The Frozen Wilderness of Antarctica
Kindly contributed by Midge Raymond, the author of My Last Continent, a love story about penguin researchers who find themselves at the heart of a maritime disaster in the Southern Ocean, and the co-founder of Ashland Creek Press, a boutique publisher focused on animal and environemental protection. Learn more at www.midgeraymond.com.
As a native of Southern California who generally despises the cold, I still claim Antarctica as one of my favorite spots on the planet. There are so many things I love about this continent—its sheer immensity, its towering icebergs and mountains, its moonlike, otherworldly desolation—but perhaps the most wonderful thing about Antarctica is the silence. To be in a place where you can be quiet and still, where there are few sounds other than the wind, the waves, and the birds, with none of the usual white noise of life on other continents—is extraordinary.
On today’s cruises, you can still be connected to the world above the frozen continent, if you wish—but part of being in Antarctica is letting go of that connectivity. Once you do, it’s possible to believe you’re in another era, or on another planet, and the journey becomes far more than a physical one: It becomes emotional, even spiritual, as you relate to the earth and its creatures on a level rarely possible in our everyday lives.
Antarctica is becoming increasingly popular with travelers—more than 40,000 visited in the 2016-17 season—and it is indeed a landscape worth seeing during the austral summer: whitewashed, sundrenched, mostly uninhabited by humans, and alive with creatures that can’t be found anywhere else. It is currently protected by the Antarctic Treaty, which requires that all human activity on the continent be for peaceful, shared scientific purposes. In other words, no one owns this continent, other than its native wildlife.
Like most visitors, I arrived at the Antarctic peninsula by boat, and, like most visitors, I still remember glimpsing that first iceberg once we got through the Drake Passage. I didn’t quite believe how much more spectacular the ice would become as we ventured farther south, where the icebergs rise out of the water like skyscrapers. The sea arches doorways into their sides; the wind chips out windows. The largest icebergs tower precariously over the water; many have deep crevasses in their sides, as if enormous claws have slashed through them, drawing blue light instead of blood.
On ice floes, crabeater seals snooze and penguins preen. You might see the whiskered face of a leopard seal, and if it yawns, you’ll get a peek at its sizeable teeth. All the while, you’ll hear nothing but the whisk of wind around the bergs, the splash of a penguin entering the water, the gurgle of waves against the ice.
You’ll see penguins porpoising through the water, their black-and-white bodies resembling miniature orcas, and once on land, you’ll find yourself surrounded as they waddle past, carrying rocks for their nests, meeting their mates, feeding their chicks. Their high-pitched, rattling squawks fill the air, and if you sit long enough, one might come by and nip at your boots or steal away with a rock near your feet.
It’s a life-changing experience, and perhaps the best part of all is that even when you leave Antarctica, it never leaves you.