DRAWN TO THE FROZEN SOUTH
As I sketch on the deck of the ship, I am struggling to stand upright. 300 miles from land, the rough dark blue seas of the two-mile-deep Drake Passage are rising and sinking to their notoriety. The strong wind is cold and after two days of seeing a horizon interrupted only by oversized breaking waves, it feels like we are on our own. But we’re not. The biggest bird in the world is effortlessly following our ship. The unflappable Albatross rarely beats its enormous but elegant wings, making our progress to the Antarctic seem laboured and cumbersome.
This lone, feathered gatekeeper seems to be welcoming our vessel to a special place. We have just crossed the Antarctic Convergence, an invisible border that marks the undersea battle of the relatively warm Atlantic waters with the near-freezing Southern Ocean. The temperature has quickly plummeted as we pierce the cold air bubble that surrounds, and protects, the Antarctic continent.
Unaffected by the cold or the gale, the graceful juvenile Wandering Albatross is inquisitively tracking our progress. Its 10ft wingspan is the longest in the world yet, as our ship climbs the 25ft swell, the bird skims the surface by inches using its knowledge of the rhythm of the surging white crests to avoid touching the sea. Its amazing ability to survive in this isolated, unforgiving and yet vulnerable environment is remarkable.
Vulnerability is a constant theme of my paintings, many of which feature the sadly shrinking Arctic icecap, so this chance to see its bigger more solid twin at the other end of the world is too good an opportunity to miss. I’ve suppressed my guilt of a rarely-taken flight to get to Argentina and am now very comfortably on board the luxurious 10,000 tonne ship Le Lyrial for the sailing to the white continent. This is Antarctic expedition lite.
One hundred years ago Sir Earnest Shackleton incredibly sailed a 22ft heavy wooden lifeboat 800 miles through these same massive seas to reach the safety of South Georgia. On the expansive deck of our rhythmically heaving ship I’m frozen, even with five protective layers on. I try to draw the albatross’ movements with one one hand briefly exposed. The instant cold on my ungloved fingers makes me struggle to understand how Shackleton and his five fellow polar explorers survived these angry and notoriously rough waters.
How any life survives in this remote, icy land is the constant question of the trip. After the long sailing we have our first views of the Antarctic peninsula and I am awe-struck by the size and apparent strength of this harsh region. Peak after peak of mile-high mountains cloaked in glaciers hundreds of feet thick rise out of the iceberg-dotted sea. The grandeur and scale of the whole land has a feeling of permanence. And yet it is so fragile. Every animal exists here on a knife edge, each one evolved to live on its own particularly slim spectrum of prey.
Counter-intuitively, wildlife appears all around us from the sea. Minke whales break the now mirror calm waters releasing a stream of warm breath from their blowholes. Blubbery Weddel seals snoozing on icebergs barely raise their heads as we drift slowly past them. That is another recurring theme of this journey: none of the wildlife knows to be afraid of us. Humans had no contact with Antarctica until around a century ago, so we visitors haven’t been disturbing their peace for long.
Our first steps on Antarctic land feel like a hard won privilege. Not quite as hard won as the polar explorers. They would be shocked to see us in our layers of brightly-coloured high tech clothing being helped off of the Zodiac inflatable boats that gently deliver us to the stoney beach. I’ve been lucky to have seen many remote beaches around the world and virtually everywhere has had plastic sickeningly mixed in the sand. Here in Antarctica it looks as it should, pristine.
Waiting for us on land, the ships naturalists enthusiastically brief small groups of us on the wildlife all around. One hundred people are allowed ashore at one time to try and reduce the human disturbance that we inevitably bring. Again, the fact of being in a place we don’t belong feels like an enormous honour.
Cuverville Island sits in a bay surrounded by mountainous turquoise-tinged glaciers edging, imperceptibly towards the sea. Low grey clouds cloak the encircling peaks and, once we have climbed up from our landing beach, the eerie silence is broken only by the calls of hungry, Gentoo penguin chicks. We have been instructed to keep 15ft away from the moulting birds, but they are having none of that as they strut towards us, inquisitively pecking at our boots.
The three-month old chicks huddle together waiting for their parents to return with food. The distance from the water’s edge of the breeding colonies protects the young from the seals that prey on them, but means the food-laden adults have a daily icy climb. It has taken me ten minutes of stumbling and slipping on steeply sloping ice to reach the pungent, rocky roost. As the returning adult nears its youngsters a comical penguin-suited chase begins. For the twin chicks it’s a more serious affair. As the parent waddles away, its young race after it. The screaming winner gets more regurgitated food while the losing sibling has less, becomes weaker and can struggle to survive.
Last year this precarious food balance was tipped in the wrong direction. More than a third of penguin chicks on the islands died of starvation. In the same area trawlers were ‘suction’ harvesting krill, a tiny crustacean, for our increasing demand for omega 3 food supplements and fish farm food. Scientists believe that with less krill in the area, less food was available to the birds. Fewer surviving penguins means less prey for seals and orca. Many whales and seabirds also live on krill, which is why it is known as a cornerstone food source. When the fishing companies were alerted to the effects of their human-induced krill famine, even though they were fishing within their quotas, they left the area to fish elsewhere…
The silence is absolute when the strong katabatic winds that descend from the Antarctic ice sheet drop. The lack of any sound, be it birdsong or distant overflying aircraft is so rare in our modern world. This quiet makes the explosive noise of tonnes of ice suddenly moving seem even louder. Multi-coloured glaciers, twenty stories high, infused with blues and algal reds, yellows and greens, reach the end of their journeys to the sea face. They have taken centuries of slow downhill sliding from the mountaintops to reach this point. As they carve into the sea the compressed energy suddenly released sounds like a man-made explosion.
In inflatable boats we keep our distance from the newly-born icebergs and instead visit a group of rowdy young fur seals that are jostling on a stoney beach. The juvenile males band together while they are moulting before they return to their breeding grounds 1,000 miles away. In the 19th century, the seals were hunted for their pelts to near extinction, but now numbers have increased. This success has meant some countries including the UK calling for a reduction in their CITES protection.
Up until 1966 we also slaughtered Humpback whales to the brink of annihilation. Thanks to an agreed moratorium they too are recovering. In Paradise Bay a group that have been surrounding our Zodiac put on a show. In the setting sun the white underside of their elegantly flicked flukes shimmer in the reflected orange light as they dive below the surface. As if this treat isn’t enough, one 40 tonne whale breaches, launching itself clear of the water 35 times. Scientists still don’t know why humpbacks do this. But to see an animal that has a body built for slow ponderous movement, expending so much energy in what looks like just splashing about, is astonishing.
Snow and strong winds the next day don’t put us off another Zodiac expedition. We’re in the Lemaire Channel, next to the Antarctic continent. Because the icebergs here have calved off of the thicker mainland glaciers, they are even bigger than the football pitch sized ones we have already seen. Light reacts with the denser more compressed ice creating incredibly vivid blue colours that are highlighted by their astonishingly massive size.
As our skipper tries to zig-zag our 10-man inflatable boat through chunks of freezing pack ice our progress gets worryingly slower and slower. Even in thick parkas and layers of clothing the wind chill is living up to its name. Our snow and ice-covered 22-year old guide and captain doesn’t seem too bothered. She has lived her whole life on boats in Antarctic waters, growing up on sailing yachts. At one stage we become icebound and have to back out and retrace our rapidly freezing route. I can’t help thinking of the polar explorers in wooden boats tackling the encroaching and capturing ice without a powerful petrol engine. The hot chocolate never tasted so good when we make it back onboard the ship.
On the last day of our Antarctic trip as Le Lyrial weaves past ice-coated islands on our way northwards home we have a final treat. One of the guides spots a thirty-strong pod of Orca. I have become used to seeing so much wildlife in these few days that the humpbacks, seals and penguins mingled in with the the killer whales barely register. The varying sized dorsal fins of orca youngsters, females and the odd towering male fin pierce the calm sea. As they surface to breath, it’s amazing to see subtle greys and yellows as well as their trademark black and white colourings. Eight-feet long seals are dwarfed as they swim next to the pod. The orcas size and obvious power make me glad we’re aboard the ship, rather than on an inflatable.
To see this closely-knit extended family group swimming in its natural surroundings is inspirational. Its sad and shameful that 61 of these intelligent creatures are still held captive in pitifully small tanks around the world for our entertainment.
Leaving the orcas, we journey into the deeper ocean of the Drake Passage heading to our final destination. As the wave size increases, I’m again in admiration of the early explorers who discovered these seas and lands. In 1578 Francis Drake sailed these same vast stormy waters in a 100ft-long ship. Cruising home on a 500ft vessel doesn’t stop the feeling of insignificance wash over me. The trip has made me appreciate that after having the privilege of seeing Earth’s last isolated wilderness, I believe it needs more protection from fishing, oil exploration and, hypocritically I know, tourism.
A lone albatross, our Antarctic gatekeeper, escorts us north to Argentina but leaves us before we make land, saying a final swooping goodbye before it returns to the frozen South.
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Gary Cook is a conservation artist and Arts Editor of the Ecologist. He travelled as a guest of Le Lyrial Antarctic cruises: https://en.ponant.com/destinations/antarctica
For more on his work or to contact him, see below:
For more on his work or to contact him see below.
Latest coverage: zoomorphic.net
Society of Graphic Fine Art: sgfa.org.uk/members/gary-cook/
The Ecologist: tinyurl.com/zpkefjc