My Antarctic Adventure
by Rob Tiller
Last weekend I got back from an epic trip down to the southern tip of South America and from there to the Falklands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula. I’m still sorting through the pictures I took, but here are some of them.
The expedition was led by Muench Workshops, with a view to wildlife and landscape photography. Our ship was the Ushuaia, a 278-foot-long vessel built in 1970 either as a research vessel or a spy ship, depending on which story you believed. I understood it was outfitted for the challenges of rough icy seas, and it did in fact get us down and back.
We were at sea for 21 days, and it was a rough ride a times. Winds were more than 50 knots, and waves more than 15 meters. Dishes slid off the dinner table a couple of times, and books came out of the book cases. Our expedition leader said the winds were the highest she’d seen in 26 years.
Walking from one place to another on ship was challenging. From early on I used a medication called Scopolamine to counteract seasickness, which did a good job, though it made my mouth dry. There was a Covid outbreak soon after the start of our voyage, and several people had to quarantine for a few days in their cabins. Happily, I was not infected, but we had to wear masks on board after that, which didn’t help socializing.
My primary objective for the trip was to have some time with the unique animals, and especially various species of penguins. They had convened in South Georgia by the thousands, along with elephant seals, fur seals, leopard seals, albatrosses, and other amazing creatures. We went ashore at several points using inflatable vessels called Zodiacs.
I’d known very little about South Georgia before the trip, except that polar explorer Ernest Shackleton had reached it as part of his epic survival story of 1914-17. Among other stops there, we visited Grytviken, a former whaling station where Shackleton was buried.
We had a toast at his grave, and afterwards, as I made my way along the beach to one of the Zodiacs, I got charged by a massive bull elephant seal. I quickly retreated by some yards, and he, dignity satisfied, left off.
As much as I was delighted by the penguins, I was disturbed by the whaling industry remnants. The equipment, red with rust, used for processing whale oil and other whale products was on a much bigger scale than I imagined.
Grytviken had a small museum that valorized the courage and endurance of the whale workers, which, of course, was real. But there didn’t seem to be any recognition or apology there for the whale holocaust in the 19th and 20th centuries, when millions of our fellow mammals were hunted to the verge of extinction.
I read several good books on the trip, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an it-could-happen-here depiction of resistance in a misogynist theocracy.
I also liked Melanie Challenger’s recent How to Be Animal. Challenger’s book takes on the big question of how humans fit into the world. She focuses on the strange reality that modern humans still generally decline to recognize that they themselves are animals – a delusion which can blind them to the rich connectedness of life. She proposes that all animals be treated as inherently worthy of respect.
I also finished An Immense World, a new book by Ed Yong. It’s about the different ways that different animals perceive the world, and how their senses are integral to what Yong terms their umwelt, or their way of experiencing the world.
Yong goes through some exceptional non-human versions of the senses we know (like smelling, seeing, and hearing) and some that are foreign to us (like echolocation and magnetic and electrical sensing). The book was a good reminder that the human senses, marvelous as they are, are far from the most powerful, and that the non-human animal world is dense with fascinating other ways of being.