A visit to the Antarctica is a life changing experience. I went to Antarctica. There aren’t any reliable records, but some guys on the ship were talking and they estimated that 500,000 people have been to Antarctica, starting with John Davis in 1821. When one puts it like that, it doesn’t seem like a very exclusive club. Still, it’s an entire continent and more people than that live in Manhattan below 34th Street. Antarctica works as a destination for those looking to get away from it all. I have had dreams of going to extreme latitudes, where cardinal directions converge and traditional references of location become meaningless.
Our ship, the Ocean Diamond, departed from Ushuaia on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego and crossed the Drake Passage. A friend cautioned me that there were 40 foot swells and I needed to anticipate seasickness. I was well-stocked with both Dramamine and Bonine. Dispensers of anti-bacterial soap were placed on each corner to help prevent the more mundane illnesses that cruise ships are notorious for. I immediately got sick anyway and spent the days at sea locked in my cabin, hallucinating to myself. When it came time to get out and walk on the continent, I dragged myself out of bed. Considering the gobs of cash the trip cost and the time off work, this was probably my one lifetime chance and I needed to show up for it.
The crew landed beforehand to scout the location. They cut steps into the ice for the landing and planted red flags to bind the area they designated as safe for exploration. On board the ship we brushed our clothes and washed our boots in a pink chemical bath meant to kill any tiny living things we might unwittingly transport to the pristine continent. The possibility that a stray seed could find its way fertile through the granola bar processing plant, stick to a shoe, revive itself in the glacial ice, and wreak havoc upon a landmass that is, to say the least, unfriendly to flora seems remote, but it was the rule and I followed it.
We boarded Zodiac brand rigid-hulled inflatable boats and motored across fields of floating ice. Seals were lying on some of the ice floes. They appear as meaningless, immobile globs. One raised its head to look at us, but didn’t seem as alarmed as I would be if something so alien approached me. Perhaps a life spent dodging killer whales leaves a creature insensible to the threat of weak little bipeds that need extrinsic insulation to simply tolerate the coolness of the air. We passed a metal hull of a boat that was sticking out of the water. It had sunk there a century ago and hadn’t been moved.
We stepped off the Zodiac and onto the continent near some colonies of Adelie penguins. Penguins are adorable because they waddle like human infants, which we are programmed to aww at. They’re not as lumpy and bald as human babies, but like babies they do live in their own filth. Penguin colonies are splotches of ochre on the ice.
The ochre is the penguin guano that stinks enough to navigate to by smell in case of white-out conditions, though I’ve never heard anyone mention that as the reason they wallow in it indifferently. It seems unsanitary to me, but hey, it takes all kinds. The ship’s ornithologist watched over to make sure we didn’t get closer than ten feet to the birds. It’s one of those rules without any direct purpose—nobody present on the trip was irresponsible enough to throttle a penguin, and the folk wisdom about mothers abandoning their young because they smell like humans is one of those kashrut-style dicta to spare simpletons the difficulty of grasping the particulars of what is dangerous about a situation. It was a dictum routinely disobeyed. For the penguins’ part, they paid us no mind. They walked by or slid by on their bellies without a glance toward us, perhaps hopping on and off our feet like we were rocks.
I was feeling better, but still feverish. I was suffocating under layers of merino wool and silk. I took off my parka, pushed my sleeves up, and zipped my sweater down to my collar. Ski poles were provided to help climb a slope. There wasn’t a square inch of flat ground to be seen. I’m not graceful under the best of circumstances, so climbing up a steep incline covered in a foot of snow was a challenge. I had sit and rest several times and occasionally take pictures of couples, which I resented.
At the summit, a group of Chinese was gathered. They had planted a flag of unknown meaning. Some of the English-speaking folks speculated about it, but nobody knew. I parked myself beneath the flag and ate handfuls of snow. It was as pure as anything, melted fast, and tasted sweet. The view was desolate and beautiful. I took a picture that won me a $25 gift card from World of Beer. I didn’t get many pictures because my camera’s memory card was full from my time in Argentina. I tried not to fret about it. National Geographic already took all the best pictures of Antarctica. My purpose was to just look.
After viewing, I descended the slippery slope. As I slowly made my way down, testing every footfall for purchase, our expedition leader came tramping uphill with the surefootedness of an ibex. He’s an older man who has spent years on bases in the Antarctic. He laughed in my face as he passed me. Down by the water, people were taking the “polar plunge”, swimming around in the ocean that was right around zero centigrade (seawater doesn’t freeze until a couple degrees below). Everyone hooted and hollered and made faces. I passed on the opportunity. I wasn’t afraid of the cold water but of stripping down and being in the center of attention.
The time came to get back on the Zodiac and return to the ship. They didn’t want to let me on the boat without my parka on, though they didn’t really have a reason. A thing always done becomes law de facto. I pleaded and they ceded. Some of the other passengers asked me for contact information and I gave it to them, but they never contacted me. It was a big important experience at the time, but normal life resumes and memories don’t end up counting for much.