Anyone one who has flown across the Australian interior, peering through the perspex hour after hour in contemplation of the red-brick smudge far below, has some understanding of the size and desolation of Antarctica.
By comparison, the outback is crowded with living detail. It is possible to easily fill the hours of passage by imagining life beneath: lizards, kangaroos, squinty-eyed drovers with corks tied about their hats, Fosters, the 40,000-year-old complexities of the Dreaming. You can see an occasional vehicle track, homestead or town. There is human sense to be made of the raw geography.
In Antarctica there is simply the sheer, clean, blazing white of the ice. Ice that would sheath the entire Australian land mass twice over to an average depth of a mile. The privations of the heroic age might bring some focus to this ice, but recalling those stories lends no comfort.
In some places the ice is deeper than Mount Cook is tall, its weight crushing a third of the bedrock below sea level. Add the shield of winter sea ice that extends 15001(m offshore and Antarctica yields a plate of virtually unbroken white as big as Africa.
Most stories about Antarctica start with a like litany of statistics. It’s a shorthand way of saying that Antarctica is beyond ordinary human experience, as indeed it is. The coldest natural temperature ever recorded on earth (-89°C) was recorded there—so cold that toss a billyful of liquid water high in the air and it crashes to the ground as ice. The average temperature at the South Pole is -50°C, at the North Pole a comparatively temperate -18°C.
With winds of up to 300 kilometres per hour, Antarctica is the windiest continent. It is also the highest, with a mean height of two kilometres. It’s the world’s biggest desert. The rainfall equivalent in snowfall at the Pole is barely measurable, but locked in the ice is more fresh water than all the world’s lakes and rivers. Were the ice to melt, the sea would rise 55 metres… and so on.
Despite its boggling dimensions, few atlases spare a page for Antarctica—the 1986 Penguin Atlas of the World, of all things, gives it the swerve. Few New Zealanders could draw a map of Antarctica, let alone the territory we have there. The fifth largest continent, in many ways, remains as unseen as it ever was.
One high point in the fluctuating profile of Antarctica happened in 1956, when, among the king-o-seeni circles and four-square courts, New Zealand school playgrounds sprouted painted maps of this place. Religiously, children would gather to place cotton reels and other makeshift symbols along a plotted course which led inland from the Ross Sea.
These markers represented the converted Massey Ferguson farm tractors of Sir Edmund Hillary, who, fresh from Everest, was leading the first all-New Zealand Antarctic expedition, which was to lay depots for a British team making the first crossing of the continent by land.
In those school-milk days of postwar optimism, when the pioneer ethic of hobnails and billy tea still held force, all minds were on Antarctica. The heroic age of Scott and Shackleton had passed less than a lifetime before, and here was its echo.
Other symbols being pushed about on the playgrounds represented the specialist snow vehicles of the British team which had started their journey on the opposite side of the continent, at the Weddell Sea. Hillary, having laid the depots, ignored instructions and pushed on to the Pole to bowl out the British. Some saw it as a bit under-arm.
Britain had granted New Zealand control of the Ross Dependency in 1923, 15 years after claiming the Antarctic Peninsula (the finger of land that points at South America) for itself. Apart from a few attempts to regulate whaling in the Ross Sea (futile, as it turned out, for by the late 1930s the great whales of the area had been all but wiped out) New Zealand never exerted a real physical presence in its new territory, until 1956, when Hillary established Scott Base. The base, which has been permanently occupied ever since, planted the New Zealand flag firmly in the pie, satisfying more permanent ambitions—those beyond adventure.
In 1989, when I was asked to report a television documentary on the planned minerals exploitation regime for Antarctica, I soon became aware of a peculiar paucity of basic Antarctic knowledge in those around me, and in myself.
We all have a rough idea of the size and shape of, say, Alaska, or Panama, but how big is the Ross Dependency, this piece of New Zealand in Antarctica, nominally in our possession for almost 70 years? Half the size of New Zealand, ten times the size?
But there is also a paucity of perception. Penguins, icebergs, men in beards and the Erebus disaster—that was about it; Scott struggling through the ice on foot, Amundsen skimming shrewdly over it with ski.
For the record, the Ross Dependency is a wedge-shaped territory extending to the Pole, with a land area of 770,000 square kilometres into which the New Zealand islands could fit three times. The Ross Ice Shelf, a permanent extension of the ice-cap into the sea and a sort of highway into the interior, is the size of France.
This territory is one of the most important access points to the continent, and includes the potentially oil-rich Ross Sea. Our claim to this territory aside, New Zealand’s proximity to Antarctica invests us with a strategic significance. Our diplomats play a key role in brokering the politics of the place, and our close cooperation with America, through Operation Deep Freeze, had some part in moderating the ANZUS fallout.
Somehow, though, Antarctica, and our place in it, has slipped the mind. I travelled there this summer on board the Greenpeace ship the MV Gondwana to try to find why, and to fill in a little of the blank.
It took just three days by sea from New Zealand to reach Antarctica’s outer fringes—the first icebergs. Only three days steaming at 12 knots before night and day begin to merge, the distinction obscured by a faint shading of coloured-pencil pink and turquoise that lingers beyond midnight and through the day.
By then, the Auckland Islands have long since disappeared astern, and with them the last of the known. The onslaught of the sealers in our subantarctic islands almost 200 years ago gave New Zealand its first outside economic importance. Ingrained in the Auckland’s sea cliffs, where waterfalls tumble into the breakers, is a history of shipwreck and unimaginable human wretchedness, but there is still rock, soil and green. Its fog-bound moorlands bring to mind Scotland.
With the icebergs comes the unknown. At a distance they could pass as oddly uniform islands, but soon enough, like gobs of pavlova awash in the swell, come strange ice shapes that have broken loose. Some glow with the special-effects radiance of Star Wars light sabres. Others have a cooler crystal elegance.
Finally, the ship reaches the parent bergs, and you discover close-up that they really are islands: strange monoliths big enough to shelter behind in a storm or to land an aircraft on; islands of ice strung out in a floating archipelago, waves breaking at their feet. In 1987 an iceberg twice the size of Stewart Island broke free from New Zealand’s Ross Sea Shelf—by no means a rare size. One in 1956 was bigger than Northland. The average berg contains about one million tons of pure, fresh water.
Their cliff-faces have an architectural quality, but it is the light that astounds. From the frost of a lemonade ice block to the flat opacity of stiff cream, there’s light frozen solid into galleries, archways, flying buttresses, huge geometric slabs and cones, whimsical finials.
Some are illuminated from within by a rude blue liquid light—a kind of neon sapphire stain that seeps out through the cracks. This comes from lenses of glass-like ices that catch the wavelengths of blue light when the usually overwhelming white-light is blocked—either by other ice, the sea water or cloud. These solid ice islands glow ghostly like lampshades through the gloom.
There are early Maori reports of such apparitions regularly arriving in New Zealand waters. As recently as 1931, when one grounded on the South Otago coast, the odd one was still making it. Now they all succumb to the leap in sea temperature at the Antarctic Convergence, a 40 sharply defined zone where the frigid circular polar current meets temperate ocean. Those held within the convergence can survive for up to two years before the freezing and re-freezing of meltwater within their structure helps trigger internal collapse.
It takes almost as much energy to melt ice as it does to boil water. The energy and heat to melt the 600-odd cubic kilometres of iceberg that dissolve into the water each year is partly sucked from the Southern Ocean, keeping these waters hovering around zero degrees. At the convergence, these supercooled waters sink to the bottom and, holding close to the seabed, eventually flow into the Northern Hemisphere, helping to drive the earth’s ocean currents.
In the waters around the bergs, oily reddish-brown half-acre splotches of krill show just how whales came to be the size they are. Open the mouth and be careful not to choke. The simplicity of this feeding gives one pause about just how intelligent these sieving whales really are. Open the mouth, close the mouth, swim a bit—can’t be setting too many synapses awhir.
Be that as it may, the idea of humans—who are intelligent—sticking harpoons in them for the satisfaction of some $60-a-kilo Japanese fetish is, down here among the ice islands, not an abstract horror. It’s here that the Japanese conduct one of the last whale hunts in the world, each year taking 300 minke, a species of baleen whale.
Our ship had tracked the fleet through the Tasman to discover them at work—four hunter-killers built like miniature frigates, with cannon on the bow, prowling among the ice to feed a mother ship. To quieten the death throes, and so speed processing, the Japanese have introduced the slaughterhouse refinement of electrocution. Electrodes are jabbed into the whales while they’re still in the water.
The Gondwana’s principal mission on this voyage was to re-supply the Greenpeace base in McMurdo Sound, so only a few days could be spared to interrupt the Japanese, whose government-subsidised “research” kill each year is a foot-in-the door exercise for a return to the real thing.
In the face of Greenpeace cameras, the Japanese, as it later proved, halted the kill, knowing they could simply resume within a few days. But Greenpeace could take no chances and placed inflatables and the two on-board helicopters in front of the harpoons whenever a whale was sighted.
To extend the time the helicopters could keep watch on the scattered fleet, the pilots used icebergs as floating sentinel points. Fairytale landings on ice-blue cloud, solid as a rock in the swell.
It comes as no surprise that whales are big, but, in the way that you can never be prepared for the size of a farmer’s prize bull, the experience of seeing one blow in front of the bow is still salutary for the human ego. Their spout is not so much a fountain of water, but more resembles a puff of steam.
On the sixth day south a flaring of white far into the grey sky signals the beginning of the pack ice. It’s also the first glimpse of how the whole of Antarctica functions as a 13 million square kilometre mirror that helps balance the world’s climate.
The dazzle on the horizon is the ice throwing off the sun. In the clearer air of the interior, almost all the solar radiation that strikes the ice is bounced back into space. The chance of nature that water freezes white is one of the reasons there is life as we know it.
Soon the ship penetrates the pack and is lost in endless ice that quickly closes over the path we make. No longer are we at sea, but neither is it land. The ship becomes a lonely capsule edging through the vast outer ice ring of a quite different planet.
By now there is no night. The spin of the earth at its axis gives a very different sun, one that dips toward the west, but then hangs there, just short of setting, to slowly swing south before rising again in the east. At times the sky is shot with the lurid brilliance of polished paua.
Captain Cook came almost this far. In his journal of 1774 he wrote: “I will not say it was impossible anywhere to get in among this Ice, but I will assert that the bare attempting of it would be a very dangerous enterprise…
“I whose ambition leads me not only further than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions.”
Where the pack has cracked, pulled apart or crushed together, temporary landscaped ice-gardens emerge that interlock to the horizon. Bounded by miniature hillocks of geometric ice rubble are pools, lakes and meandering waterways so real that you could picnic by them.
But when the wind strikes up—or the ship pushes softly through—the landscapes start to move, the plates of ice sliding into each other, buckling, deforming, as if struck by a silent earthquake. Closer to land, or if the ice is heavier, the wrong wind will imprison a ship for months or sink it in minutes. The pack can move 17km in a day.
Further south, the character of the ice changes to a knitted patchwork of heavier floes through which the boat must bulldoze, splitting those that give, shouldering aside those that don’t. Days of deliberate collision that give only an illusion of mastery.
Even the best-prepared ships are still lost to the pack. The far edges of some floes are tipped deep into the water until they flip, revealing jelly-mould undersides of frosted jade.
By now I’ve had several days with little sleep—the passage through the ice will not last, and I don’t want to miss a bit of it. One of the mates on the Gondwana, Albert Kuiken, recognises the symptoms: “You be careful there, Scott of the Antarctic. It’ll get into your blood and all you’ll want to do is keep coming back down here.”
Indeed, there is a loosely-knit group of people, perhaps several thousand of them, for whom Antarctica is an addiction; who, with difficulty, arrange their lives to come here as often as possible. A sort of Antarcticans Anonymous.
To get away from the cosiness of the boat I often climb the mast and stay there, honing the sense of desolation, feeling the sway and shudder of the ship below, until the cold forces me down.
Up there, as the cold bites, it’s easier to imagine some small part of the months in 1915 that Shackleton and his men—after their boat was beset and crushed in the Weddell Sea—spent drifting with the pack, living in tents until the ice broke up beneath them.
Shackleton’s failed attempt at the first trans-Antarctic crossing soon turned into one of the most extraordinary sea voyages of all time when, in an open long-boat, some of the party sailed across the Southern Ocean to get help for those left behind.
This seasonal outer continent of 16 million square kilometres has a magical birth. Scott’s photographer, Herbert Ponting, recorded the process as it happens in the Ross Sea, with the onset of winter and the weakening of the sunlight: “As the cold wind smote the water, which was of a much higher temperature than the air, clouds of vapour arose, as though the seas were steaming. This phenomenon is known as frostsmoke. The vapour as it condensed, froze in the air, and fell back in minute particles of ice into the sea; also, as the wind agitated the water into spray, this, too, froze and formed slush, which speedily congealed as soon as the wind subsided.”
In this way thin, frozen discs form, and the ice builds across the sea. Ponting continues: “If no wind came to disturb them, these little discs about the size of a dollar would rapidly increase in size…as they grew bigger and lay in contact with each other, crystals would shoot across and knit them firmly together… in a single hour I’ve seen an inch of ice grow over a mile of the sea.”
With the return of the 24-hour summer sun the process is reversed. Where the pack was knitted together, now it’s picked apart. Although some ice remains fastened to the shore, the bulk is pushed by current and wind northwards, leaving behind open waters.
In 1841 Sir James Clark Ross went where Cook’s ambition had previously failed, and gave this sea his name. But it was not until 1895 that whalers on an Australian ship became the first to step ashore. A 17year-old from Stewart Island, one Alexander von Tunzelman, who had been taken on when the ship stopped en route, claimed to have leapt clear of the long-boat before the others, making his mark in history.
To the west of the Ross Sea are the Transantarctic Mountains of Victoria Land. From a ship this land, rising white from the sea, is the first sight of the mainland.
It was in South Victoria Land in 1912, while Scott was trekking to the pole, that a six-strong party of his men was marooned for the winter by the inconsistencies of the pack ice. Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, twice tried to penetrate what had been open water a few weeks before, when the men had been dropped off. But 40 miles of ice had intervened.
These men were left with little besides four weeks’ rations and the light summer clothing they stood in. To survive, they carved a cave from a glacier and stocked it with as many seals and penguins as they could find. Their light clothing, now soaked in grease and blood, kept them inside for most of the six months of winter.
For cooking and heat they dripped oil from chunks of blubber on to a filament of seal bones. The fumes from this fire in the darkness of the walled-up cave induced symptoms similar to snow-blindness—a kind of itch behind the eyes—and coated the men with soot until they were recognisable only by their voices.
Even now, wintering-over is a disorienting experience where broken sleep patterns cause energies to grow sluggish; where the enforced isolation from home, in a tight group, is often countered by dangerous introspection. The silent internal battle to last the distance, as a study of Scott Base personnel has shown, can lead to clinical signs of depression and, in a few cases, personality disorders.
Meanwhile, as Scott’s men in their cave experimented with “Swedish drill” to keep limber and allotted individual raisins for future special occasions, the winter pack was reaching north for 1500 kilometres, the sombre half-tones of winter light giving the mountains behind them a ghastly sheen.
One stroke of luck was finding 36 fish in the stomach of a seal. To scrape the pots, they used penguin flippers, which became mixed with the food. One diary entry contained the peculiar news the men were experimenting with mustard plaster—a type of medical bandage—as a spice. At one stage they convinced themselves that four penguins were a rescue party. They chronically lost control of their bowels.
With the coming of the sun, but before the pack-ice could again grow rotten, the men set out to walk the 150 miles south to Ross Island where the expedition was based. At the first but they found a note saying that Scott and the four others of the polar party had not returned, and that the occupants of the but had gone in search of the bodies.
Catharacta—a group with further representatives on subantarctic and cool temperate islands such as Tristan da Cunha. They are thought to be long-lived birds (20-30 years) which feed mainly on small fish.
Only a minority of skuas attack penguin chicks, and they are not efficient butchers. Unlike raptors, they do not hold prey with their feet and tear with the beak. Two skuas have to cooperate to kill a large chick.
Some skuas eat penguin eggs, but no chicks, and, in return, penguins crush plenty of skua eggs. In fact, skuas breed more successfully when they are separate from penguins.
Skuas in Antarctica don’t even need penguins to reduce their breeding success—they do it themselves! Most pairs produce two eggs, and the first chick to hatch usually drives the second from the nest after one or two days, where it is often eaten by neighbouring skua pairs. This behaviour only occurs in the Antarctic, and its significance is unknown.
Gordon Court and fellow Otago University student Rick Wilson spent the 1990/91 summer at Cape Bird, the site of several skua breeding sites and Adelie penguin rookeries, 100km north of Scott Base.
Skuas come to Antarctica only to breed, and it is their breeding behaviour that the two men are studying. Some of their observations have been surprising. For example, they have found that skuas who fail to find a mate, or are too young to breed, band together in mixed “clubs”.
“These are something like singles’ bars, where the birds which have had no joy breeding often go to hang out,” explains Court. “Only about 10 per cent of these are regulars. The rest fly between clubs, catching the highlights of the season’s social calendar at locations up to 1200km apart.
“We had thought club members would be birds too young to breed, or those that had lost territorial disputes. We were partially right; they were all non-breeders. But some were quite old—one, in fact, was 18 years old, and she didn’t breed at all in the three seasons we were watching. Which is not to say she hadn’t tried. There is a lot of promiscuous behaviour at the club.”
Lost territorial battles are a common membership trait. “It’s a serious business for them. They are very territorial and they seem to keep the same partner and territory for years.
“The claw they use to scratch at opponents is the sharpest I have seen in a lifetime of studying predatory birds. As well as scratching, sometimes the stronger bird will bite the other to death. They can lose bits of toes during these battles, and many wear bad scars on their beaks and legs.”
Court is interested in skuas not just as a social model, but also as an “environmental barometer”. As a scavenger and predator which flies over some of the world’s most polluted seas, the south polar skua is an ideal species through which to monitor marine pollutant levels.
Concern over pesticide contamination in the oceans and on land surfaced in the late 1950s. DDT and other persistent organochlorines were found to pass from one organism to another in food chains, reaching dangerous levels in the top predators. Their effect on birds was to cause eggs to be laid with shells too thin to withstand the weight of the brooding parent. Massive embryo mortality resulted, with serious population declines in species such as the peregrine falcon, bald eagle and brown pelican.
Court says that monitoring chemical levels found in dead skuas and abandoned eggs provides a gauge of changes in worldwide ocean pollution.
The skuas’ migratory path, a loop of up to 20,000km, takes them over the Sea of Japan, the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans—some of the world’s murkiest waters. Adelie penguins at Cape Bird, on the other hand, never move beyond the Antarctic Convergence. Any pollutants their tissues contain would have to have come from Antarctic food chains.
By comparing these birds’ pollutant levels, Court believes he can assess the cleanliness of Antarctica relative to the seas under the skuas’ flight path.
Court and Wilson have found significant levels of DDT, dieldrin, PCBs and other organochlorines in both skuas and Adelies. They believe this finding confirms that pollutants are transported to the Antarctic by both water and wind currents.
“But the skuas’ organochlorine levels were 50 times higher than those found in the Adelies. So the waters around Antarctica are still a lot cleaner than those in the northern hemisphere—not that that gives us cause for complacency!”
Victor Campbell, leader of the marooned men, records in his diary that, despite their own appalling ordeal and weakened condition, they felt disappointment at not being able to join the search party. “We were all anxious to join in.”
Finally, at the second hut, they were re-united with the balance of the wintering-over party. Stepping into this second hut, at Cape Evans on Ross Island, remains a melancholy experience. There is an eerie smell that lies between that of the dead and the living.
To get inside the but proper you pass the still chained-up skeleton of a dog that nobody bothered to bury. Bales of good New Zealand hay donated by South Island farmers survive stacked against a wall. Next to a store of skua and penguin eggs lies a pile of seal blubber that, with the summer thaw, weeps a thick, sticky grease, a warm smell of flesh.
Around the walls is hung sledging tackle for pony, man and dog. A tangle of makeshift pony snowshoes shows how the men tried to stop the hooves from hopelessly punching through the snow, before they had to take over. Reindeer-skin sleeping bags are there in cots whose size shows how much smaller humans were in those days.
In the grim months of man-haul on the polar journey, with blizzards inexorably dismembering the calculation of food, time, distance and fuel, it sometimes took an hour to break sleeping bags like these free of ice. The smell is a heavy combination of these things.
There are touches of home. Above Scott’s bunk hangs a hot water bottle.
On the table, next to a stuffed emperor penguin, lies a copy of The Field—“the countryman’s newspaper” offering for sale shooting estates and, in other advertisements, the pheasant eggs to go with them.
In the more cramped men’s quarters a 1908 adventure magazine, of the ripping yarn species, tells a well-thumbed story of British warships sinking German raiders. On offer here were correspondence courses for “the young man at the top today”. Pin-ups of favourite pedigree dogs—stocky little terriers—occupied pride of place above the bunks.
To go from this but and sit on the gravel beach at the tip of Cape Evans in the midnight sun is to experience a silence whose depth reaches back those 80 years. Only a few miles away to the north, the Barne Glacier, its face a mint green against the purple sky, hasn’t changed its contours since Ponting stepped outside the but and first photographed it.
Across McMurdo Sound the Royal Society Range glistens in the full light of the sun which, way to the south, is shining in a clear sky. Freeze the waters of the Hauraki Gulf a literally sparkling white, coat the Coromandel a chromium blue-pink cream and you have a scale model of the view. You can sit for hours studying the peaks, passes and valleys, beyond which lies nothing. Somehow, the view and the memory magnify the silence.
And then, from the tide crack of the sea ice comes a reverie-shattering raucous blast of air. A Weddell seal has returned from a dive to flop gasping at the surface. On one breath, which can last 70 minutes, they can swim 4.5km or dive 600m, so it’s not surprising that the exhalation sounds like the air-brakes of a truck.
My visitor regains composure and soon breathes only the occasional sigh. In the renewed silence there is a faint creak of floes rubbing together. The icicle chandeliers hanging from the floes’ edges tinkle into the sea. My seal, with an audible snap of its nostrils, drops beneath the ice.
Through winter the seals must constantly gnaw at the ice to keep their breathing holes from freezing over. In summer they sunbathe, sprawling for weeks at a time, a gathering of barely animate bean bags, a feeble wave of a flipper the only movement.
Walk out on the ice to sit among maybe 30 of these beasts and they regard you with the resigned air of tragically over-fed labradors. There’s the constant rippling of slacksphinctered flatulence and, less overpowering, a fishy whisper to the breath.
Some of them have probably been tagged, measured, recorded and otherwise prodded in the cause of science more times than they care to remember, but their response to humans is to simply avert the eyes.
In New Zealand, the fear of wild creatures is confined to irrational phobias about sharks. Here, although the Weddell seal is harmless, the leopard seal, with a huge jaw to its head, has many times tried to drag humans off a floe. And then, as you walk the pack, there is the thought of the killer whales, which raise their piebald snouts six feet above the ice, scanning for prey.
A New Zealander, Cornelius van Dorp, who wintered-over for Greenpeace, recorded in the base log the experience of being hunted by a group of orca while out on fragile new ice. “We heard the whoosh of orca spouts around us. We knew they’d seen us. We skied for 10 minutes of strenuous effort to reach safe ice, the orcas tracking us the whole way. There was the terrifying feeling of being hunted.”
Although this was probably a case of mistaken identity (there is no record of orcas attacking humans in water) it becomes rapidly apparent why penguins go so anxiously into committee before leaping off the deep-end into the sea, and why they pop out of it with such apparent relief when they return.
No creature is more hostile than a nesting skua, the huge, barrel-chested gulls that appear so often on television in pairs delivering slow death to fluffy penguin chicks after having fooled the dim-witted parents.
Cape Evans doesn’t have penguin chicks, but it does have humans, and the skuas apply the same craft to the attack. One (the one you first see) will circle in front cackling horribly; the other, with a last second whistling of feathers, will king-hit you from behind with a blow to the head from nowhere.
By then the first will have dodged behind some ridge, tracking low like a cruise missile, to pounce at you, beak agape, from some unsuspected quarter. Their viciousness is exceeded only by the darkness of their sense of humour. If they successfully scone you, the warning note in the cackle changes to one of sardonic self-congratulation.
Once I learned to fend these birds off with a stick I grew to admire their intelligence and hardihood. Living perhaps as long as 30 years, they’re the most migratory birds in the world, flying a 20,000km loop that sees them as far north as the Aleutians. Despite the temptations of easier scavenging in the thousands of rubbish dumps along the route, they return to Antarctica to nest in the summer, and it is to protect their nests that they attack—over a wide radius.
If skuas have been type-cast as villains, then penguins are stuck with the Charlie Chaplin role. Being the object of their solemn curiosity on land is a delight, but it still needs to be said, on their behalf, that they’re powerful, streamlined swimmers. Emperors can dive to 250 metres.
Adelies range so far out to sea that a few of them in the Ross Sea have been fitted with satellite transmitters so they can be tracked. The old radio transmitters lost them past 150km.
The Adelies are the cute ones, and a rough count puts their population on the shores of Ross Sea at between five and six million. Science doesn’t stint in its studies, and it’s been estimated that a breeding colony of 175,000 pairs catches about 3500 tonnes of food over summer, yielding 875 tonnes of penguin chick.
The scientists know this because they averaged the catch of returning birds with the help of a little pump that sucks out the stomach contents: between 0.5 and 1.0kg of fish and krill, with perhaps as many as 10,000 krill, captured individually.
They also know that penguins keep warm by a combination of tightly knit feathers, a layer of fat, and blood vessels in the limbs that work as heat-exchangers. In the maybe 5°C heat of summer, the flow of blood in the flippers is altered so they act as cooling fins which glow a faint pink.
Humans lack these abilities, and even on fine days must dress as if they’re in the middle of a blizzard—as all of a sudden they might well be. Here there is some solidarity with the skuas, who, being overstuffed with fat and feathers themselves, quite easily become heat distressed. (What it must be like to experience -50°C is quite beyond comprehension.)
At Cape Evans, alongside Scott’s but is the Greenpeace World Park Base, where I initially stayed. With the Gondwana held back by the pack 20 miles out to sea, we flew in by helicopter to find the four lonely figures of the winter-overers, like Kubrick’s apes, scampering among the lava gravel of the cape. The arrival of new life.
Greenpeace established the base in 1986 in the hope that it would give it a place at meetings of Antarctic nations. It failed to achieve that, but having a base has since allowed for the year-round monitoring of the environmental record of its neighbours, Scott Base and America’s McMurdo, which are situated together a day’s ski south across the sea ice.
Greenpeace has carried out a science programme principally to do with establishing pollution levels, but also to record winter freezing rates of the lakes behind the base.
Inside the base—the size of a compact house—the common living area is dominated by a garden of hydroponic salad vegetables trained up a wall. With old squashy armchairs, a stereo and a warm welcome, it’s for all the world a well-kept domestic house.
Visitors appear to find the relaxed atmosphere therapeutic. One entry in the Greenpeace visitors’ book reads: “nice to find a bit of humanity.” Nearby, in the New Zealand field huts, most of the entries are typical Kiwi alpine but fare, with a functional concentration on details of intended destinations and times—sprinkled with obscenities concerning the skuas.
But the names of visiting sledge dogs are logged too, from the time when Scott Base still used them. Set out in the order they appeared within the traces are names like Tama, Stareek, Nimrod, Jurek, Rehua, Footrots.
These animals were descended from the original huskies that Hillary used in the 1956 expedition. Some 60 were garnered from the Australian Mawson base and Greenland, along with a few from the Auckland zoo. They, or rather the men, were trained on the Tasman Glacier.
Once the dogs had completed the work of the initial expedition, those surplus to the requirements of the permanent base—a couple of dozen—had to be destroyed. New Zealand quarantine regulations prohibited their return.
The dogs brought a special flavour to Scott Base. While they were friendly to humans—introducing themselves by peeing all over unsuspecting visitors—outside the pack-discipline of the traces they’d fight each other to the death. Controlling these animals lent a Jack London authenticity to any journey, giving another reference point to help make sense of the ice.
Their memory lives on. Ski-doos, which haul the same Nansen sledges Scott used, have the generic nickname of “tin dogs”, and are often named after specific dogs. Vanda, a New Zealand base in the Dry Valleys, was the name of a husky.
These tin dogs may be more efficient than their predecessors, but every ski-doo journey must be equipped as if it was being made on foot, as, in the event of a breakdown, it might well have to be. The same is true of helicopter travel. When bad weather can rapidly close in and stay for weeks, survival gear is mandatory for every trip.
To the east of Cape Evans there is the bulk of Mt Erebus blocking the sky. From the bridge of the Gondwana, as we tracked south-west along the northern coast of Ross Island, the smudge of wreckage was still visible horribly low on the slopes, but now very faint. It was easy to see how the white upon white of the ice could have fooled.
Peter Mulgrew, one who died in the crash, accompanied Hillary to the Pole in 1958. That was the year Chile first ran tourist flights to the ice. Although down here Erebus is less a disaster and more a daily fixture of life, Scott Base still holds memorial services for the 257 dead.
It is probably trite to say it, but the accident—which claimed several times more lives than have been lost in Antarctica through other ways—is a reminder that the principal pitfall on the ice is how technology is so easily defeated.
Scott died partly because the leather washers on his kerosene tins were unsuited to the climate, allowing the fuel to evaporate. Primus stoves, unchanged since Scott’s day, are still the favoured choice for field parties—but they’ve sorted out the washers.
Most bases have enough staff to provide specialists for all contingencies, but the Greenpeace base, with just base leader, medic, radio operator and one or two scientists, has much finer margins of error.
The base leader, like some mountain man of old, must know all the tricks of survival. The soft domestic science of home—how to mend a fuse, call in a plumber—is here about how to braid the lashings of a Nansen sled to stop it falling apart, phase a generator, cross a crevasse, read the weather, navigate or replace a skidoo sprocket 2000 metres up Erebus.
The problems strike in unexpected ways. During this last winter period the generator malfunctioned, causing a rapid flicker in the lights that was so bad for the eyes that the team spent much of the time in 24-hour darkness.
Then there are the medical emergencies. One member of the first winter-over team, in 1986, suffered an abscess beneath a molar, which wouldn’t respond to antibiotics. But since he was the medic it was up to the base leader, who’d once pulled a husky tooth, to extract it. With a pair of pliers, it took three days of trying. The difficulty was to prevent it cracking into shards, which would have meant an evacuation. (On our trip the medic used an engine-room file to smooth a replacement filling.)
Last year’s base leader, Marc Defourneaux, an American, talks about the experience of holding a base together: “Everything is more real down here. Personal relationships are more stressful. Mentally, it’s intoxicating, all the things, the systems you have to be responsible for. It’s an anticlimax when you get back, being absorbed back into the dullness of everything.
“It’s the Antarctica syndrome. We’re here like the early colonialists of the American West. You’re on your own, you’re king of the hill, doing something unique, and there’s the sense that everybody else is up there in the other world competing, hassling.”
The need for self-reliance is reinforced by the official attitude of Scott Base and McMurdo toward Greenpeace. It was Greenpeace that first provided the world with graphic images of the pollution down here, and the embarrassment has caused an enduring hostility in some quarters.
Predictions were made that Greenpeace, by coming to the ice, would be forced sooner than later to seek assistance—risking lives and putting the old Antarctic hands to a lot of trouble. There’s a sense that if Greenpeace needed help they’d have to crawl through a few hoops first.
Greenpeace can’t afford to give its neighbours the satisfaction.
It was against this background that I flew south, toward Scott Base. Over the headphones came the voice of the American air traffic controller at Mac Tower—an echoing rap music cum DJ patter materialising out of the ice ahead.
On our port side loomed the city of McMurdo—a frontier mining town crossed with a Korean war encampment. MacTown, as it is known, overspills its quarried lava valley with a MASH-style chaos of Nissen huts, pipelines, packing cases and smoking rubbish fires. Marooned among the fuel tanks is Scott’s but from his first 1901 to 1904 expedition. The waters of the bay below the but are seriously polluted.
A few kilometres over the hill was the Scott Base complex, by comparison a paradigm of parade ground order. The buildings, painted an education board pastel green and built like hi-tech freezing chambers with heavy fridge doors, replaced the old collection in the 1970s. It was an appeal by Hillary that saved the original hut. It’s a tidy base. From the air you can see a farm-bike blatting about on the gravel.
In the public lobby the first thing you hear is the warm sing-song of Telecom toll operators trying to get through to Palmerston North, which relays the calls. “Palmie? Is that you, Palmie? Palmie, c’mon, where are you?”
This call, by high frequency radio, should be bouncing off the ionosphere straight into Palmie’s lap, but it isn’t: it’s being lost in a swirl of solar flares, x-ray bursts and magnetic storms that come in summer.
And then they get through:”Palmie?…We’ve got a couple of calls… Is that you, Fay?… Well, have we got some goss for her! A couple of real doozies. We’ll call her back tomorrow! Bye for now.”
Since I was not part of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s 1990 Antarctic programme, I was unable to stay at Scott Base. Instead, I made lone camp in a Greenpeace “apple” shelter a short distance away. Melting ice with a primus, living on dried rations and making a radio schedule each day to the Gondwana gave a welcome taste of Antarctic field life, disturbed only by the balloon-tyred American buses that round-the-clock lumbered past my door every hour.
The bus service runs between the ice runway out on the Ross Ice Shelf and MacTown. The Americans provide a separate service by minivan for the gravel road between Scott Base and McMurdo. I spent the next week on the buses, toing and froing.
American incongruities abound in this piece of New Zealand. The balloon-tyred monsters that go out to Willy Field resemble lunar tractors, but haul passenger compartments that are a mess of subway graffiti. At Willy, with Erebus steaming beyond, a lanky Afro-American tows a small sled. When he’s free of the sled he breaks into street walk, as best he can, sliding along the alleys formed by row upon row of mobile homes.
Nothing, not even flying over it, prepares you for a walk through MacTown. It’s about engines—the roar of exhaust, the clanking of tracked vehicles, the whine of their transmissions, the whop-whop of Iroquois helicopters, the burble of V8 pick-ups. It’s the sound of Vietnam, or Kuwait.
This place is not New Zealand. Coming in off the ice there’s the raw smell of fuel where spills have not been cleaned up. There’s a circling of skua gulls through the smoke of fires at the dump, which only recently had a fence built around it. Before the fence, the winds blew the rubbish through the town, out on to the ice. Now there is a fine litter underfoot, bound in with the gravel.
Earlier, the dump was in Winter Quarters Bay, below Scott’s hut. The National Science Foundation is not sure what to do with the toxic sludge that lies on the seabed. Bulldozers work the hillsides, scraping rock for a new, larger helipad.
Inside an accommodation building, the size of a city block, darkened video rooms are doing a fine trade. Because it’s navy, the building has the designations of a ship. Next to the mess is a pouch of letters from American children, wishing servicemen well. One eight-year-old, writing from Texas, finishes with the encouragement: “I hope we when the war. I know you will!”
Chaplain Yorton, with a diploma in pyschotherapy, has a notice up there as well. He welcomes all honest questions but doesn’t guarantee he always has the answers. The steeple of his Chapel of the Snows seems entangled in overhead wires and is cut off from the ice by pipes that discharge the sewage of a thousand people into the bay.
I spend some time in the AceyDeucy bar, where one song has the chorus: “What the world needs is a few more rednecks.” I learn that many personnel don’t leave base for the duration of their stay; that for them McMurdo could be anywhere. (In Scott Base even the tolls operators get trips away.) A Nansen sledge is strung up above a popcorn machine. One of the drinkers wears a Mickey Mouse leather jacket. I think of Scott.
But there is warmth here, out of the freezing cold, and everywhere in town a friendly, easy-going interest in this itinerant photojournalist camping on the ice. Soon everybody he explains how McMurdo used to have a handful of movie houses and it was a real social time, but, shoot, since video the place has gone dead.
We spend a long night talking, and move on to matters environmental. It becomes clear MacTown’s recognised the error of its ways, if not the magnitude, or how to clean up the mess that’s there.
For the first time there is a budget for environmental matters. There are programmes in hand, but he’s not sure how soon MacTown will comply with the environmental protection laws of his own country. Five years? Ten years? It’s complex.
A friend drops by and quickly the conversation turns to the logistics of supplying the base at the Pole, the lubricity levels of aviation fuel and their jellification tolerances and the like. Chiang, a scientist in his own right, sees his prime role as getting as many scientists into the field as possible in the limited summer season. With Antarctic conditions frustrating those efforts at every turn, it’s a full-time job. But they’re starting to get the place clean.
And so I returned to my ice-camp. Passing Scott Base, sitting prim and silent in the midnight light with most of the 36 base staff asleep, I wondered just how well the two bases co-exist. Kiwis call Americans “goddams”, who, in return, have stencilled on one wall an American eagle about to pounce on a kiwi, but how serious was this? How serious is our claim to this territory?
The next morning, David Geddes, base leader at Scott Base, explained that it was very much New Zealand territory, that certain New Zealand laws related to Antarctica and that he had the powers of coroner and Justice of the Peace. The flag pole flying the southernmost New Zealand flag was not an empty symbol.
America, for its part, doesn’t recognise our claim to the territory, and this leads, so I learned, to some fairly earnest Kiwi ploys to win de facto acceptance of New Zealand jurisdiction.
Chiang had told me that whenever there’s an American death, the New Zealand base leader offers to help out with a New Zealand death certificate.
“We don’t inform them of the deaths, but they find out. Well, we just smile and say we can handle it. We just chuckle about this thing you Kiwis have. I mean, they drive on our side of the road, don’t they?”
Geddes responds: “We grant them that minor concession of driving on the right, but not on the roads inside our base.” Here it should be pointed out that Scott Base could fit inside the parking lot of a good-sized supermarket, with room to spare. At the entrance, drivers must swap whatever side they are on.
Returning to subtleties, Geddes explains how Americans on Antarctic flights out of Christchurch are not given departure cards to fill in, and appear to have accepted this. In some fine way this implies that the Americans are on an internal flight to another part of New Zealand. Likewise, they don’t get immigration cards on their return.
For the present, all this is academic. So long as Antarctic nations agree to work together in the interests of science, all claims are suspended and, in the words of the DSIR, “the cooperation is superb”. In the event of the agreement lapsing, it’s hard to say what the polite day-to-day jostling for position will mean.
In the 1950s, like jostling between Britain and Argentina ended in tears. They pulled up each other’s plaques, demolished each other’s bases, and rifle shots were fired. Later came the Falklands, which, apart from the natural justice of repelling an invader, was all about strategic location. (In 1939 the Nazis tried to make a claim by dropping swastika on poles from a plane into the ice.)
With American oil companies already awake to the possibility of oil reserves in our Ross Sea (traces of hydrocarbon were recently discovered there), the issue of whose death certificates are filled out has some symbolism, if little else.
Meanwhile, in this piece of New Zealand, Kiwis mostly drive on the right, the greenback holds sway and we depend on America for logistics to the ice. This relationship stemmed from the days of Hillary, when the Americans took us under their wing at McMurdo, when our own plans for a base elsewhere were frustrated by the pack ice. Just as Britain had granted us control of the Ross Dependency, now a similar joining of forces was taking place. The immediate payoff for the Americans was securing Christchurch.
These days, New Zealanders working directly for the Americans as domestics outnumber the staff at Scott Base. Some 60 spend the summer at McMurdo, many of them affecting a curious American accent, simply as a way of being understood—a stratagem I resorted to in quick order. Hopes of seeing Antarctica—there are some 1000 applicants for the jobs—quickly dissolve.
One had some scathing criticisms: “You can get in trouble for going for a hike, but getting hopelessly drunk, chucking your brains out, that’s okay. You’re there inside cleaning screwheads with matchsticks and there’s all this mess outside. It really gets hard on the sanity sometimes.”
At the Willy’s Field bar one pair of domestics are jumping in their seats with excitement—a package from home. They make a performance of opening it. “Look, Maggi onion soup and reduced cream—we can have dip! Hah! Weetbix Treaty of Waitangi cards. And here’s shortbread. I’ve got a mum who cares!” Lemons, Afghans, shortbread, Vegemite, Christmas snapshots—all these things mean so much. And then the two bury themselves in the letters.
The competition for a place at Scott Base is even keener. Although only 11 winter-over, few come for consecutive seasons. The DSIR attempts to strike a fresh mix each year. For one newcomer, Patrick Nolan, now 44 years old, Antarctica was a childhood ambition, sparked by Hillary’s trip in 1956—the playground map.
But those days have changed. Hillary’s been back to Scott Base twice now. “I found everything was more regimented. In our day we all shared in the dirty work, ran the base by consensus. Now, everything is done to a rigid plan. It’s more like an army base.”
While that’s a comparison I hear a few times, the base doesn’t strike me as overly military. Certainly, with the Queen watching on from the wall, there’s a dominant mess-room bawdiness that, apparently, is difficult to escape.
But the bar, apart from various coats of arms, is like any other New Zealand bar, and the people there resemble no more than office workers on the way home from work on a Friday. If the weather was better, a good proportion would be wearing walkshorts.
A stroll through the base confirms the feel of a public service office. People are at work, snug in their cubicles; there’s a general stirring of movement at break times; paper is passed from one location to another. There’s ice at the window and the burning mountain of Erebus.
This, then, is the relay-point for almost all New Zealand’s contact with Antarctica. Lying in my sleeping bag on my last night, I think of the two bases nearby and wonder if they are really what lies at the end of the Antarctic story.
It is possible to log the experience of the people who live here, but will their stories excite an enduring national awareness of Antarctica? The DSIR tries hard enough with media visits each year, but these deliver only a smattering of images of the frozen continent. Television once staged “It’s in the Bag” at Scott Base. This year a “Wild South” team is wintering over.
What is needed is a wider vision of what lies beyond the 75th parallel—a task for the best of New Zealand’s artists, novelists, historians. That work will not be easy. Outside the human story there is only the white of the ice, which nature has already reduced to the barest of elements.
But the most revealing Antarctic literature has been all about the attempt to come to terms with the void. Quite apart from the well-known Antarctic perennials—the British stories of exploration, part of whose power comes from keen observation—Antarctica has informed some of the great classics of literature and poetry.
Samuel Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was Cook’s voyage re-worked; the albatross around the neck a Southern Ocean albatross. In turn, Gustav Dore illustrated Coleridge. Moby Dick was an Antarctic whale, the white a metaphor for the ice, for the haunting unknowable. Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe were likewise inspired.
It was the large scale use of aeroplanes by the Americans in the 1930s that shut out the inspiration of fresh epic possibilities and, in practical terms, reduced all other Antarctic achievements this century to the status of mere curiosities.
By blotting out the relevance of the human scale and bringing to Antarctica the industrial age, the American technological leap of imagination enshrined Scott as the enduring access point for an understanding of the place. In the same way, in 1912, it was Amundsen’s effortless use of ski that originally gave the story of Scott’s struggle at least part of its pathos.
Now that tourists on package holidays ski to the Pole, there is little room left for heroic tales of hardihood. The human Antarctic experience has dulled, and with it the Antarctic story has moved on.
Now that we have physical mastery of the ice, its antithesis of environmental concern has become the new enduring story. Where people were once at risk here, now Antarctica itself is at risk. It’s Greenpeace that has given this abstract some focus.
And so, on the last days of my stay in Antarctica, I fly from the Gondwana to Marble Point, a large, flat, permanently ice-free area in Victoria Land, which, if oil drilling in the Ross Sea becomes a reality, is the most likely spot for on-shore support facilities.
We swoop low over a Coastguard ice-breaker that has worked through the pack and is lying off a beach. A fuel line snakes across the sea ice and up through the rock to a small American summer base. There’s a yellowish stain in the ice and a group of sailors is gathered around it.
The Greenpeace helicopter lands some miles away, but I hike back and walk out over the broken, slushy floes. The sailors are not pleased to see me. They dab ineffectually at the fuel spill with tissues, chiselling with pocket knives to try to remove the ice before the fuel soaks too far.
It’s only a small spill, about a hundred gallons, but it has soaked through tonnes of ice, where it could stay for centuries. These sailors, good people, are embarrassed. Their task is beyond them.
It was images of the Exxon Valdez spill that, in part, caused France and Australia and then New Zealand to drop support for any minerals exploitation here and to stand for an Antarctic World Park. The new test on the ice is about placing barriers, not piercing them.
We fly on from the spill, into the fastness of the mountains—great glaciers drooping over the sides of the valley we follow—until we reach New Zealand’s Vanda summer base, where garden gnomes guard the entrance and a letter box asks that no circulars be delivered.
We’re welcomed inside for a brew of tea and a fresh batch of scones. Pinex lines the ceiling, and outside an old red tractor is parked not far from the washing line. The base has the pleasant, cluttered air of a group of cribs or bathes.
The window above the stove, the kettle whistling, frames a view of Lake Vanda and the 1500m scree-covered sides of the valley where the ice is poised, but never descends.
This is one of the Dry Valleys, where the winds scrub the moisture from the air so thoroughly that ice doesn’t get a foothold. Seals sometimes trek into this valley, crawling inland where they die, their bodies perfectly mummified by the dry winds. No one knows why they come.
Vanda has become an in-house tourist attraction. While we’re there a group of Americans from McMurdo flies in by Iroquois. The pilot wears a patch that proclaims in gold embroidery “Courage, Sacrifice, Devotion.”
Alastair Fastier, one of the three Kiwis at the base, checks the oven. The scones will be ready by the time these visitors return from their skinny-dip in the lake, which is why they’ve come. They want to join the Vanda Swim Club.
They’ll be in select company: the log-book records that Ruth Richardson, here on one of the many VIP junkets, is a fully-fledged member. According to her entry, the swim was “better than eyeballing Roger Douglas across the house”.
Back on the Gondwana it’s not long before we’re steaming north to a New Zealand now seeming quite unreal. We push our way through the last of the pack, pink in the midnight sun.