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.

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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