Isabel Hofmeyr and Charne Lavery attended a conference of the Standing Committee on Humanities and Social Sciences (SC-HASS) of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in Ushuaia, Argentina on 3-5 April 2019. Ushuaia is the main gateway city to Antarctica, so from there they took a ship to the closest bit of the Antarctic continent. They were accompanied by Lucy Allais, Kantian philosopher, and Lauren Beukes, science fiction author who has since written a short story on Weddell seals.
The following is a set of photographs taken on the trip by Charne Lavery, with accompanying reflective notes on Antarctic rock, creatures, ice and water.
What I did expect from Antarctica was white wastelands, cold seas, impressive uniformity. This is probably vaguely based on images from scientific expeditions and their preceding more gruesome explorations. What I didn’t expect was a wildly beautiful landscape of jagged, icebound mountains and still, smooth sea. It looked like the Alps had been submerged in clear black water, so that we were floating along at eye-level with the tree-line (minus the trees). It was all sheer, triangular, snow white peaks, through which black cliffs slice ragged geometries.
This, it turns out, is because we hadn’t in fact travelled to Antarctica proper, or the parts of the continent that are fully glaciated and therefore flat and bleak—by far the greatest part and therefore most of what you’ll have seen of its circulated images. Instead we went, like most tourists, a lot of scientists, the early whalers and almost all of the penguins, to the Antarctica peninsula. If you imagine Antarctica as a speech bubble, then the peninsula is its tail as spoken by South America.
Setting off from Ushuaia means leaves its towering Andean peaks behind, sailing for two days through the Southern Ocean at its narrowest part (the Drake Passage), and then suddenly meeting those giant mountains again in what seems like the middle of the sea. This is the Antarctic Peninsula, a spine of sea-mountains which later continues straight into the TransAntarctic mountain range which crosses the giant southern continent. According to some geologists, it really is an extension of the Andes, separated millennia ago as part of the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent as the Antarctic landmass sailed off to the bottom of the world. Known in geological circles then as the Antarctandes. The startling visual similarity gives a real sense of connection, although it is a bit controversial given that it makes a nice basis for Argentinian and Chilean claims to the peninsula, which Britain would prefer to have for itself.
Although these claims, as well as all the many others, have been temporarily frozen by the Antarctic Treaty System—a uniquely successful timeout call on the scramble for the last continent—they are being continually bolstered by scientific activities and more extreme measures like sending pregnant women to live there long enough to produce Antarctic citizen-babies (tried by both Chile and Argentina in the 80s). But no one is making such strenuous claims on the rest of the continent as they are on the peninsula, which highlights its uniqueness in terms other than just its forbiddingly beautiful landscape.
Chugging south for two days we had spent a lot of time looking out at a vast ocean, getting over-excited about the tiniest glimpse of a whale’s blow in the distance, mistaking waves for all manner of monsters, but generally seeing not a lot. I thought that’s how it would go on, like an average to bad day at the Kruger, glimpses here and there of animals in the distance.
I was wrong. We woke up early on our first day on the Antarctic coastline, to ice floating by and those mad mountains, and to a relentless procession of barely believable animals. On our first boat ride on the rubber ducks we almost immediately spotted a leopard seal eating a penguin. He was thrashing it about in an effort to remove its skin, right next to an iceberg on which sat about ten different seabirds waiting patiently for scraps. On the beach there were thousands of gentoo penguins--closely related to African penguins --some near the water's edge, some up high on rocky ridges.. As we hiked up alongside the penguins on their penguin highways, we passed a skua eating a penguin chick. Many were swimming gleamingly around in the water, washing themselves in the shallow waves or porpoising by in the sea. Porpoising, we learned, is the dolphin-like leaping action which gets penguins places fast, and pretty much any time we looked out of any of the ship’s windows there was a group of penguins porpoising past.
On the way back to the boat, we spotted another leopard seal yawning toothily on a floe. Humpback whales bobbed around, fluking and diving, one following one of the small boats all around a bay, surfacing flirtatiously right beside it whenever it stopped. Over tea to warm up on the ship we glanced up as a gigantic elephant seal floated blithely by. And then, at dusk, someone called out whale and from the prow of the ship we saw one and then two and then five and then finally about twelve whales, one in every direction. They were lazing, tailing, bobbing, being improbable. Based on the number we could see, the biologists estimated that there were approximately ninety humpback whales that evening in the mercury-still bay.
It was glorious, an icy, oceanic Serengeti. In the summer, when the sun hits the sea in these latitudes, microscopic sea life stirs and blooms, propelled by all the resources that have collected in the water during the inactive winter months. It feeds the bright pink shrimp that, thumb-sized and in their multitudes, feed everything else. There are so many shrimp in Antarctica in the summer that creatures migrate here from all over to fatten up, so much that they barely need to eat for the rest of the year. And on the peninsula, there’s not only the krill as there is everywhere else in Antarctica, but there are a host of other factors attracting the crowds of life. It is warmer for starters, although only when compared to the even-colder further-southern regions-- still, Antarctic scientists call the Peninsula the banana belt of the continent. This is mostly because it is quite a bit further north than anywhere else. (Note that, when you’re down there, North is the edge of the map, South the centre; it is a strangely tilted world). Also, it’s sufficiently narrow and steep that ice can’t cover absolutely every part of it, like it does for much of the rest of the continent. In short, a few pebbly beaches and rock outcroppings become ice-free in summer, and these patches of solid rocky ground, on which penguins can lay their eggs and humans can land their boats, is incredibly valuable real estate in Antarctica. It also means that most natural and human history of the vast region intersects on the same few sites.
The combination of all this means that there is wildlife, everywhere. Sadly not, however, a sign of untouched wilderness. Penguins were copious partly because they prospered from twentieth century whaling, which reduced their competition for krill; humpback whales were never commercially important, so their numbers, while heartening, also serve to highlight the absence of other, decimated whale species.
The pictures of our trip are pretty, but it’s little thanks to me, more to the light. It’s all luminous. Things had a strong internal glow, a little like the way objects hold a quiet inner light just after the sun has set. It was as if we had different eyes—like, perhaps the latitudinal curve at this most southern end of the world was making for an extra lens; or, like the eye’s rods and cones were active at the same time, seeing day and nighttime things at once, the crystal foreground and the peripheral glow.
And then there were the colours. Honestly, they made the whole scene look fake—Lucy kept whispering to me that the simulation was clearly glitching. The clear turquoise blue of some of the icebergs looked like a cartoon colour, bizarrely tropical, or as Isabel said, the white-and-blue of laundry soap. It matched Lauren’s blue hair, which isn’t exactly what you’d expect from nature. It was like living in a black and white movie that had been tinted with colour--the pink of penguin poo, the greens of mini-plants which live inside the snow, but mostly more blues than I remember knowing.
The icebergs were particularly blue, like the deep aquamarine crevices in the glaciers from which they’d calved. Icebergs aren’t frozen seawater, it turns out, but frozen freshwater snow that’s dropped off the edge of the continent. There’s a lovely correspondence here: the older the ice, the bluer. Snow is white because it’s full of air; as it layers over itself it turns to ice, and darkens as the air is squeezed out by the weight. Ice buried under layers of ice turns powder blue, through the inexorable squeezing out of air; then turquoise, highlighter-blue, cobalt. The oldest ice is diamond-hard and almost colourless, black ice, given wide berth by the boats.
Our expedition leader, Katja, overwintered a few times on the continent as an atmospheric chemist, drilling ice cores through ancient ice layers exposed by relentless winds in the dry valleys, reading millennia of atmospheric changes in the air bubbles they retained. She also used spare ice-core ice for her nightly whiskey. The cubes gently pop as they melt, apparently, releasing pressurized air from other ages into the glass. One of the loveliest ideas suggested smilingly by the guides, was that just by being in Antarctica – as the summer seas melted glacier-born icebergs from far inland and long ago – we were all breathing ancient air.
The colours also present a uniquely comprehensible story of climate change. White ice melts into black sea, and it’s no great leap to understand how the effect compounds like bad debt. Dark seas absorb sunlight with the brutal efficiency of a black car on a hot day—while bright ice reflects it, like a sensible white car. As the world heats up, more white heat-protective ice melts into black heat-hungry ocean, until all the ice is melted and we’re left with only tepid seas.
I had the uncomfortable feeling, visiting Antarctica for the first time, that we were on the wrong side. Like we were in the upside-down, ala HBO’s Stranger Things. Everything was shining light, to be fair, as we glided along the suspiciously mirror-like surface, but largely still and lifeless in relative terms. Whales, when we saw them, were sleeping, seals rested obesely on small bergs, penguins puttered about slow and grumpy on the shore, nesting or moulting or some other mildly embarrassing thing. All of the action was clearly happening beneath the surface.
The creatures we glimpsed were taking a break from that thick frantic life carrying on underneath us. One of the guides showed us a slide of what whales were doing down there for the hour or so we couldn’t see them. They dropped very deep and then from there surged upwards repeatedly in powerful leaps, swallowing krill with each surge. You might have seen the drama of whales doing that at the surface, which gives a sense of the bustling, various, violent submarine activity.
The highlight of the trip was when a humpback whale surfaced underneath the ship. We leaning over the side, where it was possible to look straight down and see the whale rising from deep below. The water that had looked so black was actually just perfectly clear, absorbing all the light like the black ice, and very deep. Seeing the whale come up from and break the surface did something to break the barrier between the worlds. Like the whale was dipping its car-sized head into the upside-down, and we were really looking up with the vivid sky of fish and water soaring above our heads.
Later other creatures leapt up at this perpendicular angle to our vision, with similar shattering effect: a school of dusky dolphins who surfed the bow wave as we entered the bay back in Ushuaia, and, to my ongoing disbelief, as three orcas on our second last day in Antarctica, who’d been spotted in the distance but—who has this kind of luck?—came right up to the ship.
Antarctica: you might have thought of it as a bleak, beautiful but largely useless continent. James Cook, the first European to see the ice, was intensely uninspired. He wrote with bitter disappointment, that it had “been rashness in me to have risqued all that had been done during the voyage, in discovering and exploring a coast, which, when discovered and explored, would have answered no end whatever”. Similarly, much geopolitical history of the region sounds like pompous arguing over pointless territory, but I wonder how much of that has been disingenuous, because, as became viscerally obvious on visiting, the land is not what matters here. It’s all about the sea.