Go Here: What It Is Really Like in Antarctica

Andrew Findlay went to Antarctica. It was not only an adventure, but a lesson in international cooperation with the potential for powerful consequences.

For a non-mariner like myself, crossing the Drake Passage is a daunting proposition—even on the comfortable Akademik Ioffe, a 55-metre-long Russian-owned ice-breaking research vessel that’s been repurposed into a cruise ship. This rugged 500-kilometre-wide stretch of sea separates Patagonia from the Antarctic Peninsula, making our port of exit, Ushuaia, Argentina, the closest access point from what I will call “Our World” and the world of Antarctica—the “White Continent.”

By Our World, I mean the planet where national interests are forefront, economic and political disputes preoccupy public discourse, wealth is getting forever concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, species and natural habitats are in decline and dangerous bozos like Trump and Putin are at the helms of two of the world’s most powerful countries.

The other world, the world of Antarctica, is an anomaly on Earth. It is the only continent never to be settled by humans; a stateless land where nature persists more or less undisturbed. In fact, it is a beacon of international cooperation in an era when examples of such are in poor supply. In 1959, The Antarctic Treaty was signed by the 12 countries whose scientists had been engaged in research on the White Continent in the previous years. Since its implementation in 1961, the treaty has been acceded to by more than 40 countries. Nations like America, Russia and China—which are often bitter rivals on the international stage—sit more or less amicably around the treaty table. The treaty preserves Antarctica for peaceful scientific cooperation and bans military activity of any kind. It was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War.

During the two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, I spent much time on the bridge alongside the stoic Russian crew, watching magnificent sooty albatrosses soar above the roiling grey seas. I felt like I was journeying to not only a different continent, but a different planet altogether, devoid of the kind of ruinous self-interest that masquerades as patriotism.

I admit my prior knowledge of Antarctica was sadly limited, formed mostly by epic tales from the golden era of South Polar exploration and visions of a featureless frozen continent. I imagined the savage disappointment Robert Scott must have felt in January of 1912 when he finally arrived at the South Pole only to find the Norwegian flag, planted just five weeks earlier by Roald Amundsen, fluttering in the frigid air. Or the immense suffering and endurance of Ernest Shackleton and his men during their survival epic; a tale that still defies belief.

So when I first caught sight of the Antarctic Peninsula following two bumpy days on the Drake Passage I was astonished by the rugged topography. It appeared as though a chunk of British Columbia’s Northern Selkirks had been uprooted and recast at the Southern Pole. This was a welcome sight for someone like me who is more comfortable with a vertiginous landscape than a hostile sea like the one we had just crossed. Mass tourism in Antarctica is a relatively new and still largely exclusive experience. Unless you’re rich enough to put this remote place on your bucket list, a scientist assigned to a research base or a journalist like me who gets an invite, the closest most people will get is through books and films. 

Photographer Kari Medig and I were fortunate enough to join a small group of skiers, as part of a larger complement of more than 100 other tourists on the Akademik Ioffe, which is chartered by Canadian polar tourism specialist One Ocean Expeditions. Few are the places left in the world where nature can be studied in its undisturbed state and that is the magical, raw appeal of Antarctica.

One day, when the grey overcast skies cleared, we zipped toward shore, weaving around icebergs and cutting through the slushy brash ice. We aimed for a rocky point, one of the few spots at the foot of Mount Tennant where glaciers didn’t end abruptly in a 20-metre ice cliff. As was the custom, we were met by a colony of gentoo penguins, comically awkward looking creatures on land but as graceful as dolphins when diving through the beautifully clear sea. Without terrestrial predators of any kind, they waddle obliviously past us as though we are invisible. Nearby, an enormous Weddell seal, equally nonplussed by our presence, suns himself on a shoreline haul-out. A snow petrel soars overhead, brilliant white feathers against the deep blue of the sky. 

Indeed it is hard to believe that only a century ago explorers risked life and limb, and practically starved themselves, in their efforts to unlock the White Continent’s secrets. One night during the Drake crossing I browsed the Oceanites Site Guide to the Antarctic Peninsula, a field guide that I found in the ship library. The following, written by author David Naveen, reinforced how fast tourism is changing even in the remote Southern Pole: “You are the first generation of Antarctic visitors who can realistically plan on gaining weight during your voyage.”

Antarctica is a place that once experienced, becomes a part of you. Denise Landau, one of One Ocean’s knowledgeable onboard naturalists, is one of those people. Born in Michigan, this biologist and Colorado-based ski instructor has had a love affair with the Antarctic since her first visit more than 25 years ago. As former executive director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, Landau was instrumental in establishing operating standards to minimize the impact of the roughly 18,000 travellers who now visit Antarctica annually. 

But Antarctica’s unspoiled beauty is tenuous. Tourism unchecked could have a profound impact on the Antarctic experience. So too could unchecked nationalism, which is the raison d’être of The Antarctic Treaty. The flags of China, the USA, Australia, Great Britain, Chile and Argentina fly above bases scattered throughout the continent, ostensibly centres of scientific research but no doubt informal assertions of some future national claim to the continent. It’s sort of like a game of political chess, in slow motion.

One day I asked Dick Filby, a Brit and another of One Ocean’s onboard naturalists, how he perceived the future of Antarctica and the strength of the treaty that protects it. We were on the Akademik Ioffe’s bridge scanning the skies for albatrosses and the sea for whales. He lowered his binoculars and looked thoughtfully over the water.

“Not great. I think it’s inevitable that pressures will come to bear on Antarctica,” he says. By pressures, he likely means this continent will eventually be caught up in the global race for new sources of wealth and resources. And that was the saddest piece of news I heard during an amazing 10-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula.