Sandra Lucas solves the dilemma of how to fulfill the dream of kayaking Antarctica
This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
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By Sandra Lucas
Our black Zodiac, dragging our kayaks behind it, roared across the Southern Ocean, passing the high cliffs that surround one of the outermost islands of the Antarctic peninsula. It’s actually a flooded volcano, leading early discoverers to baptize it Deception Island. The ring-shaped isle is small, about seven miles in diameter, framed with dark, grey-brown mountains. Snow covers the mountain tops and an unsettled, steel-blue sea guards the island’s edges. It’s a cloudy day with just a bit of wind. Through an opening in the ring we enter the island’s bay and arrive on the beach’s pitch black, volcanic sand.
The beach is narrow but stretches out far enough to have once held a whaling station. The station, built in 1912, slaughtered 45,000 whales each year in its heyday. In 1969 a volcanic eruption destroyed it, forcing the remaining whalers to abandon the island. Now all that’s left are wooden, collapsed houses and crooked, steel containers covered in rust. Scattered around lie vertebrae and ribs, the remains of the whaling bounty. Penguins, seals and skua, one of Antarctica’s main birds of prey, play among them.
After a bit of exploring, our group of kayakers sets out to take our first strokes on sea. The breeze picks up, causing my paddle to catch the wind. The water is cold, with one-and-a-half foot waves that keep pushing us back to the beach. The farther we paddle away from the coast, the darker the sea water gets until it has the deep, midnight blue typical for Antarctic waters. Slowly we manage to sail away from the coast to get a good look at the dark, snow-covered mountains that surround Deception Island. Fur seals watch us from the shore and birds circle above our heads as we paddle on. With the deserted ghost town, the snow-covered mountains, the cold, whirling sea and the birds and seals among us, I get a good first impression of Antarctica. It’s a composition of beauty, austerity and life.
Antarctica forms the southernmost continent on earth. At 14 million square kilometers it is twice the size of Australia. It is not only the coldest continent on earth, it is also the driest and most windy.
I wanted to see Antarctica before it changes forever, before the ominous prophecies granted by experts come true and the continent’s icy beauty melts away. I had no other comparison for Antarctica than the snow-covered mountains of Austria, were I once stood on a snowboard. Looking back, the two countries have hardly any resemblance. Austria in winter is almost completely covered in a blanket of thick, loose snow with forested, shelved mountains. Antarctica however, is ragged and scabrous – a mixture of rocks, ice and a whirling sea.
To see the Antarctic continent, I set off on my own to Ushuaia, South Argentina, the main departure point for travels here. With a boarding pass and an option to go kayaking whenever the weather permitted, I entered the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, the ship burdened with the task of getting travelers near Antarctica safely. Inside, it’s a maze of carpeted rooms and hallways. As soon as the Vavilov ploughs its way through Drake Passage, where the Atlantic ocean and Pacific ocean combine to form the Southern Ocean, I have my first meeting in the bar with the rest of the paddlers. Together we form a small group of eleven men and women with ages ranging from 25 to about 60.
After our first trip around Deception Island, we get the chance to paddle through the waters surrounding Enterprise Island. Stretching out for one and a half miles, the island is located at the north end of Wilhelmina Bay, roughly 150 miles down the peninsula. It’s a crystal clear day. The sun is out, causing the temperature to rise to a comfortable five degrees Celsius (41°F). The bay of the island is surrounded by huge, white glaciers, making it look like a frozen fortress guarded by icy walls with sharp, pointy peaks. Sometimes the white color of the glaciers is replaced by a more translucent blue, which makes the ice look more like pieces of glass or diamond. The blue color of the ice varies from baby blue to azure or denim blue. The seawater in the bay is as placid as a puddle, almost mirror-like and sprinkled with pieces of floating ice, some as small as a snowball, others as big as six-and-a-half feet forming tiny floating islands.
With the sun on my face and fresh air in my lungs, I try to focus on the sound of the chunks of ice bumping against the hard, yellow fiber of my kayak. The hollow, muffled sound echoes through the water. It’s like I’m pushing my kayak through a sea of boulders as the rocks pound and scrape against my boat. Besides the bumping of the ice against my kayak, it’s almost completely silent out here. Sometimes I can hear the sound of a glacier calving as ice slides over ice before the final plunge into the deep sea. We make sure to stay clear from the glacier’s edges and the danger of huge waves.
Enterprise Island surprises us with the remains of an old ship, once owned by whalers. Its rusted, copper-brown bow still rises above the water surface and the ship’s deck is covered in a layer of snow. It must have killed hundreds of animals in its heyday. Now it lies in the cold and icy bay while the sea water of Antarctica slowly breaks the ship down. We take our time paddling around it. Exhausted but satisfied, we return to the Vavilov for a hot shower and a good meal.
When morning comes again, we head out for Cuverville Island, located in the Errera Channel near the Antarctic mainland. Blows of humpback whales have been spotted in the distance and we waste no time getting dressed and ready for departure. The black Zodiac brings us as close to the whales as possible, dragging our kayaks behind. I’m the first one to get into my small kayak and I wait for a fellow kayaker to accompany me before heading out to the whales. Not that someone would have stopped me from going on ahead, but to be honest I feel terrified to paddle among five 65-foot humpback whales while sitting in a 15-and-a-half-foot lightweight kayak. The first huge dorsal fin appears about 30 feet away and heads straight towards me. I don’t know whether to quickly paddle myself out of there, stay completely still or just burst out in tears of happiness and fear. Lucky for me, my group soon catches up with me. The whale dives under again and I lose sight of it. I try to peer through the deep, midnight blue water, hoping to catch a glimpse of this giant, but my attempt is futile. We paddle a few strokes every now and then to turn and stay near these magnificent creatures, but there’s no need to break a sweat. The whales themselves seem to dance around our kayaks gracefully. With their long bodies they skillfully swim underneath and beside us, sticking heads, fins and tails out of the water without ever touching us. I’m astonished by their agility and their caution.
Suddenly, another whale surfaces right beside my kayak. It’s so close, I can almost touch it. Instead, I cry for help! I feel terrified to see this massive body only six feet away from me. The whale calmly dives under again. Its massive back and dorsal fin slide through the water with so much ease. I feel humility and respect coming over me. The whale could have tipped me over or slapped me with its tail. But it didn’t. It just came over to have a closer look at me. After we’ve spent years and years of killing whales for their meat, they still seem so friendly and interested in us.
The following day, Antarctica shows its wild side as we try to reach the mainland. Heavy winds, accompanied by snow, blow the waves five feet up into the air. As the waves rise up and tip over, they lose their dark, midnight blue color and turn steel blue ending in white tips. The icy landscape has lost its enchanting beauty and looks grim underneath the heavy, dark clouds. The temperature drops below zero. In the distance, I can spot the Antarctic mainland. It has pitch black and grey-brown mountains as far as I can see. Their angled peaks look sharp and impassable. Some peaks are more shelved and topped with a thick layer of snow. As the snow is pushed further down the mountain, it slowly transforms into one of Antarctica’s many glaciers. But this time, we’re not heading for the glaciers. We’re heading towards a more suitable place to enter the mainland. We’re paddling like maniacs to get through the whirling sea and heavy wind. There’s no time to take a break. The streamlets are so strong they’ll take you back right where you started. All around us, penguins leap out of the water, catching their breath and trying to see where they’re going. Sometimes, one of them looks at me with a surprised face. I feel silly being so slow and clumsy in my unwieldy kayak, especially compared to the dexterity and ease with which the penguins are moving past me.
|The author. Photo by Zak Shaw.|
I watch my fellow kayakers, battling beside me, beanies pulled far over their ears and foreheads, hands sticking deep into their paddle gloves, trying to make their way through these ferocious waters. A sense of pride comes over me. Here we are, undiscouraged by heavy winds and snow, paddling across icy waters, aiming to set foot on the continent of Antarctica. Right now I feel truly honored to be a part of this group. As we approach the mainland, slippery black rocks, some covered with a thin layer of snow, are scattered in front of the beach, leaving only a small opening to paddle through and reach the shore. After maneuvering past them, the front tips of our kayaks finally touch the salty sands of Antarctica’s shore. I pull open my spray skirt, wiggle out of my kayak and place my foot on the wet sand. As I walk up, I see penguins sitting on the wet rocks casting glances at us. The small beach, maybe 13 feet in width and 33 feet in length, is bordered by a collection of rock, some stone grey, others pitch black. They’re stacked up, each one covered in more snow as the pile ascends, transforming into the foot of the mountains that frame the beach we’re on. I look up at the high, snow-covered mountain peaks, smelling the salty ocean air and feeling the cold wind brushing across my wet and warm face. Not only is the scenery magnificent, it’s also a great feeling to know you’re setting foot in a place where few people have gone before.
As we gather to take some pictures, the crew of the Vavilov congratulates us. We’re now officially on the Antarctic continent and we got here by kayak.
Sandra Lucas is a resident of The Netherlands. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.