My wife and I flew to Antarctica for the day. We landed on a slush-covered gravel runway on King George Island and became chummy with a colony of Gentoo penguins.
When my wife, Bonny, and I were planning a cruise to South America, one of our main goals was to follow the path taken by some of our ancestors and sail around Cape Horn.
We discovered an additional benefit to being that close to the bottom of the earth. While looking over the tours associated with our Princess cruise, we read about a one-day trip to Antarctica from Punta Arenas, Chile. We balked at the cost ($1,700 per person), but our son told us to go for it, because it would probably be our only chance to get to Antarctica. Our grandson, the geographer, told us we should do it because then he would be able to say that he knew two people who had been to all seven continents.
Our ship, the Regal Princess, docked in Punta Arenas early on the morning of March 1, late summer in that part of the world. Forty-three of us (out of the 1,600 passengers on the ship) met at and were driven by bus to the airport. We were ushered into a room that contained many pairs of boots. Each of us could borrow a pair and pull it on over our shoes. Bonny had bought herself a good pair of boots and didn’t need another one. I was wearing an old pair of hiking boots. None of the waterproof boots at the airport would fit over mine, so I also declined to take a pair. I ended the tour with wet and cold feet.
We were all relieved and excited when our DAP airline flight received weather clearance and took off for the 1,000-plus kilometer flight to the southwestern tip of King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. The four-engine turboprop Dash 7 was manufactured by de Havilland Canada and is known for its STOL (short takeoff and landing) capabilities. In addition to forty-three tourists, it carried two guides (one of whom stayed in Antarctica), two flight attendants and two pilots.
Most visitors to Antarctica go by ship. Only about one percent arrive by plane. Almost 23,000 tourists visited the barren continent during the summer of 2004/2005 and the number is increasing. Groups such as the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, with an international membership, are concerned that increasing numbers of tourists will damage the fragile environment. At the moment the tourist industry is self-regulated.
Because of the cost and the rigor of the tour, several of the tourists left their spouses back on the ship. A passenger from the ship actually died on another tour that day. The husband of one of the women on the Antarctic tour heard about the death and thought it happened on our tour. Picturing his wife as the victim, he was beside himself until we returned safely to the ship.
We flew south over the Straits of Magellan, the island of Tierra del Fuego and the Darwin mountain range. The last bit of land we flew over was Cape Horn, which is also an island. The Atlantic and PacificOceans meet here. That fact is primarily of interest to mapmakers since it is an arbitrary boundary. However, the Antarctic or Southern Ocean, which circles Antarctica, is self-contained and doesn’t mix with the others, because its colder temperature and greater salinity make its water denser than that of the other oceans.
The flight to the Frei research base, owned by Chile, took almost four hours, longer than advertised. There were oohs and aahs as the stark beauty of the rugged land came into view, painted white by a recent snowfall. Snowfalls are rare as Antarctica is a desert. We landed on the gravel runway and came to a smooth stop in the slush. There are only three gravel runways in Antarctica. The other runways are some combination of ice and snow. When I asked one of the age twenty-something flight attendants whether we would have to take off in the slush, she said it would be no problem. She considered flying to Antarctica all in a day’s work.
A sign welcoming us to Via Las Estrellas claimed a population of 42, at least in summer. The inhabitants were due to leave the base at the end of March. Although we were there courtesy of the government of Chile, nearby are bases belonging to Russia, South Korea and China. We could see a small Russian Orthodox Church on a hill. The Chileans have their own chapel. Our main guide, Betsy, is Chilean, but she was raised in upstate New York and talks like it. She led us down the gravel road, filled with puddles and patches of wet snow, pointing out the sights. At least the temperature was above freezing.
We visited the gym and a bunkhouse, which was as messy as any college dormitory. The buildings are boxy and utilitarian, some with brightly colored roofs or sides. We were able to buy souvenirs and postcards. We mailed a couple of postcards at the miniature post office, receiving an Antarctica postmark. Several tourists pulled out their cellphones and called relatives or friends, casually remarking that they were calling from Antarctica. It was a miracle to me that their phones even worked.
Poles beside the runway and atop the rocky hill near the chapel bear signs with arrows pointing in various directions, showing distances to places of interest. One said it was 3,095 kilometers to the South Pole (polo sur). Santiago, near Valparaiso where we started the cruise, was 3,308 kilometers away.
Also standing on the hill near the chapel in the wind was a lone King penguin. Far from his friends and apparently molting, he was not able to swim. Standing in the wind speeds up the molting process.
We walked down to the beach and rode Zodiacs—inflatable boats that hold about fifteen people—to ArdleyIsland, home of a Gentoo penguin rookery. It was difficult to get in or out of the Zodiacs without stepping in the cold water, making it clear what the boots at the airport were for. We passed a couple of small ships that were moored in the bay. Most of the penguins had left on their migration, but there were dozens left, parents with their babies who were not able to swim yet.
The nesting sites are at the top of a hill near the beach, but the penguins come down to hunt for food. The babies will follow a parent right to the water’s edge, extracting the last bit of nourishment that the parent might have in its mouth. Then they wait impatiently until the parent returns from the sea with another meal. We were told not to get closer than 15 feet from the penguins, so we sat on blocks of ice and watched them. One man had purchased a stuffed penguin. A real penguin came up to him and pecked at it. I guess the penguin didn’t know about the 15-foot rule.
We had to retrace our steps uphill on the 1.5-kilometer road back to the plane. Most of us walked a total of about four kilometers. The takeoff was no problem, as predicted by the flight attendant. We could see the clean, white beauty of an iceberg in the bay as we flew away.
The flight back to Punta Arenas took under 3.5 hours. We were fed a victory meal, complete with champagne, on the flight. We also received certificates of participation “in one of the most spectacular expedition (sic) in Antarctic Area” and had copies of our passports stamped with an official Antarctica stamp. Our group returned to the ship after the , scheduled departure time. We suspect that the captain wasn’t happy with us, but when you’re dealing with the most remote part of the earth, you have to make allowances.
Bonny and I agreed that the trip was worth the cost. And we had given our grandson the right to say that he knew two people who had been to all seven continents.