by Shane L. Larson
When I was young, my idle daydreams were filled with imagining what it would be like to explore otherwheres that were far from ordinary: the far reaches of space, the deeps of the oceans, and the remote wildernesses of Earth. I’m not sure what incited such daydreams, but they were certainly fueled by a healthy dose of documentary television. There is no doubt that Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau, and David Attenborough deeply wired a wonder for the vast wide world into my brain — even today I hear their voices in my head when I read or imagine writing about Nature’s awesome spectacle.
There is something deeply moving about places where Nature’s raw, awesome power and intricate beauty are on full display. The creativity of Nature is stunning, as is its ability to present us with mysteries that are beyond everyday human experience and (some days) beyond ordinary human comprehension. But there is something more about space, the sea, and the wilderness that gives one pause: Nature’s nearly unfathomable ability to be inhospitable to humans. Exploration and discovery in these realms isn’t just hard, it’s nigh on impossible. Nature could kill us dead without pause because our fragile bodies simply were never meant to be in these places. It’s like Nature is hiding secrets from us on purpose, defended by obstacles implacable and deadly; which of course, it is!
Being very much like children in the Universe, humans are not good at being told “No.” Over the years, we have thought deeply about how to venture into the deadly wilds of the Cosmos, and using some wits mixed with technology, have waded out into the danger zones. This inspires boundless joy to the young child still hiding in my brain, simultaneously inciting a deep longing to visit in the adult version of me that walks around.
As life wears on, it becomes clear that many of my childhood dreams of exploring become more remote, though not entirely. Telescopes in my backyard have provided many long hours of deep personal connection with the stars, planets and galaxies. It seems unlikely that I’ll be an astronaut at this point, but with friends and colleagues I have sent cameras and experiments of our own design to the edge of space.
Tragically, I did not learn to swim really until I was in college, and still struggle with concepts and skills like “treading water,” but I dearly love skimming over the surface of lakes and the ocean in a kayak, and I have for many years now been building amateur ROVs (“remotely operated vehicles”) — tethered robots that venture into the deep water with lights and cameras and sensors aplenty.
Though inhospitable and possibly deadly, the wildernesses of Earth are accesible. Virtually every place on the globe is accessible to humans today. Few places are pristine and untouched by our species, no matter how remote they may be from our cities, roads, and farms. The impact humans have had on the planet and the species we share it with is undeniable. That fact mixes strongly with youthful desires to see and visit the unknown wilds of the Earth and informs my current desperate desire to go and see these places.
So today, I am making good on one of my childhood dreams, and embarking on a journey to visit just briefly, Antarctica. The polar regions of Earth have always held a special place in my imagination — vast, desolate, remote, and fragile. They are the embodiment of something that is a common experience — winter — pushed to an extreme that is both beautiful and deadly. I’ve had the great fortune to travel northward to where the winter ice reaches its fingers southward, defining the boundaries of where polar bears roam. This is my first journey south.
Other than science bases, there are no permanent settlements in Antarctica — no roads, no cities, no infrastructure. Tourism there is limited to small, shipbourne expeditions with roughly a hundred or so passengers each. The seasonal advance and retreat of the ice around the continent limits visits to a few months during the Antarctic summer, which limits human impact and footprint (thought not entirely — here is a realization that humans are carrying new illnesses to penguins).
I’m making my journey under the care of National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions, aboard a ship called the National Geographic Explorer. The first small tourism trip to Antarctica was conducted by a Swedish explorer and entrepreneur named Lars-Eric Lindblad in 1966. He had the express purpose of taking small groups of people into the remote, beautiful regions of Earth, seeding what today is called “ecotourism.” He believed that giving people direct, personal, up-close experiences in the remote pristine corners of our planet would foster a deeper understanding of the need to protect and defend the natural world.
To make the journey, those of us on the expedition will first converge on Buenos Aries for a single afternoon and evening together. We’ll meet our expedition companions, have a briefing about the journey, and get to spend an evening in the city. The following day, a charter flight will take us to the southern port of Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, where we will board the National Geographic Explorer and begin a two day trek across the Drake Passage.
The Drake Passage can be calm, or treacherous — the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica can whip up stormy seas and choppy swells. While large and built for the ice, a ship the size of National Geographic Explorer is still going to feel the seas if they are rough and stormy; many who have made this journey before have suffered greatly during this part of the trip.
But after two days, we will emerge into the relative calm and shelter of the continental shelf along the Antarctic Peninsula. For the next 5 days or so, we will journey down the Peninsula, each day immersed in the grandeur of the ice, the rock, and the sea.
Undeniably, there is an element of me that screams to see Antarctica before it changes, irrevocably forever. Undeniably it has changed in our lifetimes, and those changes will only continue. But a stronger drive right now is the fact that you are here reading this blog — why should that matter? In the days before the Apollo 1 fire which took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, and eager reporter had asked them whether or not it was worth risking death to visit the Moon. Grissom eloquently replied, “If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.”
The last part resonates deeply with me. It is one thing to read books, and surf the web, and watch documentaries about the exotic reaches of Earth. It is quite another to be regaled with stories and raw, visceral descriptions of personal encounters from a real, live person. One develops a deep sense of how transformative an encounter with Nature can be when you see it in another person’s eyes and hear it in their voice, lilting and wistful as they remember in their mind’s eye.
It also echoes the desire and sentiment that Lars-Eric Lindblad had when he founded his expedition company — a steadfast belief that if you expose people to beauty and grandeur, that it changes the spirit, inspiring somewhere deep down an innate desire to protect and defend the wild, desolate places of the Earth. As a person who is fortunate enough to have this opportunity there is a deep desire to take that inspiration and share it.
On this journey, we will just reach the continent, where the Antarctic Peninsula stretches up toward Tierra del Fuego; the entire continent is vast beyond this, but beyond the scope of any single visit. It is possible to visit Antarctica as part of scientific expeditions, and someday I hope to visit for science! But for now, I am content to go as a citizen of Earth. In the past, I went north. I am about to embark for the first time (and I hope not the last) south.
More to report in part 2, after I return.
This post is the first in a short series to document a journey I made to Antarctica with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic in the late days of January 2020. The other posts in this series are:
Antarctica 01: Daydreams (this post)