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No Man's Land

by Clare Coppa

The population of Antarctica is listed like this ( ) in the Rand McNally World Atlas. That’s right. It’s blank. Other than sparse groups of scientists, the ice continent of 5,100,000 square miles (13,200,000 km2) is a virtual no man’s land. In journeys there, fickle wandering men have been starved and frozen, so why would a shipping outfit charter tours of the ominous region?

Sharon Farrar often asked herself this question last winter as she was tossed about on a ship plowing through 25-ft. (7.6-m) waves amid icebergs in the Antarctic seas.

Her husband Harry, a nuclear physicist, yearned to visit the icy span ever since he read Endurance by Alfred Lansing, a gripping tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trip to the penguin resort in 1914. Harry’s father and brother came along to share the experience; with 82 passengers they journeyed 21 days along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula on a Russian research ship whose owners devised the tours to fund its studies.

“You had to hold on,” recalled Harry, the chairman of ASTM Committee E10 on Nuclear Technology and Applications. “There were waves breaking over the front of the ship. Between the tip of South America, Cape Horn, and Antarctic peninsula is the Drake Passage. That’s the roughest sea in the world. Going from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia, we hit some very rough seas. The ship was tilting 20 degrees each way. When we were down in the dining room, one wave caused a whole row of people to fall off their seats.”

In waters near the Antarctic Peninsula, he saw “as many as 50 huge icebergs” around them. It was subarctic summer and the temperature averaged 20 degrees (-7 degrees C). Upon reaching South Georgia, the ship waited offshore while the passengers rode to shallow waters in zodiacs. Harry said they waded ashore in Wellingtons, knee-high rubber boots, and “saw penguins coming out of the sea. There were maybe 10,000 young penguins waddling around in groups, and the parent was able to find their penguin out of all that crowd. What they do is make a squawk and the young one knows which one is the parent and then they go into a squawking dance. We saw that happening all the time.

“The penguins will walk right up to you and follow you around,” he reported. He also saw elephant, tiger, and fur seals, reindeer, and whales. “So it was a thing where it cannot but affect your emotions. You’re standing there with huge glaciers, huge mountains, and the sea so filled with sea lions that you can hardly find a place to land, and you have to push them aside and edge in between them. Some of them were several tons. You’d walk right up to them. And you’re standing there with all this happening around you and it’s just an incredible experience. And of course,

Sharon, who didn’t want to go on the trip, would love to go back. “We’ve been halfway up Everest, and we’ve trekked around Annapurna, the 11th highest mountain in the world, and we’ve been to a lot of remote places. But Antarctica was the most amazing trip we’ve been on because of all of the wildlife and the fact that it’s untouched.” One can only hope it remains so.

Copyright 2001, ASTM