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Antarctica: Journey to the end of the Earth

Terra Australis Incognito. For hundreds of years this great white continent was nothing more than a blurry shadow at the edge of the known world. There, but not there. Suspected, but not proved. Even though the ancient Greeks provided the name Antarktos, figuring there must be something to balance northern lands, it was not until the 1800s that seafaring adventurers actually found the thing.

Magellan only proved it wasn't hooked to South America; Drake only that it wasn't hooked to Tierra Del Fuego; Cook only that it was farther south than anyone ever thought and, in his opinion, "to judge the bulk by the sample, it would not be worth discovering" anyway.Finally in 1820, when sealers and whalers began plying their trade in southern waters, the continent was at last spotted: by the Russian Bellinghausen and the American Palmer. And even then it was a long time before anyone set foot on it. Most of what we know has come in this century.

The fifth largest continent, about as large as the United States and Mexico combined, Antarctica covers one-tenth of the Earth's surface (at least in the austral summer. In the winter the size of the continent doubles due to increased ice pack.) It supports the greatest ice mass in the world, which hides the true dimensions of the land. Scientists still don't know if it is one continuous mass or groups of islands joined by ice, although they suspect the latter. It sports mountainous terrain and even an active volcano.

Remote, isolated, Antarctica is totally surrounded by a deep and circumpolar ocean. The peninsula - the little part that swings north like the tail of a manta ray - is the most accessible, lying roughly 620 miles from the tip of South America. The nearest neighbor on the other side is New Zealand, some 1,366 miles away.

It is owned by no one. Under conditions of the Antarctic Treaty set forth in the early '60s and the Protocol on Environment Protection added in 1991, it has been designated as a natural reserve set aside for research and peace. All but unpopulated, it is "home" to a handful of scientists who work part or all of the year at various research stations. Visitors who come do so undercareful regulation.

Life forms are scarce. The icy continent is home to a number of species of lichens, moss and algae - but only two seeded plants: a grass and a tiny pearlwort, and they are rare.

The largest animal that lives permanently on the land is a wingless midge about a third of an inch long. But as a saving grace, Antarctica is also the breeding ground for some of the world's largest and most fascinating colonies of penguins, seals and seabirds that live in and over the water, coming ashore only for a part of their lives.

Antarctica is a place like no other on Earth, what one author calls "a crystal desert" and another "the planet's most remote and most emotionally stirring wilderness."

Our journey to this place of stark and awesome beauty begins in Ushuaia, Argentina, the world's most southerly city. There we board Society Expedition's World Discoverer, the ship that will be our home for the next 17 days on a visit to both Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands. With an ice-strengthened hull and a shallow draft that allows for easy maneuverability, it is one of only a handful of ships that sail these waters under guidelines set forth by the Protocol and IAATO, a group of tour operators.

Our first test is the famed Drake Passage - the tempestuous sea that separates the two continents. Because there are no land masses to slow the westerly winds, they are often the roughest waters around. No wonder early sailors dubbed these latitudes the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties. More than a few of the 120 passengers on board our ship spend the two-day crossing battling seasickness. (Me? I've always liked the Flying Carpet ride at Lagoon.)

The next sign that we are heading somewhere unique comes when we cross the Antarctic Convergence - the place where the cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer Southern Ocean. On the northern side, water temperatures are warm; on the other side they are cold: in the 30s and lower. Air temperatures see a corresponding drop.

But these cold waters are very rich in nutrients, providing food for the krill that is so central to the food chain here. Our chances increase of seeing birds - much to the delight of the group of avid British birdwatchers on board - and whales, which feed on the krill. And icebergs begin to show up: massive chunks of aged ice sculpted into fantastic shapes by wind and water. Some, with deep blue crevasses, have been floating away from their calving sites for as long as 10 years.

From here on, the basic elements - wind, weather, ice - will control our moves. We are not setting off on a luxury cruise, but an expedition, points out director Werner Stambach. There will be no bingo games or costume parties, no TV or slot machines. There will also be no guarantees that we can get to every place we want to go. Safety is the paramount concern, and flexibility the rule. Both are governed by weather conditions.

Travel here is still difficult and expensive; it is not a trip for everyone, says Stambach. If a tropical beach is your idea of heaven, if you like fixed schedules and disdain inclement weather, if you only want to tick off Antarctica as one more place you've been - stay home, he advises. But if you are interested in nature, in the forces that created the world, in pristine wilderness; if you are receptive to the sights and sounds of an alien environment, you won't find a greater adventure than Antarctica.

Stambach knows. He has worked as a cruise director here for the past 10 years. "For me, both the landscape and the wildlife are awesome. You realize this striking beauty must be protected. We haven't messed it up so far; we must keep it that way. We are only privileged guests here."

Our first sight of the continent comes at 3 a.m. on the third day. After a couple of days of open ocean, the prospect of seeing land pulls many of us from our bunks. There is something very reassuring about seeing land again. (And we know where we are going; we wonder at what it must have been like for the early sailors who did not.)

We soon settle into the routine. When wind and weather permit, there will be landings ashore. At Cuverville, at Ronge, at Almirante Brown, Port Lockroy, Elephant Island. On board ship, there will be slide lectures and videos to give us background and information about what we see. Temperatures are better than we thought - mostly 30s and even some 40s, although there is a high wind-chill factor, which means dressing warmly and layering is important.

We set off in zodiacs, the inflatable boats powered by outboard motors that were pioneered by Jacques Cousteau. Ours are named for early naturalists and explorers: Ernest Shackleton, Nathaniel Palmer, Charles Darwin, Francis Drake. We are taken as close to shore as possible and, in our tall rubber boots, wade the rest of the way in. It's called a "wet landing," and with a little luck all we get wet are the boots. A wetter splash from a big wave is always a possibility.

Whatever it takes to get there is worth it; true delights await on shore, especially at the penguin rookeries. Can you ever see too many penguins? I don't think so. I'm totally enchanted by these squawky, waddling, black and white bits of the bird kingdom. They go about their business, which at this time of year is tending to their chicks, unfazed by the red-coated humans who have come to watch.

The rule for us, of course, is no touching, no loud noises, no disruption of any kind. But we find that if we spread out and sit quietly, some of the curious birds will wander very close. We watch as they make their way up and down to the water, sometimes traveling long distances on "penguin highways." We watch as those returning from feeding in the water in turn feed their chicks by regurgitation. We easily learn to recognize the red-beaked gentoos and the "tuxedo-clad" adelies and the aptly named chinstraps. We smell the guano and listen to the pandemonium of bird calls.

Penguins are not the only attraction ashore. Sometimes there are fur seals, crabeaters or Weddell seals and even occasionally the aggressive leopard seals. Sometimes there are other sea birds: blue-eyed shags or the predatory skuas.

We see geologic features: rock formations and glaciers. In the clear, cool air we hear the sounds of distant ice as it cracks and splits and falls into the sea. We visit research stations, learning about ozone research and climate studies. We go to historic sites: old cabins left by early researchers; stone huts that provided shelter for early adventurers trapped by ice; memorial crosses that speak of tragedy. We get a rare chance to take a zodiac cruise around Elephant Island's Point Wild, the place where 22 of Shackelton's men spent the winter of 1915 after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice. Harsh, gravity-driven katabatic winds usually prevent any kind of activity at Point Wild, but we happened by on a favorable day and savor our good fortune.

Back on the ship, there are daily recap sessions and time for reading and reflection.

We are here at the height of summer, as good as it gets in Antarctica, but even so ice is a problem. Our ship sails as far south as itcan, reaching 65 degrees 36 minutes latitude. We are not even halfway down the peninsula; the Antarctic Circle is still about a full degree away. But pack ice - the ice that breaks up a bit in the summer and freezes solid in the winter - declares we will go no further. To go on, we would need a full-fledged ice breaker.

Those who have been to the interior of the continent consider the peninsula the "Banana Belt." But even in summer, conditions here can be tricky, notes our ship's captain, Oliver Kruess. The ship is built for ice, he says, sturdy, maneuverable, with the latest navigation equipment on board. "But you still have to look out the window; that's essential in ice." There's not a lot of navigational information about many of the places here; still a lot of uncharted waters. "We have to make our own soundings, rely on experience."

Kruess has a lot of experience; this is his 39th voyage to Antarctica. But, he says, one is never like another. "We never have exactly the same itinerary. Weather changes. The ice is different." For some reason, he says, the ice seems to be farther north this year than usual; not once have they been able to get to the South Orkney Islands.

But, he says, it is never boring. And as he sails these waters, he often thinks about the old whaling and sealing vessels that came here under such harsh conditions. He could have been an old whaling captain - except for one thing: "I could never have killed a whale. They are such magnificent animals."

In fact, one of the things he has enjoyed most about our trip has been the exceptional whale-watching. One day we see humpbacks, breeching and diving. Another time our zodiac gets very close to humpbacks in the water. We see a rare pod of fin whales. And several of the zodiacs watch as a pod of orcas attack a leopard seal that had been resting on an ice floe. "We don't see things like that very often," says Kruess.

Antarctica is a place of superlatives: the highest, driest, windiest, iciest, most remote continent on Earth. You use all those words and then wish for something more, some words to convey how this remote, windy, icy place can so deeply touch the soul and capture the heart.

"It changes you," says John Annexstad, a geophysicist who has spent a number of years researching and working in Antarctica and serves as one of the lecturers on our trip. If you allow yourself to see and feel and learn, he says, "you will never be the same. You will never look at the world the same again. You will look at common things with a new eye, a new understanding."

It's not just the scenery - you can get that in the Alps or the high Sierras, places much easier to get to. Nor is it just the penguins, delightful as they are.

The combination of isolation and wildness, says Annexstad, is so separate from the rest of the world, from the life we are used to. "Coming here allows you to re-examine yourself and your position in the world. This is truly someplace different. There is no parallel on the planet."

And in the end the message of Antarctica - its history, its geology, its biology - is nothing less than a celebration of life. Overcoming the odds, tenaciously holding on where you least expect it, more precious than you ever knew.