Visiting the Antarctic Peninsula: An Expedition Leader’s 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 is unlike anyplace else on earth. The light, the ice, the wildlife, the weather – all of it is overwhelming. Antarctica will blow your mind.
To get there from South America, you must cross the Drake Passage. 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 that encompasses 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 Antarctic 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 prone and quiet 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 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. 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 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’s guidance for visitors and site-specific management guidelines – and respect them.
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.
Naturalists working in Antarctica 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 minimum.
Enjoy the splendor, but please tread softly.
It’s the last continent we have.
(Adapted from THE OCEANITES SITE GUIDETO THE ANTARCTIC PENINSULA, 2d edition)