Exploring Antarctica With Those There Before Me

by Alison Spencer

A traveler in Antarctica follows in the footsteps of explorers like Scott and Shackleton, noting the similarities and differences as her own adventure unfolds.

Outside I saw nothing but churning water and oppressive skies. The late afternoon rainfall slowly increased until a steady stream of water poured down. Two days had come and gone since boarding Le Lyrial back in Ushuaia, Argentina, and not one moment passed without some reminder of our desolation. Wildlife consisted of, if lucky, a lone bird flying behind the ship. Our surroundings simply meant water, endless, extending as far as the eye could see.

As I sat, staring out into the beyond, I pictured myself as Shackleton or Scott, two of Antarctica’s most famous explorers, sailing completely unknown seas toward a piece of land unexplored. The creaks and groans of their wooden vessels rang in my ears. Rubbing my scopolamine patch, I imagined the seasickness suffered onboard. I couldn’t help but feel the anticipation and excitement of their, and my, awaiting adventure. From a berth far more luxurious than those of these early pioneers, our ship pushed onward, my mind left to wonder and hope that this journey would somehow embody the expeditions of those who’d come before me.

Icebergs near Antarctica

I’d waited years, and incessantly begged, for this trip. For Christmas, my birthday, any excuse I could, I’d asked. Since watching a video of penguins in 2005, I knew that Antarctica was a place I needed to see. While I’d instantly fallen in love with the tuxedoed birds, I had a deeper feeling that the continent embodied much more. I felt drawn to Antarctica in a way I’d never felt about a destination.

I read books. I listened to talks about global warming. I watched television specials. Yet, I also understood Antarctica to be a place unknowable simply through research. To truly understand the essence of this frozen land, I knew I had to set foot on the continent, to see the landscape, to be amongst the wildlife. I wasn’t quite sure what awaited or why I felt so entirely drawn to it, but I knew undoubtedly, like those who’d already ventured, it would be worth the journey.

The following morning, I sat aboard a rubber zodiac, zooming toward shore and toward my first encounter with the continent. Drawing closer to Port Charcot, a large hilltop cairn came into view, and with it, the history of its existence floated into my thoughts. The heroic age of Antarctic exploration, when men from around the world set out to conquer and study the land. I instantly gravitated toward these purposefully placed stones, not just for the exercise but also for the stories they inevitably held.

Adventure travel in Antarctica

Trudging up the slippery slope, I pictured Jean-Baptiste Charcot also climbing, ascending toward what would become his winter home. The crunching of snow beneath my boots brought me back to those who first walked this path in the early 1900s. As part of this adventurous time period, Charcot, a French scientist turned explorer, set out in 1904 aboard the Français to chart some of Antarctica’s untamed landscape. He and his team studied the land, venturing from this home atop a hill to document as much of the continent as possible. After three years, he had mapped 600 miles of new Antarctic coastline, which I now stood upon.

Once at the cairn, I took in the views that the Frenchman first charted. Massive amounts of snow piled on top of, and at times nearly covered, majestic mountain peaks. Icebergs the size of semi-trucks protruded from the water, hiding their true immensity beneath the surface. Gusts of wind left ripples stretching across the water. Such beauty and yet complete aloneness, a duality Charcot undoubtedly also felt. This vista, these deeply resonant feelings of remoteness, were ancient, unchanged from his first steps onshore to mine.  

Over the next few days, I spent my time as any early Antarctic adventurer might. I photographed penguins. I searched for seals. I stared mouth agape as massive icebergs floated past, waiting for smaller pieces to plummet into the water. I came to understand, with every sight and every sound, that here the mundane transformed into the magical, the present blurred into the past. No memory better illustrated this than one afternoon mid-journey.

Penguins in Antarctica

I’d just returned to my cabin for a nap when our Expedition Leader announced a sighting. Instead of tucking into bed, I instead found myself darting up to the sixth floor and my eyes scanning the water. For what felt like minutes, all I registered was icebergs. Beautiful unto themselves but not what I sought. Eventually, my eyes settled on the right place at the right time. Three massive dorsal fins, like synchronized swimmers, cut through the tranquil water. Behind them, a handful more pierced the surface. Within seconds, twenty or so orcas surrounded us.

The longer we watched, the lower the sun fell. A golden glisten cast upon the water, broken only by the emergence of an orca. Amidst the shark-like fins rising above the surface, a lone Humpback fluke appeared. As its tail lifted into the air, water spilled down, like golden-blonde hair falling onto one’s shoulder. My eyes struggled to absorb everything: the graceful mammals, the sun nearing the horizon, the peaks rising steeply from the water. Not another soul in sight. Just us, these massive mammals, and miles of ice.

Orcas off Antarctica

Traveling through these waters, I thought of their namesake, the Belgian Adrien de Gerlache, a former seaman and ferry officer drawn to the excitement and adventure of Antarctica. Setting sail in 1897, his expedition proved the first to not only focus on scientific research and survive the harsh winter, but also to photograph the continent. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I rapidly adjusted my own camera’s settings. Taking photo after photo, I found myself laughing at my struggle to freeze this moment in time. Here I was, standing on a ship in a strait named after him, attempting to capture its natural beauty just as he had done. True, technology has improved, making my work far easier. But this desire to eternalize the landscape, to document one’s presence at the end of the world in a photograph, endured.

It wasn’t until arriving at Hannah Point that I experienced the first fundamental difference between my explorations and those of the long-ago explorers. Stepping off the zodiac, penguins immediately surrounded us. Chinstraps and gentoos waddled and hopped about in every direction. Chicks scurried behind, attempting to keep up but also easily distracted. Sneaky penguins deftly, but not so subtly, reached toward neighboring nests, looking for a pebble to steal. Ecstatic displays involving proud chests, skyward beaks, and loud squawks occurred nonstop.

Penguins in Antarctica

We also stumbled upon, or more aptly tripped, over seals. So many Southern elephant seals who laid lazily about, enjoying the warm sunshine. Not surprisingly, they did very little. We’d catch a sneeze or a snore. Sometimes they’d yawn, revealing their teeth and bright pink tongues. Otherwise, the simple act of sleeping seemed rigorous enough.

Amidst these creatures I thought back to the British vessel Hannah which, while operating in the South Shetland Islands, had wrecked in the vicinity back in 1820. A quintessential sealing ship, those on board had one goal and one goal only: to return with animals. I paused to appreciate that one small aspect of Antarctic exploration had evolved over time, that my journey here didn’t perfectly mirror the explorers who came before me. I loved that I was here watching the wildlife that they’d hunted. And while thankful for this difference, glad that for the first time my expedition wasn’t exactly like that of Gerlache or Charcot, I hoped it would forever remain the only divergence between today’s exploration and that of the history books. Nothing else should or needed to change.

I realize now, back home and from the comforts of my apartment, that these connections to and divergences from the explorers before me were not in fact about us at all. Rather, it proved entirely about the place, revealing something intrinsic to and about Antarctica. The past two years have altered so much of our world. And yet, Antarctica persists. It is perhaps one of the few destinations still as it was.

Sunset over Antarctica

Of course, the logistics involved in visiting have shifted, and the impacts of global warming must be addressed. But Antarctica’s essence? That remains unchanged. It is, to some extent, that which has actually preserved it; the continent’s innate nature, its untouchable desolation, the precise thing that has allowed for it to maintain its majesty throughout a period that has caused so much transformation.

It is its untouchability that has not only saved the continent, but, at its core, the very aspect that speaks to us, that pulls us toward the end of the earth. As Andrew Denton, a lover of Antarctica once said, “If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.” Perhaps it was this, this unbroken, untamed element that drew me so entirely to the continent in the first place. Perhaps I even saw a bit of it in myself, hoping that my own spirit might remain just as wild.

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