DIARY EXCERPTS FROM THE LAST GREAT WILDERNESS
By Fraser Morton
February 28, 2018 – Disconnect To Reconnect
Met our intrepid leader today, British adventurer and climate change activist Rob Swan, the first man to walk to both poles. He told all 92 of us on the 2018 International Antarctic Expedition from around the world we must “disconnect from the word to reconnect with nature” over the coming few weeks in Antarctica. I like him already. We heard from Rob and his son Barney about their walk to the South Pole using renewable energy just a month ago. Inspiring stuff.
March 1, 2018 – Drinking Silica
Disaster on a minor scale. We are crossing the Drake Passage now, the largest seas on Earth, but that’s not what is bothering me. My new shiny water flask, the one we were told we must buy to bring on the ship, is what’s got me feeling queasy. I left the silica packet in the bottom of the bottle and have been drinking from the flask for the past two days. Doctor said this was a new one on him, but should be fine. “You didn’t eat it, right?”
The Drake Passage is relatively calm, according to Rob. Outrunning a storm behind us, storm in front. Trying to get my head around that. Glasses rolling off tables and smashing in the dining hall. Everyone walking around the ship at weird angles as if drunk off their heads. Rocking and rolling through the mighty Drake now.
March 2, 2018 – Eyes
Eyesight deteriorating. Not good. Panic has set in. I can’t see my camera screen. No aperture, shutter, ISO. Relying on memory of my fingers on dials and buttons. I stare at the blurred screen again and curse my unexpected short-sightedness.
Rob tells me it might be a side effect of the travel sickness patch we are all wearing behind our ears to combat the heavy seas. Second trip to the ship doctor. “Take off the patch now. Your eyesight will resume in a day or so.”
Great. Ideal. I’m here to film and photograph. What a ridiculous side effect for a cameraperson to have. This is as much as I can write as I don’t know what I am writing. Does this make sense?
March 3, 2018 – Antarctic Circle
Eyesight has resumed. Panic over. Today, we rolled out the Drake Passage and into the the big chill as we crossed 66.5 degrees south and the Antarctic Circle, further south than most people will ever travel. Expedition leader Solan – who we have dubbed “Siri Of The Ocean Endeavour” on account of his soothing Canadian voice and calming instructions over the announcer – called all passengers to the bow where he and Rob Swan gave a speech to mark the occasion. Big day, big cheers and jubilant mood around the ship. The mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula hove into view in the distance as we go to sleep. Cameras back rolling. No issues. Feeling very small down here.
March 4, 2018 – Feet On Ice
First foot on icefall today. Plump seals and legions of penguins. Funny little things, the adelie penguins. They seem like statues from afar, but burst into action and slip and slide all over the ice in random zigzags. Spotted some penguins slapping one another. Must ask about this ritual. Strange.
March 5, 2018 – Ice and Fire
Lemaire Channel today. The channel was discovered by Belgian Adrien de Gerlache in 1898 and named after Charles Lemaire who explored the Congo but never visited Antarctica. I’m sure I will find out why when back in the real world. Seems odd to me.
Best day so far for penguins – and finally – a sunset that we took the chance stare at mouths agape from the stern of the ship. Shot a timelapse but the engines are too strong and send violent shudders through all seven decks. No doubt a failed effort trying to film this way. However, I did manage to get some stills of the sun dipping behind some clouds. Made me think of a title, Ice and Fire. Not sure if I will use it. Hopefully the photos and filming will turn out ok. The problem is the camera can’t do this place justice. I need you to be here to understand. Sight alone can’t cut it. You need all five senses to perceive and experience this chill. That’s the big one you can’t see and a photograph can’t touch. This place is violent on the body. Even Rob Swan, who no one would dispute is tough as nails and endured more than most could stand in this environment often talks about his “unease” in Antarctica. “I never feel fully relaxed down here. This place can kill you. Three minutes in the water and you’re dead,” he keeps telling us. With that thought, good night.
March 6, 2018 – Thunder Of Ice
Crashing ice today. A beautiful terror to behold. On the zodiacs a crack, crumble and then thunder and then we turned in time to see a monolith building size serac fall from a berg into the sea about two miles in the distance. Maybe more, maybe less. Distance here is tough to gauge. The icebergs and mountains rise from the sea and the blinding white all around can be disorienting in perspective, distance and height. Will have to read more about this.
March 7, 2018 – Silence On A Floating Zodiac In Antarctica
We do as we said we would. We cut a path through glassy waters to a remote bay far away from the other zodiacs and Dagny, our tall Scandinavian boat driver, cuts the engine. We all take a few photos and I start filming and give Inch, the Singaporean musician among our group, the nod we are all ready for silence.
Inch stands, raises her binaural microphone in the air – the one with the funny ears and ear muffs – and she hits record.
Anthea closes her eyes. So does Jess. So does Jen and Dagne stares off into the white mountains far in the distance. We sit in silence. There are no words to say because words are stupid when sitting in an Antarctic seascape staring at ice cathedrals and mountains that tower from the sea. I will find words when I’m back to say about this place. For now, today, we all shut up and listened to the silence of Antarctica. And I have to say, it was…
March 8, 2018 – Untitled
Too tired to write. I don’t have enough hands for all these cameras. Wet gloves today putting hands in water. Bad idea. Fingers hurt.
March 9, 2018 – Into The Void
Things have taken a turn for the weird. We sail into the blackest of black Antarctic nights and through a calm, waveless sea and a thick blizzard. Snowflakes rush out of the void and into the giant blue beams of light, which shoot out from the top deck scanning the black sea for icebergs, AKA ship sinkers. Feels otherworldly, with no division between sea and sky and the knowledge sinks in that we are very far from home. New-found respect for those early explorers coming down here unaided in wooden ships and without sonar. Incredible.
We said farewell to the mainland continent today and, if on cue, whales – as many as 20 – could be seen breaching both port and starboard sides of the ship. Glassy waters and singed cloudy skies as the Antarctic mainland slowly fades over the horizon. Onwards to the Shetland Islands.
March 10, 2018 – Deception Island
We made it inside an Antarctic volcano today. The captain expertly navigated the narrow passageway of the submerged caldera entrance and we took the zodiacs out on rough voyage, cutting a route that hugged the craggy bare cliffs. A blindingly cold ride with the sea spray stinging our faces. Rob Swan got a good rinsing with ice cold seawater to the side of his face meanwhile photographer Trent seemed overjoyed with the rough ride, “This is awesome,” he shouted over the engine. The seas calmed as we eased into the wind-shielded Whalers Bay where we were met by the bizarre sight of a collection of rusty dome-shaped buildings dotted around in varying states of decay.
There were fur seals. Hundreds of fur seals frolicked around the surf and lazed around in the sunshine on the pebbled beach. Their waddling around is almost as amusing as the penguins. They also like to fight. Saw a lot of scraps.
Day 11 – Back In The Drake
We find ourselves back in the Drake Passage today and feeling like we are coming to the end of our trip. Morale is high. All 92 people on the 2041 team have bonded. I think Rob said 20 nations. We have Tanzania’s first person in Antarctica in the form of Erasto. He’s part of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program. He’s planted a lot of trees and also has a project helping the welfare of donkeys in Tanzania. A big problem there.
We are lucky to have the Drake Lake on the voyage back. Hopefully tonight we don’t encounter the Drake Shake. You get the picture: Little seas vs big seas.
Day 12 – Ahoy Cape Horn
We wake to the Drake Lake. Not a shake in sight.
The mighty Drake Passage has been easy on us and we steamed our way hasslefree back to the world. Still furiously working and spent most of the day running from my cabin with various cameras and paraphernalia to shoot interviews and broll shots on top deck. Despite the calm seas – calm for the Drake, still not your average seas – it was windy as hell. Filming on ships, not easy.
We arrived at the feared Cape Horn and it was so calm we managed to get within three nautical miles of the cape. That’s almost unheard of. Rob Swan and expedition leader Solan gave speeches. Former Navy man and “safety, safety, safety” officer Jumper rang a bell during a formal ceremony to welcome us back. Filmed Barney on top deck reciting a poem from his diary he kept during his walk to the south pole. Seemed like a fitting end to the trip.
Day 13 – Lessons From The Ice
It’s a new start. As Rob Swan says, “From now on, whenever you will look at a map, your eyes will go south to Antarctica”.
I leave with a message ringing in my ears: “Look don’t touch”. A problem we get wrong around the world so often.
Antarctica is the last wild place. Can’t shake that thought. The arctic is owned and claimed. Drilling and exploration is rampant there. But in the seventh continent, the Antarctic Treaty is an example of what good can happen when countries come together for a common good.
This thought is what Rob and Barney have put squarely in my mind through their endeavours through their 2041 foundation. I leave having learned a great deal. And with new awareness of the Antarctic Treaty and its importance. The nation-binding agreement which leaves the seventh continent as a place for science and peace is up for review in 2041. And there are people and companies pushing for this treaty to fall silently by the wayside, and for claims on Antarctica’s precious natural resources to be exploited. That would be catastrophic for the continent. Meanwhile, continued ice melt and climate change is causing the might of Antarctica to be felt in low-lying countries around the world. 2041 is a two-pronged mission – protect the treaty and also take C02 out of the atmosphere to reduce ice melt. Rob and Barney say they will continue their Climate Force Challenge, to clean up 360 million tonnes of C02 by 2025. Along with the 92 people on this expedition, I will be supporting their efforts from here on.
Got to go, flying back to the real world.
You can learn more about 2041 right here.