Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017
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I prescribe a trip to Antarctica

Breaking the ice: An MD cruises south — way south — to the land where penguins rule

Our little icebreaker bobbed and rolled in the inky waters of the Antarctic Ocean. It was two in the morning and the sky was suffused with the pallid grey twilight of a sun that never quite sets. We had passed the Antarctic Convergence, an invisible boundary where freezing polar waters sink to the ocean floor and creep northward, untouched to the shores of Newfoundland. Staring out my porthole I could dimly make out mist-shrouded mountains, clouds clinging to peaks like tattered banners. We had reached the South Shetlands, the harbingers of the Antarctic mainland.

I lay in my bunk and meditated to the throb of the Polar Star's (tel: 902-423-7389; fax: 902-420-9222; www.polarstarexpeditions.com) diesel engines. We were alone in 1000 square kilometres of icy water and I suddenly felt very tiny. My head still swam from the 10-metre waves off Cape Horn, a rite of passage for all who dare sail into the ice. What, I asked myself, am I doing here? I could be in Hawaii sipping a mai tai on a beach, or cruising the Caribbean; a safe and comfortable Christmas holiday.

But I am not the first member of my family to voyage here. My great-uncle Eugene Burden captained the MV Trepassey through these waters in the 1940s. Now the siren of the ice had summoned me and like Odysseus I had lashed myself (figuratively, of course) to the mast to experience her song. Slowly I drifted into a fitful sleep. Tomorrow we would make first landfall.

It was a bleak morning. Improbably blue icebergs floated by, the spawn of glaciers from which the water's warmer spectral hues had been drawn. We were anchored at Cuverville Island and it was pouring rain. We boarded Zodiacs and weaved around ice floes to visit the huge gentoo penguin colony there. The snow was late in melting and the birds had to build nests on the ice instead of the usual pebbles. Brooding penguins had melted the frozen surface and sat in little cup-shaped cavities vainly attempting to warm their eggs. The rain would spell the end of the chicks this year. How do you keep an egg warm when it sits in ice water? I felt vaguely guilty — this unseasonal rain was due to global warming and I heat my house with oil.

I was told that gentoo is a corruption of the Portuguese word for gentle. A bedraggled mother gentoo looked serenely up at me from her ice nest, no reproach in her gaze. At least the skuas, a predatory Antarctic seagull, would be well fed this year. A group of passengers filed by sporting red parkas, incongruously holding brightly coloured umbrellas. It was time to return to the ship.

Cabin Fever
That afternoon we visited Paradise Bay. There the bright red buildings of Argentina's Almirante Brown Base tumbled like children's blocks down to the sea. Its buildings were a visual counterpoint to massive blue glaciers which groaned and cracked, as if in labour, dropping huge icebergs into the bay. Tortured and twisted rock faces along shore provided niches for hordes of sea birds. A few seals on the beach stared impassively as we went by. There didn't seem to be a whole lot else there. I vaguely empathized with the Argentinean base doctor who went insane and burned the station in 1984.

Next day we sailed to Port Lockroy on Goudier Island. This British station was founded to monitor the Nazis during the Second World War and continued to operate until the 1960s when it was left to ruin. My great-uncle's vessel, a former Newfoundland sealer, provisioned this base and others in 1946 and 1947. It also took part in the British Antarctic Survey mapping the world's last remaining uncharted coastline. The British base on Stonington Island was dubbed Trepassey House in honour of the vessel. The British Antarctic Territories later immortalized the battered little ex-sealer on its four-pence stamp.

The station at Lockroy has been refurbished as an historic site, its new goal is to monitor penguin behaviour and inform tourists. A large Union Jack flag snapped briskly in the polar winds surrounded by an honour guard of gentoo penguins. The scene reminded me of the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington DC, with Marines replaced by tuxedoed waterfowl.

 

At first it looked as if dense pack ice would prevent our landing, but our icebreaker rammed directly into it, cutting a swath of frozen destruction before the bow. Dropping a gangplank directly onto the ice we crossed on foot just as Scott and Shackleton (the earliest British explorers) would have. There were half a dozen large seals splayed about. We were told not to go too close — seal bites tend to get horridly infected.

Approaching the station we noticed penguins nesting on the roof and just by the front door, watching passing humans with disinterest. The staff at Lockroy told us that people disturb penguins about as much as they do pigeons in New York. Gentoos even wander into the base if the front door is left open. The two men and one woman who operate the base had the same intense manner as ice veterans aboard the Polar Star. Polies — as residents of the South Pole refer to themselves — are nice but different, members of a unspoken fellowship from which visitors are excluded.

The interior of Lockroy looked like the set for a World War II movie. The kitchen held familiar, yet strangely archaic tins and packages. The dimly lit radio room contained a 1944 B-28 radio receiver and a "clandestine" 5G transmitter. It was spooky. I half expected to hear the receiver squawk to life with the latest reports on U-boat positions.

The Call of the Ice
We departed Lockroy and later that afternoon entered the Lemaire Channel, almost reaching the Antarctic Circle. The hull hissed and thudded against ice pans. Towering mountains dominated the channel, their intensely black sedimentary rock veined with blue glaciers. A huge glacial ice grotto beckoned like the entrance of a surreal Gothic cathedral topped by crystalline gargoyles and buttresses. I felt drawn into its depths.

The channel has an unearthly beauty, an infinite combination of blues and white and black. The rolling of the ship under my feet created a sense of euphoria, perhaps a legacy of my Newfoundland mariner heritage. I began to understand why Uncle Eugene sailed down here time and again. I felt a subtle metamorphosis.

As we pushed on through the channel, dozens of AdÄlie penguins, little Charlie Chaplin clones, waddled rapidly away from our vessel. To port, we spotted the reptilian form of a leopard seal lounging on the ice. The Antarctic's answer to the polar bear, these highly developed predators can snatch a penguin in mid-jump, simultaneously flaying the skin from its body.

A pod of 20 orcas appeared in the distance. Early explorers feared them, since these killer whales sometimes attempted to knock men and dogs off ice floes into the water. Killers have been observed systematically attacking larger whales, apparently for sport or practice, then leaving them to die. Sometimes they will rip out the tongue and devour it. After hearing this I vowed to skip Free Willy 4.

Our penultimate destination was the flooded crater of an active volcano known as Deception Island. We cruised past jagged excrescences of petrified lava and entered the caldera through a narrow opening called Neptune's Bellows, though Hades' Bellows would have been more appropriate. Along the interior shoreline superheated rocks caused seawater to steam and bubble. We could stop and swim here, but icy winds pouring down from the Antarctic plateau made landing impossible. I was inordinately disappointed that I had missed the touch of the Antarctic Ocean on my skin.

Instead we sailed back out and north to our final stop, Aitcho Island. Here the climate seemed more salubrious for penguins: there was no snow on the ground and chinstrap and gentoo rookeries were thriving. Healthy chicks imbibed regurgitated krill, a red shrimp-like crustacean, from parental gullets.

Snow began to fall and we would soon have to return to the Zodiacs. I nodded at three kindred spirits who also felt the call of the ice. We stripped down simultaneously and immersed ourselves completely in the freezing waters, then emerged white and renewed, somehow altered. Is it so inappropriate, I wondered, that in Antarctica baptism should follow communion?

 

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