By: V. Macedo
Antarctica. The Earth's most southern continent. This, is the place where everything, from a tiny krill to enormous whales, live in perfect harmony; where each day represents a battle for survival. The place that has such astounding interconnection among all animals, where humans need all their paraphernalia just to keep going - you can only be in awe of the world’s natural adaptations. The continent where everything is thick, white, ice... or is it?
Antarctica is a rarely visited place today. However, in the early 19th century, half of the world wanted to know where all the Southern sea ice was coming from. James Cook led an expedition looking for the so-called Terra Australis Incognita. Their mission got extremely close to the mysterious continent, but they never got to see it. It was later discovered that they were just 80 miles away! So close yet so far. That failed exploration led to the cancelation of many further missions. But the race re-sparked when Russia, England and the United States discovered the hundreds of seals and whales that were yet to be caught. Russia gave the mission to explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen who, with his team, were the first to step onto that unique continent.
After the actual discovery, humanity moved onto the next stage: reaching the South Pole. All around the world, hundreds of explorers raced to reach that extremity. The endurance needed for such a mission was absurd and hardly any were bold enough to go all the way. But Ernest Shackleton, one of the world’s best and bravest, was not just anyone. Even though he did not reach the Southern magnetic point, he managed to save his crew of 27 men. Shackleton spent two years on ice after his ship, the Endurance, got stuck. “Frozen, like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar” one of the crew members described, as it was destroyed by the moving packs of ice of the Weddel Sea. After spending more than a year on floating and unstable ice, Shackleton took 3 lifeboats and navigated through the Drake Passage (one of the most revolting seas) to reach Elephant, an inhospitable island. He left most of his crew in a small camp and left, yet again, on a row boat only to reach the South Shetland Islands at its furthest point, with no civilization. Shackleton had to cross glaciers to finally reach civilization and send help to the rest of the crew. They were at their limits, every day their lives were in danger, but they did not give up for nearly 500 days. One of the harshest endurance experiences ever.
Seeing a wildlife documentary in real time in front of your eyes is something I will never forget. I always asked myself “Wow, how did they film that?”. And then I saw it, live, freezing water sprinkles and all. Tourists can see those enormous animals while trying to keep their balance in fragile zodiacs. Whales can be admired preying upon tiny little krill by using huge bubbles to trap those shrimp-like-creatures. They admire the mothers protecting their babies by placing their humongous bodies between the boats and the calves. The next minute these same tourists are disgusted by smelling the nauseating vapors that are sprayed from the whale’s spiraculum when they breathe. Adorable penguins that climb all the way up the mountain just to find that one perfect rock for their little nest and then go sliding downhill to find the next one. Where every day their issues are of life and death, yet, somehow, the interconnection allows all of them to survive. It is simply mind-blowing.
One of the most adored group of animals in Antarctica are the famous penguins. They are so cute to inevitably surface your cuddly instincts. Chinstraps tobogganing on the ice. Rock-hoppers hopping from rock to rock. Adélies climbing up and down the mountain with their exclusive highway. Macaronis with their spaghetti-like eyebrows. King penguins slapping and nagging at each other like most human siblings during their forced quarantines. All of them, carve their way into your heart.
Moreover, the seals are loved for everything about them. Their whiskers, their flippers, their puppy eyes, their chubbiness! After spending about two days seeing those fluff balls, you already start packing your bags because you have decided that you belong with them. Even though some of them are very scary (like the leopard seal), they all go back to the same spot in your brain: complete admiration.