All photos by Jo Stewart
Lots of folks fantasize about “getting away from it all,” but few actually put their money where their mouths are. Backpacking in Europe or Southeast Asia or fucking off to some tropical island for some guidebook-approved relaxation might be a nice change of pace, but the bottom line is you’re still surrounded by people and all the problems that come with them. If you curse society long enough, however, the universe will provide you with an escape route, should you want to take it—or at least it did in my case, when I was offered the opportunity to work on a yacht that was filming a documentary in Antarctica.
I immediately said yes, of course, imagining the majestic sweeps of ice and rock and sea, the killer whales swimming freely, the penguins frolicking in landscapes so picturesque they could be accompanied by Morgan Freeman’s narration. But the reality of living on the massive, isolated seventh continent is very different from the glacial fantasy. Yes, there’s otherworldly beauty but there’s also the odd, the cruel, and the outright terrifying things that would never be found in any travel brochure. Some days, the soundtrack to Antarctica is Sigur Rós, on others, it’s a wounded seal barking on a frigid rocky outcrop. Here are some details of my trip that won’t make it into any nature films.
For many, the trek to Antarctica involves sailing from the southern tip of South America and crossing the Drake Passage, a.k.a., “the Drake,” which is known for whipping up some of the roughest seas on the planet. Just for the record: I hate the Drake. Most travellers get to experience the passage from a comfy cruise ship with an icebreaker hull (still not exactly a picnic), but if you’re in a smaller working yacht, as I was, it’s a whole different kettle of krill. In storms, these yachts lurch, roll, and shake so violently that eating is futile given the inevitable seasickness, sleep is nearly impossible, and a simple task like dressing yourself is pure slapstick. Being surrounded by a churning, featureless gray-black monster that has no regard for your life is a sobering experience for a land dweller.
I was on a bunk with a porthole, so this was my average morning wake-up call:
While I’m personally not prone to anxious thinking, conditions here breed morbid fantasies: ominous fog banks, white-capped waves, freezing, face-shredding winds capable of knocking you off your feet with no warning. In weather like that, your access to medical treatment is limited and beyond your control—and when something like a broken leg could be deadly, thoughts of injury (and improvised surgeries inside a storm-tossed boat) are never far from your mind.
I also occasionally worried the ship would sink, fears that were no doubt exacerbated by the visible wrecks we passed:
They acted as a reminder about the dangers that lurk in the white wilderness and the knee-weakening risks taken by the badass seafarers of yesteryear—imagine navigating these waters without radar. Boats can capsize, burn, hit icebergs, or get lost. One yacht last year sank after hitting a whale. (After visiting abandoned whaling stations and seeing the rusted remnants of devices made to process blubber and whale parts, I understand why these giant sea mammals might not be too friendly towards ships.) The spooky, abandoned detritus includes more than just boats—wreckage of an Air New Zealand plane which crashed into Mount Erebus in 1979 is still visible. Despite extensive recovery efforts, most of the plane (and some of what remains of the passengers) are still wedged in the mountain, cryogenically laid to rest for an icy eternity.
Major props to this little guy for standing still while I took a photo, despite having half his guts ripped out by a leopard seal not too long before. Chinstrap penguins are accommodating like that, unlike their cousins the King Penguins. In Fortuna Bay, I witnessed a gang of them slap a baby fur seal before moving on as if nothing happened. No one takes care of business like the King Penguin mafia.
But don’t feel sorry for the fur seal. Considered the puppy dogs of the seal world, I found out they were more Cujo than Lassie when one of them came running straight at me, forcing me to run for the hills. They only look shy.
This guy, on the other hand, posed like a model who knew which angle was his best:
He looks sexy but dangerous, doesn't he? The James Dean of seals.
Obviously whoever built Trinity Church on King George Island hadn’t heard the old sailor’s adage, “Below 50 degrees south there is no law; below 60 degrees south there is no God.” This little slice of Russian Orthodoxy is maintained by a priest year-round, and he does such a good job it even has a church-like smell—that unmistakable potpourri of candles, incense, guilt, and shame. That’s an impressive feat given the funk of penguin vomit and seal excrement almost constantly hanging in the air in Antartica.
It’s a lovely place of worship, but it would also be the perfect spot to film The Omen on Ice.
There are signs everywhere. It’s an Antarctic joke that gets played out over and over in different languages—well, maybe it’s not so much a “joke” as it is a cruel reminder that you are a long ways away from anywhere that resembles home.
Aww… Cute fur seals again! In the background, however, you’ll notice what look suspiciously like bloated reindeer corpses. South Georgia Island used to be home to thousands of transplanted reindeer that constituted the southernmost herd in the world. “Used to” being the operative words, because a reindeer eradication program has ended the non-native beasts' reign—herders have been shipped in to get rid of them, and they will keep going until they have slaughtered every last Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Blitzen on the island.
The Whaling Stations
With its ramshackle buildings, sheds, and doors leading into black holes, the whaling settlement of Grytviken is the perfect place for an ill-fated game of hide-and-seek. It also features a creepy church and a creepy cemetery that is the final resting place of some of Antarctica’s most intrepid explorers. Also chains:
Hollywood producers take note: It’s a pain to get to, but it ticks every box for your next slasher/torture porn franchise.
There are towering behemoths of ancient ice in Antarctica, but there are also football fields of floating chunks that make sailing a real pain. The outboard motor on our (inflatable) zodiac boat stopped working a few times thanks to unprecedented amounts of sea ice present during the last Antarctic summer—it was kind of like an old blender labouring under the strain of being forced to mix one too many margaritas.
Much respect is due to the upstanding people of Poland’s Arctowski Research Station on King George Island. While the fancy folk on McMurdo are living it up with soft-serve ice cream machines and hydroponic vegetables, these guys are pumping iron Dolph Lundgren-style in a Cold-War-era gym, complete with some very old instructional posters:
What’s surprising is that base life is remarkably similar to life elsewhere. Of course, there’s desperation and isolation, but it’s not so much more than you’d find in any nightclub in any city in the world. Base-dwellers display the same behaviors people do elsewhere when they have time to kill: vodka-drinking contests worthy of frat houses, arguments over the music selection that inevitably turn into arm-wrestling contests.
Yes, there are stories of people going nuts, and these are told and retold until they achieve the status of legend. Here’s one: According to Antarctic folklore, a doctor was looking forward to going home after a long stint on an Argentine base. When the replacement crew arrived, however he was told that there was no doctor to replace him, which meant that he wouldn’t be going home for another year. So he did what any upstanding member of the medical fraternity would do and burned the base down.
If that sounds a bit grim, then spare a thought for the men who used to work on the British base known as Port Lockroy, or “Base A.” Times were tough down there in the 1950s. This is an example of Antarctic porn from the era:
I believe that is meant to be Jayne Mansfield. And this is all that’s left of Elizabeth Taylor:
(In fairness, it’s still a better rendition of her than Lindsay Lohan’s turn in the made-for-TV turkey, Liz & Dick.)
Antarctica is known as a place of extremes: extreme temperatures, extreme isolation, extreme people. But it’s also a place of extreme emotion. The lows are subterranean—sometimes it feels like you’ve arrived at the watery gates of hell. But the highs are stratospheric. There’s no better continent for a gin and tonic on ice(berg) and a barbecue on the back of the boat.
More journeys to strange places: