It’s impossible not to gasp. Watching as its fin dives under the water, uncertain as to where it might next surface, then it lets forth a blow meters high: Whale watching always feels more like a visual hunt than passive observation. Suddenly the Humpback reappears heading straight for us. I’m simultaneously terrified by the thought of this creature capsizing our small zodiac and delighted to think I could be swimming with a whale. Of course the Humpback avoids our boat and dives out of sight.
But it’s in these moments that I have to stop and remind myself this is real, I finally made it: Antarctica. All my life it has always been my dream to journey to the White Continent. I’d even written it down as one of my life goals back when I was 12. The closest I’d ever make it to the moon, Antarctica is truly a wilderness free of man. This isolation free of human civilization is one of its greatest appeals. I just graduated from school in New York City, and I have seen the amazing capabilities of man and his many monuments. Having spent the past four years studying archaeology, I’ve always been fascinated and spellbound by the materials humans leave behind. But what is nature like untouched, out of reach of humanity?
I set to find out, and as we sailed out of the port of Ushuaia it was time to face our first obstacle: the Drake Passage. Infamous as the most treacherous, rocky waters anywhere in the world, the ship’s passengers were definitely overdosing on seasickness pills that night. Originally discovered as a passage to the Pacific Ocean, the Drake is so rough precisely because it is a funnel between the Atlantic and Pacific. All of the currents and wind that travel through the Southern Ocean build unrestricted for thousands of miles before they are funneled through this relatively small gap, unleashing their pent-up power on a lucky ship. But after two days of sailing through open water, all I had to commemorate the wild passage were measly five-foot waves and some out-of-focus photos of albatross that could be mistaken for small planes.
Perhaps the true wilderness would be found once we passed below the Antarctic Circle. Located at 66°33.6’ south, this latitude marks the northern limit of the area in which the sun does not set on the summer solstice, nor rise on the winter solstice. I woke up at 3 AM to celebrate our crossing only to find there was no line in the water marking this divide. Instead I saw ice. Lots of ice. Like puzzle pieces strewn across a table, the ship had to carefully weave between them, hoping the puzzle would not be put together any time soon lest we be stuck within it.
I must have taken over 100 photos that morning, marveling at this foreign landscape and trying to capture it like my life depended on it. Of course by the end of the day I would realize icebergs were not in short supply and my urgency in photographing them quickly dwindled. Deeper and deeper south we wove through the ice. It did not take long until I discovered just how effortlessly the untamed nature of Antarctica repulses man: All of our ways were blocked by ice too thick to pass through. So north we had to retreat.
Along the edge of the ice we journeyed north. It conceded allowing us to cautiously weave through its rush hour gridlock. Gliding effortlessly among the icebergs, in what must’ve been the HOV lane, were seals. This was my first seal sighting so I eagerly looked on. They were a group of Crabeater Seals, misleadingly named because there are in fact no crabs for the eating in Antarctica. Rather it is krill, the small, shrimp-like critters at the base of Antarctica’s food chain, that the Crabeater Seals dine on. Krill are the source of food for all life on Antarctica, whether directly or indirectly. But being so small and residing below the pack ice, I went the whole trip without seeing one. Instead my attention was devoted to the Crabeaters.
One young pup in particular seemed indecisive as to which iceberg would be the ideal rest stop. He hopped onto four different bergs before settling on one already occupied by two of his older peers. These two shortly left, coming to the conclusion that this younger crowd wasn’t quite their scene. But it seemed as though our band of yellow-coated beings (did I mention we all wore matching yellow parkas? Impossible to miss) did not bother them in the slightest. Unaccustomed to the terrors humans typically afflict on animals in the warmer climes, none of the wildlife in Antarctica avoided us or even seemed the least intrigued.
Humans are not part of the equation in Antarctica. Penguins must be on the lookout for hungry seals and seabirds. Crabeater Seals are wary of Leopard Seals, many covered in scars that tell of previous altercations. And all seals fear Orcas, who will even ram them off of their seemingly safe icebergs. Though I did not see any of these battles in action, I saw many of the scars left behind.
These scars were just an example of a reality I quickly learned: Antarctica is harsh. Penguins have their chicks on a freezing land covered in snow, yet they can’t let them get at all wet for the first few months of their life lest they die from low body temperature. The only protection they have is a nest made of stone and the warmth of their parent’s belly. Whether it’s the cold or becoming a seal’s snack on their first swim, penguins are fighting a tough battle. So it seems Antarctica is set against supporting life.
Yet life persists. I celebrated a big day in my life, turning 21, by hiking to a viewpoint at the stunning Neko Harbour. Hiking on Antarctica is no walk in the park. Nature does not provide trails through its snowy glaciers, instead you must carve your own. Easier said than done, for not only do you have to avoid crevasses—deadly crevice-like gaps between glaciers—but even a misstep in the snow and you’ll be stuck up to your waist in it. The safest bet is to walk in the footprints of the unlucky leader and let him do the hard work. Though the skiing on Antarctica is awesome, I was glad to not be hiking up with my gear that day. Being an avid skier, I had gone back and forth about bringing skis.
After much deliberation, I decided that simply experiencing Antarctica for the first time, free of other agendas, made more sense. Besides, it ensured that I would have to come back again. As I hiked and admired those unbelievable, one-of-a-kind peaks soaring right out of the bay I had moments where I doubted my decision. Regardless, I had now mastered the follow-in-your-footsteps method and slowly made it to the top, though I greatly envied the penguins who made it uphill alternating between a slow waddle and sliding on their bellies. Oddly enough I rarely saw them slide downhill on their bellies, they seemed to reserve this technique for going up.
Once I reached the top (belly-free) I was gifted with a beautiful panorama of white and blue. Countless glaciers and water covered by icebergs all appeared so calm, when suddenly the thunder of a calving glacier would interrupt the silence, sounding for miles. The booms of the ice crashing into the water struck me as terribly loud but rarely did I see much to show for it. Antarctica is simply so massive that all perspective is lost. There are no buildings, telephone lines, roads, none of the daily sights that we often take for granted as points of reference. On the White Continent what may be a large tumbling of ice into the water becomes just another blip on the radar.
I found this lack of perspective and appreciation for the landscape slowly becoming the case with wildlife. We were so fortunate with the vast number of animals we saw that I started hoping I wouldn’t see another Crabeater Seal, or smell another Gentoo Penguin. But whales always kept their allure, even our most abundant visitor: the majestic Humpback. Without fail I would always gasp as they briefly surfaced only to send their flukes flying into the air as they dove.
In traveling to Antarctica I was attempting to enter another world, and whales seemed to do this effortlessly. They coexist between Earth and ocean. I yearned to experience that other place, the watery realm. So I jumped. Many say they’ve done a polar plunge, but how many have literally leapt into the polar waters, having to dodge icebergs on the way in? It was a brief, system-shocking experience that left me with little more than a deep desire to jump right back in. That and a very salty aftertaste.
The Polar Plunge encapsulates much of my experience in Antarctica: It’s so potent and shocking that you fail to even recognize the moment until it’s already passed. With no perspective, no reminders of civilization amongst all the white, Antarctica is more an alternate reality than an extension of the world you know. It is a land of contradictions. The White Continent holds around 70% of the Earth’s fresh water supply, but is also the driest place on Earth. It is home to the second-most populous large mammal in the world (behind humans,) but most people will go their whole lives without seeing a Crabeater. It’s hardly even been a century since the first landing on the continent, leaving so much to still be discovered. Thus the day came to leave Antarctica and I could hardly believe I’d already been there ten days. It seemed as though I had always been there yet only just arrived. All that lay between myself and the tamer lands of anywhere-but-Antarctica was the Drake Passage. The “scary” Drake Passage.
I desperately hoped the Drake would give us a rougher passing than it had before, already feeling the wild power of Antarctica slipping from my grasp. The Drake was my final chance to experience wilderness. And boy, did it deliver. 25-foot waves tossed us around like a bathtub toy. Afraid I’d slide right out of my bed, I watched as everything in my cabin was hurled off its shelf. Glass shattered all over our floor, adding to the mayhem.
Breakfast was unlike any meal I’ve ever experienced, with tables being swept clean of all their dishes down to the little saltshaker. I was quick enough to grab my plate, saving my bacon from a similar fate, but most were not as fortunate. The Drake nearly took my feet out from under me many a time as well. As the crew was quick to remind us, always give one hand for the ship. Following orders, passengers gave a hand to the ship, but the other was busy grabbing those seasickness pills.
Then, just as suddenly as it came, it left. We were in the Beagle Passage and safely back to port in Ushuaia. The journey feels like a dream, but I have photos suggesting otherwise. Photos full of penguins, seals, whales, all defying the odds and thriving in a land of ice. And when I share my photos with friends, they too can’t help but gasp at the sight of the Humpback arching up into the air just before it dives deep into the polar waters. It is in that gasp, that pure wonder, that I recognize the beautiful wilderness I got to experience, even if briefly. That wonder, that wilderness, that is Antarctica.
All photos by Savannah Fletcher.
Savannah Fletcher is a graduate from Columbia University with her BA in archaeology and English, Savannah Fletcher currently resides in the Pacific Northwest practicing archaeology. When not doing research or reading a book, she can be found hiking, kayaking, or skiing. One of her proudest achievements has been traveling to all seven continents, and yet there always seems to be another mountain to climb and another place to see.