I’m hardly the first physician to make a journey to the Antarctica. In fact, doctors have played an important role in Polar Exploration since its inception. One of the most important of the French explorers was Jean-Baptiste Charcot, a physician by training but explorer by temperament. His famous father Jean-Marie Charcot gave his name to diseases such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease and Charcot’s joint. The son gave his name to a barren western Antarctic Island.
Another famous polar explorer was Edward Wilson, a surgeon as well as avid naturalist whose vivid water colors illustrated the unique Antarctic environment. Robert Falcon Scott’s right hand man, he died in the same tent as Scott on the way back from their disappointing second place to the South Pole (though Wilson could claim to the first physician to achieve this goal). Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat them by scarcely a month, arriving at the pole on December 14, 1911. Coincidentally we were to be in Antarctic waters for the 90th anniversary of this event.
Even in modern times physicians are a must in this harsh and isolated environment. As recently as 1999, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, stationed in the American Amundsen-Scott South Polar base, had to diagnose and treat her own breast cancer.
Following in the footsteps of the physician polar explorers I found myself along with photographer John Haynes, winging my way to Buenos Aires, Argentina, on an Air Canada 767 early in December. We were en route to Tierra del Fuego, whose capital, Ushuaia, is the southernmost city in the world, a handy 1000 km from the Antarctic Peninsula. It is the gateway to the Antarctic and it is here we met MV Polar Star, the icebreaker that would bear us to the Antarctic subcontinent. Owned by Karlsen Shipping of Halifax, the vessel is skippered by veteran Nova Scotia Captain Cedric Guthrie. This was her maiden voyage into Antarctic waters.
We departed Ushuaia on December 10 and spent two days traversing the Beagle Channel and Drake Passage. Like Sir Francis Drake we encountered some rough weather our first day out, not an unusual occurrence in these waters. Unlike Drake, we were able to head for calmer waters and though passengers able to stomach breakfast were scarce, by supper we were up to a normal complement.
While crossing the Drake Passage we were given a thorough briefing by Polar Star’s scientific staff, including a review of the strict guidelines to protect the environment. A prize was offered to the first passenger to spot an iceberg. Won by an Australian passenger, the prize was very appropriately a bottle of Jost icewine, vinified in Nova Scotia. “I was really just looking for whales,” she said afterwards.
Our first landfall was on Cuverville Island, on the 12th of December, reached via Zodiac rafts. It was pouring rain! Expedition leader Dennis Mense said they’d never seen anything like it, but that it was likely a manifestation of global warming which has been affecting the area. This did not dampen our enthusiasm for visiting the hundreds of Gentoo penguins nesting on the island that amused us with their antics. Awkward little clowns on shore, these birds become nimble acrobats in the water.
Penguins are generally monogamous and mate for life. Several species build their nests from carefully selected pebbles. My rather idealistic view of these birds was demolished when I discovered that if a female penguin is nesting and her mate is away gathering food, she will trade her “favors” with a strange male in exchange for a particularly enticing pebble. Who would have thought to find the world’s oldest profession alive and well in Antarctica?
By afternoon the weather had cleared in time for a visit to Paradise Bay, our only stop on the Antarctic mainland. The Argentineans have maintained a station in this beautiful setting for many years. There is no activity yet at the base, named for war hero Almirante Brown. Their scientists will arrive later in the austral summer, which corresponds to our winter. In 1984 this base was burned by its doctor who, unable to face another season of isolation, thought it a good way to gain the attention of a passing ship.
Many of us passengers took the opportunity to climb a large hill behind the station for gorgeous views of the stunning inlet and glaciers, then slid penguin-like down the incline on our posteriors. After warming ourselves back at the ship with mugs of hot chocolate, we proceeded to a supper of thick Argentinean steaks, then most of us turned in early or headed to the lounge for a film on Antarctic wildlife.
The next morning we journeyed to Port Lockroy, a historic British base, which was founded in the early 1940s as part of Project Tabarin to monitor Nazi activity in the South Atlantic. It has now been restored as a museum for visitors, and guests can mail postcards or letters, which are postmarked British Antarctic Territories. They will even stamp your passport!
We were fortunate to get to this base at all. Pack ice blew in suddenly after a wind change, but here Polar Star’s ice breaking capability proved its worth. Like true polar explorers we landed directly on the ice, which we traversed on foot, stopping along the way to look at huge Crab-eater and Weddell seals which dotted the ice.
As well as welcoming guests, the Port Lockroy’s staff of two men and one woman carry out research on how tourism affects penguin behavior. Apparently, they say, about as much as it affects the pigeons at St. Mark’s in Venice. Not at all. Penguins here are so comfortable with humans that they nest by the front door and on the roof, and will wander in if it the door is left open.
I was not the first member of the Burden family to visit this base. My great-uncle Captain Eugene Burden skippered the Newfoundland vessel MV Trepassey as part of the British Antarctic Survey in 1946 and 1947. Besides carrying scientific teams, which mapped the last uncharted coastline in the world, his ship provisioned Port Lockroy and other British bases. In 1993 the British Antarctic Territories issued a 4 p. stamp depicting his vessel.
After departing Port Lockroy we continued further south along the Gerlache Strait. The hull hissed and thudded against ice pans, many an improbable blue in color due to the intense pressure of the glaciers from which they were calved. We entered the Lemaire Channel and high overhead tower icy mountains, intensely black sedimentary rock, laced with frozen glacial rivers, which tumble to the sea. With a loud crack an occasional new iceberg is born, falling in slow motion into the channel. A pod of Orca (killer whales) numbering a dozen or more arced in and out of the water on our starboard side. Minutes later, the ships first mate made another whale sighting, as two adults and a calf surfaced off the port bow of Polar Star, almost close enough to touch.
Heavy ice prevented us from heading further south to Petermann Island, where Charcot had been forced to over-winter in a cove in 1909. Not forgetting his medical roots, Charcot called the cove Port Circumcision! Instead we steamed back up the Gerlache Strait and north to Deception Island.
Through a narrow opening known as Neptune’s Bellows we actually sailed into the flooded crater of the active volcano, which comprises this island. It last exploded only thirty years ago, hurling huge lava bombs which destroyed several bases. Old whaling stations and a disused sea plane hanger stud the shore of the caldera. Steam rises and bubbles from portions of the shore where sea water is warmed by superheated volcanic rocks. It was here that we hoped to go for a dip in Antarctic waters, heated to a sultry 38 degrees Celsius. Alas, living up to the name “Deception”, high winds kept us from our planned landing. Instead we cruised back out The Bellows and headed north to Aitcho Island.
Aitcho was snow free, unlike our other stops, and we had ready access to Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin rookeries. The mild conditions had resulted in early hatching of chicks and many nests sported a pair of hungry offspring, trying to prompt mom or dad to regurgitate fish or krill into their mouths. Krill is a tiny crustacean, which is the life-blood of the Antarctic shores. Their red pigmentation can often be seen staining the white breasts of penguins.
Disappointed that we had missed our swim on Deception Island, three female passengers, Wendy, Leslie, Claire and I decided that we would take a dip off Aitcho, instead. Never mind that it was snowing or that water temperatures were 1.8 degrees Celsius. With penguins looking on, we shed our warm togs and took an icy dive into the frigid Antarctic Ocean. Quickly redressing we headed for a Zodiac raft and the ship.
This was our last stop before heading back to the Drake Passage. High seas once again greeted us, but surprisingly calmed as we approached notorious Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. Since daylight was almost continuous in the Antarctic we were gratified to finally see a glorious sunset, exquisitely prolonged by our southern latitude.
The cliffs of the Horn were rose tinted and the water glimmered pink and yellow. Clouds of molten gold silhouetted Giant Petrels and Black Browed Albatross, which danced across our vessel’s stern, singly and in pairs. Another passenger rushed by me, headed to the lounge. “Hey, you’re missing the movie,” he said.
“No,” I thought to myself, “you are.”
‘Cold blue’ staigue @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. some Rights Reserved.
George Burden and John Haynes at Port Lockroy © J. Haynes‘
‘Ushuaia’ Public Domain
Polar Star on the ice at Port Lockroy © J. Haynes
Lemaire Channel © G. Burden
George Burden and friend emerging from a dip in the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean © J. Haynes
Gentoo penguin and chicks, Aitcho Island © J. Haynes
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