- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

ANTARCTIC SOUND, Antarctica — “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It’s 3:30 a.m. in Iceberg Alley, and we have a sunrise for you. Join us on deck or in the bridge. And bring your cameras. Breakfast will be served in the dining rooms at 6:30.”

The cheerful voice of Jonas Wikander, the affable, unflappable young expedition leader on Quark Expeditions’ MV Professor Molchanov, awakens us 48 passengers earlier than usual, but he knows his business. It is a spectacular sunrise.

A streak of yellow becomes pale orange and grows in intensity to color sky, clouds and water in the glory of a perfect morning. The icebergs near the Professor Molchanov are small but many. A thin frost slicks the deck.

I look away from the sunrise and turn in the opposite direction, where the White Continent is an unreal pink. Pink sky, clouds, water, even pink icebergs.

People travel great distances from their homes to reach Antarctica, and a cruise there takes days from a port such as Argentina’s Ushuaia — “Fin del Mondo,” the “End of the World,” it boasts. From Ushuaia’s location on the Beagle Channel in Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, who can dispute that claim? It is the world’s southernmost city.

We passengers are from many nations: Sweden; Denmark; the Netherlands; Belgium; the United Kingdom, including a dentist from Cornwall and her husband, who sports a robust white mustache; Ireland, including a cousin of Ernest Shackleton, one of the legends of Antarctica exploration; a German-born resident of Namibia; a woman from New Zealand whose next travels may be to see flowers in the Australian desert; a Japanese woman who owns a bar in Tokyo; a hospital administrator and a retired farmer from Canada; a lady from Hawaii and her cousin from California; and a Catholic priest from New Jersey.

A man from Perth, Australia, says the trip was a birthday present from his wife and that he was told about it just three days before departure; his wife, a schoolteacher, preferred to stay home. Ages run from the teens to the 70s.

Several of the twentysomething men plan to travel around Argentina and learn Spanish after the end of the expedition; the Japanese lady plans to visit Buenos Aires and New York City before returning to Tokyo.

The crew is Russian, for the Professor Molchanov’s home port is Murmansk, much closer to the North Pole, where the Professor sails during the Northern Hemisphere summer. The ship heads for Antarctica November through March, when it is summertime way down south and the temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula are about freezing rather than way below freezing.

At times, I am sure that where I am in Antarctica is warmer than the recent wretched winter in Washington, but when I am off the ship, I have more layers of clothing than I wear back home.

The camouflage on my tall rubber boots would please only a duck hunter, but it prompts fellow passengers to ask, “What is that on your boots?” I tire of answering truthfully, switching to “It must be penguin.” I donate them to the Professor’s boot locker.

Inside the boots, which, the manufacturer claims, have a warmth-friendly lining, are a pair of thick alpaca socks, part of which are felted. Then, next to the foot is a thin white cotton sock. We move up to long cotton underwear under khakis or denim and top that with waterproof trousers. My feet never get wet or cold on this trip despite sometimes exiting the inflatable Zodiac rafts in a foot of water before stepping on shore. A T-shirt is worn under a cotton turtleneck under a light woolen sweater topped by a parka, at times with a zip-in quilted lining.

SWIMFORBOTTOM

The parka of choice is red, so one can be spotted immediately if a storm arises or if one slips in the slush somewhere. This is not to be confused with falling overboard, in which case, one guidebook says, the person overboard probably will die. Because death by drowning is quicker than death by hypothermia, a person in such a situation is advised to “swim for the bottom.”

We 48 are a friendly group, and when not going on a Zodiac landing or cruise among the icebergs, we dress for comfort and warmth. I do not see a sequin on any woman, although on the last night, one lady has some discreet black beading on the cuffs of her dress. The passengers have traveled, and a few have been to Antarctica before. They are readers and talkers interested in seeing still more of the world. As one passenger says, “After Antarctica, what is left?”

The food is very good — the chef is Swedish — and lunch and dinner offer choices of meat or seafood for main courses as well as a vegetarian selection. A different soup is served at each lunch and dinner, and there’s always a salad. Breakfast is plentiful, with choices at least from apples to yogurt. The coffee is not good, and that is my only complaint about travel on the Professor. Instant coffee is available, but so is real tea. I later am assured that the coffee will be better by the next season.

The passengers dress for an Antarctic expedition, not a fancy cruise, and that is part of the charm of the Professor Molchanov and the Quark Expeditions program. The furnishings are not elaborate; the walls, closets, doors and desks are covered with a Formica-like material that resembles wood. This is utilitarian sailing, with no one on board asking some of the legendary stupid questions of Antarctic travel, such as, “When do we stop at a mall?” and “What do you do with the penguins off-season?”

There is no casino, but the pleasant-enough bar can hold all the passengers for a lecture, such as Jonathan Shackleton talking about the Antarctic exploits of his cousin Ernest and such other explorers as Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Or naturalist Kara Weller telling us about the seals, whales, penguins and other birds found in the Antarctic or Mr. Wikander also talking about exploration.

The bunk bed could be a bit longer for me; the mattress is not thick, but sleep is sound, especially after walking in boots over rocks, up hills covered with earth or snow, getting in and out of Zodiacs. This is another part of the Quark experience. Some travelers prefer more luxury with maybe one trip in a Zodiac to one site on the continent, but why bother?

FROM USHUAIA

We sail from Ushuaia on Saturday evening with an Argentine pilot on board to guide us through the Beagle Channel, named after Charles Darwin’s ship. We next enter the Drake Passage, which along with the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica can be the planet’s roughest water for sailing — it has been described as “generally turbulent.” Then comes the Antarctic Convergence, or the Antarctic Polar Front, which also surrounds the continent; this is a barrier between the cold, north-flowing Antarctic surface water and the warmer sub-Antarctic surface water. Because of low salinity and temperature, the Antarctic water sinks to the bottom on its way north.

The convergence influences the distribution of plankton, fish and birds.

Many passengers wear patches behind the ear to ward off seasickness, while others use pressure bracelets, take pills daily as I do or brave the sea without medication. The doctor aboard — ours is Brett Sutton, who works in emergency medicine in Hobart, Tasmania — also can give a shot if necessary.

LAND AT LAST

On Monday, we get our first glimpse of land — King George Island in the north of the South Shetland Islands, which are separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by the Bransfield Strait. From 5:30 to 7:45 p.m., we make our first trip ashore on Penguin Island, where I decide not to hike up a 200-foot ridge but to head back to the Zodiacs. En route, I find I am a stranger among seals that sound ferocious. They do not pursue me as I scamper across rocks at water’s edge to reach the Zodiacs and calm.

Tuesday takes us through the Antarctic Sound and the Erebus and Terror Gulf — named for two ships of Arctic and Antarctic explorer James Clark Ross of Scotland. We encounter our first pack ice, an extensive sheet of sea ice.

We have three expeditions. The first is a walk on the fast ice, which is sea ice that is attached to land. Although the Professor Molchanov has an ice-strengthened hull, it is not an icebreaker and cannot go far in thick ice. Zodiacs take us less than the length of the ship, and we step onto the ice.

The ice is white, and it crackles under our boots. Most of the passengers walk to an iceberg trapped in the ice and pause at return for the class photo. One enterprising young traveler takes a soccer ball to kick about during our foray, which we end with a photo.

About 5:30 p.m., we are on the continent, on the Trinity Peninsula with a landing at Brown Bluff, the exposed part of a glacial volcano. We see Adelie and gentoo penguins; nesting snow petrols on the cliffs; fossils; and lava bombs, which are boulders in which black volcanic rocks are embedded.

Night brings a return through the Antarctic Sound as we head back to the South Shetland Islands.

During the rest of the voyage, we take Zodiacs to Hannah Point on Livingston Island, and Zodiacs make a beach landing at Bailey Head on Deception Island, a dormant volcano. In the astounding rookery of chinstrap penguins at Bailey Head, the thousands of pairs of penguins — maybe 10,000 pairs — generally just stand during the weeks of the molting process, during which they lose about a third of their body weight. They cannot eat because they cannot survive swimming until the change of feathers is complete.

We also see several humpback whales while back aboard the Professor Molchanov.

The Professor next passes through the narrow Neptunes Bellows entrance into the caldera of Deception Island, and we step out of the Zodiacs onto a black-sand beach warmed by volcanic activity.

Lonely Planet’s Antarctica guidebook reports: “Eruptions have occurred as recently as 1991-92. In 1923, water in the harbor boiled and removed the paint from ships’ hulls, and in 1930 the floor of the harbor dropped (almost 10 feet) during an earthquake. In 1967, two eruptions forced the evacuation of the Argentine, British and Chilean research stations and destroyed the Chilean station.”

Such dire consequences are not on our minds as we walk among the remaining huge steel tanks that once stored whale oil before the Norwegian whaling station closed after whales began being processed entirely aboard ships. A lonely cookstove sits on a concrete platform, all that is left of a kitchen, but several large buildings remain, including an airplane hangar.

About a half-dozen passengers wear swimsuits under their layers of clothing. While we are walking about the whaling station or up to Neptune’s Window, Mr. Wikander and colleagues dig a pit in the beach, which fills with volcanically warmed water. The intrepid passengers strip to their swimsuits and run into the frigid water of Whalers Bay but quickly dash back to the beach to get warm in the natural hot tub. One young man is unprepared for the swim but, in his birthday suit, with hands strategically placed, dashes into the cold water bravely unbriefed.

PARADISE BAY

A highlight of the next day is a Zodiac excursion to Skontorp Cove in appropriately named Paradise Bay. The bay is defined by the mainland and two small islands. The motors of the Zodiacs are turned off, so the world is quiet and spectacular as we listen for the sharp cracking sounds made as ice breaks and glaciers calve.

We leave Paradise and go a short distance to Argentina’s Almirante Brown Station, which is closed. Still, most of the passengers climb the snow-covered rock behind the station and slide down.

After passing through the narrow but spectacular Neumeyer Channel, we call on the three Britons spending the summer at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island, a pile of rocks inhabited by penguins most of the year.

A fence separates the penguins into two groups, one in which humans regularly walk among the birds, and the other in which humans visit a couple of times each year.

The penguins are in a research project to determine if the presence of humans has a negative impact on the them. So far, the research shows that visitors do not bother penguins, and a similar project in another part of Antarctica is yielding the same findings, we are told.

Miss Weller has brought our passports to be stamped at Port Lockroy, and we mail postcards, which may be delivered sometime between three weeks and three months later. At night, the three Britons come aboard the Professor for hot showers, dinner and a talk with passengers.

The next day, we cruise through the Lemaire Channel, take a Zodiac cruise in Pleneau Bay and make landings at Petermann Island and at Vernadsky Station, which formerly was operated by the British but now is a Ukrainian center for research into the hole in the ozone layer — which, we are told, seems to have stabilized and is not expanding.

This is quite a different operation from that at the Port Lockroy station, where the penguin aroma is acutely pronounced inside as well as out.

POWERFUL VODKA

We also visit the Ukrainians’ upstairs bar and souvenir and stamp shops. Several of us pay $1 for a generous shot of homemade vodka; it is a bit cloudy but powerful, as we were warned.

On Friday, we reach 65 degrees, 14.05 minutes south and 64 degrees, 15.13 minutes west, less than 2 degrees north of the Antarctic Circle.

Saturday and Sunday are days at sea as we return to Ushuaia, and the Drake Passage makes up for the calm sea on our way to Antarctica. At dinner Saturday, I finish soup and salad and have one bite of beef fillet before I start perspiring and realize it is time to leave.

Soon, I am in bed and asleep as I slide with the ship, but I am ready for breakfast, which is served in only one dining room. I learn that my departure from dinner began an exodus from the dining room. I recover, but I welcome the calmer waters as we near the Beagle Channel.

As we disembark Monday morning for the long flight home, the Professor Molchanov is being readied for a 21-day cruise that includes more of the sub-Antarctic islands. Next time, Professor. And thank you for an incredible expedition.

Antarctica’s treasures

Antarctica is full of surprises and beauty; it is much more than 5.3 million square miles of land covered in snow and ice.

Most of the continent is covered by an ice sheet with an average thickness of 6,600 feet. Of the actual landmass of the continent, about 2 percent is visible, and that is as mountains and coastline.

Lesser Antarctica is the 744-mile-long, narrow, taillike peninsula, a chain of alpine mountains with ice cliffs and sometimes exposed rock along the shore. The rest, Greater Antarctica, is mostly covered by ice.

Antarctica has many mountains taller than 9,900 feet; the highest is the peak of the Vinson Massif, 16,067 feet. This peak is in Lesser Antarctica, near the Weddell Sea.

The South Pole is almost 10,000 feet above sea level.

Antarctica was part of the Gondwana supercontinent, along with Australia, Africa, South America, the Indian subcontinent and New Zealand. That was about 200 million years ago, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook to Antarctica. By 130 million years later, the Drake Passage south of South America’s Tierra del Fuego had been formed; Antarctica settled into its present location about 40 million years ago.

Englishman James Cook sailed across the Antarctic Circle in January 1773 and is credited with being the first man to do so. In the 15th century, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had sailed through what now is called the Strait of Magellan, which separates Tierra del Fuego from the South American mainland.

Later came the sealers and the whalers and also the great explorers whose names are remembered in geographical features as varied as straits, ice shelves, glaciers and islands: Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, James Weddell, Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d’Urville, Edward Bransfield, Capt. William Smith, Nathaniel Brown Palmer, John Briscoe, Lt. Charles Wilkes, James Clark Ross, Carl Anton Larsen, Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery, Otto Nordenskjold, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson.

They also left the names of their ships, monarchs, and relatives, including Queen Maud, Edward VII, George V and Wilhelm II.

Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent and rich in wildlife. In recent years, it has been attracting about 30,000 travelers annually, who arrive and stay on ships.

Running expeditions runs in the family

Jonas Wikander is a man of ships all year. In the Southern Hemisphere’s warm seasons, he sails 4½ months as expedition leader aboard the MV Professor Molchanov; in the North American summer, he resumes his work in Greenwich, Conn., as a co-owner of the Longmeadow Creek Marina.

Born in Gothenberg, Sweden, 32 years ago, Mr. Wikander made his first seagoing trip at age 4 months. He attended the first grade in Sweden before moving to Daytona Beach, Fla. Quark Expeditions also is based in Greenwich, with another office in the United Kingdom.

On the Feb. 21 sailing from Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel in the Argentine section of Tierra del Fuego, Mr. Wikander remained jovial, steady and always ready to answer questions.

His parents, Lars and Erika Wikander, also born in Sweden and now living in Manhattan, also were aboard. The father is the owner of Quark Expeditions Inc., and his wife has been active on committees of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, an organization with 55 members.

The association sets guidelines for members to protect the Antarctic environment, from wildlife to fossils. One of the rules is for people to leave nothing on Antarctica and to take nothing from the continent. Passengers bring back memories and fabulous photographs from the continent, plus small souvenirs that are sold at some of the scientific stations established there.

The association also limits the number of passengers permitted to be on an island or an expedition on the mainland at one time.

This restriction works in favor of smaller ships, as the Professor Molchanov’s maximum of 52 passengers can be transported expeditiously in Zodiacs to their destination. Larger ships usually do not schedule as many expeditions as the Professor offers daily, and some passengers on the larger ships are there more for the casino and shows than for learning about their planet.

About 30,000 passengers travel to the White Continent each year between November and March.

Lars Wikander trained as a lawyer; he joined with a partner, a physicist, in forming Quark Expeditions in 1990, and they offered their first trip on the Kapitan Khlebnikov to Vladivostok, Russia. The next year brought Quark’s first transpolar trip, from Murmansk to Providencia, and Mr. Wikander became the sole owner of Quark.

“We were lucky the ships were full and Quark took off,” Lars Wikander says in an interview aboard the Professor Molchanov.

Mr. Wikander says he used his legal background extensively in negotiations with various Russian departments and agencies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The institutions that had operated the vessels suddenly were without funds; the ships had been used for research and oil exploration. The icebreakers were state property doing work for the government and shipping companies.

Mr. Wikander visited Russia in 1990, making stops to build connections that would help him obtain permits and secure itineraries in 1992.

Quark’s first expedition to Antarctica, more than a decade ago, was from Capetown, South Africa, to Fremantle, Australia, to see, in particular, emperor penguins. “And we just rolled on,” Mr. Wikander says.

Quark operates five ships, three on the Antarctic Peninsula and two on the Ross Sea side, he says.

After September 11, Quark lost only about 20 passengers who canceled because they were afraid to fly, Mr. Wikander says. “The Japanese passengers came as planned but changed their flights to non-U.S. airlines.”

About 40 percent of Quark’s passengers come from the United States, Mr. Wikander says. Some expeditions are chartered by affinity groups, such as college alumni organizations.

Quark also was the first — and only — company to sail circumnavigations of Antarctica. The first two went in opposite directions, and a third expedition is scheduled for the 2006-07 season, priced at about $43,000 for the 67-day journey. The voyage must start in November, Mr. Wikander says.

“The interest in Antarctica is definitely on the increase,” he says. The nations that signed the international treaty on Antarctica are studying how to regulate the effect these ships are having on Antarctica, especially the large cruise ships.

Mr. Wikander advises travelers to make plans far ahead of time. “Our first cruise in November — to the Weddell Sea — is already booked,” he says. That will be on the Kapitan Khlebnikov.

Jonas Wikander has been expedition leader on the Kapitan and the Professor; he prefers the Professor.

• • •

Quark Expeditions Inc., 980 Post Road, Darien, CT 06820; phone 203/656-0499 or 800/356-5699; fax 203/655-6623; e-mail enquiry<The Wikanders — Jonas, Lars and Erika — join passengers for a toast in the bar.

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