Antarctica is about as far as you can get from anywhere else. That’s probably why, more than 100 years after Roald Amundsen became the first to reach the South Pole, the frozen continent still beckons to dreamers and explorers. Fortunately, getting there in the 21st century is much easier than it was in the 20th.
Explorer and television personality George Kourounis has been to Antarctica several times before, but his 2018 voyage with One Ocean Expeditions was unique in several ways. For one thing, it was the Resolute’s maiden voyage with One Ocean. Below, the Explorer-in-Residence of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society shares six awesome things that happened on the historic sailing. — Ed.
We studied humpback health
Prior to the 1960s, humpback whales had been hunted nearly to extinction. While their numbers have been recovering, there is still tremendous pressure on these animals, especially since it takes many years for calves to reach sexual maturity. Some humpback whales make the long journey to Antarctica from the tropics to feed on krill — small shrimp-like creatures that are abundant in these cold, nutrient-rich waters.
Marine mammal researchers Kate Sprogis and Fredrik Christiansen were on board as part of an ongoing effort by One Ocean Expeditions to use the Resolute for scientific purposes as well as passenger transport. The researchers used a drone equipped with a range finder to fly over the whales, and through a process of analyzing the images using photogrammetry, they were able to calculate the size and girth of the whales to determine their overall health. (Note: drone operation in Antarctica is tightly controlled, and the researchers obtained special permission to fly there.)
Sprogis and Christiansen also had permission to approach the whales via inflatable Zodiac and use a crossbow equipped with a special tip to gather tiny samples of skin. These samples are used to gather basic information, such as whether a whale is male or female and whether a whale is pregnant. Once upon a time, these humpback whales had to fear being hit by a whaler’s harpoon; now they are in the crosshairs for their own protection.
Once upon a time, these humpback whales had to fear being hit by a whaler’s harpoon; now they are in the crosshairs for their own protection.
We swam in the Southern Ocean
Personally, I like to swim in water the temperature of a nice warm bath; however, there are people out there who truly enjoy cold water — really cold water. There was a group of about 16 brave souls on board the RCGS Resolute who could not wait to go for a swim in the frigid Antarctic waters. They were part of the International Ice Swimming Association (yep, that’s a thing) and they hailed from places like Russia, Argentina, Bulgaria, South Africa and China. Their aim was not only to take a plunge, but swim for one kilometre.
It was difficult, not because of the frigid water, but rather the strong winds. Despite the setbacks, they eventually pulled it off, with all the swimmers completing a test swim, then the full kilometre, in water that was measured at -1 degree Celsius. That’s about as cold as liquid water gets. (Because of the salt content, seawater freezes at a slightly lower temperature than fresh water). Did I mention that they don’t wear any kind of wetsuit at all? Nope; just a bathing suit, goggles, and a bathing cap. It was great to have them on board, and they were willing to answer any questions that we had, except one: why? For that, there was no answer. Perhaps just because they can.
Some researchers hitched a ride
While getting to Antarctica is easier nowadays, it still helps to have a ship, and sometimes scientists need a lift. We helped provide passage for a group of Bulgarian researchers to St. Kliment Ohridski Station on Livingstone Island. The station operates between November and March, during the Antarctic summer, and the scientists who stay there study biology, geology, and glaciology. They only had one opportunity to get ashore, and that was almost thwarted by encroaching sea ice. The Zodiacs barely made it in and out, but thankfully, we were able to drop off our guests. Their first task for the new research season? Dig their way through the deep snow to get to the front door.
We sailed into an active volcano
One of the most unique places in Antarctica is Deception Island. I imagine it got its name because it is such a good natural harbour … that just happens to be the massive caldera of an active volcano. The ship sailed directly into the volcano through a gap in the caldera wall known as Neptune’s Bellows and was able to anchor inside. This place has a long history of use as a whaling station (long abandoned), and continues to be home to several research outposts.
In the late 1960s the volcano roared to life, and a series of eruptions destroyed both British and Chilean stations on the island. Volcanic activity is still evident today; steam rose up from the black sand of Whaler’s Bay, where we landed the Zodiacs, and if you buried your hand in the sand, you’d only have to dig down a few centimetres before you encountered very hot groundwater.
I broadcast live from Antarctica
Let’s face it; most people will never experience the grandeur of Antarctica firsthand. So how do we get the next generation excited about protecting this vast, mostly untouched wilderness? By using technology to bring Antarctica to them. I’ve been involved with the educational non-profit Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants for quite some time, and they connect classrooms across North America with scientists, explorers and researchers in an interactive format using Google Hangouts. Because EBTSOYP is partnered with National Geographic Education, I was able to get a portable satellite transmitter on loan from Nat Geo, and used it to talk to classrooms live from the Antarctic Peninsula. The students saw penguins and glaciers in realtime, and were able to ask me questions directly. In addition to the live classrooms, the session was also live-streamed on YouTube.
Hopefully, being able to interact with someone live from Antarctica will have sparked a life-long interest in nature, science and conservation in these kids.
We experienced the “Drake Quake”
Antarctica is stunningly beautiful, with surreal landscapes of ice and rock, and unique wildlife, but the price of admission includes crossing the Drake Passage, the stretch of water that divides the continent from South America. Ocean currents and winds flow freely around the Southern Ocean, mostly unhindered by land. The Drake is the narrowest point that all this wind and water must funnel through, and it is prone to frequent wicked storms as well.
It takes about two and a half days to cross the passage, and if you are lucky, it will be almost flat calm — the “Drake Lake.” However, in my experience, having crossed the passage eight times now, you are more likely to encounter the “Drake Shake” as the swell and winds rock the boat. On our way south, we encountered the shake, with winds blowing at Beaufort 9, a “strong/severe gale” (0 being calm as glass, and 12 being hurricane-force winds).
On the return crossing, we sailed into a mighty Beaufort 11 “violent storm” that brought with it 11-metre waves and near hurricane-force winds. I called this the “Drake Quake” as the waves slamming against the sides of the ship felt like a series of earthquakes. I don’t have very good sea legs, and it was amazing to me how the staff and crew were still able to serve meals, carry on with cabin housekeeping, and generally keep things running smoothly. Admittedly, I was hit by the “mal-de-mer,” but once the storm calmed down and we got into the more protected Beagle Channel, everything returned to normal, and we all were able to brag about having braved the mighty Drake Passage!
George Kourounis is an explorer who documents extreme forces of the natural world. He hosts various television programs, and is an Explorer-in-Residence with The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.