Skip to main content

The Truths of Antarctica

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Summer 2016


Photograph by Maggie Shipstead

No ship had ever been so far south. S 78°43.971’. The Russian research vessel turned Antarctic tourist ship Akademic Shokalskiy set a new record, though not by much: less than 100 feet.

The Ross Ice Shelf is a floating platform of glacial ice about the size of Spain. A speck of land, Roosevelt Island, shapes its flow, creates a natural ice harbor that Ernest Shackleton named the Bay of Whales in 1908, because it was full of whales. We didn’t see any.

The ship was shrouded in frost; the anchors wore icicle beards. Tendrils of fog—sea smoke—rose from the ocean. On an ice cliff forty feet high: Adélie penguins, just standing around. Possibly they’d climbed up when the ice was shaped differently, and then their ramp calved off. The ice shelf is always calving. Chunks of it collapse and drift away and melt into the sea. Iceberg B-15, which calved in 2000, was larger than Jamaica. (Distant nations are a useful unit of measurement in vast, scaleless Antarctica.) Calving made the Shokalskiy’s record possible. The ice shelf is receding, but the annual sea ice that forms when the ocean freezes around Antarctica extends as far as ever. Climate change is happening in the extreme south but is, so far, less obvious and catastrophic than in the Arctic.

Framheim, the base built on the ice shelf by Roald Amundsen’s South Pole expedition in 1911, where nine men lived for more than a year, is open ocean now. At some point, the ice bearing the remnants of the camp calved and drifted and melted, and the huts and tents and fuel tins, the skeletons of seals and penguins and sled dogs, the latrine and steam bath and weathercock, all those fragments of a human riddle about conquest, were sloughed off by the continent, sent to the sea floor. No one knows when. The life of Antarctica goes almost entirely unwitnessed. Even when you’re there, you can’t really see it. It hides inside its size, its hostility, its blankness.



Photograph by Maggie Shipstead

Upon sighting the Antarctic mainland in 1840, French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville named a slice of it Terre Adélie, after his wife, Adèle. He’d named some plants and seaweed and an island off New Zealand after himself but never anything as grand and forbidding as that inaccessible coastline of ice and rock. (“Reminded me of you, babe.”) Two scientists on the expedition collected specimens of a new penguin (that is, killed them, stuffed them) and called the species Adélie. Pygoscelis adeliae.

Adélie penguins live in colonies around the Antarctic coastline and islands, some with hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs. They are charming and smelly and noisy and curious. They hop up impossibly steep slopes of ice and rock. They build nests out of pebbles, and they growl if you come too close. Adélie neighbors shamelessly steal one another’s pebbles. Before swimming, they cluster at the ice edge and try to jostle one another into the water to check for lurking leopard seals. When predatory skuas attack their eggs and young, they push each other toward the birds as shields. Safety in numbers, as a survival strategy, boils down to Take him! Not me! The penguin credo.

In February, the colonies were mostly inhabited by maturing chicks, not yet waterproof, downy and hungry. The adults were at sea, catching food to bring back and regurgitate. As soon as an adult landed, a horde of begging chicks would surround it, beaks open. Skuas circled overhead, eyeing the weakest. The remains of their victims were everywhere, some almost pristine, others picked down to just spine and feet. Some of us couldn’t resist shooing away the skuas, saving a fluffy baby for a minute, an hour. But skuas need to eat.

On the Zodiac back to the ship, splashed seawater froze instantly on our GORE-TEX, crusting us white like bodies left out in the cold. 



Photograph by Maggie ShipsteadDepth charts don’t exist for the Balleny Islands. On a ship, this is worrisome, as the islands are the summits and spires of undersea volcanoes, and presumably there are more summits and spires nearby, at unknown depths. Antarctica is about 150 miles to the south, New Zealand close to 1,300 miles north.

The islands are a dreamscape of wildness and loneliness, of black rock, ice, and fog. A few penguin colonies eke out an existence; seals and whales come and go; seabirds nest on outcroppings of basalt.

Wind howled in the afternoon. Fog cascaded over the icy spine of Young Island. Near the edge of the pack ice, minke whales lunged out of the water as they fed, sending up rooster tails of spray. Even in summer, drifting ice fields menaced us. Worst case scenario: ice closing in, holding the ship fast. Usually we could steer around, but sometimes we had to crash through, grinding and groaning, streaking icebergs with blue paint. Sometimes as we slept or ate, the hull reverberated unexpectedly with the clang of struck ice. Then the sound of it trailed from bow to stern, like a key along the side of a car.

Everyone knows most of an iceberg is under the surface. At any moment, a berg can tip over, and if you’re too close and it’s big enough, that submerged bulk, pivoting to the surface, can crumple your ship or even tip or toss it.

Antarctica is a sublime, unstable compound of beauty and danger. You are nothing: helpless, unnecessary. The dissolution we’ve begun, the melting, seems like a petulant assertion of—what? Our own importance, maybe. The ice, though, will take revenge, without intention or malice, as water.

These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.

ting us on Instagram: @vqreview.



This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading