Getting to and fro the ultimate disconnection from civilization requires crossing the infamous Drake Passage â€“ the tourist filter. The two to three day journey from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica leaves Ushuaia, Argentina via the Beagle Channel and spans the turbulent intersection of the Atlantic and Pacific with predictable gale or storm force winds and gigantic swells. This ocean crossing over an undulating plain of dark blue aquamarine might heaved, pitched, rocked and rolled the ship as if it were inside a slow motion paint-shaker; the tilt alarm sounded when rolls exceeding 40-degrees. Crossing the Drake, as 30-foot swells crashed across the deck and onto the bridgeâ€™s windshield, I bonded with the captain and brushed up on my Russian. Standing outside on the roof of the bridge, in the midst a raging sea of tidal waves tossing the 69.
7m x 12.8m ship around like a toy, was more than an adrenaline rush. I sensed a tinge of what pioneering explorers faced for years: the unknown. The Tilt-O-Whirl obstacle course encouraged most of the 45 passengers to be either strapped into their beds or lumber about the ship wearing mild panic faces and be far less chatty than usual.
Antarctica is a frozen otherworld safari without borders. A Quark Expeditions Russian icebreaker introduced me to the earthâ€™s overwhelming polar underside: stadium-sized, sculpted blue and green icebergs drifting past, thundering, skyscraper-height glaciers over jagged mountains pouring into a sea of breaching whales and affable penguins. This continent gives new meaning to hitting bottom, way WAY down under.
Wildlife endures unimaginably harsh climate conditions.
The UN sponsored, 1959 Antarctic treaty mandated that everything south of 60-degree southern latitude may only be explored for peaceful purposes: no hunting, fishing, industry, exporting, oil drilling, or weapons testing. Mingling with penguins, however, penguins willing, is permissible. Penguins cleverly tackle the issues of their environment. Though they can outrun most humans, they seem a tad goofy on land. But with their wings evolutionarily transformed into flippers, penguins are a bird group well adapted to aquatic life. They are incredibly efficient swimmers and divers who feed in high seas, so they are, in a way, fish out of water while waddling around their coastal nesting colonies.
They handle their emotional quandaries with games of tag.
In Darwinian terms, these frequent games of tag are actually parents running away from two or three closely pursuing, hungry chicks to see which one is stronger and faster (or hungrier), and more likely to survive the winter. The reward for determined tag victors, winner of the selection procedure, is mom or dad regurgitating a snack in their mouth. Sometimes a sprint-waddling parent or chick trips and falls forward onto their belly and immediately initiate a paddling motion to maintain their same speed as paddling toboggans on the snow or ice. Mother Natureâ€™s least remunerated entertainers are also the ultimate survivalists.
Visitors are urged to maintain a respectable fifteen-foot distance from all wildlife (I respected this, but didnâ€™t shoo curious visitors).
Territorial fur seals would first bemoan my presence by whimpering like cold puppies. The protest mounted with throaty, menacing growls and culminated with mock lunges and wompy gallops toward me. Iâ€™d witnessed several mock, snarling, biting and head-whacking wrestling rituals, and when one of these 300-pound beasts made a few thumping gallops in my direction, I ran!
Thereâ€™s no one to stamp your passport here; the white continent remains as ripe for exploration and adventure as when the first Europeans reached its icy shore two centuries ago. This is how our faultless planet intended on passing time, enduring eons. Polar travel is a flash into an inexplicable, magical ice kingdom dream. But itâ€™s not all magic down here. In this age of extinctions, the southern oceanâ€™s icy breath blows a wake up call: global warming and the ozone hole widening over Antarctica are arguably the most alarming problems facing all life on earth.
If this ice sheet were to completely melt, the accumulated water would lead to a mean sea-level rise of 60m throughout the world, drowning many of the major global cities and leading to massive displacement.
I came face-to-face with the urgency of melting ice. The U.S. government is in total denial that our neglect is accelerating the melting of the icecaps, especially after the Kyoto Protocol was ratified and the USA was the only first-world holdout.
Your mind wanders during ice time. Caught in this argument for the ages, I said â€śwaitâ€ť to no one in particular. At that, the penguin before me nodded to his pal, quacked in my face, spun on a heel, and waddled away to resume holding court by a whalebone.