It's one thing to look at a remote place on the map, and quite another to experience it in three dimensions, with sound effects, rich smells, and a windchill factor. In this case, close to a raucous colony of king penguins, on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
The site reeks of guano. A chorus of trilling and trumpeting fills the air: thousands of penguins huddle together like delegates at a vast convention on coffee break. The trouble is, they have no name tags. A parent returning from a fishing foray is faced with hundreds of hungry chicks, all with exactly the same fluffy brown coat, standing in crèches. But each chirp of a chick is unique. A slapstick chase ensues as ravenous chicks demand the parent regurgitate food from its bill and the adult sorts out the imposters with vocalizing.
There is something profoundly comic about king penguins. The way they walk upright, their proud bearing and puffy white chests, their silvery coats, their bright orange ear-muffs. A trumpeting male struts his stuff before a female, performing a head-swaggering courtship walk. A squabble breaks out between rival suitors in one sector, and three penguins duke it out, battling each other with flippers and bills. And then, panic in the ranks as a bird swoops in low overhead, causing shrill alarms to go off. The pirate is a skua, a gull-like predator fond of poaching penguin eggs or scrawny chicks.
This penguin drama plays out just metres away from us. We are eyeball to eyeball with wild penguins that have no instinctive fear of terrestrial predators. In fact, curious chicks will waddle over to inspect camera gear or peck at your boots. It's hard to put words to the thrill of this primeval encounter: it's biblical, the dawn of creation, Eden with icicles.
The king penguin was first described for science in 1775 by naturalists aboard the Resolution, Captain Cook's vessel. Previously, it was thought to be a fish with feathers, then it was declared to be a bird without wings.
South Georgia was claimed for England by Captain Cook in the course of a mission to determine if a great southern continent existed. Cook circumnavigated Antarctica in an incredible three-year odyssey. He never sighted the continent, but concluded that it must be south of 60 degrees latitude. He surmised it would be frozen land and useless to England. He was right on the first score, but wrong on the second. Within a decade of the news of his discoveries, sealers descended on South Georgia. Over the next 40 years, they decimated the fur seal population, selling the pelts for a handsome profit in China. Searching further south, sealers were almost certainly the first to set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula, in 1821.
Once the exclusive domain of explorers and scientists, the white continent now hosts a new breed of adventurer, voyagers armed with binoculars and rubber boots. Access to Antarctica dramatically changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the cash-strapped Russians hit on the ingenious idea of chartering out polar research vessels to Western operators as expedition cruise ships. Our vessel, RV Akademik Ioffe, belongs to the National Academy of Sciences. Built in Finland, with an ice-strengthened hull, it has conducted oceanographic research at both poles. The ship, complete with Russian crew, is chartered by Toronto-based Marine Expeditions, the world's leading cruise ship operator to Antarctica. While this vessel has none of the dining-room frills of a conventional cruise ship, the food is superb, with gourmet dishes whipped up by a Canadian chef.
In a sense, the ship is still in research mode because we're definitely on a learning curve. On board is a lecture staff, naturalist, glaciologist and polar expert. Days at sea are filled with lectures and videos about wildlife, icebergs and sea ice, polar exploration. Voyagers aboard have liberal access to the bridge, where sightings include the odd fin whale or hourglass dolphin, and scores of sea birds, among them, the majestic wandering albatross, thought to be the soul of a drowned sailor.
But why on earth would anyone want to go to Antarctica? To a region known for its tempestuous seas and forbidding climate? Most of us have come to witness the last pristine wilderness on the planet. With its rich nutrients, Antarctica's waters support huge numbers of sea birds, penguins and more than half the world's seals.
Otherwise, the 50-odd voyagers from the United States, Canada and Europe have mixed agendas. There are a few birders scanning the skies for polar species. There are penguin lovers who collect anything to do with penguins (corny though it may sound, on some Antarctic trips, passengers step ashore in tuxedos to pose for photos next to penguins). There are Seventh Continent Clubbers chasing the elusive Antarctica trophy. And a number of voyagers aboard have been inspired from an early age by the heroic accounts of explorers tackling the last frontier.
On our first stop in South Georgia, at Grytviken, we paid our respects to Antarctica's most charismatic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. His grave is marked by a tall granite post. The Shackleton saga about the arduous rescue of his men after their ship was crushed in pack ice is an Antarctic classic. Shackleton memorabilia is on display at Grytviken's small whaling museum, which also doubles as the post office for South Georgia.
Apart from a garrison of 20 British soldiers, the only significant population here is stray fur seals and elephant seals. Grytviken is a modern ruin of sorts littered with derelict machinery, rusted oil tanks, submerged boats. It's an eerie ghost whaling station, a stark testament to monumental greed and folly. It was set up by a Norwegian captain in 1904 and after processing some 54,000 whales, the station closed down in 1965 because there were simply no more whales left to hunt.
The earliest indications that we are heading really far south are high seas and icebergs. They float casually by, great castles of ice sculpted into bizarre shapes by wind and water. Occasionally they carry hitchhiking penguins or seals. On the bridge, as the captain steers a course through the bergs, I try to imagine what it was like for early explorers entering this forbidding realm. Captain Cook, at the helm of a 34-metre-long barque, had no engine, no radar and no GPS, only ice-laden sails to manoeuvre. Cook knew what icebergs were, because of his sojourns in Arctic waters. But these islands of ice were much bigger; heading off the edge of the known map, surrounded by towering bergs and sea ice, must have been truly terrifying.
Captain Cook didn't have the luxury of chocolate donuts at afternoon tea time. But in my mind, Antarctica is still Terra Australis Incognita, the great unknown southland -- a featureless white blob. That is, until we get into a Zodiac and step ashore and then the geography sticks. Our first Antarctic landfall is rocky Paulet Island, where thousands of Adélie penguins nest. Adélies look just like the tuxedoed penguins in Chilly Willy cartoons. Strewn along the pebbly shores of Paulet are massive chunks of glistening sea ice, which the Adélies use to cool off on. Weddell seals use them as cool couches where they bask in the sun. Lazy as they appear, these seals can dive an astonishing 300 metres or more down into complete darkness in pursuit of squid or cod. Squadrons of imperial cormorants wing overhead -- this tiny island is buzzing with activity.
That afternoon, our Zodiacs navigate a surreal maze of sea ice to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. This finger-like tip has been dubbed the banana belt of the continent, and it is indeed a balmy 0 C, because of calm conditions. This is the home of the orange-billed gentoos, a penguin species with a great deal of character. Gentoos make nests out of pebbles and they spend endless amounts of time searching for the perfect stone. When a pebble is presented to the nesting mate, a gentoo is given a congratulatory hiss and promptly dispatched on the quest again. Pebble pilfering from the nests of neighbours is rampant, and leads to furious, if somewhat comic, squabbles.
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.