Prepared by TMA member Sandringham, Victoria: Dr Jason Rajakulendran,
As I marvelled over another penguin documentary in 2010, I wondered for what length of time would Antarctica remain as it does today? A place of unparalleled isolation, natural beauty and biological diversity yet relatively untouched by human activity. In a win for common sense, an Antarctic treaty exists between the various countries vying for territorial claims. It specifies that the continent be used primarily as a place of research and not for resource mining until at least 2041. This question pushed me to book a trip about twelve months prior (increasingly the need due to booming Eco-tourism) and find out for myself. My easiest option was to depart on a ship from the Argentine port of Ushuaia after acclimatising in the Patagonian wilderness.
As 2012 approached, I became more aware of the various pending celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the race to the South Pole in 1911. History remembers that it was Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s team and his well prepared Huskies that first reached the South pole on December 14, 1911. I also became better acquainted with the story of another Australian Antarctic pioneer, Sir Douglas Mawson. His amazing Antarctic story and research feats on the then almost unexplored Australian side of the continent, occurred almost simultaneously with Amundsen’s and Scott’s more famous expeditions. On the highest, driest and windiest continent on Earth, Mawson survived over 2 Antarctic winters in very primitive conditions. This in 1912, at a time when the British expedition lead by Robert Scott infamously died on their return trip from the pole after arriving 5 weeks behind Amundsen.
We departed Ushuaia and the “land of fire”, the Tierra del Fuego, entering the famously tempestuous waters of the Drake Passage past Cape Horn. Our magnificent vessel was the recently built and specifically designed Norwegian ship MV Fram, adeptly named after Amundsen’s 1911 Antarctic expedition ship, Fram. The ship was staffed with an expedition team of various scientists, who provided lectures and accompanied us on landings. After a number of meticulous safety drills, we were instructed in the IAATO code of conduct for tour operators and passengers in Antarctic waters. Items included strict limits to landing party sizes, a take nothing leave nothing attitude and numerous bio-security measures. It also allows the coordination of other cruise ships and landings, enhancing our sense of isolation since ships rarely pass each other. The Drake passage is infamous for some of the world’s roughest seas. After 48 hours of sailing and crossing the Antarctic convergence, the water temperature plummeted as we reached the South Shetland Islands. Here at Half moon Bay, chinstrap penguin colonies, Albatross and glaciers were all in abundance. These scenes were to become very familiar over the two week voyage.
Anyone’s first sight of Antarctica continues to defy any adjective or superlative that one may care to entertain. Try as we might, Antarctica is so extraordinary that no photo nor video can convey any true indication of the grandness, depth or panoramic nature of the icy landscape, nor its abundantly noisy wildlife. Surprisingly Antarctica was only first sighted by human eyes in 1820. The vastly ice sculptured Antarctic landscape is hospitable to life for only a few months a year. More amazing is that most life occurs on so little land, since 99% of the Antarctic surface is under ice year round. Wildlife that has evolved on land devoid of predators, shows little regard for humans and provides a rare insight into a prehistoric world. Over the last fifty years, the numbers of many Antarctic animals from birdlife to sea animals, continue to slowly recover after a century of heavy hunting beginning in the mid 19th century.
The next day was a one of memorable extremes. It began with a still sunny day that allowed us a landing at Esperanza, an Argentine research station. The afternoon brought a ferocious storm with Katabatic glacial winds that in an instant produced gales exceeding 200km/hr. To my amazement, within hours the seas calmed to reveal a family of humpback whales and penguins swimming in a sea of gigantic icebergs. All this before a spectacular midnight sunset, inducing in me a serenity of sublime proportions.
Luckily a run of splendid weather allowed for multiple landings day after day, where we hiked different islands and explored parts of the rarely visited Weddell Sea. This sea rarely fully thaws, famously trapping the likes of Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1915. The showcase of amazing wildlife continued, as we saw Crabeater and Weddell seals on ice floes, Fin and Humpback whales, albatross, and Adelie and Gentoo penguins gracing the water. Yes an Albino penguin! See below left.
Crossing over to the Lemaire Channel on the Western side of the Antarctic peninsula, we visited some British and Chilean research bases. Another highlight was the Caldera of the former whaling station at Deception Island. A truly amazing open air museum at the whim of an active volcano, last erupting only thirty years ago.
The Martian surrounds produce Sulphur jets that momentarily heat the ocean water at the beach up to 10-20 degrees Celsius. This occasionally allows semi-mad tourists, including a few Australian doctors who should know better, to earn the “Ice Breaker” swimming certificate. Having adequate medical facilities onboard to treat hypothermia and other ailments, the onboard cruise doctor gives the all clear to dive in. My plunge however was very brief due to the water temperature hovering closer to freezing than the 10 degrees stated. Once slowly warmed up, we continued our journey for a further three days, before finally crossing the Drake passage back to Ushuaia.
For those who have ever considered seeing Antarctica or felt like the idea of travelling to another time, a trip here is the closest experience you will find to it on Earth. A chat to your travel doctor about cold weather preparations and a medical check is a must. The cruise company also requires a medical and vaccination review in your home country prior to embarkation. I hope to go back another time, but for now I remain humbled by the natural beauty of a place that I will long remember, despite the effort it takes to get down there!