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Into Antarctica’s ‘White Darkness’ Antarctica

A place of peril and sublime beauty, Antarctica consistently calls to humanity’s most adventurous souls.

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Amidst Antarctica’s whiteness are gunmetal grey seas, silver and turquoise glaciers, and black mountains. These aren’t the hues of humanity, but of warning. Don’t take a wrong step. Don’t let in the blizzard’s chill. I hear ice floes cracking like ancient bones.

Antarctica remains, as the author David Grann so well defined it, a “white darkness.” Indeed, to me it seems danger and darkness lay at the heart of its glacial whiteness. Aside from a few scattered science stations, it’s practically untouched.

A red expedition marker stands out against the cold white of Neko Island. Photo by Kartsen Bidstrup

No roads, no gift shops, a historic purity. I see what Ernest Shackleton and other great explorers saw, and it gives me a more nuanced understanding of what it means to explore the unknown, with its ever-present subtext of risk. The inestimable reward for braving that risk is dazzling, unearthly beauty. It is the most transformative journey I have ever taken.

I have been to India, Tibet, Russia, Alaska, into the Amazon rainforest, to New Zealand’s Milford Sound fjord, and 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. All of these places affected me, but Antarctica has been the most memorable.

In its surreal remoteness, Antarctica has been called “the end of the world.” But to explorers, researchers, and other visitors to this land, it’s a beginning. Arriving in Antarctica is the start of a great adventure.

Winter camping for one night on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo by Stefan Dall

Among my fellow passengers on the Hurtigruten Midnatsol cruise ship are scientists destined for research outposts along the way. It isn’t your typical cruise ship — it’s more intrepid, less about basking in luxurious comforts. Each day during the two-week journey, we put on our long underwear, sweaters, puff jackets, gloves, high boots, and lifejackets, and board rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) to explore islands and waterways.

Each day is different, as each island is different. But there is one thread that ties them together — the cheerful tumult of wildlife.

An upward trek at Damoy Point, Antarctica, to view glaciers and icebergs in the Neumayer Channel below. Photo by Stefan Dall

Though it is true that no humans live permanently on the Antarctic islands or continent, it is also true that no one is exactly alone when visiting Antarctica. It is said that 30 million penguins live there — we see gentoo penguins with their white “bonnets” and extra-long tails, Adèlies with their white-ringed eyes, and chinstraps with their white “chinstraps” and extra stumpy legs. We see fur seals, along with crabeater, Weddell, and leopard seals. We see albatrosses with six-foot wingspans — one even landed fairly close to me on the railing of the Midnatsol — and many orca and minke whales.

The animals seem to have little fear of humans. It’s as though they view us with passing interest, knowing we fragile creatures won’t linger long in the bitter cold. My first penguin encounter is with a gentoo on Deception Island, and he seems to chide me like a grumpy old man.

A wandering albatross flies across Half Moon Bay; A gentoo penguin off the shore of Neko Island; A Weddell fur seal on Neko Island; A wandering albatross flies across Half Moon Bay. Animals: Photos by Stefan Dall
The Hurtigruten Midnatsol and a gentoo penguin off the coast of Deception Island. Photo by Kartsen Bidstrup

We approach the island through a 660-foot-wide passage between rock walls. The pass is called Neptune’s Bellows, named for the whistling winds that howl through it. Deception Island is a caldera; it’s a ring of rock surrounding the flooded centre of a partially collapsed volcano, which is still active.

In its centre, called Whalers Bay, we approach the shore where there’s an abandoned whaling station that was built in 1912. Humankind didn’t always tread lightly here. By the 1930s, some of the whale species in the area were nearly extinct.

I step out of the RIB, and my foot sinks lightly into the black sand. The beach steams as its geothermal heat meets the frigid air. The bravest of us (not I) take off their layers of clothing for a swim, to see just how geothermal the waters are. One of the swimmers emerges and says the water felt warm for a nanosecond, then it was Antarctically cold. The rest seem of the same opinion; they rushed into the water, turned around quickly, then rushed out.

Boarding a rigid inflatable boat (RIB), which usually carries about 12 passengers on outings from the Hurtigruten ship. Photo by Kartsen Bidstrup
RIBs in the Errera Channel, near Cuverville Island. Photo by Kartsen Bidstrup

We see a lively colony of gentoo penguins, and our guide tells us not to get too close to them, but as I walk along the beach taking pictures and not paying attention to my footing, I nearly bump into one. He looks up at me, squawking with an indignant, shade-eyed look as if to say, “What are you doing on my property?” I take the hint and retreat from the gentoo colony back to our less grouchy huddle of humans.

Returning to the Midnatsol on our RIB, we encounter a pod of minke whales. I wonder if any of our group has read Melville’s, Moby Dick. His prose concerning the daunting power of the whale comes to mind — it’s shocking and thrilling to see the minke flukes so close to our boat, only about ten feet away.

We travel to Half Moon Island, also in the South Shetland chain of islands, where we see a large colony of chinstrap penguins, estimated at 2,000 breeding pairs. Wearing snowshoes, I trek up and down the island hills, and also pass Weddell seals napping on the shores.
And then we reach the tip of the Antarctic continent.

The sky is menacing. Snow comes at us, along with near-gale-force winds. During the other RIB excursions, there was lively, anticipatory chatter. This time we are quiet.

I consider the many who have died trying to explore this land before me, this Great White South. With the white darkness of the encroaching storm, I especially think of Shackleton and his demise. The poet explorer’s companions on his expedition included volumes of poems by Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Gentoo penguins on Neko Island. Photo by Stefan Dall
A Weddell fur seal at Whalers Bay. Photo by Stefan Dall

As I walk on the continent, I think of the last lines of Tennyson’s great poem, Ulysses, and I know on many levels what Shackleton must also have known:

…for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Upon reading this poem again in the warmth of my own home, 9,000-plus miles from Antarctica, I reflect on Shackleton’s acceptance of mortal danger in pursuit of the grand and joyful possibilities of discovery, the rewards of pushing forward with a strong will. He looked out with a sense of purpose on the endless white darkness of this remote, exceptional, unconquerable continent.

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