For many years, I dreamed of Antarctica but never wanted to go. I believed there were places on Earth that deserved to remain beyond my reach. The vast white expanse at the bottom of world maps was one of them: a repository of mystery, a testament to nature’s abiding power and to the limits of human knowledge. It saddened me a bit to know that the only thing keeping me from visiting Antarctica’s phantasmagorical icescapes was a few thousand dollars. The idea of tourists sipping martinis in the same iceberg-strewn waters where once only the boldest explorers dared to venture was offensive to me.
My attitude changed after I decided to write a book about the harrowing Belgica expedition of the late 1890s and the first men to confront the cruelties of an Antarctic winter. All of a sudden, I had a reason to go. When I told a friend that I planned to travel to Antarctica, he said, “What for? Why don’t you just rely on the diaries?” (After all, the Belgica expedition was one of the most abundantly documented of the heroic age of polar exploration; about a dozen men wrote first-hand accounts of the voyage.) I told my friend that in order to achieve the novelistic detail I aspired to with this book, I needed to see, hear, and smell the environment for myself.
I booked passage with the Chilean outfitter Antarctica21 for a six-day tour of the Antarctic peninsula, in December 2018, the beginning of the austral summer. The company was among the first to fly passengers over the tumultuous Drake passage, the 600-mile stretch between South America and the South Shetland Islands, where the Atlantic and Pacific crash together and furious winds blow unimpeded. By boat, the crossing takes two days. I was glad to hop over it in two hours. To describe the awful seasickness my characters experienced, it turns out I could rely on the diaries.
We landed on King George Island, where a fleet of Zodiacs transferred us to a 70-passenger cruise ship called the Hebridean Sky. We sailed south through the night. I was too excited to sleep, following the ship’s progress on the televised map in my stateroom. At 5:00 in the morning, I raced out onto the deck and caught my first glimpse of the Antarctic continent in the distance. Glacier-covered mountains, kissed by a mother-of-pearl-sunrise, shot straight out of the ocean, as if the sea level had risen to the snowline of the Himalayas. It felt alien, like humans didn’t belong there. Or like the cover of a Yes album.
For the next five days, the Hebridean Sky progressed down the Gerlache strait. This sublime channel was named after Adrien de Gerlache, the commandant of the Belgica expedition, who discovered it in early 1898, shortly before the ship was caught in sea ice of the Bellingshausen sea and the dream of discovery turned into a year-long nightmare. It became obvious why I had come: to witness the enchanting spectrum of blues reflecting off the ice, to hear the barking of Weddell seals and the spouting of humpback whales, to breathe in the nauseating reek of penguin rookeries.
I was struck by how familiar this landscape felt, as if I had seen it before. And in fact, I had, in the spectacular photographs taken by Frederick Cook, the expedition’s American physician. Armed with a borrowed Leica, I imagined myself on the deck of the Belgica in 1898, and thought of Cook’s words: “As the ship steamed rapidly along, spreading out one panorama after another of a new world,” he wrote, “the noise of the camera was as regular and successive as the tap of a stock ticker.”
Nothing seemed to have changed in the 120 years since Cook took those photographs. But, of course, much had. The scientists employed by Antarctica21, who doubled as guides, described some of the alarming ways in which climate change is transforming this delicate ecosystem, and how these patterns are bound to accelerate. It was lost on none of us that the tremendous carbon emissions from cruise ships contributed to the disaster. We were accessories to the crime. It’s impossible to travel to Antarctica without guilt. But to see this place for oneself is also to understand the magnitude of what is at stake.
We made it as far south as the Lemaire channel, a place so dazzlingly photogenic it’s known as the Kodak gap. Then we turned around and made for home. I wouldn’t know what it was like to be caught in the ice for more than a year. I wouldn’t know what it was like to suffer from scurvy, or to lapse into madness. For that, too, I was happy to rely on the diaries.