Exploring Antarctica, by Mark Dornblaser
(Published in the Cape Cod Times, September 25, 1994)
“You’re going to Antarctica, aren’t you?”
I turned my head in the direction of the voice and saw an elderly couple wearing heavy red parkas. They were standing in line next to me at the Aerolineas Argentinas counter at JFK airport in New York.
“Yes, I am,” I said grinning at them, wondering what had given me away. We all glanced down at our bags, and noticed the identical luggage tags: they all said Blyth and Company Travel, Toronto.
Ben and Marge confirmed that they were going on the same trip I was: expedition cruising to the ice continent. I had made two friends and hadn’t even gotten my seat assignment.
We met more fellow travelers in the departure lounge, still more on the plane that began its journey in Montreal. The West coast group caught up with us in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After an afternoon of exploring and a night of rest there, we were on our way to Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WHY-a), the southernmost town in the world, where we would board our ship.
The rugged coast of Patagonia and the cobalt blue ocean looked beautiful from 30,000 feet. We landed briefly in the small outpost of Rio Grande to change to a smaller plane. I realized why when we dropped out of the sky over the snow-capped Le Martial mountains, skimmed the rooftops of Ushuaia, and came to a halting stop on the town’s short, single runway.
Tour guides dropped us in the center of town to shop while the ship prepared for our arrival, but it was impossible to contain our excitement.
Finally we boarded the Akademik Ioffe, a 383-foot ice-class Russian research ship built in Finland in 1987. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the economy, the ship was leased to Blyth Travel and refitted for expedition cruising.
This was a rare opportunity, and I planned to make the most of it.
My room on the ship was much nicer than I expected, given that we were on a research ship rather than a luxury liner. The economy cabin included bunk beds, a sink, a desk, a sofa, an outside view, and more than ample storage space. Bathroom facilities were shared with a few other cabins.
After a cocktail reception in the dining room, it was time to explore the ship. There was a small library, weight room, sauna and an outdoor swimming pool.
One of the nicest treats on the ship was having unlimited, 24 hour access to the bridge. It was odd to see navigation charts in Russian.
After a short briefing we all went out on deck to watch as we departed Ushuaia and headed down the Beagle Channel, named after Charles Darwin’s ship. Then it was time for dinner. Dining was casual – no formal dress and no assigned seating. This added to the camaraderie, and gave us a chance to get to know everyone over the course of the trip. Each night we were given a choice of two entrees, usually one fish and one meat dish. They were hard choices, because everything I ate was excellent.
We woke up the next morning in the Drake Passage, some of the most treacherous waters in the world. Sailors have reported waves here of 100 feet high, and hurricane force winds are common. Fortunately for those prone to seasickness, the seas were calm, although some of us couldn’t help but feel a little cheated at not being tossed around.
It would take two days at cruising speed to cross the 600 miles of open water, but the days were filled with activity. There were educational seminars given by our on-board naturalists about the geology and history of Antarctica and the biology of the penguins and whales we would see; there was a ship’s tour, which included the state-of-the-art engine room and scientific research facilities; there were bird watches from the aft deck, where we saw albatross, petrels and cape pigeons swoop and dart behind the ship in search of food churned up in our wake.
There were also safety briefings, including one on how we would conduct our landings in Zodiacs, inflatable boats made famous by Jacques Cousteau, and a discussion of the Antarctic traveler’s code, which instructs visitor on minimizing impacts on the animals and the landscape. I was happy to see that safety and environmental concerns were taken seriously.
At the end of our first evening in the Drake Passage, some new friends and I went up to the bridge. It was very quiet and dark, with only the glow from the radar and navigation equipment providing light. My friend Chris spoke Russian, and soon we were all trying to converse with Valeri, a charming 32-year-old sailor with a twinkle in his eye and a gold tooth that was visible through his mischievous smile.
He asked if we would like to go below and see his quarters, and naturally we agreed. Upon opening his door, Valeri introduced us to Leonid, his cabin mate. Leonid was strong and stocky, slightly balding, and he had some gold teeth as well. He said he used to be a Mig-23 pilot, and his sense of adventure and romance brought him on board the ship.
Their cabin was much like mine, except that it had a refrigerator. There was a stuffed penguin on the shelf and a picture of a Mercedes on the wall. They offered us chilled Stoli vodka, and sliced apples and grapes – how could we refuse?
Chris was a good translator, and I was able to ask how things were in the former Soviet Union. Valeri said things were better now; communism had too much control over everything. Wasn’t it harder now to find things, we asked? Still better, Valeri said.
We shared more ideas and stories, and a lot of laughter. I found myself in amazement, thinking that five years ago none of this would have been possible. When I found out later that Leonid had poured the last of their vodka into my glass, I realized how truly lucky I was.
The next day when we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the line where cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, I knew we were getting close.
The water temperature dropped by three degrees, the air became colder, and we saw dolphins and penguins playing in the waves. Soon we spotted glacier-covered peaks in the distance, telling us we had reached the South Shetland Islands at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Before long we were maneuvering through Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow opening into the volcanic caldera at Deception Island. The eight mile wide caldera was formed when the island volcano collapsed, forming a crater that sank far enough to allow the sea to flood the interior.
It was from Deception Island that whaler Nathaniel Palmer allegedly became the first American to sight the continent of Antarctica in 1820. The island has been the site of whaling, and later research stations, although they were abandoned in 1969 when the still active volcano erupted, dropping fiery debris on the buildings
There are hot springs in the caldera where the water is warm enough for swimming, but on occasion it becomes so hot that it can peel the paint off the bottom of the boat.
The land looked like a moonscape when we went ashore. Because of the recent volcanic activity there was no plant life – just hills of dark ash, and a wayward chinstrap penguin somehow separated from the rookeries on the outer edges of the island. Together with the ring of snow-covered ridges, and the sheer yellow, black and red cliffs, it was an awesome sight.
I looked out of my porthole the next morning and grew excited at the vision of icebergs as we headed down the Gerlache Strait.
Our first stop was a small Argentinean research station in a place called Paradise Bay. It is aptly named, for it is arguably one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world. As I climbed a snow-covered hill in back of the station, the clouds lifted, the wind died, and the mountains ringing the bay were perfectly reflected in its surface. Crabeater seals basked in the sun on icebergs that glowed an azure blue.
Penguins frolicked in the water, and cormorants nested in multicolored cliffs: blue-green from copper deposits, emerald green from mosses and orange from lichens. A minke whale surfaced among the bergy bits.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. We headed into the majestic Lemaire Channel, a narrow fjord with glaciated peaks rising thousands of feet right out of the water on either side of the ship. As the ship pushed its way through broken pack ice and bergy bits, and weaved in and out of icebergs the size of large buildings, I ran from one side of the ship to the other with my camera, barely able to control myself.
As if to break the “monotony” of this spectacular landscape, we landed at Peterman Island, where there was a penguin rookery. The Gentoo and adelie penguins looked hopelessly clumsy as they waddles across the rocks, but watching them toboggan across the snow or swim effortlessly under water made me appreciate their evolutionary characteristics.
The noise from their squawking surrounded us, particularly when the predatory skua birds threatened their fuzzy little chicks. What also surrounded us was the odor of penguin guano. While overpowering at first, we figured that if it didn’t bother the penguins, it shouldn’t bother us, and eventually we did get used to it.
Standing in the bow that night, I discovered that the bright white snow and shimmering blue water of midday had changed in the soft evening light to pastel blue ice and salmon-colored clouds; the sea glowed orange and violet looking toward the setting sun – the color slowly metamorphosed into a silvery slate as you turned toward the far horizon. It was the perfect end of a perfect day.
We had two more days of adventures ahead of us, and they were just as full of wondrous sights and sounds as the first. We saw thousands of penguins on Wiencke and Cuverville Islands.
We got to talk to British researchers there studying the effects of tourists on penguin behavior and reproduction. A humpback whale surfaced not 15 feet in front of my eyes. I saw Crabeater, leopard, weddell, elephant and Antarctic fur seals.
One night Valeri, Leonid, and their mate Alex made shish kabobs for the group of us who were in their cabin before. Alex was an electronics/acoustics expert. (We all wondered whether this ship was originally built to hunt for U.S. submarines, but we never got any confirmation of this theory.)
Alex’s opinion of the situation in the republics was that not much would change until people were allowed to own land, and that might take years. You could tell they all felt deeply about their country.
During our meal I found out that Alex had frequented the same drinking establishments that I have on Cape Cod, where I now live. Here I was, closer to the South Pole than New York is to Denver, eating and drinking with Russian sailors who care as much about their country as I do about mine, and I realized how very small the world really is.
Finally our Russian friends had to return to their duties, so they toasted us and told us how glad they were to have met us. The feeling, we said, was mutual.
While we couldn’t make our last planned landing because of bad weather, we had made six out of seven. We also had two days of sun. Given that Antarctica may only get 30 days with sun in a year, we knew how fortunate we were.
The Drake Passage did not disappoint us on the trip back to South America. Waves crashing against the bow sprayed the windows on the bridge, five decks above the water line.
While forced inside because of the elements, we still kept busy. There was singing and guitar playing in the lounge, there was laughing and the exchanging of stories, there was a party for the ship’s anniversary. The last night the captain hosted a Russian dinner complete with borscht, shish kabobs, stuffed cabbage, and of course vodka.
My vacation was not quite over. There was still the tour of the southernmost ranch in the world, a tour of the National Park of Tierra del Fuego, and more free time in Ushuaia and Buenos Aires. All of which I enjoyed.
But I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I left the Akademik Ioffe, and said goodbye to the friends I had made. The interactions with those people remain as much a treasured part of the experience as the icebergs, the whales, and the penguins.