Each step forward was followed by a distinctive squeak as my boots pressed into the freshly laid snow. With every breath I could feel the cold air pass through my lungs and as I exhaled, a cloud of mist wasn’t far behind. I placed my sunglasses on my toque and stared forward, this was something I had to see with my own eyes. Before me was an immensity of snow and ice so profound I had a hard time believing I was actually walking on Terra Australis, the unknown land of the south.
I have been to some interesting places over the last ten years including three trips north of the Arctic Circle, once in the Northwest Territories and twice in Alaska. I have also visited Labrador in the middle of the winter but from all my travels, I have never experienced the Polar Regions, that is, until Discovery Channel called me with an offer to head south as a camera assistant for the show Might Ships to document a brilliant new ship called Le Boreal.
When you tell someone you are heading to Antarctica it never fails to impress, even when you try to tell it modestly. But let’s be realistic, these days the defining factor of getting to Antarctica is not decided by ones impulse to explore or the ability to raise resources for an expedition. Antarctica maybe the hardest continent to get too, but deep pockets and a couple of open weeks on the calendar are the true deciding factors these days.
Our primary destination was the Antarctic Peninsula, a mountainous volcanic extension that reaches off the continental shelf extending towards southern Patagonia. If you were to follow the Peninsula south, you would eventually reach an entire continent laced under a labyrinth of ice – the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth. This landscape is dominated by the Antarctic ice sheet, which covers 98% of the entire continent. To put in perspective, the Antarctic ice sheet is bigger than all of Europe with an average thickness of 1.6 km that holds over 60% of all the fresh water on Earth.
My circumstance found myself roughing it on Le Boreal, an Italian crafted, luxury yacht that was embarking on its maiden voyage for Antarctica. Most of the people on the voyage were double if not triple my age and almost everyone were French. The 15-day cruise was filled with fine cuisine and immaculate comfort, something new for me as oatmeal and a smelly sleeping bag has historically worked just fine.
The journey began from Buenos Aires, Argentina with scheduled stops in South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. When we arrived to land the entire ship embarked by taking guided zodiac trips across semi-dangerous open-ocean. I often sat at the bow, which resulted in embracing a couple of good soakers of cold salt water but as cold as I got, I found it pretty easy to deal with because I knew a warm shower was never that far away. Overall, the experience was incredible. Seeing tubular icebergs float by, to cruising past entire mountain ranges soaked up in ice and snow, and of course walking on Terra Australis with my own two feet was a highlight I will not soon forget.
Yet, as cold and frozen as the Antarctic Peninsula appeared, I knew my senses had been deceived. In the past 70 years, over 90% of the 244 glaciers located along the Peninsula have begun retreating. We know this because there has been a continuous scientific presence that has thoroughly documented the endless fiords and islands that are filled with now retreating glaciers. Forget even debating about what is causing this warming, there is no arguing that the ice of Antarctica is beginning to melt away, an unimaginable thought only a decade ago. Let’s forget about the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies or the snows of Kilimanjaro because these places are as good as gone. The same goes with the glaciers of the Himalayas, Andes, and the Alps, because if the coldest place on earth is experiencing rapid melting relative to geological time, all bets are off.
My trip south brought me face to face with an unfathomable abundance of penguins, seals, and my first ever sighting of a humped back whale. As wild as this place still is and as much as the animals made my trip, ultimately I cannot help but feel guilty as I know this ecosystem is in for a shock; the ice kingdom has started to melt away. Antarctica
was incredible for so many reasons but none as relevant as to prove to me how our
collective future hangs in a precarious balance. Get ready for an interesting ride.
See you on the water,
p.s. http://brettonthewater.com/ is now online. You can view pictures from Antarctica at http://picasaweb.google.com/jbrettrogers/SouthGeorgiaAndAntarctica#