The Great White Hope: Notes from Antarctica, Earth’s Last Great Wilderness

In Antarctica, the writer finds promise, peril, and nature so grand it inspires poetry.
Gentoo penguins fling themselves from an iceberg into frigid Antarctic waters. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg
Gentoo penguins fling themselves from an iceberg into frigid Antarctic waters. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

The riotous seas of the Drake Passage—one of the world’s most treacherous stretches of water—lie down for us as we cross, aboard the ship National Geographic Explorer, in a spell of good weather. We sailed from the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia, Argentina, for the closest part of the cold continent, the Antarctic Peninsula, escorted by petrels and albatrosses. All are graceful on the wing, but the birds that draw my eye are the wandering albatrosses. Greatest of seabirds with their 11-foot wingspans, wandering albatrosses are masters of dynamic soaring. I watch them course effortlessly on set wings, tacking in wide turns, their wing tips narrowly clearing the swells. Now and again an albatross glides parallel with the ship’s gym, glancing in the windows at passengers labouring on treadmills—and inspiring my new stanza for Samuel Coleridge’s 1798 poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which an ill-fated ship is driven by winds toward the cold continent:
At length did cross an albatross,
Which our treadmills and ellipticals,
Free weights and rowers, Nautilus
And NordicTrack just could not outpull.

Not great poetry, maybe, but new stanzas seem in order, for we’re headed to a land in transformation—a new Antarctica.

“The ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around,” Coleridge wrote as his mariner sailed for the South Pole. Alas, there is much less ice now. Antarctica remains Earth’s last great wilderness, but global warming is bringing rapid change. The Antarctica of the next millennium is taking shape. I’ve come for an early look—and to connect with nature on a scale I have rarely seen.

A day and a half after departing Ushuaia, we’re approaching the South Shetland Islands, volcanic outliers of the Antarctic Peninsula. As we near land, we smell it before we see its point of origin—a sudden strong odour of ammonia. At the deck rail, I look for some duct behind me, assuming the smell is venting from the bowels of the ship. But the wind is off the beam. A fellow passenger and I exchange glances of wild surmise. Then, “Penguins!” she cries, pointing. The smell is wafting from a penguin rookery, my first intimation of the crazy abundance of life in Antarctica—and its assault on all of the senses.

Our ship turns in for Barrientos Island, in the middle of the South Shetlands. We coast by its cliffs of columnar black basalt. Soon we drop anchor and board the ship’s inflatable Zodiac boats to visit rookeries of gentoo and chinstrap penguins—following our noses, in effect. The gentoo, a six-kilo bird, takes the low land here. Four-kilo chinstraps are the highlanders, gathering densely atop rock outcroppings. This choice, to me, seems almost religious. Perched on stony altars—a little closer to heaven—and waggling, the birds direct their beaks up and cry out piercing hosannas. As the frenzy dies down, the beaks drop, pointing to more earthly chores: grooming feathers and feeding chicks.

Passengers from the National Geographic Explorer pole their way up to a penguin colony at Orne Harbour. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

Passengers from the National Geographic Explorer pole their way up to a penguin colony at Orne Harbour. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

My fellow passengers are as excited by all this as I am. Linda MacGregor, our most elegant dresser in the evenings, plops down in her rain pants near a gentoo nursery and grins as a moulting chick clambers toward her. The chick seems to expect her to regurgitate some krill. Had Mrs. MacGregor been able to, I believe she would have. Jann Johnson, from California, stands among the penguins, incredulous. “I know I’m here, but I don’t believe I’m here,” she exclaims to no one in particular. “It’s beyond all dreams.” As she says this, her boots are becoming smeared with guano and mud, possible contaminants that Explorer neutralizes with a battery of shipboard brushes, disinfectants, and jets of hot water. We use these both when embarking and disembarking, determined to neither export contagion to this frozen world nor import it to the ship.

***

Our expedition leader, Tom Ritchie, is as Antarctic explorers are supposed to be, ruddy and bearded. A throwback to Victorian naturalists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, he is a generalist, free to follow his curiosity wherever it leads. Picking up a fur seal femur on the beach, he tells me it came from a juvenile, noting the unfused epiphyses at either end of the shaft. Then, hefting the skull, he adds that the juvenile was a male. Ritchie discourses on Antarctic fauna—such as it is—as easily as on botany, meteorology, geology, and ornithology.

“I’ve been coming to Antarctica for more than 30 years,” he notes. “It’s in my blood. The human history here is fascinating, the natural history like nowhere else on Earth. This is just a very dynamic place—and in some respects a dangerous, sinister place too.”

Could he be referring to the destruction humankind wrought on this remote ecosystem in the first half of the 20th century—the unchecked slaughter of whales in these southern waters, which nearly extinguished the blue whale and brutally reduced populations of the smaller krill-eating baleen whales? Antarctic wildlife is still in flux from those days. The slaughter of the whales triggered explosions in populations of other krill eaters, especially the crabeater seal, now one of the most numerous large mammals on the planet. This huge disruption of nature foreshadowed the potentially larger disturbance now being visited on Antarctica by climate variations.

Two humpback whales lure passengers to the ship’s rail for a close encounter. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

Two humpback whales lure passengers to the ship’s rail for a close encounter. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

As our ship works its way down the peninsula, Antarctica’s dynamism is evident everywhere. It’s in the weather, of course, which is big and volatile. It’s in the way the stark, lifeless interior meets Antarctic waters teeming with life. It’s in the juxtaposition of glaciers with volcanic formations and geothermal steam—the marriage of ice and fire. It’s also evident, more subtly, in the way ruins of human enterprise—an abandoned Argentine refugio shack, the tumbled stones of a rude, French-built meteorological lab—accentuate the vastness of the wilderness beyond.

I see little dynamism, at first, in the colours of this frozen landscape. The basic palette is the grey-black of exposed rock and the white of ice and snow. Many creatures I spot echo this grey-black white tonality, from the penguins to seagulls, seals, and killer whales. But my eye wants colour and trains itself to find it, zeroing in on the blue light glowing in glacial ice, the green of moss, the red in gentoo beaks, the orange caruncles on the face of the blue-eyed cormorant—and the lunatic cobalt of its iris. The colours here seem to live; each hue is all the warmer and more luminous for its black-and-white context.

There is, too, the temporary dynamic that Explorer brought here and would take away when we sailed: the sharp discontinuity between our life on and off board. On board are the staterooms, gift shop, fully stocked bar, and “wellness” area. Off board is infinite Antarctica, windswept, cold, alien.

At the head of Charcot Bay, on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, we spend a morning cruising Lindblad Cove in rafts as snow falls. The margins of the cove blur in mist that thins occasionally for glimpses of the surrounding peaks—bold ramparts of dark rock with steep couloirs and hanging glaciers. Our rafts proceed slowly, searching out passages through a maze of slush ice, ice floes, small icebergs, and giant tabular bergs that would have dwarfed the Titanic. Several fur seals have hauled out on their own floes. One grows enormous as we approach, resolving itself into a huge female leopard seal, 11 feet long.

“Dangerous” and “sinister” Tom Ritchie had said of Antarctica, and here, in this sleek avatar of an extraordinary continent, I find a creature worthy of the adjectives. The skull, reptilian in its contours, with a thin black line marking the wrap-around mouth, reminds me of a death’s-head mask. As I watch her, the seal yawns, and I’m startled by her immense gape. Her fanged mouth opens to nearly 90 degrees.

Another area resident, the docile Weddell seal, lounges on pack ice. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

Another area resident, the docile Weddell seal, lounges on pack ice. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

Our raft bumps along her floe, but the seal scarcely gives us a glance. This will be typical. Antarctic creatures demonstrate a striking fearlessness of people. The first man known to have set foot on the continent, American sealer John Davis, did so only in 1821—too recently, and with too few subsequent humans in his footsteps, for Antarctic fauna to have developed an instinctive fear of Homo sapiens. I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before wariness evolves from increased animal-human encounters.

As we drift along, chinstrap penguins surface to spy-hop for a look around. Groups of black-winged kelp gulls stand fast on floes. The naturalist in me finds the scene utterly absorbing, but Explorer’s scientists are more excited by the life below the sea surface—including krill that right now are swarming the cove. The tiny shrimp-like crustaceans are schooling as deep as we can see, silhouetted against the submerged nine-tenths of an iceberg as they swirl around it in a living current. Never, our guys testify, have they observed so many krill by the Antarctic Peninsula. We watch the scrambling of tiny legs as the krill push off from the ice, then pump their crustacean tails for propulsion. Now and again, as our Zodiac crosses their space, a squadron of krill goes airborne, porpoising away from us like a handful of coins flung hard at the surface.

Krill remain the staff of life in Antarctica. Today’s swarm in Lindblad Cove has convened birds and seals. Though krill are tiny, the creatures here have adapted to catch them, from the multilobed teeth of crabeater seals to the tooth-like serrations on penguin beaks. Even the leopard seal, behind its fearsome canines, has a set of interlocking molars for seining out krill.

But krill have been thinning. Juvenile krill depend on sea ice as nurseries; over the past 50 years, waters around the peninsula have been warming at nearly five times the average worldwide rate, and nearby sea ice is melting fast. Some of this is attributed to altered circulation patterns in the atmosphere, which may be causing more mixing of ocean layers. This in turn may be contributing to a reduction of phytoplankton, the microscopic plants upon which krill graze. As go the phytoplankton, so go the krill—and so goes the Antarctic ecosystem. The retreat and redistribution of krill is predicted to be a prime force in shaping the Antarctica of tomorrow.

*****

A towering ice arch offers expedition members the ultimate photo op. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

A towering ice arch offers expedition members the ultimate photo op. Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

Back on the ship, we’re soon steaming through Lemaire Channel, a fjord-like strait that runs between the Antarctic Peninsula and Booth Island, a chunk of land off the peninsula’s western side. As we glide along, peaks and glacier walls tower over us, port and starboard. I feel as if we are running an icebound version of the Grand Canyon—the canyon walls black rock instead of sandstone, punctuated by icefalls.

Emerging from the strait, we cruise over to granite-rock Petermann Island, where we put ashore and meet the first Adélie penguins of our voyage, symbols of another recent wrinkle in the story of Antarctica. Clustered with a rookery of blue-eyed cormorants, the smallish, black-hooded Adélies have been ceding ground to gentoos.

I learn this from the expedition’s penguinologist, Rosi Dagit, who is a researcher for Oceanites, a non-profit foundation dedicated to Antarctic science and education. One of its initiatives is tallying wildlife for the Antarctic Site Inventory, so Dagit always brings a mechanical counter. As we reach the Adélies, she starts clicking the counter. Adélies are the southernmost of penguins. Petermann Island, for now at least, marks the northern end of their range. The island also marks—or did until recently—the southern limit of gentoo penguins.

“We made a field camp on Petermann Island,” Dagit says, “because it’s a great place to observe the gentoos taking over Adélie territory. In 1909, 56 pairs of gentoos were here. Now there are well over 3,000. Unfortunately, Adélie pairs are down to about 300.”

One possible explanation is that the warming around the Antarctic Peninsula is causing the realm of the Adélie penguin to shrink and the realm of the gentoo penguin to expand southward. If true, I may be witnessing the creation of a fresh natural order based on which creatures successfully adapt to climate change—a new order that could lead to a re-engineered Antarctic ecosystem.

Now, in late January, Adélie chicks are moulting. As with other penguin species, Adélie chicks lose volume when they shed the soft grey down of chickhood to reveal the sleek, black-and-white juvenile plumage underneath. One bird wears a Mohawk strip of grey down. Another has moulted halfway, its left side chick, its right side juvenile. It hits me that they may be among the last to moult on warming Petermann Island.

***

Our cruise is circling back toward South America. As I stand at the rail, I consider all I’ve seen—and its implications for the future. Last century, when we almost expunged the blue whale, Antarctica filled the gap with penguins and seals. This century, the warming effects of greenhouse gases are melting sea ice and driving Adélie penguins south; gentoos are filling in. Though the Great White Continent’s vital ice sheet is shrinking, the Antarctic ecosystem will work its transformation—rearranging nesting sites, pairing once separate species—for as long as it possibly can.


The Guide

Antarctica’s 11-kilometre-long, 5,200-foot-wide Lemaire Channel, flanked by looming icebergs, is one of the most picturesque in the world. The National Geographic Explorer traverses the channel on its way to Petermann Island. Photo: Michael Nolan/©RobertHarding/Alamy/Indiapicture

Antarctica’s 11-kilometre-long, 5,200-foot-wide Lemaire Channel, flanked by looming icebergs, is one of the most picturesque in the world. The National Geographic Explorer traverses the channel on its way to Petermann Island. Photo: Michael Nolan/©RobertHarding/Alamy/Indiapicture

It took British explorer Ernest Shackleton years to prepare for his expedition to Antarctica. Modern-day travellers will need to plan in advance as well. Most cruises run Nov-Mar for about two weeks, though tours can range from eight days to a month. January is a great time to see whales and penguin chicks. Departure points include Ushuaia, Argentina, and Punta Arenas, Chile.

Explore

The National Geographic Explorer or National Geographic Orion departs from southern Argentina and travels to the Antarctic Peninsula, the icy continent’s northernmost region. It sails around the western side of the peninsula touring the surrounding islands and waterways where visitors disembark to explore the frozen islands and giant icebergs on inflatable Zodiac rafts (ngexpeditions.com/antarctica; 14-days; from $13,360/₹8,89,715 per person).

What to Bring

Lisa Kelley spends most of the year aboard the National Geographic Explorer as a trip leader and naturalist. Her gear tips:
1. Calf-high muck boots: Almost all landings require you to step in ankle-deep water. You may also be walking on soft snow, ice, and guano. Try on your boots (make sure they have good tread) with socks to ensure a proper fit.
2. Waterproof/windproof trousers: A must, these can be ski pants or trouser shells. Think of them as your ticket to be at eye level with the animals in the snow or mud. You’ll stay dry, and dirty trousers are easily hosed down.
3. Waterproof bag for your camera: It does not have to be expensive custom underwater housing—a Ziploc bag does a great job. Bring extra memory, especially if an external storage device is not available. You’ll take more pictures than you can imagine.
4. Combo walking stick/monopod: There are no trails in Antarctica, and surfaces are uneven. A walking stick can be helpful even for the most agile. Choose one with a removable top, which can be used as a monopod.
5. Long underwear of differing weights: Jackets provided by expedition companies are waterproof and windproof, so on a nice day you may need only one layer of long underwear.

What to Read

The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922). This riveting adventure tale recounts Robert Scott’s doomed race to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott did get there on January 17, 1912—34 days after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Cherry was one of the youngest members of Scott’s expedition, and his story remains an Antarctic classic.

Terra Antarctica: Looking Into the Emptiest Continent, by William L. Fox (2007). Chronicling his three-month journey, Fox paints portraits of the hardy souls who live and work at places like McMurdo Station, on the southern tip of Antarctica’s Ross Island, as well as the landscapes and weather conditions that make Antarctica “the windiest, coldest, highest, and driest continent on Earth.”

Appeared in the November 2016 issue as “The Great White Hope”.

 

Photo: Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg

Photo Tip: Shooting in the Cold

“Don’t change your lenses outdoors,” said photographer Cotton Coulson. “You never want to get moisture or condensation inside the camera body. Put your cameras and lenses into a plastic bag and seal them up before you bring them indoors. Once inside, place them in the coldest area you can find so they slowly warm up to the new temperature.”

  • Kenneth Brower 's latest book is "Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake" (Heyday, 2013).

  • Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson shot “From Russia With Love” (October 2012). Sisse travels to Antarctica regularly. Cotton, a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker, passed away in May 2015.

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