February 2018, the ice-rated expedition ship Hebridean Sky, 110 passengers and 70 crew, throttles up the Beagle Channel out of Ushuaia at the southern tip of Patagonia. Anticipation and, yes, trepidation hang in the air. Just ahead, a wild and woolly 48-hour, 620-mile crossing of the Drake Passage en route to the peninsular pinkie finger of Antarctica.
In the Drake Passage, average depth over 11,000′, where the Pacific, Atlantic and Southern oceans converge, the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current is funneled west to east at a staggering 125 – 200 million cubic feet per second, more than 100 times the flow of all rivers on the planet.
Add the heat-driven, low pressure cyclonic systems that sweep through from the Pacific one after another with 50-knot winds and 30′ seas, and it becomes a veritable spin cycle for ships, the “Drake Shake,” one of the most treacherous bodies of water in the world.
One can fly in two hours across to Chile’s Frei Station on King George Island, and during the Antarctic summer, October through February, when storms blow through less often, the Passage can be smooth as glass, the “Drake Lake.”
But when the Drake is shaking, it becomes a rite of passage. A few will not get out of their bunks for two days, only a third will make it to breakfast after the first night at sea, most will be on motion meds, all careening left and right in passageways, lunging for handholds. Earning their sea legs and the price of admission to Antarctica.
Still, in the end what sticks in memory is not mal de mer, but the primal beauty, the awe-inspiring magnificence of the sea alive with spray, foam and howling wind, bracing and invigorating, and a sense of coming from one place, crossing another and arriving in a third, now travelers, no longer mere tourists.
On the morning of day 3, the Hebridean Sky eases into the lee of Anvers Island off the Peninsula’s west coast. No more shake, now soft breezes and flat water, ideal for zodiac excursions.
Invented in 50’s by French Navy officer and biologist Alain Bombard, and popularized by Jacques Costeau, the rugged, inflatable, 10 – 12 person Zodiac is tailor-made for exploring open ice and landings inaccessible to large boats.
First stop, Neko Harbour, named for the Scottish whaler that plied these waters between 1911 and 1924, supports a colony of 250 pairs of Gentoo penguins.
With bright red bills, orange feet, distinctive white patches over their eyes, and long tails that sweep from side to side as they walk, gentoos are, in a word, adorable.
Gentoos mate for life – up to 15 years – and return to the same breeding spot and build a new nest every year, sharing egg-sitting duties and raising two chicks at a time. An heir and necessary spare, as gentoos are a featured menu item for orcas, sea lions and leopard seals, and their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to skuas, petrels and gulls, which also breed on Neko.
Although there are an estimated 380,000 nesting pairs in the world, gentoos are now listed as “near threatened” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of endangered species.
Next, the majestic Lemaire Channel. Steep sheltering cliffs press in port and starboard as it runs just seven miles between Booth Island and the western shore of the Antarctic mainland, slowly unreeling enchanting vistas and earning its moniker, “Kodak Gap.” For many the single most sublime, memorable place in Antarctica.
In winter, Lemaire is often ice-blocked, impassible, but in summer it is dotted with chunks of ice, some big, most small, broken off a glacier and spilled into the sea, frozen fresh water floating in a saltwater sea.
An iceberg worthy of the name, per NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), must stand at least 16′ above sea level, be 98′ to 164′ thick – they are bottom-heavy, 90% below the waterline – and have a surface area of at least 5,381 square feet, dwarfing the Hebridean Sky. They can take a decade to melt.
Smaller bergs are classified as “bergy bits” the size of a house, floating at least 3′ above sea level, or as “growlers,” icy grand pianos lying almost submerged like hull-splitting mines in the path of unwary mariners.
Glacier ice is full of tiny air bubbles, which refract and scatter light in equal wavelengths, making ice appear white. But if ice is compressed, light at the red end of the spectrum is absorbed, rendering it blue.
Magical, a cyan bath in a French Blue sea.
Lemaire Channel bears the name of Charles Lemaire, courtesy of fellow Belgian, Adiren Gerlache, who first traversed it in 1889 on the RV Belgica with his first mate, Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 would be the first man to the South Pole. Lemaire was an odd choice, because he never set foot in Antarctica.
Lemaire did explore the Belgian Congo, and later became commissioner of Equator District of the Congo Free State, in short an administrator for King Leopold I in what was the most brutal of all colonial regimes in Africa. For failing to meet quotas in the extraction of diamonds, ivory and, especially, rubber, entire villages were terrorized. Lemaire himself wrote to Leopold, “To gather rubber in the district, one must cut off hands, noses and ears.” Surely this beautiful channel deserves a better namesake.
Less than 20 sea miles south is Ukraine’s Vernadsky Research Base on Galindez Island, previously the British Faraday Station, established 1947.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Russia, true to form, kept all USSR bases in Antarctica. So in 1996, after opening a larger base at Rothera 300 km farther south, the British transferred Faraday, complete with its cozy wood-paneled bar and billiard table, the southernmost pub in the world, to Ukraine for one pound sterling.
Since Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine on February 22, 2022, the dozen Ukrainian scientists are marooned at Vernadsky. Nearing the end of his one-year tour, geophysicist Yan Bakhmat is at a crossroads, his family fled Kharkiv for Poland and professors at the institute where he trained joined territorial defense units.
In a telephone call with the Guardian, he said, “You realize that you have nowhere to return, all you can do is turn yourself to a new reality, your life is divided into before and after, you can only live through it thousands of kilometers away from everything and everyone you know and love.”
Every year Ukrainian polar scientists take part, along with 35,000 other runners around the world, in the “Marathon No One Wants To Run,” to draw attention to Russian aggression and the survival marathon that Ukrainian people run every day with no finish line in sight. It starts on the same day as the New York City Marathon, but in the Ukrainian village of Niu-York, which during the first Russian invasion in 2014 was only a mile from the Donetsk front line.
Just north of the Antarctic Circle in the Briscoe Islands is Crystal Sound. If Lemaire Channel is a mesmerizing telescope into Antarctica, Crystal Sound is its IMAX, vast and awe-inspiring, mammoth ship bergs in a sea of brash ice, fragments, wreckage, of colliding floes.
Eight days into the 13-day voyage, one wonders, so one asks, “Curious, can it be that we have been out here for more than a week without a single word about climate change?”
Expedition staff: “We have to walk a fine line, some people don’t believe in global warming.” Jaw-dropping when ice sheets as big as Rhode Island are sluffing off into the sea. One answers, “Forget the politics, just present the science.”
Because compelling science it is. Year after year, air is trapped, preserved, in bubbles inside the ice, and ice cores drilled from up to 3 kilometers down confirm that current levels of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane are 50% higher than before the industrial revolution, and increasing 15 ppm every six years, a rate unprecedented in the last 800,000 years.
Climatologists, British and Ukrainian, meticulously logging temperatures at Faraday/Vernadsky since 1947, have recorded an average increase of 0.6°C (1.1°F) every decade, total 3°C, 5.4°F, over the last 50 years, much faster than the worldwide rate, 2°F since 1880.
Antarctica’s rapidly melting ice sheet is now pouring more than 200 billion tons of ice into the ocean annually and raising sea levels a half-millimeter every year, three times the rate just ten years ago.
But some don’t believe in global warming.
Heading home, crossing the now placid Drake, the inevitable question comes, will this magical, soul-filling land, its snow, ice, seals and gentoos, be lost to the world, preserved only in photographs and memory?
All photos by J. MacLeod except otherwise labeled.