When I made Antarctica the examination continent of my choice in 1988, it was because I did not have to bother with people. I only got interested in people later, but back then I preferred the simplicity of a seismogram. Of course studying Antarctica for a while like this, my perception became that all people must be explorers. And as the people I met on the streets around me in Cologne were not explorers, I concluded that there is something wrong with them. Only years later, I figured out that there was actually something wrong with me. In Werner Herzog's fascinating movie "Begegnungen am Ende der Welt" (Encounters at the End of the World), he visits Antarctica exactly to find out what people are there. An idea I would not have. In an interview by Herzog with a linguist who worked in a greenhouse on the Ross Ice Shelf (a place where you may not expect a linguist to find work), he put it in the way that it is a natural consequence that people with similay wavelength mingle in Antarctica: all those who do not have a grip on the planet, slide down and meet somewhere around the South Pole.
There are two feasible ways to travel to Antarctica: one is to fly in with a military plane from New Zealand to the Ross Ice Shelf, the other is to cross the Drake Passage by ship and enter from the "North". Of course what I call "North" now is not more North than any other coastal location of the continent, because the South Pole is just about in the middle - so in any direction you move away from the Pole, you move North. But the "North" I mean, is according to the convention to point the Antarctic Map upwards into the direction of 0 Degrees. As the Ross Ice Shelf requires more time and is less disverse in terms of landscape, the entrance over the Antarctic Peninsula is the better choice this time.
We boarded the Russian research vessel Akademik Ioffe on November 8th. The ship belongs to the Shirnov Institute of Oceanography in Kaliningrad and is built for the purpose of "silent listening". It is a 117 meters, 6600 GRT ece strengthened vessel with two diesel engines at 7000 bhp and thrusters which manoeuvring in narrow and difficult conditions. It makes a maximum of 15 knots and has a cruizing speed of 13.5 knots. Water and fuel storage define an endurance of 60 days in polar waters. The major interest of the researchers using this ship is to observe underwater wildlife together with its sister ship the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. For this it is equipped with 15 kHz and 45 kHz echo-sounders, which have enormous antennas in the mud room. Russia is very famous for having a good overview on what is moving below the surface of the oceans and wildlife is for sure very interesting.
The first landing was on Half Moon Island on November 12th and there were a few things which became instantaneously clear. First of all, this is a beautiful place, which is so amazing that no photographer, no painter and not even a poet may capture it. Secondly, this season is early spring in Antarctica and one of the earliest expeditions of this kind which is made there. This means the ice makes it not easy to find landing sites for the Zodiacs and sudden changes in weather can pack in a landing point very fast and you have to take off from another place again. The wind can pick up fast too and even the temperatures are moderate minus degrees, the wind chill can be a bit biting. Not just for people, but also for the camera, the ice landscape is an exposure nightmare. The Aperture priority setting simply did not figure out what to do with the light and I had to take all pictures in full manual and overexpose all pictures by 1 to 2 stops. Penguins are cute little guys, but that's about it. On Half Moon Island they were Chinstrap Penguins ducking down in the snow storm. Only later, when I saw an old recipie of Penguin breast with peanut butter in the British station Port Lockroy, my interest in Penguins rose again. But there were other birds, which I found fascinating. One of them is the Albatros. I am sure this is done already, but if I would have to construct planes, I would study the Albatross very carefully. It is for me a miracle of efficiency how these birds can follow the ship for days in the roughest weather conditions with no landing. And it seems so effortless.
The journey went further South passing through Orleans Strait into more protected waters. Still the surge can be freightening in a Zodiac, specially when you consider that falling into the -2 Degree Celsius salt water only leaves minutes to survive. I was told that the life vests are here called "mark vests", because you don't survive anyway, but they make it easier to find the bodies. Just going around a rock, can mean that the wind picks up so strongly that you have to suddenly withdraw. In our case around once the Akademik Ioffe left its location to pick up a Zodiac. The visibility was so low, that the ship was just gone. Now, these Zodiacs are the best boats in the world and have a 60 horsepower engine. So we were safe at all time, with radio connection to the bridge and an experienced expedition leader coordinating the move. But how must people like Shakelton and his crew have felt in their wooden nutshells? I found it still memorable to sit on a "rubber duck" in Antarctic waters, bouncing on the waves, and no ship in sight.
A breathtaking experience was when the Captain closed the bridge and prepared the ship to enter an island. Of course a ship can not enter an island I thought. But in this case it was "Deception Island", which looks like an island, but is a collapsed caldera which can be entered by a narrow opening. Inside the caldera are the remains of a whaling station and on shore there are hot springs. I was not aware of the extend of the whaling industry and how large was actually the dependency on whale oil which was used in oil lamps. In the long Antarctic hours I wanted to read Moby Dick again, but found that I did not have it on my Kindle. For a moment I thought of using my Iridium Satellite phone as a model and to download the book. This would have been the first copy of Moby Dick which would have reached Antarctica via space. And probably it would have also been the most expensive copy, so I dismissed the idea and downloaded it when back in terrestrial network coverage.
So far all landings were on islands North the Antarctic Peninsula. Then on November 16th I set my foot the first time on the Antarctic continent. I wanted to make it a memorable moment and before stepping out of the Zodiac I thought: "A big step for me, but a small step for mankind". It took me 25 years from the University textbook to finally come out here and have a look. And this time I only landed where the old explorers actually started their journeys, nearly a century ago. Antarctica is often called the earth's last wilderness. I remember as a student I was upset that no resource exploration is allowed here under the Antarctic Treaty. This meant no jobs down here. Back then I thought: "What's so special about these dull and boring penguins?"
Today I am grateful that Antarctica's beauty and fragile ecosystem has been protected. And I hope the world's hunger for resources does not change this. Well, not sure whether I am getting more wise or just old. This time I have no more 25 years to come back.