Pearls Around the White Continent Part IV: Home, Sweet Home
In Part IV of this five-part series, Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke, on board their 40-foot steel ketch, Northern Light, return to places on the Antarctic Peninsula that they first visited in 1984. Their pleasure turns to dismay, however, when they become witnesses to the profound affects brought to the region by climate change. Click here for previous installments.
In the Shadow of a Hero
When we sailed to the Antarctic Peninsula in 1984 and again in 1991, there was an admission price to be paid: the possibility of icebergs starting at the Antarctic Convergence, and a guaranteed band of icebergs during the last 100 miles. Both times were scary. The visibility was poor, as it statistically tends to be. Because we had no radar in those days, there was no early warning of big bergs ahead. And because there was no alternative, we stood our watches on deck, no matter the conditions. Wet, freezing, staring out into the mist, we persevered, hoping to sight any berg or growler in time to rush back to the tiller, detach the wind steering, and hand steer around it.
If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that being scared ahead of time isn’t worth it. These days, I’m a lot cooler; I don’t often get scared without reason. For this passage, it’s a good thing I didn’t bother conjuring phantom icebergs ahead of time. There was no reason whatsoever to give myself more gray hair. Not one berg was sighted offshore. Not even during the final approach to the South Shetlands. The first berg we saw was after we’d already sighted Clarence Island and Elephant Island. We found this lack of ice odd.
If coming to Antarctica is a gift to me, reaching Elephant Island is a gift to Rolf. Ernest Shackleton has been his hero since childhood, and he became a role model for Rolf’s style of leadership. Lucky me! Rolf makes my coffee in the morning, because whenever the going was tough, Shackleton would arise first in order to make hot chocolate and distribute it to his men. When Rolf and I met in 1980, he had a plan to do a documentary about “The Boss.” The plan changed, but that hardly dispelled Rolf’s desire to see Elephant Island, the place where Shackleton’s men waited for their leader to rescue them.
Rolf and I can hardly believe our continuing good luck with the weather. In calm, we motor around to the east side of the island, looking for the beach where the 22 men waited for four months. A more desolate place is hard to imagine. Elephant Island rises steeply out of the ocean; 95 percent of it is covered by glaciers. The few stone beaches are narrow and fringed with craggy black rocks. How those men kept their willingness to survive, let alone their sanity, while living in such a harsh place is beyond me. My appreciation of their resilience increases each and every minute that the island is in sight. As Northern Light draws close to Point Wild, where the men camped, the swell picks up. Waves begin breaking on the shoreline, making a dinghy landing impossible. We won’t be able to touch the site.
The swell is the forerunner of wind. On the northeasterly breeze that’s picking up, we set sail for King George Island. It’ll be an overnight passage, but never dark. The magic of the many-hours-long twilight, when the ice and snow is washed in pastel hues of pink and green, rekindles my love for this “white” continent.
King George Island, the biggest in the South Shetland chain, hums with human activity. The stations of many countries are sprinkled over the entire south coast: Polish, Brazilian, American, Argentine, German, Korean, Chinese, Chilean, Russian, and Uruguayan. Within walking distance are rescue huts erected by other countries. Each country’s presence is in part a way to lay a claim in Antarctica, though for the time being, every signatory of the Antarctic Treaty has agreed to suspend all territorial claims.
“Despite the treaty, the jockeying continues,” an Argentine tour guide once explained to us. “The Chileans brought families to their stations, to prove settlement. We Argentines brought newlyweds, giving them their own honeymoon quarters and keeping them there until birth provided us with the first true Argentine-Antarctic citizen. And the English?” He paused and shrugged his shoulders to show his incomprehension of the non-Latino mentality. “The English chose to open a post office. . . .”