A pilot's once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Antarctica
Each week we profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.
By Houston-based 737 Captain Charles Scott Williams
Antarctica is a desolate, remote part of the planet that intrigued me, and with the help of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, arrangements were made, and the trip was a go. Buenos Aires was the midpoint of a journey to the bottom of the world. From Buenos Aires, a charter flight took my wife and me to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we met our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, for the Drake Passage crossing to Antarctica. The reputation of rough seas across the Drake Passage preceded it and a conversation with my next door neighbor, a United States Navy veteran who had sailed this oceanic region in an aircraft carrier, didn't help ward off my apprehension of said rough seas. He told me of waves that equaled the height of his ship's flight deck. The Explorer, at 6,471 tons, is tiny in comparison to an aircraft carrier, and I envisioned bobbing like a cork on the rough seas of the Drake Passage. As it turned out, the seas provided wave heights of approximately 15 feet, which was an interesting ride, but the timing of the crossing was such that we crossed the majority of the Passage while we slept.
I awoke to bright sunshine and calm waters with icebergs floating all around. Like an excited child on Christmas morning, I lept from my bed and went to the window straight away as I woke up my wife to see this new world. Shortly thereafter, I realized that it was still only 3 a.m., as the sun shines in Antarctica for more than twenty-two hours per day during the Southern Hemisphere summer. The further south we sailed, the longer the sun kept us company. Soon we saw floating sheets of ice in the distance, adorned with black dots, that on closer inspection, turned out to be penguins. In the days to come, the ship would drop anchor and we would ride in small boats called Zodiacs from the Explorer to shore and back. Attire included life vests that we donned just as an executive wears a coat and tie to the office. As it was the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica, we were given parkas with patches attached with Sir Shackleton's image. The mud room of the Explorer is the boarding point to the Zodiacs for trips to shore for hiking, and on our first foray ashore we geared up with waterproof boots, parkas with liners and gloves. Topping this all off was the life vest to add to the bulky clothing. It didn't take long waiting in the mud room to realize that this clothing makes you sweat quite readily if you are not outside in the cold Antarctic air. Upon landing, we hiked and saw thousands of nesting penguins with skua birds flying about looking for penguin eggs to steal. Penguins use stones to build their nests to protect the eggs and provide a structure while lying on the eggs to incubate them. One second of penguin inattention led to a skua bird flying off with the distracted penguin's egg.
Nature can be cruel, but this is the harsh survival reality of Antarctica. The skua landed a few feet away, broke the egg and had lunch, while a penguin family will wait another season to begin again their quest to reproduce. Another day on the exploration was spent sailing in a Zodiac looking at the different ice formations and bergs floating in the waters. To see a massive block of floating ice crack into two pieces is impressive to say the least, as well as the sound of a section of glacier breaking off, which sends explosive echoes off the surrounding mountains. Thousands of tons of glacial ice hitting the water below sends out a huge propagation wave that ripples across the ocean surface. As we toured in the Zodiac, we came across a crab-eating seal that was sunning atop a small ice sheet. Later in our exploration, we saw a pod of killer whales, 100 meters off the bow.
During the journey, I observed spectacular lenticular clouds above distant mountains that exceeded in size and structure those viewed in the Rocky Mountains in North America.
Our fellow passengers were people from all walks of life, many retired, making my wife I the second-youngest couple on the ship. One of our stops was Port Lockroy, a former English weather station from World War II. The tiny gift shop at the fort offered postcards that could be sent back to the U.S. via the Falkland Islands and then finally on to friends and relatives. The postal trip took our cards about three months! One of the unique qualities of the Explorer is that of limited ice-breaking capability. As we sailed slowly through ice-infested waters, the impact of smaller sheets of ice could be felt through the entire ship as the bow made contact and either moved the ice out of the way or split the ice in half, thus clearing the path for forward movement. On more than one occasion, the Explorer's bow was wedged into sea ice and after inspection, passengers were allowed to walk on "frozen ocean." In my past military service, I was based in Minot, North Dakota, and thought that I was at the end of the world. If you wanted to get away from it all, just go to Minot, and you'd nearly be there. After standing on frozen ocean at the bottom of the world in Antarctica, the relativity of getting away from it all was set to a much higher standard of desolation.
My waterproof boots and thick socks kept my feet warm, and the parka I wore did the same for my upper body. The cold air made my breath visible standing on the ice and taking it all in. I turned about slowly and peering into the empty distance, could hear only the blowing wind. That peaceful quiet magnified the remoteness and isolation of this special place. It's one thing to go to the edge of civilization for a peek, but I did so knowing that my "home away from home," the Explorer, was only about 200 meters away.
Although most folks consider Antarctica a lifeless place, to the contrary, Antarctica thrives with life that fights for survival every day. The life forms in Antarctica have adapted to the subzero temperatures and howling winds that plummet the chill factor much lower. One such life form is that of lichens, an orange growth that can be seen clinging to the rocks of the mountains that towered above. We were told that a sample of this was sent into the hard vacuum of space on a satellite and left for an extended period. Once retrieved, the lichens were still alive! Penguins "queue up," or stand in line to enter the water like paratroopers jammed together awaiting the green light that tells them to jump.
These Antarctic birds do so to increase their chance of survival should a crab-eating seal or other predator lie waiting beneath the water for their arrival. One after another, they dive from shore into the ocean to forage for food. Having snorkeled in The Galapagos Islands, I've seen the aquadynamic shape of a penguin zip past my dive mask and can attest to their rapid maneuverability and very capable velocity. These attributes are often called upon out of necessity to survive when a penguin is trying to "jink" away from or outrun a predator that is eyeing it as a meal.
For much of the trip, there was no, or very limited, communications with the rest of the planet. It was nice being "off line" and having no cell phone or computer beckoning my attention. This left one's focus on just being there and taking it all in. Time waits for no one, and, as the days passed, the time eventually came for us to set sail to the north for the roller coaster ride back across the Drake Passage. I stood on the fantail and took a last look aft as our compass was pointed north for Ushuaia and we left Antarctica in our wake. The light of the nighttime faded as we moved further north and back to the reality of our lives that had been held at bay briefly by the magic of Antarctica.