A journey round the Antarctic

Himraj Soin

An expedition to the Antarctic finds one explorer faced with a view of the world like no other

This sentence, uttered by the first man to walk to both poles, explorer Robert Swan, echoed through my ship as I embarked on my first Antarctic expedition.

In 1989, my father—Mandip Singh Soin, a mountaineer and explorer—travelled to the North Pole with Swan. Together, they sent blimps into the atmosphere in order to study the depletion of the ozone layer. The trip led my father onto a 25-year mission to protect the environment and that dedication has made him my hero for as long as I can remember. So, 25 years later, I found myself travelling to the end of the world with the same partner in exploration, retracing my father’s steps.

"The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it"

I was participating in an international Antarctic expedition that aimed to bring leaders together to study the harmful effects of climate change alongside a team of global experts.

Organised by Swan’s NGO “2041”, the core emphasis of the expedition was the preservation of the Antarctic. Protected by the Antarctic Treaty, the unique region has no government. The document, signed in 1959, ensures that the white continent is used solely for peaceful and scientific purposes.

In 1991, a new 50-year agreement was entered into which prevents any exploitation of the continent. It’s the only place on Earth where nations live together completely peacefully (on their respective research stations), often inviting each other over for Christmas dinners and costume parties. For now, this last great wilderness is protected by the common goal of scientific advancement. The year 2041—the namesake of Swan’s NGO—will mark the end of this agreement and Swan sees it as our duty to ensure that it’s extended and maintained.

 

To begin my exploration, I took a ship from the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. Known as the “Gateway to Antarctica”, it has the outward appearance of a quaint film set and a population of 60,000. We spent our first two days here, preparing for our journey and I met 80 people from over 29 different countries—researchers, environmentalists and business owners. Our ship, The Sea Spirit, felt more like a hotel from the 1970s. A glorious, seven-storey beast, it was a lot more comfortable than the vessels the early explorers travelled in—our rooms had beds and attached bathrooms, there was even a barbecue and a 1920s-style bar.

Our adventure to the Antarctic began with navigating the infamously unpredictable Drake Passage. A treacherous channel, connecting and separating the southernmost tip of South America to the northernmost reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula, these waters are known to be the roughest in the world and waves here can reach over 33ft. As we cut through the tide, our ship rocked back and forth like a gigantic cradle, in synch with the waves.

After two days of wobbly legs, we finally saw our first iceberg. One of the most exciting moments of the Drake crossing, it signalled the proximity of the white continent. The first real taste of this bizarre alien planet, it took me a while to fully comprehend that beneath my feet lay 90 per cent of all the world’s ice and 70 per cent of all the world’s fresh water.

Once we reached the peninsula, we took our first zodiac [an inflatable boat] to step foot on the ice and explore the frigid, penguin-filled continent. There were strict rules now we’d reached the land of ice—boots must be washed in sanitiser before and after entering the ship. Nothing potentially invasive was to be brought onto the continent—even something as innocent as a biscuit could potentially cause damage.

As I walked on land for the first time in 72 hours, I stumbled and felt overwhelmed with emotion. However clichéd it may sound, there was an inexplicable energy here unlike any other part of the world—a place so pristine, pure and primal. The landscape was almost Dali-esque.

A few days later, I observed a huge tabular iceberg. Over half a mile long and half a mile wide, it had broken off the Antarctic Larsen B ice shelf, floating in the Antarctic ocean. Most of the world’s largest ice shelves are in Antarctica and Greenland. Disintegration of ice shelves is directly associated with climate change, as opposed to calving, a natural event. This ice shelf completely collapsed in 2002, making it the largest disintegration event in 30 years. 1255 square miles of the Larsen B shattered which released more than 720 billion tons of ice into the Weddell sea. Our in-house geologist explained it to us in layman’s terms—that much ice would be enough to make ice cubes for two gin and tonics for every passenger on board (well over a 100 of us)—every day for the next 30 years.

 

Camping out on the continent as we did a few days later was the experience of a lifetime. “Survival night” as we called it, and rightfully so, was windy, snowy, and cold. However, it also brought some of the best light we had on the trip as most days were overcast. As the sun dipped, we dug our snow trenches (we didn’t use tents on account of our guide being a sadist) to protect us from the wind, put down tarp and got into our sleeping bags. We didn’t sleep for more than five minutes, but it was utterly worth it. We got to gaze at the Milky Way all night, and also got pelted with snow, strong winds, and ominous sounds from the nearby leopard seals. The next day we heard that one of the members of our team had left his trench during the night to do his business and was approached by a curious seal. Needless to say, he didn’t finish.

"The water temperature was -3°C. I dove headfirst, filled with adrenaline"

As if camping out wasn’t rough enough, our next experience was a polar plunge. By far, the coldest thing I had ever experienced—armed with nothing but a pair of boxers, a safety harness, and questionable sanity, I jumped into the Antarctic ocean. Filled with regret, adrenaline, and what felt like a deep state of unconsciousness, I took the plunge from a zodiac near our ship. The water temperature was -3°C. I dove head first (I would highly recommend diving legs first) and swam underwater for what felt like months. However, the entire ordeal lasted for less than 30 seconds.

As I clambered out, painfully numb, I was overcome with adrenaline. I didn’t feel cold anymore and neither did my co-plungers. Everyone was running around the ship, high-fiving each other, with huge smiles on their faces. The next plunge was directly into the ship’s hot tub.

"When you're at the end of the world, the rest of the world stands still"

When you’re at the end of the world, the rest of the world stands still. Ordinary problems seem mundane. Untouched by time and humans (mostly), this southern land is the harshest, most inhospitable continent on Earth. But it’s also the most primal, pure and peaceful. It’s the only place on Earth that exists just as it was intended—may it always remain that way.


This expedition was made possible by the Inlaks Foundation, Ibex Expeditions, the PHD Chambers of Commerce, Chimes Group, India, Shriram group, Bhilwada Group, SWISS International Airlines, East West Rescue and the American Embassy