Antarctica, the Wildest Place

A Silent, White World

Zodiac rafts powered by 40-hp Mercury motors waited twice a day at the foot of the ship's gangway, rising and falling on the swells, ready for us to leap aboard to begin a new adventure. All of us quickly adapted to the going-ashore ritual. In my case that meant climbing into thermal bottoms, Levis, a turtleneck, wool shirt, water-resistant ski bib, two pair of socks, high rubber waders, a down parka, ski gloves, and a woolly cap. That outfit was mostly a precaution in case of a sudden change in the weather. In fact, temperatures were commonly in the comparatively warm low 30's.

Our first landfall was King George Island in the South Shetlands. On a narrow, rocky beach, I wove my way around whale bones scattered like giant pick up sticks to get closer to harumphing, belching elephant seals. A beachmaster bull seal, shaped like a slightly deflated giant sausage, weighs 8,000 pounds and sports molars the size of hammerheads. When one suddenly reared higher than my head, bellowing and spewing bursts of foul-smelling steam, I moved on fast.

At Arctowski Research Station in Admiralty Bay, lonely Polish scientists served thick coffee laced with vodka to entice us to stay for more conversation. Sitting on the station's front steps, I began to acclimate to a land where silence is broken only by the cracking boom of huge chunks of glacial ice crashing into the sea.

On Paulet Island, all that remains of an extinct volcano, we observed hundreds of thousands of Adelie penguins waddling importantly back and forth like plump Parisian waiters. They come ashore to breed and raise chicks, doing both with great gusto, weaving necks with beaks skyward, honking fiercely, and stealing nesting materials from other couples. Each day they march down for a leisurely bath in a sea strewn with barn-size chunks of ice.

It was on Paulet Island that Captain. Carl Larsen and his crew suffered through the winter of 1902 after pack ice crushed their ship. To survive, they stacked 1,100 frozen penguins like cordwood outside their crude rock hut and consumed them, one by one.

The Adventurer's powerful engines enabled the captain to maneuver among ice floes, but he couldn't avoid them all. Each time we struck one, a thump shivered the length of the ship. Passengers glanced quickly at one another then turned away, supposedly watching humpback whales keeping pace with the ship.

As we approached tiny Couverville Island, the Antarctic coast was nothing but white; white without feature; white that was not a color but a blank between icy Southern Ocean and milky sky. Behind the crumpled sea-faces of glaciers, fields of ice rose out of sight.

Couverville Island itself was a place as pristine and magical as exists on this planet. Heading ashore in the Zodiac, the air rang with two-note jackass brays from gentoo penguins, heads bobbing in surprise or indignation at our presence.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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