The mythologies of Antarctica mimic those of outer space.
Being aboard a vessel in Antarctica is full of potentialities. One never knows when a gentoo penguin, or a large colony of them, might come into view. For the writer, travelling with Irish wildlife guide and ornithologist, Jim Wilson, meant understanding the continent in all its surprises and complexities. Photo by Himali Singh Soin.
A lenticular cloud loomed. The wind swirled its stillness into the shape of a UFO, like a potter pinching, pressing, pulling her clay. Below, an iceberg emerged out of the blue. The wind chaffed its creviced sides, causing an infinitesimal inclination. At first, it wavered, then insisted on itself, tipping back in place.
A 105 years after Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, I set sail from Ushuaia in Argentina, towards Antarctica on the Drake Passage, known colloquially as the Drake Shake or Drake Lake, depending on the state of the seas.
Watching the sea and the sky, I thought about the myth of the North, of Njörðr, the Norse god of ships and seafaring, and the fur-clad female warriors that came riding through the sky. But the South did not so easily yield such stories. In the absence of human life beyond the boat, I was left imagining the superstitions of the early explorers, whose journal entries began with scientific logs and ended with ruminations on being.
The ocean was infinite, vanishing points everywhere with no object in sight to give perspective or scale, save the occasional albatross or petrel swerving above. The waves lashed, 37 feet high and perpetual. For several days, life on our 450-foot ship was led at a 60º angle. It was laughable, till we adjusted to it. We sought balance without denying the tilt.
On the bridge, the ship’s control room where silence was mandatory, the stoic Romanian captain charted the wind, which was sinuous. Signals criss-crossed, buttons beeped, screens blinked, maps were uncreased, and binoculars lay on hand. The captain looked out with attention but let out a whisper a notch louder than was allowed. He had spotted a fin whale. Even after a decade of Antarctic travel, he could still surprise himself.
Then, the sun burned through the mist. Mountains rose from the ocean’s helm. When the first iceberg, almost a kilometre high from base to tip, emerged, I gasped. This would only be the overture. For the next 10 days, every iceberg seemed more spectacular than the last. I began to reckon with the history of the search for the continent from 300 B.C. when Aristotle hypothesised that a mythic southern continent must exist, based simply in the rationale of equilibrium. Antarctica was named by Aristotle, from Greek anti and arks, meaning ‘opposite the bear’, the name for the constellation under which the Arctic lay. Time here exists at scales that far transcend those we can grasp. The older, denser bits of ice were a piercing sapphire. I understood the captain’s joy: Even after 10 years of navigating the Antarctic, its stark intensity could not become customary.
And yet, life on the ship assumed a routine. Daylight dimmed and our clocks trudged on. After breakfast, we would head to the mud room, where our boots and jackets hung, and proceed to undertake the painstaking routine of covering our bodies—head to toe—in layers of warm clothing. My skin had become parched. We looked absurd, brushing against fleeces, scrambling for camera bags and yanking at the straps of our life vests. We would vacuum our clothes of any invasive particles and disembark onto Zodiacs (inflatable rafts) in groups of eight to explore a corner of the continent.
Once we stopped to see a seal eating another seal; another time we were suddenly surrounded by colonies of gentoo penguins. We spotted a shipwreck lodged in rock, and imagined the self-contained life of those posted at research stations pre-war. Everything was surreal, ungraspable, cosmic. On one landing, we saw a patch of green—Antarctic lichen—and it reminded us that we were on Earth. We hadn’t seen green in days.
Disturbances at a distance
Later, when I visited my library to scour maps of Antarctica, the index read: “The World; Africa, Asia, Middle East, E. Asia, Europe, U.S.A., Pacific; Moon, Mars and Antarctica.” The continent has been called a “White Mars” and this is not an exaggeration: it is notoriously the coldest, driest, windiest landmass, 98 per cent of which is covered in ice. Even in the summer, the average temperature is -27°C. Its extremes manifest in its fauna as well: the largest terrestrial animal is a midge, a wingless insect that has the tiniest genome ever sequenced. There are no indigenous people, and therefore no government, culture, history or art.
In fact, the geopolitics of the continent are not dissimilar to outer space, its laws bound only to an indeterminate Antarctic treaty—the first arms control established during the Cold War—banning activity that causes “harmful interferences” and promoting “peaceful exploration.” At Concordia Station, doctor and researcher Alexander Kumar noted that, “We are completely alone and isolated here from February to November. The French refer to people who over-winter here as Hivernauts, but unlike astronauts, we have no ‘mission control’.”
It’s far away, it’s cold, it’s uninhabitable. So why do we care? For one, because the poles function as a thermostat: the Earth retains heat at the Equator and loses it at the poles. The Arctic and the Antarctic regulate the temperature of the entire planet. It is also the container of about 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, while in the rest of the world, one person in eight does not have access to this resource. And also because its sublime beauty may be unlike anywhere else on Earth.
Like the realm of outer space, Antarctica is still being discovered. Its exploration is, in large part, funded by vested private interests looking for potential mines of diminishing natural resources. Climate change is causing a loss of land and sea ice, which will reveal new sources of oil, gas, minerals and arable land. Fishing for commercial purposes as well as for polar microbes that may be used in pharmaceuticals has begun. The acidification of the ocean threatens many species, including the stunning sea butterfly.
Metaphor in motion
Witnessing this fragile beauty under threat remains inaccessible to many travellers since it requires heavy resources and a will to leave only the lightest trace. When the treaty is renegotiated in 2048, Antarctica may depend entirely on the stories of a small handful of people: from the musings of the explorers’ logs and the measurements of a few scientists to the poet’s imagination.
One of those scientists was William Wales, an astronomer on James Cook’s Resolution, which crossed the Antarctic Circle three times in 1773. Wales later taught mathematics at Christ’s School in London, where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a pupil. It is perhaps no coincidence that Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, set in the Antarctic seas, speculates about this mysterious, seemingly supernatural place. A rime is both a crust of ice, and an archaic spelling of rhyme—a play on words that points to the artist’s search for the clarity of meaning, emerging out of the fog of language.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between
Antarctica is a place where the scientific gives way to the metaphysical and beauty blurs with terror.
Perhaps it is like a poem: tipping reality ever so slightly, then the symmetry, then again.
The Drake Passage is the ocean between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. The Antarctic Peninsula is the northern tip of the Antarctic continent, which contains the South Pole.
British Airways has daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Buenos Aires, with a stopover in a European gateway city like London or Madrid. No transit visa is required if the traveller holds a U.S. visa.
From Buenos Aires, there are three daily flights to the southernmost city of Argentina, Ushuaia. A morning flight is preferred, so that you can purchase last minute gear items in Ushuaia before boarding the ship at the harbour to set sail late afternoon.
Indians can apply for visa at the Embassy of Argentina in Delhi (eindi.cancilleria.gov.ar/en) or the consulate office in Mumbai (www.cgmum.mrecic.gov.ar/en). The visa application form can be downloaded from eindi.mrecic.gov.ar/en. The application must be submitted in person, and an interview is mandatory. The visa is free for Indian tourists but the process takes about 21 working days.
Buenos Aires has a few small hotels in vibrant neighbourhoods and a few more business-ready five star hotels. Usually, the ship offers a package that includes the latter, but if you prefer something quaint at your own cost, head to The Clubhouse (clubhouseba.com) in the young, hip Palermo or the home (www.homebuenosaires.com/en), a French-Scandanavian inspired boutique hotel.
NEED TO KNOW
– The writer travelled to Antarctica with Ibex Expeditions (www.ibexexpeditions.com; 10-day expedition from $6,000/Rs3,90,390).
-The ship provides the vital outer shell—a thick water- and wind-proof jacket—and waterproof boots. Base and mid layers are for you to arrange. A good sun cream and polarised sunglasses are essential.
– Travelling in Nov-Dec is recommended for the lovely night skies, and Jan-March is a good time to see the whales.
– You cannot take luggage heavier than 15 kg each plus a handbag aboard, but you can leave a bag in Buenos Aires and consolidate.
– Natural soaps are recommended as the expedition is 100% Leave No Trace.
– Acupuncture sea bands and homeopathy is highly recommended for sea-sickness.
Antarctica: Secrets of the Southern Continent, edited by David McGonigal is a large, coffee-table book so you can’t take it with you, but it covers everything from the place’s history to its current status and details of penguins, glaciers, and albatross.
We Mammals in Hospitable Times has some surreal poems that are a result of the six weeks Jynne Dilling Martin spent in Antarctica.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole is a first-hand account of the ill-fated expedition. It’s lyrical, foreboding and written with an attention to storytelling.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing recounts the most famous Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton’s fatal journey to the South Pole.