There are no land-based life forms in Antarctica. The sea birds and penguins come ashore for one reason: eggs. Laying eggs, incubating eggs, guarding eggs from predators. Penguin couples take turns incubating the precious eggs, the changing of the guard often marked with a ritual dance. The window for hatching and rearing is short in Antarctica, and bewildered fledglings are now peeking out from nests at their icy domain.
Antarctica surprises at every turn. We've sighted rock peaks, volcanic cindercones, immense glaciers, pebbly beaches. And now we reach an island with greenery, an illusion provided by a carpet of hardy moss and lichen. Careful to avoid stepping on this fragile material, we follow Patty Hostiuck, our naturalist, on a trek over snowbanks to find the nesting site of the giant petrel.
We've seen many of these masterful gliders circling the ship and now we track them to their clifftop aeyries, where they indulge in courtship displays played out in aerial ballets. On the return route, we chance across Antarctica's top predator, the leopard seal, slumped on a beach. The leopard seal has rows of sharp teeth lining its huge jaw. It attacks penguins and seals in the water but is ungainly on land, but cheeky Chinstrap penguins march past its nose without concern.
Surprisingly, there is one place in Antarctica where you can actually swim. The ship cruises into a collapsed caldera at Deception Island. Through a freak of nature, volcanic fumaroles bubble up here, heating the shoreline waters. An invigorating dip is a rite of passage and if still chilled out, there's a Finnish sauna on board to revive you. Later, at the bar, cocktails are served with vintage glacial ice.
After more entrancing Zodiac sorties to see penguins and nesting birds and elephant seals, we're all too soon back aboard ship heading north out of Antarctic waters. Brian Shoemaker, our polar expert, wraps things up with a lecture on the future of the white continent. Antarctica is, he says, the most successful demilitarized zone on the planet, a brave new world where scientists from a dozen nations co-operate on projects. As part of the Antarctic Treaty, an environmental clause is in place until the year 2048, effectively making Antarctica a world park. This implies no mining, fishing, oil-drilling, or other exploitation.
The role of tourism in all this is controversial. About 12,000 visit Antarctica each year, but a strict environmental code has been agreed upon and enforced by 12 key operators. Indeed, eyewitness reports by visitors have triggered environmental cleanups at scientific bases. In this sense, visitors to Antarctica could become the white continent's greatest ambassadors.
IF YOU GO
Basics: The only practical time to visit is the austral summer, lasting late November to early March. Antarctic weather conditions can be severe and layering is important to counter windchill. For Zodiac sorties, you need a waterproof jacket and pants, and knee-length rubber boots. Powerful binoculars are a plus. Outfitter: Trips to Antarctica have never been easy or cheap. Trips usually proceed by ship from the southern Argentinian town of Ushuaia. The best deals are offered by Toronto-based Marine Expeditions (phone: 1-800-263-9147; fax: 416-964-2366; e-mail: ). There are several Antarctica itineraries, for more information, consult their Web site ( ). Reading: There are three series of guidebooks to Antarctica on the shelves: Cadogan, Lonely Planet, and Bradt. Reviving the Shackleton craze are two new hardcover books: Endurance, by Caroline Alexander (Knopf, 1998), and Shackleton,by Kim Heacox (National Geographic, 1999). Michael Buckley is based in Vancouver.