Mostly, visitors to Antarctica experience the sounds and sights and sensations of Antarctica from small and large ships, and don’t set foot in the region. You couldn’t see as much otherwise. You’d compromise what you hope to observe if everyone set upon the land.
But there are still opportunities to do what you instinctively hanker to do – to stand where the explorers did – and to talk to the researchers who now work there – to get up close and personal with the people and frozen white lands they are studying.
We had a special opportunity to visit the Chilean Frei research base on King George Island where there was an air strip for landing, provided you could get there through the weather.
Holly and I and about 48 other soul mates wanted to reach the frozen land for similar reasons – and this was the way we could do that – the experience of a lifetime.
The problem was that, in order to get there, the weather has to be just right. And you don’t know how it’s going to be until you get there.
The cloud cover and fickle weather system can prevent any landing and this is in large part because the flying is VFR, visual flight rules, meaning you fly where and when you can see.
It’s treacherous enough that the flight charts for the approach to the King George airport warn to watch out for “ice bergs on approach.” Of course, it makes sense. You never know where a berg is going to wind up in the winds that wend their way through the island channels.
We assembled on the ship at about 6:45 am to take a tender from the ship to land, a bus to the airport and a small jet plane to King George Island.
We had been advised to wear 4 pairs of socks, thermal underwear, sweatpants, ski pants, 4 shirts, a parka, two pairs of gloves, ski headband, sunglasses and ski goggles. We all took this instruction to heart.
Our self-selected group of adventurers wanted to join the 65,000 folk who have ever stood in the Antarctic region.
It’s an exclusive club and, in a way, it is the saving grace for this icy desert.
Anyone who had ordinary footgear was encouraged to pull on special boots over their shoes for protection from the icy wetness they’d find if we could set down in Antarctica.
When our flight was close to the island we were above the clouds and still didn’t know whether we would get to land.
But we put on all the layers of clothing and warmth, we’d left off until the last possible moment – partly for fear of jinxing the mission but also because we didn’t want to cook in these clothes on the flight to King George.
Several recent flights had turned back at this point because the pilots couldn’t see anything.
Our pilot dropped down through the clouds, and the misty grayness was all you could see out the windows.
But then we saw the veils pass and thin, and then there was visibility - a cloudy mist permitting a view of the black white capped waters below, floating bergs, a dark gray sky and the sloping land ahead with prominent black rock outlining what was King George Island.
We dropped out of the sky at about 500 feet above the water and no bergs obstructed or endangered our approach.
We were later told by several pilots that our altitude was about the minimum we could have for a safe approach; one thought it was a risky height.
There were three pilots in the cockpit and two of them had less than the 2,000 flight hours required, but they had a third pilot who did have the hours; the problem was that the third pilot was 69 and too old, by law, to fly himself.
No matter. Our pilots did real well.
When we landed on the gravel airport, the pilot had to use care not to use his engines in such a way as to suck the gravel from the landing strip into his engines.
At a full stop, the crew and passengers drew a deep breath, and let out a cheer, clapped, and then quickly unbuckled, pulled on gloves and hats, grabbed packs and water bottles and headed to the gang plank.
It was a breath of cold moist air, in a light snow, and gusts of wind that greeted us as we walked down the metal stairs to set foot on a black gray muddy surface.
We could see the nearby hangar, and the vintage aircraft inside.
There was a helicopter about 100 feet away.
The vista that surrounded us was ice and snow covered cliffs and in the slight valley nearby a partly frozen lake that was the source of water for Chilean and Russian research stations that adjoined one another by the bay ahead of us.
We gathered at a totem that had sign posts to various points of interest around the globe, running up a 100 feet or so, and this told you how far you were from home.
Betsy Pincheira, a wildlife veterinarian, who had spent 26 years visiting and living in Antarctica, introduced us to Alejo who would be helping us explore the base and a nearby island. Alejo had been to the South pole repeatedly, and he looked like you’d imagine an explorer should. He was hatless and relaxed, tanned, and his face wore a rugged reassuring mask, that said guy could set you straight and keep you safe; of course, he didn’t say much, not even when he helped us into the Zodiacs later.
Betsy explained that about 10% of the area was clear of ice and snow so that the base could do its work, at least during the summer.
But during the winter the snow could be 9 feet and that’s why there were bamboo poles attached to the water lines from the lake and pipes containing the electric lines that ran from the diesel generators to multi-colored buildings, variously designated as hospital, bank, post office, souvenir shop, base station, dwellings and more.
The exploitation of Antarctica, the kind that would destroy what attracts us to its wildness, is in a state of suspended animation, because of the Antarctic Treaty that holds territorial claims on hold, and prohibits mining minerals, nuclear testing, and, more positively, encourages joint research and cooperation and ecological conservation and sustainability.
Nor is this a recent history. During the cold war, when nations couldn’t talk, Russian and American teams in Antarctica were cooperating. So there’s an ethos here that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. This place and what they are doing with it is is not innocent in the sence of naïve or inexperienced. This collective of researchers and adventurers and governmental representatives have been at this too long to be simple or gullible.
They are all sensitive to the fact that perhaps what now exists is the calm before the storm when nation states will awaken, like from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, to their ordinary and unnatural condition of fierce competition, then elbow past each other, maybe war against each other (as in the Falklands), to stake claims and extract the treasure in mineral and wildlife from this last frontier on earth.
Sadly, we all worry that they will do this even at the risk of destroying what has been a unique way of life since about 1959 when the Antarctic Treaty was signed.
But in the here and now, what is going on in Antarctica is special.
It is cooperative across barriers of geography, culture, language, religion and understanding.
It is a hopeful conservation minded way that bears being repeating elsewhere in the world, other than at the frozen underside of our planet.
We walked to the home base, about a mile walk, and saw a blue catholic church atop a nearby hill in the Chilean section and it was made entirely out of metal cargo containers.
Across the shallow valley on a nearby hill was a Russian Orthodox Church designed in Russia with interconnecting parts that are held together by the gravity and design of its components.
I spoke with the priest at the Church. Our overlap was what English he understood. He’d only been there a few days to make this mission. Inside the church there were the most beautiful iconic paintings and decorations. Plainly he was excited to be on King George Island and he interrupted our conversation to ring the afternoon bells. He closed the doors to the church and all the windows save one. It was from this window the four bells sounded, and then he played a gorgeous symphony that echoed across the Russian base and could be heard in the Chilean section as well.
We posted cards, at $2 a stamp, from King George’s Island, and bought a neck warmer from the souvenir shop (PX).
At the base station, we studied petrified wood found on the island suggesting that this island was an extension of the Andes, once connected to South America, for, why else, would there be trees here – or so the Scotian hypothesis goes.
We then made it to the Zodiacs to travel to nearby Ardley Island and to visit the Gentoo penguins. Holly and I suited up in life jackets and got in this rubbery craft with an outboard motor. We had been encouraged not to stand in the boat as we would not want to make the vessel collapse into the freezing water. They got that right.
We motored out into the waters and past ice bergs and returning researchers who had been diving to observe underwater specimens. We were so close to one ice berg that the blue was pulsing incandescent. Not a sight easily duplicated in a digital photo or on film.
We set upon the land by sliding over the rubbery hide of the Zodiac onto the beach at Ardley Island where thousands of penguins lives.
Our appearance, though few, at about 20, prompted Skua birds to try to attack the penguin young. Betsy said these birds were opportunists.
Anything you do affects what you are observing and can dramatically harm the beauty you seek to enjoy.
The common vernacular now embraces the basic notion of Chaos Theory (or Complexity), the theory that small changes of initial conditions can have dramatic mega-effects. Some call it the butterfly effect, how the sweep of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tsunami somewhere else in the world.
Accordingly, there are strict constraints on how many may visit these special areas. Dr. Bernard Stonehouse had the notion that they should investigate the effect people had on penguins by measuring the penguins’ heart rate when exposed to people in certain numbers, and certain proximity and at certain sound levels. The results were that 20 people at a certain distance present no danger to the penguins.
Based on this research, we sat down, no longer loomed over the penguins, removing what was intimidating about our presence, and the penguins came right up to several of our cohort.
Also on land, there was a juvenile elephant seal weighing hundreds of pounds. It made some noise that we were disturbing its sleep, made a slightly intimidating effort, and then decided we weren’t worth his energy, and buried his head in the kelp and sand.
When we were leaving the island, the ropes that tied our Zodiac to shore were covered in Kelp and Krill (tiny little shrimp-like creatures).
It is these aspects of the Antarctica that form the building blocks of life in the Antarctic. One researcher told me that visitors are only interested in the charismatic mega-flora, and they miss the significance of how interconnected is the natural fabric of Antarctica in its region and with the rest of the world.
Water is another good example of what’s essential. Despite all the ice, fresh water is a rare commodity.
As I’ve said, Wildlife Vet Betsy has spent 26 years visiting and living in Antarctica. She said that the fresh water for a cabin her family maintained for years came from melting ice from the glacier, but eight years ago, the glacier began to shrink as the temperatures dropped from global warming, and each year the glacier shrunk more until it was no more.
They could no longer live there without fresh water, nor could the wild life, and thus the research station had to disband and move as well.
The melting of Antarctica will raise waters world-wide, submerging coastal plains, changing weather prompting extreme storms where none had existed, and wiping out species that can’t possible adapt in time.
Betsy said, “I see the changes and they have been dramatic in Antarctica. We cannot elude our responsibility any longer. We humans are affecting global warming.”
Chris Gunn, a naturalist and researcher, explained that most people don’t understand how critical are these life forms, the Krill and Plankton, are to the cycle of life.
Krill, as small as they are, constitute a critical building block in the chain that feeds the penguins, seals, whales and birds we observed, but this chain of life affects us all, even at a distance.
It’s not generally appreciated that nature is a system that we can compromise and have and that it won’t right itself unless we change our ways – assuming it’s not too late to correct the harm we’ve already caused.
When we left, we were exhilarated by the visit, but sad to be leaving this special place.
We had trophies to confirm that what had occurred was real; we had pictures, sent postcards, even a certificate attesting to our visit, all memorials of our adventure.
But it’s hard to think that an experience like this doesn’t change you forever in some way.
You have to take from this something that changes your perspective and gives you the impetus to find some way to protect this special place – even if it is to tell others what you’ve learned - because, in doing so, you protect not only this place but where you live and those you love as well.