In search of the ‘rough’ places of the earth: A journey to Antarctica

Apr 28, 2020 | 10 comments

Stark scenery of Robert Island. Credit: Roger Theodos

By Roger Theodos

As I sit here in Buenos Aires, exiled by a travel ban from my home in Ecuador, I am comforted by the words of the travel writer Paul Theroux:

“The most enlightening trips I’ve taken have been the riskiest, the most crisis-ridden, in countries gripped by turmoil, enlarging my vision, offering glimpses of the future elsewhere. We are living in just such a moment of risk.”

As Theroux suggests, despite all the discomfort, pain and suffering the world is experiencing now, we have the opportunity, and indeed the obligation to bear witness to these times of turmoil.

The Japanese word wabi-sabi (侘寂) doesn’t translate into English, but it is a perfect description of how we can live through this time of crisis.

Wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It suggests that it is only through a deep appreciation of the fleeting nature of our beautifully flawed world that we find peace.

Clouds over the calm waters of the Beagle Channel

It is this appreciation for the “rough” places that has led me to travel to the four corners of the earth. I am attracted to places that have shrugged off the gentle mantle of green to reveal the crude geological bones underneath.

In search of such “rough” places, my wife and I traveled to Antarctica in late February. Flying into Ushuaia, Argentina (motto: The City at the End of the Earth) we boarded the 200-passenger ship, Ocean Endeavor.

The Ocean Endeavor is a small, matronly cruise ship at some 50 years of age. In fact, ours was to be the last cruise before it was retired from the cruise company’s fleet. Nonetheless, it was well appointed for a ship this size with a gym, sauna and outdoor salt-water pool.

Soon it was “anchors away” and we were steaming down the Beagle Channel, named after the ship Charles Darwin sailed on during his voyage of discovery to the region in 1832.

Gentoo penguins haven’t quite figured out social distancing. Credit: Roger Theodos

Our six-hour voyage down the passage was a pleasant cruise. The ocean was as smooth as the surface of a sleepy mountain lake. Soon enough we passed out of the channel into the notorious open seas of the Drake Passage between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.

But this time we were in luck. Neptune’s powerful steeds were sleeping and we transited the passage in relative comfort. We filled the 48 hours by attending lectures by the cruise operator’s (Quark) highly trained and experienced staff on such topics as the history of Antarctic exploration, whales and seabirds.

Our first stop in the Antarctic was Robert Island located in the South Shetland Archipelago. Donning our cold-weather gear we excitedly tumbled into a Zodiac for our first excursion.  

Most of us no doubt have an image of the Antarctic as a frozen wasteland almost devoid of life. But its shores and waters are absolutely teaming with life. Penguins waddled, seals frolicked and whales blew like exhausted long-distance swimmers.

Zodiac entering a natural cavern on Speer Island. Credit: Roger Theodos

We saw gentoo penguins in abundance, along with kelp gulls and pintado petrels. Massive elephant seals lounged upon the beach as our Zodiac slid onto shore, and later we spotted pods of Antarctic fur seals.

Our next stop was to Spert Island in the Palmer Archipelago. For me this was the highlight of the trip. Formed by the rapid cooling of volcanic magma, the sheer basalt cliffs of the island provided the most dramatic scenery of the trip.

Here we once again toured the island in our Zodiac, dodging around lurking icebergs, along tidal channels and darting through tunnels carved through mountains by the eroding force of the sea. I felt a kinship with Odysseus when he lashed himself to the mast to avoid the rocks of the Sirens.

Harbor seals luxuriating on an iceberg in the Weddell Sea. Credit: Roger Theodos

After we had spent a couple of days exploring these two Antarctic archipelagos it was time to discover what surprises awaited for us on the continent itself.

We awoke at dawn to discover that the ship had transported us to the arctic peninsula, that long arctic appendage that reaches out towards the southern tip of South America.

For the next several days the ship moved from one anchorage to another as we explored the wonders of the continent.

Most memorable were our encounters with the various types of whales present at this time of year. The humpback and minke whales seemed to be the most plentiful. Feeding on the abundant krill they would slip through the water as smoothly as a six-year-old’s thumb in a bowl of chocolate pudding.

Humpback whale diving for krill. Credit: Roger Theodos

It’s worth noting that in many ways, Antarctica represents ground zero for the impact of global warming on the planet. If the layers of ice could speak they would tell the dramatic story of what we are doing to our planet.

Temperatures soared to 65°F (18°C) and at times I walked in the arctic wearing a t-shirt.

Translucent, gelatinous invertebrates are a sign that arctic waters are warming to dangerous levels. Credit: Roger Theodos

Soon enough it was time to head back to Ushuaia. We were not so fortunate with our return passage across the Drake Passage. With waves up to 26 feet (eight meters) we walked the decks like drunken sailors in a sobriety test. Needless to say, there were plenty of empty seats in the dining hall during our two-day transit.

Two days later the Ocean Endeavor slid into the port of Ushuaia like nightfall creeping into a peaceful valley.

Our arctic adventure was over, but the memories will last a lifetime. The fleeting beauty of that remote continent, its wabi-sabi has left a lasting imprint in the scrapbook of my mind.

Roger and Phyllis Theodos are permanent residents of Cuenca, Ecuador. Their search for the “rough” places to visit has taken them to 50 different countries on seven different Continents. 


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