A frozen land’s allure

March 15 1993

A frozen land’s allure

March 15 1993

A frozen land’s allure


Letter from Antarctica

For thousands of years, Antarctica stood as a uniquely untouched—and unclaimed—frontier. It has been scarcely more than 80 years since European explorers first reached the South Pole, only 35 years since scientists in significant numbers established bases on a barren continent where the only permanent inland life consists of a few plants and invertebrates. But the modern world is closing in. Tourism to the region has roughly doubled in two years, while nations make rival claims to territory and fishing rights in the area. Maclean’s Associate Editor Diane Brady recently toured in Antarctica. Her report:

Misery loves the company of adventurers. With temperatures that plunge as low as —89° C and winds that can reach more than 200 m.p.h. without warning, Antarctica does not meet the usual requirements of a tourist destination. Indeed, travel to the planet’s most remote frozen outpost can seem more like an exercise in masochism than a respite from urban life. It seems almost fitting that, after fighting off nausea for two days while crossing the rough waters of Drake Passage from the southern tip of South America, arrival brings new threats: sinking into quicksand or falling into 100-foot-deep crevasses disguised by snow. A majestic mountain of crystal suddenly collapses with a thunderous roar. A visitor’s feet move like clumps of ice in cold pursuit of penguin antics to capture on film. A face turned up towards the midnight sun is suddenly whipped with wind-carried sleet and sand. At times, Antarctica is less a spot to be enjoyed than endured. As British explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote in his 1922 book, The Worst Journey in the World, “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”

But now, as more tourists explore Antarctica’s exhilarating beauty and scientists study its nature, true hardship is largely a thing of the past on the frozen frontier. Touring explorers, nestled in ice-strengthened cruise liners equipped with discos and cedar saunas, glide through waters where people once perished. They debate which wine to have with dinner, instead of which sled dog should be killed for food. On shore, researchers study marine life or the earth’s ozone hole above the continent with state-of-the-art technology at well-insulated bases. It is during Antarctica’s brief summer that the once desolate continent becomes a hotbed of human activity.

From December to February, the icy waters shed enough of their crystal armor to allow access to the Antarctic peninsula, which

juts towards Cape Horn where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans mingle, and to the mainland beyond it. In the past, the period of moderate weather (temperatures climb as high as 15° C) and almost constant sunlight brought a flow of seafarers in search of whales or other marine life. Those hunters were followed by adventurers who explored the interior, followed in turn by scientists

seeking clues to the planet’s past, and perhaps its future.

Antarctica now draws explorers of a different stripe—GORE-TEX-clad tourists seeking close-up views of the unique wildlife and seascape. It is a diverse group of chill seekers, despite the high cost—fares start at $6,000 for a 12-day cruise, not including airfare—and the prospect of harsh conditions. r Our tour through the islands on the Professor Molchanov, a Russian research vessel operated by Mountain Travel-Sobek of El Cerrito, Calif., brought together 28 people from as far afield as Alaska and New Zealand. They ranged from a greying hard-core hiker from California, who alarmed tour guides with his unannounced fits of wanderlust, to a 25-year-old American heiress in a beaver fur coat carrying a personalized, gold-embossed, leatherbound journal where she recorded world-tour adventures. Passengers boarded the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina, on the island of Tierra del Fuego, where they would sleep and eat for the next 12 days. Many found less culture shock from the scenery than from the constant diet of meat and potatoes. Some began to crave marine treats caught by the Russian crew, including translucent ice fish, which contain natural anti-freeze.

But, armed with pretzel sticks and Heineken from a bar staffed by the ship’s doctor, passengers focused on the area’s stark beauty—the shimmering waters of Paradise Bay, the snow-covered mountains lining the Lemaire Channel and exquisite sculpture gardens of ice dotting the coastline.

More than 6,000 people took a vacation on the world’s highest, driest, coldest continent last year. At least half a dozen companies now operate cruises through the islands that flank the Antarctic peninsula, with frequent trips ashore for activities

ranging from a 30-minute gaze at penguins to a quick dip in frigid Antarctic waters. Other tour operators host special events or expeditions to the mainland itself. Later this month, about 20 travellers will pay $20,000 each to, among other things, hear Japanese pop singer Yasunori Sugawara perform Antarctica’s first concert. Others can pay about $90,000 each to ski on the continent.

But in a world that lays claim to status as a global village, Antarctica still stands as the planet’s most formidable frontier. Much of the continent is cloaked in a layer of ice estimated , on average, to be two miles thick. Chunks of the glacial mass break off into the sea, forming icebergs—some of which are larger than Prince Edward Island. The bergs break up further into exquisite shapes and textures laced with deep veins of purple and neon blue, counterparts of the floes at the top of the world that illustrate why the Inuit have hundreds of words to describe ice. More than two-thirds of the world’s fresh water is locked up in Antarctica’s ice. But that frozen asset does little to nourish valleys in the interior, where no precipitation has fallen for at least two million years.

In contrast, the Antarctic shoreline and peninsula explode with life during austral summer. Snow-covered hills become massive penguin breeding rookeries, while the coasts are crowded with hundreds of raucous and rancid elephant seals. Various species of albatross, petrels and other Antarctic birds stand on summer’s mossy peaks, waiting for a chance to snatch shrimp-like krill from the water or eggs from the nests of wayward penguins. On nearby ice floes, Weddell seals lift their tiny heads to stare at visitors with a look of bored contempt before closing their eyes to snooze. In the water, they must remain constantly alert to threats from leopard seals or killer whales. A school of humpback whales play offshore. Documenting those scenes are dozens of tourists, armed with cameras and video equipment.

That sign of summer does not sit well with some scientists, who want to maintain the continent as a 5.5-million-square-mile research laboratory. They claim that visitors disrupt research activity and the continent’s fragile ecosystem. The impact can be severe: in 1989, an Argentine transport ship carrying 316 crew and tourists (all escaped unharmed) sank off the peninsula, spewing more than 150,000 gallons of diesel oil throughout the area.

But the human touch usually leaves a more subtle mark on the continent. Environmentalists say that discarded plastic and other debris have appeared in the diges-

tive tracts of seabirds. Scientists are also studying the impact of tourists on breeding patterns and vegetation in the area Until recently, most tour operators argued that Antarctic animals are oblivious to visitors—but evidence suggests otherwise. At their home on Paulet Island, in the Weddell Sea, Adelie penguins will snap at—and even chase—tourists who wander too close to nests.

Those issues become more urgent as Antarctica is exposed to the modem world. Earlier this year, a Chilean telephone company installed the first public phone booth on the once-pristine continent. For about 14 cents, Chileans at the country’s Antarctic air force base on King George Island can make satellite calls home to Punta Arenas. Other countries have set up airstrips and elaborate bases to stake out their turf on the ice, although the 39-nation Antarctic Treaty, renewed for 50 years in 1991, places territorial claims on hold and commits signatories to co-operation in peaceful scientific research. Scientists and tour operators call for such environmental initiatives as designating the continent a world park, but they are not required to pay any profits or fees towards achieving that aim.

The brutal character of the continent still makes it a magnet for hard-core adventurers. On Jan. 7, Norwegian Erling Kagge completed a 50-day solo ski trek from the Atlantic coast to the South Pole. But Britons Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Michael Stroud discovered that nature still has the upper hand in Antarctica during their simultaneous attempt to walk and ski across the entire continent without assistance. On Feb. 11, about 550 km short of their goal, they abandoned their trek and were flown back to England. The Britons were not the first to find that travel in the south polar region can seem like a descent into hell. Early in 1912, a British team led by explorer Robert Falcon Scott died of starvation and cold on their return from the South Pole, which they had reached 35 days after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first human to achieve that goal on Dec. 14,1911.

In the end, Antarctica’s salvation may lie in its hostile disposition. Death can come quickly to those who ignore the supremacy of nature, and there are visible reminders among the coastal islands that the continent has its own defences against human incursions. Off the Antarctic peninsula, a visitor spots fur seals basking near the skeletons of ships that once hunted them to near extinction. Rough waves prevent a tourist ship from landing its passengers ashore. As austral summer comes to an end, the continent is already reinforcing its shield of ice against the outside world. For passengers who get glimpses of the continent’s fierce but fragile beauty, that barrier offers hope for Antarctica’s long-term survival.