Visiting the Wild Ice
Visiting the Antarctic Peninsula:
An Expedition Leaderís Perspective
by Matt Drennan
A standard device employed in Antarctic introductions is to rattle off
a list of superlatives – for example, that Antarctica is the highest,
driest, and coldest place on the planet. All of these are momentous
scientific facts, invariably obtained at a cost of mind-boggling
discomfort, frostbite, starvation, and occasional death for the researchers
involved. Such superlatives are impressive, and polar explorers and scientists
often display grit and heroism on a daily basis – yet this does
little to prepare you, the modern visitor, for the realities of
your journey. You are traveling an enormous distance in a very short
time. The same journey 100 years ago would have demanded 2-3 years. As
a visitor at leisure, on a comfortable expedition cruise ship, you will
not be taking in sail during a gale, chipping ice off the decks, or going
for weeks without a hot meal. No need to club seals for food, or gather
pieces of icebergs to melt for fresh water. You are the first generation
of Antarctic visitors who can realistically plan on gaining weight during
your voyage. You will have ample free time to contemplate the natural
wonders around you. The Antarctic Peninsula – as this Site Guide
makes readily apparent – is
unlike anyplace else on earth. The light, the ice, the wildlife,
the weather – all of it is overwhelming. Antarctica will blow your
Regardless of your port of embarkation – Ushuaia (Argentina), Punta
Arenas (Chile), or Stanley (Falkland Islands) – you must cross
the Drake Passage in order to get to the Antarctic Peninsula. This is
an inflexible fact of geography and nature, and no amount of wishful
thinking will make it otherwise. What exactly is this Drake Passage?
It is the body of water between southernmost South America and the Antarctic
Peninsula, encompassing parts of both the South Atlantic and the South
Pacific, but without clear-cut boundaries. It is often referred to simply
as the Southern Ocean. The passage is named for Sir Francis Drake, who
led the first English expedition to sail through these waters from Atlantic
to Pacific in 1578, and it can be one of the roughest bodies of water
in the world. At this latitude westerly winds howl unimpeded by any landmass,
giving us the fabled Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties. Large low-pressure
systems form, and when these are compressed between the Peninsula and
South America, the effects sometimes are most unpleasant.
But not always. The Drake can be glorious – gently rolling swell,
seabirds swarming around the ship, and for the keen-eyed, perhaps a passing
encounter with some whales. Whatever the weather, there is precious little
anyone can do about it. If it’s fair, go out on deck and try to
learn a bit about seabirds from your naturalists, or simply enjoy the
immensity of the Southern Ocean. If it’s rough, stay in your bunk
with a good book, take lots of naps,
and thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to go out on deck
to climb the rigging and work the sails. In any event, it will last only
2-3 days, and once you arrive in Antarctica, the Drake will become a
fuzzy memory – at least for a while.
Most trips spend 3-7 days cruising around the Peninsula before
returning north. During your trip, the captain and expedition leader
will constantly assess weather and ice conditions in an attempt to show
you as much as possible. Zodiac landings will be made at penguin rookeries,
historical sites, and perhaps research stations. There will be zodiac
cruises at less accessible sites. You will find most, if not all, of
these sites detailed in this Site Guide. However, don’t expect
to visit all 40 sites described in the Site Guide in one trip – that
is simply impossible. With five days in the Peninsula – and favorable
weather conditions, you may be able to make as many as 10 outings – more
than enough to fill you with Antarctica’s mystery. Every Antarctic
Peninsula trip is a unique combination of events, circumstances, and
experiences – and expedition leaders strive for a rotation of sites
that makes each trip special.
How do you prepare for such an experience? Much has changed in
the 400 years since Drake. We have better charts, technologically advanced
ships, excellent clothing, and delicious food. Take advantage of available
resources before leaving home. Study maps, read what you can of Antarctic
history, wildlife, and politics. Buy some decent outdoor clothing and
sturdy rubber boots. Spending a fortune on the very latest high-tech
gear is not necessary – you’re not going to live at the South
Pole for months. You’re going to be ashore for a few hours at a
time strolling among the penguins in relatively benign conditions. If
you live in North America, Europe, or Japan, you probably already have
what you need. Absolute temperatures in the Peninsula in summer rarely
fall much below freezing, although a wet wind can make it seem much colder.
Scott, Shackleton, and many others survived in wet wool and leather boots
for long periods, and so can you. But this isn’t necessary and
wouldn’t be much fun. Adequate layers of warm, waterproof outergear
suffice and will do much to add to your enjoyment.
A lot may have changed since the early days of exploration, but
one fundamental fact remains, overshadowing all else. You are traveling
to a very remote, unforgiving environment where the most basic elements – weather,
wind, and ice – will determine your every move. Weather can change
with astonishing rapidity. A sunny, calm day gives way to a blizzard
with 40 miles-an-hour winds in less than 15 minutes. A beautiful landing
beach becomes choked with ice for hundreds of meters, within 30 minutes
of a slight wind shift. A casual stroll to a promontory becomes an endurance
test if white-out conditions threaten. You may have the most sophisticated
clothing gear and a warm ship, but you still need to pay attention – all
of the time.
Your expedition staff know this, and generally have long experience
in polar regions. The expedition leader will work closely with zodiac
drivers, naturalists, and the ship’s command to bring you safely
to and from landing sites. Please heed their instructions, which are
designed to ensure everyone’s safety. Remember: you are setting
out in small boats to make landings on uninhabited beaches hundreds of
miles from established human settlements. The water temperature hovers
around freezing. This changes everything. Getting wet isn’t merely
an inconvenience – it can be intensely unpleasant and painful.
Actually falling in the water is positively life-threatening. Listen
to your zodiac drivers and accept their help.
While ashore, you are likely to suffer mightily from sensory overload:
the din of a penguin colony, not to mention the smell, the grandeur of
the scenery, the sheer whiteness of some icebergs, the deep blues of
others – it truly is a magical place. Yet you need to keep your
wits about you, for your own well-being, as well as the staff’s
peace of mind. Never hike or wander alone – always have another
person with you, even if you’re just strolling around the next
headland. Never go off on a longer hike without at least one staff member.
Never go onto to a glacier – crevasses can be covered by snow bridges
that will collapse under your weight. Stay off of loose rock scree slopes – constant
freezing and thawing action make these very unstable and susceptible
to rockslides. If you have questions or doubts, ask your staff.
Please remember to mind your manners around wildlife. Familiarize
yourself with the Treaty Parties’ Guidance For Visitor and their
newly adopted site-specific management guidelines – and respect
Move slowly around animals, give them their personal space, and
avoid – as best you can – doing anything that changes their
behavior. Take the time to sit down and watch what’s going on.
Sometimes visitors are so intent on photographing every single thing
that crosses their path, it seems as if they’re not really seeing
anything. By all means, take photos, but at some point just sit and watch,
without a camera. You likely will find it a most rewarding experience.
If staff ask you to move away from an animal, don’t take it personally.
Most naturalists working in the Peninsula have a deep love for the place,
and a strong desire to minimize human impact. No one wants to be a policeman
in the Antarctic, but sometimes overawed visitors need a gentle reminder.
Some claim that Antarctica is a fragile place, a delicate ecosystem.
This is an unfortunate choice of words. Full of hard rock and harder
ice, tough penguins, lichens clinging to rock faces, and seals immersed
in icewater all of their lives – it hardly gives the impression
of fragility. Others claim Antarctica is the last unspoiled wilderness
on earth, betraying a very short historical perspective. From the moment
of its discovery in the 1820s, the Antarctic Peninsula area has been
withstanding impressive human onslaughts aimed at exploiting incredibly
rich marine resources. Hundreds of thousands of fur seals were taken
from the South Shetlands in the 1820s alone. Sealers returned sporadically
throughout the rest of the 19th century as stocks grew and fell in response
to their time-honored management strategy: leave it alone for a few years,
then come back and kill everything that could possibly be killed. In
the early 1900s, new technology enabled whalers to extend their reach
into Antarctic waters, and what they found made several generations very
happy indeed. Whales everywhere, which of course soon meant whalers everywhere.
The Antarctic Peninsula was a center for the whaling industry for over
20 years, with numerous factory ships and dozens of catcher-boats plying
the waters that now see only a handful of tourist ships.
The whalers and sealers are gone now, partly because of modern
conservation sensibilities, but mostly because these trades are simply
no longer economically viable. There aren’t enough whales or seals
to make it pay. But exploiters still come south each year, working their
way down the food chain. A large modern fishery now targets Antarctic
krill, and a huge percentage of the annual take occurs just offshore
of the South Shetland Islands. No, this is not a fragile place, nor is
it an unspoiled wilderness. Most places for which such claims are made
turn out to be neither. It isn’t that environments are so delicate;
it’s that human impact is so astonishingly heavy-handed. Like everywhere
else on earth, Antarctica is susceptible.
Antarctic Tourism continues to grow. There used to be a few hundred
visitors annually; now more than 30,000 are anticipated each season.
This is impressive and, while these may be relatively few numbers of
visitors compared to other locations, we realize that we still can have
impacts on the Antarctic ecosystem.
Our goal should be to keep these potential impacts to an absolute
Enjoy the splendor, but please tread softly.
It’s the last continent we have.
(Adapted from THE OCEANITES SITE
TO THE ANTARCTIC PENINSULA,
2d edition, 2005)