A Fairfielder in Antarctica: 'Grandeur, vastness, beauty, loneliness and malevolence'
Editor's note: Don Hyman is a semi-retired communication and marketing consultant and freelance writer living in Fairfield. A member of the Aspetuck Land Trust board of directors, he realized a long-held dream in November when he joined an expedition to Antarctica. This is his account of that trip.
The long journey from Fairfield to the Palmer Peninsula of Antarctica is beyond even the considerable mapping skills of Google. An early explorer wrote that only five words were needed to describe the seventh and last to be discovered of the Earth's continents -- "grandeur, vastness, beauty, loneliness and malevolence."
Those words seem true now, just days after my return. The malevolence part actually still keeps me up at night.
Antarctica is a pristine, essentially white space, about 1.5 times the size of the U.S., according to the CIA's World Fact Book. To me, the hopelessly overused word "awesome" should be reserved only for describing Antarctica.
There is neither a government nor clear political boundaries. It is administered under a treaty expiring in 2048 signed by 48 nations. Twenty-nine nations have set up small observation posts along the coastline and interior. The process resembles dogs sniffing around phone poles, marking territory where others have done the same.
An estimated 96 percent of the land is covered with ice a mile thick or more, leaving only 4 percent exposed, often granite outcroppings. Flora is almost nonexistent, save for a few lichens and mosses, but fauna abound. Whales, seals, penguins, other birds and vast clusters of shrimp-like krill, which everything else eats, were daily companions. Icebergs the size of the Fairfield Ludlowe High and Ludlowe Middle schools' combined campus were common and stunningly beautiful.
Old in geology, Antarctica is new in terms of western history. The first human beings known to set foot on the land were early British whaling and seal skin entrepreneurs who arrived in 1820. Severe weather and seasonal ice shelves extending from the continent's rocky coastline prevented earlier human exploration. By comparison, almost two centuries earlier in 1639, Fairfield was incorporated as a settlement by other British entrepreneurs focused mostly on agriculture.
But the absence of human civilization, save for scientists based there, is the very quality that makes Antarctica so wonderful. It hasn't been messed up. Yet.
Friends and family all asked why I wanted to go to Antarctica. The short answer -- adventure. It was a bucket-list item for me, but it also is an increasingly popular destination for young and old alike. All become ambassadors and environmental advocates for the continual protection and careful management of the continent. In the 2009-10 season, 37,000 tourists visited the continent, according to the World Atlas. All of these people travel under tightly regulated conditions governed by the International Antarctic Travel Organization.
Wildlife, strictly protected but fearless of and very curious about humans, could be no closer than five meters or 15 feet. Our guides enforced this constantly. The penguins, whales and seals, however, often disobeyed. My clothing was all closely inspected and vacuumed by personnel on the ship I traveled on to make absolutely certain no plant seeds or invasive species from Connecticut or from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, where I embarked from, were inadvertently introduced.
The journey down and back for me involved a nearly 11-hour flight to Buenos Aires from New York, a 24-hour layover, then a three-hour flight to Ushuaia, a port at the bottom of Argentina. After some hiking in the Alpine-like Patagonia region, I joined a group of 75 travelers from 20 countries boarding the Sea Spirit, a sturdy 272-foot-long ice hard class, converted small cruise ship operated by Quark Expeditions, organizers of the trip.
On the way down, we powered through seas from six to nine feet in height, spending two-plus days crossing the Southern Ocean's Drake Passage before making landfall. For the return trip winds were 35 to 40 knots and seas got to 27 feet in height. That's gale force, or level eight on the Beaufort wind scale that stops at 12. It is an understatement to say a 27-foot swell is not like the one- to two-foot wave heights we normally see in Long Island Sound. Our crew and ship, however, were fine through it all, even if some experienced "The Drake Diet Plan." Twice I was thrown out of my bed to the floor.
Who are these crazy people?
In between turbulent Drake Passage crossings leaving and returning to Argentina, we spent seven glorious, flat water days in the protected channels and fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship was our home. Each day we left in the morning and afternoon to shadow our scientist guides. We moved in tightly controlled, small groups for carefully limited amounts of time snowshoeing on ice- and snow-covered land, or cruising inlets in sturdy inflatable Zodiacs or for some, in sea kayaks. We explored a jagged and, at times, nearly blinding beauty.
Most on our voyage might be described as well-traveled eco-tourists. Travel marketers would classify us as the "light adventurer" segment. We ranged in age from 15 to 76. English was the official language of the trip. Thanks to the crew's precautions and wise guidance, we had no injuries and everyone returned home in seemingly good health.
The Austral (southern) summer weather was atypically good. Blue skies (for 21 hours a day!) and above-freezing temperatures almost every day. Even at our most southerly point (roughly 64 degrees south, 63 degrees west), however, we were still in the Antarctic banana belt, some 1,000 miles north of the South Pole.
`If the penguins start running ... '
Amid the constant swirl of photography and videography from passengers and crew, each of us toting multiple cameras, one day we were instructed to put down the cameras and frankly, to shut up. We were in Nikko Harbor, sitting on a rocky outcropping above a snow-covered beach we were sharing with hundreds of Gentoo penguins concerned mostly at this moment with mating and building nests of small stones for eggs that would hatch in January (peak travel season in the Antarctic). Like all other creatures in Antarctica, penguins grow up quickly. After hatching, they reach full size in 35 days.
The plan was simple, according to Cheli Larsen, of New Zealand, our highly experienced expedition leader. Watch and listen to the vast glacier before us that may have started forming 100,000 years ago, but was now moving into the sea to "die," calving off giant pieces of ice, some the size of a strip mall.
"If this glacier starts to calve, it will make big waves and flood the beach. Basically, watch the penguins. If they start to run, so should you. They know what they are doing," she said.
The big flood didn't come that day, fortunately for us. What we were treated to was the wonderful percussion of a slow-moving glacier. Cracks, booms, hisses and the roaring sounds when even small chunks of ice would fall into the sea.
"Ice is one of the most beautiful things on earth," said Colin Souness, a glaciologist-geologist from Scotland, who presented several wonderful lectures on the "cryosphere," that part of the universe made of ice whether on earth or elsewhere. Souness got his doctorate mapping the glaciers of Mars.
"I love the filth of glaciers," describing the rocks and debris they transport over thousands and thousands of years. "It gives you an idea of what the glacier has been doing and where it has been.
"There is so much ice in Antarctica that the weight has depressed the crust of the earth, pushing much of the continent's land mass down below sea level. If the ice melted, the crust would bounce back like a foam mattress. However, that would take thousands of years," he said.
But all was not awe-inspiring, joyous and beautiful. There were several harsh moments of Darwinian truth that still haunt me now.
Looking into the huge eyes, for example, of a 6-week-old, 400-pound, baby elephant seal weaned by a mother that then abandons the pup to survive alone. It must learn how to dive down to the bottom of the sea and search for squid to eat, or it will die. The weaner, as they are called, was something of a companion to many of us one day on the shore at Whaler's Bay on Deception Island.
Or watching and wondering about the many beautiful black-and-white Killer whales (also called Orcas) we encountered while they searched for prey. They eat penguins like we eat peanuts. They also create huge waves to knock a sleeping, sunbathing seal off an iceberg and then devour them whole. Or, perhaps most horrifying, they hunt other whales and eat them. We saw a documentary film one night showing Killer whales working in pods to chase and hunt a whale, exhaust it, gang up on it, overturn it and then drown it by preventing the Minke from surfacing and breathing.
"The tongue of the Minke whale is a favorite meal of Killer whales," said Natalie Bowes, of Victoria, B.C., the marine biologist who accompanied our trip.
The worst memory, however, involved some sweet-looking Gentoo penguins we were photographing on the Palmer Peninsula. We watched in horror one day as two of the penguins attacked a third penguin sitting on two eggs in a nest. It is impossible to tell penguin gender from a distance.
Using their beaks as spears, they pecked the nesting penguin so vigorously that people in our group screamed, begging our resident ornithologist in vain to stop the vicious assault. Finally, after we thought the nesting penguin had been murdered, it slowly got up and left the nest and eggs coveted by the other two Gentoo penguins. Quietly, the wounded penguin limped away, quickly blending into a group of 100-plus other identical penguins nearby.
"Penguins are not soft, cute, cuddly sweet birds," said Jim Wilson, of Cobh, Ireland, our ornithologist.
He explained that the invading penguin couple had determined that the nest of the original parent penguin was attractive to them and well positioned on the shore. They simply decided to take it over along with the eggs that were left. Effectively, one parent's offspring were kidnapped by others before they were even born.
"Penguins are all about the business of raising young. Nothing else matters to them," said Wilson.
At the end of the world
Despite the malevolence, however, the larger, lingering memory I have of Antarctica is one of nature frozen in a balance of power and elegance. Perhaps the American explorer and naval officer Richard Byrd, the first man to reach the South Pole by air, said it best, describing the vastness he saw one day as a space:
--¦ with all things at last in equilibrium, the winds quiet, the sea frozen, the sky composed and the earth in glacial quietude."
If you are one of the lucky few who have the opportunity to see and experience Antarctica, take it. And please, help protect it.