The White Continent

In one of the most astounding geographic ironies of our planet, Antarctica is considered a desert. This is pretty amazing given that it is completely covered by about a mile and a half of frozen water. It has less annual precipitation than New Mexico. This brings to mind the lament of Coleridge’s famous Ancient Mariner, “Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink…”

Cruise Antarctica Penguins

If you can land, this may be the welcoming committee. By NSF/Josh Landis, via Wikimedia Commons

Once Europeans started exploring the open ocean in boats, there was a theory that the earth had to have a counterbalancing continent to keep the globe from spinning in different directions. First sighted by various explorers in 1820, the forbidding continent kept up a pretty good defense. A ship could only approach these latitudes in summer, when the continent spun off enough pack ice to keep cautious sailors off at a distance.

There really is land under all that ice, mostly a massive plateau with a mountain range through it extending into the sea as a peninsular chain of volcanoes. While the seas around it are home to major marine life, the land has very few natural inhabitants. Very recently, world attention was drawn to the famous Emperor penguins who are probably the poster children of the continent. Morgan Freeman’s silken bass narration of the March of the Penguins, released in 2005, had us all astounded by the dramatic lifestyle chosen by these singular creatures. Equally impressive was the effort required to film the epic.

There are several titles that will introduce you to the continent, including a very recent overview, Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent, a veteran marine biologist’s perspective, Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land (Macmillan Science), and a complete portrait from the International Polar Year, 2007, Antarctica: Secrets of the Southern Continent.

The exploration of the hostile landscape, highlighted by the relatively meaningless accomplishment of standing on the South Pole, was marked by triumph, tragedy, and stirring persistence. The big names are Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott. 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica

South America Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton needed a challenge. Via Wikimedia Commons

The “Because it’s there” school of exploration seemed to emerge in the first decade of the new Twentieth Century. Suddenly, everyone wanted to stand on the North Pole. Once this had been achieved, in 1909, ambitions turned southward, just because. That same year, British explorer, Ernest Henry Shackleton managed to get within two degrees of the South Pole, for which he was knighted.

While Shackleton was enjoying his newfound nobility, fellow Brit, Robert Falcon Scott, headed off in 1910 to complete the task of making it to the southern pole. Publicity of his expedition, coupled with the impending Arctic expedition of Norwegian Roald Amundsen drew world attention. With Scott making his last preparations in New Zealand, Amundsen, disappointed that the North Pole had been bested, headed south, instead of north. By the time he had passed Spain and was resting in Madeira, he felt obliged to reveal his plans to his crew, his backers, and Scott. The race was on.

Amundsen’s route turned out to be relatively easy going, particularly with sled dogs. He made it to the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Scott’s party arrived 33 days later, on January 17, 1912, to find Amundsen’s markers. Both achievements were remarkable. The big difference was that Amundsen made it safely home. Scott’s expedition did not. Facing furious weather and the poor judgment of the relief team from the mother ship, the Scott team perished. It was nine months later before their bodies were found. The overall story: Race to The End: Amundsen, Scott, and the Attainment of the South Pole. On Roald Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library Exploration), and The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen (A Merloyd Lawrence Book). On Scott: in his own words, The Last Expedition (Vintage Classics), and from a surviving member of his team, The Worst Journey in the World (Penguin Classics)

Meanwhile, back in sunny England, Sir Shackleton took the news of the capture of the Pole with the typical response of an incorrigible competitor. He made up a new challenge. Since a flag had been raised on the Pole, it was clear to Shackleton that someone needed to traverse the continent. None of this back-and-forth stuff for Sir Ernest! Off he sailed on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914.

Antarctica cruise Shackleton

Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, being crushed by the ice floe. By Frank Hurley, via Wikimedia Commons

In one of mankind’s most gripping stories of indefatigable courage and personal responsibility in the face of bad luck, unyielding natural forces, and astonishingly poor odds, Shackleton made history. His ship, the Endurance, got caught in the pack ice, forcing the crew to abandon ship and bed down on Elephant Island.

After five months camped on ice and island, Shackleton took one of the 20-foot lifeboats and four men and sailed 800 miles in two weeks to South Georgia. He then climbed the small mountain range forming the island to get to the fishing village on the other side. After securing a boat, he headed back across the forbidding sea. Facing several bouts with sea ice, he finally made it back to Elephant Island and rescued all 22 stranded men. It was 282 days after the Endurance had sunk, and 128 days since he had set off in the lifeboat. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Shackleton’s feat still serves as an inspiration for anybody facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. For another tale of chilled courage, about Aussie Douglas Mawson, pick up Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration.

The White Continent is a fascinating place with interesting scientific research being conducted by isolated international teams. There are selected cruises that venture to the Antarctic Peninsula in the heart of the southern summer, from late December through January. It’s a short season with an unforgettable destination.