Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Gee, it's kinda cold here in Antarctica

Sunset in AntarcticaI expected Antarctica to be a barren wasteland of ice and rock. I didn’t expect that barren wasteland to be so photogenic. This picture is from my very first night in Antarctica, surrounded by Gentoo Penguins and Elephant Seals. I have five more shots almost exactly like this one and still can’t bear to delete any one of them. Same with the pictures of icebergs and seals and whales and birds. Let’s not even mention the pictures of penguins.

The summer temperature is slightly warmer than Chicago’s winters. The key difference is that in Chicago, there are enough buildings, cars, buses, and trains to guarantee that you’ll never be out much more than a few minutes, maybe an hour, without a chance to step in, warm up, and get dry. Unless you’re at one of the base stations, Antarctica doesn’t really have that. You’re out there, and you’re cold. Later, you’ll still be out there, and you’ll still be cold. And if you’ve come in on a boat and gotten wet, you’ll still be out there, you’ll still be wet, and you’ll still be very, very cold.

This is part of how the ship’s doctor certified me as having temporarily lost any common sense. I mean that literally. I have a green certificate, signed by the doctor, that says I “temporarily lost any common sense [I] might have had”. It was the only conclusion she could possibly reach after I did what I did.

First, a little background. Every year, my aunt in Chicago goes swimming with friends. Often she’ll invite me, but I’ve always turned her down. I like swimming, but not in the middle of Lake Michigan on New Years day. I have enough trouble with lukewarm showers and swimming in 60 degree F river water, let alone water that should almost be ice according to the nearest thermometer.

But when someone challenged me to take a “polar plunge” so near one of the actual poles, I decided I had my family honor to uphold. I accepted. So if any of you happen to see pictures of me on Facebook running into water and running out of it again with the most horrific expression you’ve ever seen on my face, that’s how and why. Four friends and I decided to swim in waters that had been recorded that morning at 31 degrees Fahrenheit, kept liquid only by its salt content. In about sixty years, somebody will complain about being cold (possibly me) and I will follow it up with “but not as cold as when I…” which will in turn be followed by small voices yelling “Aw man, Grandpa’s telling the stupid story again!”

I kept telling myself before I went in that it wasn’t cold water, it was something else, and it was going to give me a strange sensation that might not be pleasant but that would be quite healthy. So when I hit the water and plunged entirely under the surface, I didn’t feel cold. Cold didn’t register. In fact, I don’t think anything registered, except that I was suddenly submerged in a liquid bath of numb. The cold part came when I got out of the water wearing only my wet swimsuit, rubbing myself off with what was suddenly the coarsest towel in the world and finding my body involuntarily shaking like an electric toothbrush. The wind didn’t help.

And that’s how I went swimming in the oceans of Antarctica. These are the things people do almost entirely for the bragging rights. It seems to be a common theme in this part of the world. Just look at the history of the place. I don’t mean just people like Capt. Cook and Shackleton, I mean people like Capt. Charcot out of France who came down here twice, the second time being on a ship whose name translates from French to mean “Why Not” to hold things like Antarctica’s first Mardis Gras celebration and also hold the first-ever Antarctic Picnic Day (I’m not entirely sure there was ever a second).

One thing should be clarified for anyone else who wants to come down here. The main thing you will be visiting is not the mainland continent. You will spend the vast majority of your time on the islands nearby because that’s where all the wildlife (read: penguins) live. If you look at guidebooks or photo books of Antarctica you will find almost everything captioned as being some part of an island somewhere. Nobody goes to the mainland much, which makes sense given the place’s protected status and lack of things like, say, roads.

I was kind of disappointed about this. I realized that the continent itself doesn’t have as much “interesting” stuff on it, but I wanted to experience it anyway. I did get to step out onto the peninsula, so I can say I’ve walked on mainland Antarctica, but after about five steps or so, I was yelled at by the local patrol working at the Argentine research station just up the coast and kicked off back onto our zodiac boat. Not much for experience, but then again, now I can say I’ve been kicked off a continent by the local authorities. I suggest that anyone who wants to play “Never Have I Ever” with me should probably take notes.

Our expedition did get two landings and/or zodiac cruises each day we were there, and we saw tons. Elephant seals engaged each other in shouting matches, while fur seals sparred in the waves behind them. Humpback and Minke whales surfaced and sometimes even breached themselves—taking their entire body above water and smacking down on the surface for nature’s ultimate cannonball splash. Gentoo penguin chicks chased their parents up and down the snow and rocks for an extra snack, causing many passengers serious cases of Penguin Fever* which they suffered from day one and still haven’t recovered from.

But one of the coolest (…ha) moments of this trip, and possibly of my life, came as we crossed the Lemaire channel. I got to stand alone, right on the prow of the boat, far from the engine noise, as we navigated ice and fog with icy mountains just yards from either side of the boat. I could hear the icebergs crackling and popping beneath us before they scraped against our hull and the splash of penguins jumping out of the water like dolphins. That's how it is on an Antarctic expedition ship headed for actual uncharted waters. This is my life.

Some of the people on board made the expedition particularly interesting. I met scientists making significant discoveries about Orcas for NOAA (based out of the Seattle office by sheer coincidence) and talk to a BBC assistant producer and cameraman working on their next section of their show, Planet Earth: Frozen Planet. And during our voyage, our on-board biologist got to be the first scientist ever to record this one new “higher species” of plant naturally occurring on the Antarctic. This would be plant species number three. That means that, if his findings are approved by the British Antarctic Survey, he will have increased the number of higher plants known to be naturally occurring on the continent by a full 50%.

The vast majority of the passengers on board though were tourists and travelers like myself. This often worked out in our favor as we got treated to things like performances by the Russian crew, hot chocolate being whisked out to us and we cruised between massive blue-shadowed icebergs (with a little rum for those who asked), and even an Antarctic BBQ out on deck one night. Just to say we did it. There was a movie projector and DVD player too, so we got to watch both March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, just for kicks.

I want to especially thank everyone who donated to my blog and travels for this trip—if it weren’t for your generous support, I would not have gotten to Antarctica at all. All the bits added up to something very, very big, thanks to you. Thank you all, very much.

As I write, we’re headed back to port in Ushuaia. Back from this trip’s third continent to its second, just in time for me to work on getting to its fourth. Originally I figured I’d be well on my way to Asia by this point, but it’s turning out to be taking a bit longer than I expected. Everyone I talk to in person on my travels says that I am blazing through everywhere I go at lightning pace. Everyone I talk to at home says I must really like it since I’m taking my time and going so slowly. I’m coming to accept that if I keep moving like this, the trip will likely take a good deal more than the year I had planned—I’ve been gone four and a half months already and only just touched on continent number three. I’m betting Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe are going to take a lot more time still.

I have been getting more offers lately from people who want to join me for different legs. If anyone feels so inspired, I plan to be in New Zealand before the month is out. Australia follows that, and then I head for South East Asia. By now you’ve seen a bit of how I travel and what I’m interested in. I stick to a minimal budget, so the most you’ll have to worry about are transport expenses, and I can give you tips on those. In many of the places I’m going it costs a good deal less to live day-to-day traveling than it does to live in the USA, Canada, or the UK. Between Guatemala and Bolivia I averaged around US$15 each day, and only a bit more than that in places like Mexico and Argentina. If you want more details, and might want to join me for a bit, (or if you just want to do a little travel on your own and want advice) just let me know.

*Penguin Fever is a disease common to the Antarctic and Sub Antarctic Islands. It is characterized by symptoms of squealing, pointing, and excessive photography. Serious cases can lead to maxing out multi-gigabyte memory cards, bruises from irritated guides, family, and friends who can’t stand the noises you’re making, and possible hypothermia from missing the last boat out from the penguin colony. The only known treatment involves lack of tread/balance and copious penguin guano, and is generally regarded as worse than the condition it (sometimes) cures.

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  1. I could understand penguin fever. Easy to get from just seeing the pictures. Highly contagious obviously.
    Lv, M

  2. Joel. You. Are. Incredible. I've been following your blog/facebook on and off and am in deep admiration of your travels (not to mention -- wildly jealous). Be safe! Happy penguins. :)

    Also, that picture is absolutely amazing.

  3. Ananymom- Yup. you should have seen the facebook reactions ("OH MY GOD ITS JOEL WITH PENGUINS!!!").

    Nakka- Gosh, wow, thanks. Hey it's not me, the world's just an amazing place when you start to go see more of it. I'm just the messenger here... man do I love my job. Thank you!

  4. These are really very useful tips on travel and suggest to follow this blog for friends as well. Thanks a lot.

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