Ken Jennings


May 18, 2012

A couple months ago I was in Antarctica. Ain’t no thing. JUST WENT TO MOTHERF-ING ANTARCTICA IS ALL!

Let’s face it: that’s why people go to Antarctica. Sure, there’s the dramatic snowy scenery, the calving glaciers, the polar wildlife. But Arctic cruises are a lot simpler and cheaper, and you can see most of the same stuff. So why do Northern Hemisphere-ites venture half a world away to Antarctica instead? It’s all about bragging rights. When you go on an Antarctic cruise, you can spend the rest of your life telling dinner companions you were in Antarctica by the way did I mention that?!? When you get back from an Arctic cruise, what are you going to say? “Oh yeah, I went to Canada. (Or Norway or whatever.) Pretty rockin’.”

It’s been exactly one hundred years since Roald Amundsen discovered the South Pole, but a trip to Antarctica still conjures up visions of dog sleds across the ice, men hunkered in dark shacks with icicles in their beards eating beans out of cans, the risk of a lonely frostbitten death at every turn. In fact, forty thousand tourists now visit the unknown continent every year, mostly the way I did: an easy, comfortable ten-day or two-week “expedition cruise” from the southern tip of Argentina. This all started with the fall of the Soviet Union–suddenly, there were dozens of ice-reinforced ships sitting around without a Cold War to wage. Canny entrepreneurs start to buy and remodel them, and a tourist industry was born. Our boat was an 1975 Yugoslavian model named for a legendary Eastern Bloc stage actress or cosmonaut or something. It wasn’t the most deluxe of Antarctic options, but it was still very well-equipped. The small three-person cabin I shared with a couple friends felt like your typical college dorm or teensy boutique Manhattan hotel room, not the Soviet nuclear submarine I was expecting. The ship had a big lounge and dining room and gift shop and library and gym and so on.

But most of the time, you’re not on the ship. It takes a couple days to cross the famously choppy Drake Passage (we had a fairly easy time of it and I don’t get seasick easily, but I still spent at least a day of the passage lying dizzily in bed) and then you’re there. Inflatable Zodiacs ferry passengers back and forth from the ship at a couple different landings each day

Photos don’t do the Antarctic Peninsula justice. The mountains are sheer black crags rising above the glaciers. You can really sense the isolation. This is a continent almost twice as vast as the continental United States, and yet it has the total population of a small town: maybe a thousand residents (scientists and staff, pretty much) year round, as many as four thousand in the summer. There’s no one here.

It’s been snowing in Antarctica for 35 million years, and the endless layers of snowflakes pack down into the densest ice you’ve ever seen, which gives it that unworldly blue color. No camera trickery involved; that’s really the color of the glacial ice down there.

There are plenty of non-human residents, of course. You’ll see hundreds of seals and (if you go late in the season like we did) humpback whales frolicking with their young.

And the penguins. Oh, the penguins. On the peninsula, you won’t see the ginormous Emperor penguins of March of the Penguins and Happy Feet fame, but you will see other (possibly even more adorable) species: the Gentoo, the Chinstrap, the Adelie. All crowd the Antarctic shores by the tens of thousands. Antarctic visitors start out so desperate to see penguins that they’d throw their grandmother under a Soviet icebreaker for just a glimpse at one, but a week later, it’s just okay, enough, penguins. You’ve seen enough to last a lifetime.

But they are cute, even when they’re regurgitating pre-digested fish into a chick’s beak. (The chicks grow up fast, so this is like an attachment parenting Time magazine cover for penguins.)

Penguins in Antarctica have no land-based predators–their eggs and young can be menaced from the air (by birds like skua) and from the water (by seals and sea lions) but a dude in an ugly yellow parka can sit on a rock and they’ll just wander over and chill.

Their colonies are so busy that they tend to form a maze of penguin highways in the snow. Speaking of which, penguin-colony snow isn’t the pure driven white of a BBC nature documentary. It’s pink and orange and green and all kinds of crazy colors. Some of this is due to the algae that lives in the snow year-round but only blooms colorfully in the brief Antarctic summer. But lots of it is pooped out penguin food–fish and krill and the like. You get used to it. And scrub off your boots really well when you come back aboard ship.

In fact, the boot-disinfecting routine before and after every landing is mandatory, for environmental reasons. Lots of eyebrows have been raised lately over the ecological impact of tens of thousands of tourists now tromping around the Antarctic coast. Only two species of flowering plant are native to the region; today there are five, thanks to tourists who brought grass seeds stuck to their coats and boots. So expedition leaders take every precaution to preserve the landscape. In other words, they yelled at one of my shipmates who had bet a co-worker $100 that she’d hug a penguin on the trip. Warning: non-consensual penguin love below.

Because prices are lower at the end of the season, that’s a good time to sail with a more diverse group of shipmates. Fine, by “more diverse” I mean “younger,” okay? It’s still a hefty chunk of savings to fly down to Argentina, and the cruises are far from cheap, even if your schedule is flexible and you can wait to pounce on a last-minute deal. (Some of the folks I met on-board had done this, and paid literally half what my friends and I did.) So your boat’s not going to be full of sweaty Eurotrash backpackers at any time of year. But I’d been expecting your stereotypical cruise manifest of moneyed retirees with yappy dogs, and was pleasantly surprised at how many youngish professionals were aboard: normal working folks from all over the world who had saved up all year for a cool trip.

So there were snowball fights.

And some idiots went for a dip in the zero-degree waters.

The Antarctic Peninsula isn’t all that cold that time of year, actually. Most days were in the mid-twenties to low-thirties. Plenty of parts of the U.S. were colder than Antarctica was while we were there. Wear long underwear and a fleece under your parka and you’ll be fine.

The balmy summer is when the local research stations (there are now about sixty in Antarctica, operated by thirty different countries) like to welcome tourist visitors in exchange, I imagine, for kickback dinner invitations aboard ship and/or cases of something alcoholic. We stopped at Vernadsky Research Base on Galindez Island. Until 1996, it was the British-owned Faraday Station, the place that did the atmospheric research that discovered the South Pole “ozone hole” back in the 1980s. When the Brits decided to close the base, it turned out it was prohibitively expensive to tear everything down and ship the raw materials off-continent, so they put it up to bid, and the Ukrainians bought it for exactly one pound.

But even under Ukrainian management, it still has all the British-installed luxuries, including a full pub with dartboard and pool table, and the self-proclaimed “World’s Southernmost Gift Shop.”

The other manmade stuff we saw was more historic–wreckage from the continent’s whaling days, and a couple old exploration and scientific bases now remodeled into unmanned museums. If you want to peruse a hand-typed, World War II-vintage cookbook with hundreds of recipes for seal brains, that’s the place to go.

Even if you never got to brag about it to a living soul for as long as you lived–the result of some nutty Jim Carrey comedy-style curse, perhaps–a trip to Antarctica is a must-do for any personal travel checklist. Even while surrounded by vacationing cat ladies, you can still feel something of the thrill and the peril it must have been to venture into the southern ocean a century ago. With its cliffs of ice and barren peaks and inhospitable, constantly changing weather, Antarctica is the closest you can come to feeling like you’re wandering the surface of an alien planet, without ever leaving the Earth.

Posted by Ken at 5:19 pm