Antarctica. Going as a traveller. Returning as an ambassador.

The sign on the harbour wall reads, ‘The Town at the End of the World’. So as the Ocean Nova leaves port at Ushaia, Argentina and noses its way gently into the Beagle Channel it reinforces the feeling that I am leaving behind my familiar world for something quite unknown.

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Reaching the Antarctic from Argentina means crossing the infamous Drake Passage, where fast flowing southern seas squeeze between the land masses of South America and Antarctica. Oceanographers refer to it technically as a Choke Point. How apt.  For two days and nights the ship rocks violently. The view through the porthole swings crazily from sky to sea and back again, and again. Some fellow travellers disappear into their cabins for twelve hours and longer. The Drake Passage is a rite of passage.

Emerging from the stormy seas, I encounter our first icebergs, guarding the peninsula like sentries. Originally Antarctica was at the heart of a super continent called Gondwana. It fragmented over a period of 150 million years, to form what we now know as South America, South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. It is the coldest, driest, windiest, highest, most isolated continent as well as being the last continent to be discovered. But all this is unimportant when confronted by the silent stillness, the vast white purity of this wilderness.

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I feel a sense of wonder at this surreal world. At times its like a science fiction movie set, the ice eroded into fantastic shapes by the constant action of the waves. Out in a zodiac I pass a blue iceberg the size of two large houses. It had become top heavy as the underside wore away and somersaults, sending out a swell of waves as thousands of fragments crack and break off into the water. The textures, patterns and colours of the ice and water combine endlessly. Reflections produce graphics lasting only a few seconds before they merge and disappear. The structure of the ice can be seen in the detail of a single reflected beam of light. It is not surprising that Roald Amunsdsen, the Norwegian explorer, the first to reach the South Pole in the 1910 – 1912 expedition wrote, “The land looks like a fairy-tale”.

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The light in the Antarctic is an artists dream. The atmosphere is free from pollutants and haze and the low sun, casts a warm light throughout the day. The afterglow of a January sunset can last well over an hour. For all its graphic beauty, when the weather changes the Antarctic can seem alien and intimidating. Mean temperatures range from -70 to 5 degrees C. Bleak windswept waves crash over the bow. Hanging mists. Swirling clouds. Only the flapping wings of a Skua break the grey emptiness.

In contrast to the timelessness of the icy landscape, mankind’s presence is relatively recent. The first landing was by John Davis, an American sealer in 1821 and the South Pole was reached in 1912. Today apart from scientific research stations the only evidence of man lies in weathered buildings, abandoned whaling stations and rotting wooden hulls.
From the security of the ice strengthened ship the Antarctic peninsula simply looks vast. It is. In the continuous darkness of winter, the freezing of the surrounding ocean more than doubles the size of the continent. It is 50% larger than the USA and yet apart from a few research stations, is unpopulated. Trekking to a vantage point, I feel insignificant in the landscape. The Antarctic challenges my most basic ideas about scale, danger and ultimately my sense of self.

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The Antarctic is a special place. It is rich in minerals and home to 20m penguins. It provides breeding grounds for over 40 species of sea birds, 6 species of seals and 11 species of whales. The ocean contains the coldest, densest, most biologically productive waters on Earth, teeming with krill, the richest source of protein in the food chain. Yet it is not just of interest to scientists. Antarctica’s ice and what happens to it, fundamentally influences the Earth’s climate, linking all of us in a common destiny. It is critical to preserve this environment in a sustainable way.

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I feel privileged to have visited Antarctica twice. Initially in Dec 2006 and more recently in Jan 2009 as seen here. Images from the first trip have been exhibited, featured on the International Polar Year web site and taken by the WWF who also used my self published book, ‘Antarctica, A Sense of Place’ as an ebook promotion.

The growth in travel to far flung destinations means that more and more people are visiting Antarctica, some even on cruise ships. This raises the difficult question of whether by visiting we do more harm than good. There is no easy answer. My solution has been to go as a traveller but return as an ambassador.

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Olaf Willoughby

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