by the 1959 Antartctic Treaty and other related agreements, collectively called the Antarctic Treaty System. The treaty was signed by twelve countries, including theSoviet Union (and later Russia) the UK, Argentina, and the United States. It set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation, environmental protection, and banned military activity on the continent.
Interestingly, this was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War.

Infact they are still trying- the UK has a post office, the Chileans have put up a hotel and the Argentineans have babies on their fragment. And pretty soon, at least with the way the oil price is going, there will an international scramble and oil drills will be disfiguring the landscape, sooner than you can say “climate change is a man made problem.”

Getting to Antarctica requires the crossing of the Drake Passage, a body of water that ranks as the most violent in the world. I don’t use the term violent loosely either, as our ship ploughed southwards, and the view from the portals alternated between sea and sky (and tales of folk being thrown from their beds were no exaggeration), I was nearly decapitated by an octogenarian wielding a breakfast plate as he was thrown about the dining room.

I can assure that the Antarctic experience is worth dancing with death, in no uncertain terms.

We got to witness first hand a leopard seal catching a penguin and thrashing it against the water in order to enhance its taste appeal by beating the wretched creature out of its skin. The penguin made a dash for safety by scampering up a little ice flow, only to be seized by the seal that had extraordinary leaping skills. You would think it would make your heart sink to see such a sight, though as indicated earlier, they are penguin heavy and one less will not have a measurable impact, besides what of the seal? Surely it too, must survive?

This episode took place against a back drop of calving glaciers at Neko Harbour…another quiet day in the Antarctic.

That evening was spent sitting in the Captains suite (myself and a select few), off the bridge and sharing his hospitality and vodka. The latter proved to be a useful ingredient to the occasion, given that we spoke no Russian and he spoke very little English. It also allowed me to obtain the dubious honour of having, not only visited all seven continents, but also having been inebriated on all seven of them too.

My remedies for hangovers include lots of painkillers, lots of sleep, or where possible, a revitalizing swim. Seems lady luck was smiling on a poor soul that day as we were invited to take to the waters off Pendulum Cove…where temperatures drop to an agonizing 1.86 degrees below freezing. Volcanic activity below the shoreline of Deception Island means that the first 3 feet of water is heated probably to a temperature not dissimilar of a recently boiled kettle. The result of all of this is that one is forced to jump from blistering hot water to freezing water and vice versa in a process dubbed the Boil ‘n Freeze.

Nothing I say can really capture Antarctica, it is one of life’s experiences that has to be undertaken firsthand to really get a sense of the place with its history of pioneers, the Majesty of the glaciers, the snow covered mountains and the abundance of wild life are reason enough to undertake this adventure. One exuberant New Yorker returned to the boat after our first Zodiac rubber boat tour and stood shaking on the boats deck, "How will I ever explain the beauty and awe inspiring sights, the humbling of me as Man in such a wilderness.”
Although possibly a little over the top, it may go someway to explaining why it has taken me far too long to get this written.

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