Secret Traveller by Jamal Shaikh: White magic

Published on Jan 13, 2023 09:19 PM IST

The most beautiful part of our planet has a hostile welcome for visitors. Interestingly, Antarctica is also the place humans are working towards keeping pristine

The world’s largest glaciers (above)by area are found in Antarctica, where large amounts of ice have accumulated over a long period of time
The world’s largest glaciers (above)by area are found in Antarctica, where large amounts of ice have accumulated over a long period of time

“You have to earn your visit to Antarctica,” the captain of the ship tells us in his welcome address. We have set sail from the Argentinian city of Ushuaia a few hours ago, which is situated on the southernmost point of the Southern Hemisphere and is also called “fin del mondo” or “the end of the world”.

The captain is talking of the Drake Passage, the patch of sea at the tip of South America, where the Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic oceans meet, making these the choppiest waters in the world.

Google “Drake Shake” or “Drake Lake” and you’ll see what it means. YouTube videos will throw up dramatic visuals of metres-high waves splashing against portholes and lashing ship balconies, and articles about seatbelts in the beds (probably on older ships, not mine), and furniture that’s been chained down.

Penguins use these ‘highways’ (above) cut through the snow to commute from their homes—their nests on land—to the sea, where they catch their food
Penguins use these ‘highways’ (above) cut through the snow to commute from their homes—their nests on land—to the sea, where they catch their food

Drake Lake refers to times when the waters are calm, while the Drake Shake is when the sea is choppy. Every journey to Antarctica must cross the Passage twice: on the way out and on the return. Our captain, a short-statured Frenchman with over 25 years of sailing experience, tells us we are at a No 2 on a scale of 1 to 3, 1 being Lake and 3 being Shake. Then, he throws another bombshell: “Do not think of this as a cruise. We’re going on an expedition!”

Mind the rules

Why is it said that Antarctica is hostile towards visitors? And why is it probably the one part of our planet where humans are successfully taking solid steps to protect its natural state?

Antarctic seals lounge on ice
Antarctic seals lounge on ice

The first answer is easy: the difficulty of access and harsh weather conditions make it challenging to navigate and almost impossible live on. The second answer lies in the Antarctic Treaty Systems and the fact that no country can claim Antarctica as their own.

The treaties have put solid steps in place to protect Antarctica: no large ships with more than 200 passengers are allowed to operate, nipping mass tourism in the bud. Policies ensure all living creatures, on land and in water, continue to live undisturbed in their natural habitat.

No person, except for a few researchers, are allowed to live on Antarctica. Visitors on a ship are allowed pre-approved “landings” for short periods of time.

Penguins are the most common bird in the Anarctic
Penguins are the most common bird in the Anarctic

While on Antarctic land, the rules are even more strict. A distance of five metres must be maintained between you and the smaller-sized wildlife like penguins. Nobody is allowed to step onto a “penguin highway”: one foot impression could create a crater that a penguin may fall into, get stuck and die!

Larger animals like seals need a distance of 15 to 30 metres. Nothing must ever be placed on the ground, and it is forbidden to sit on the land, no matter how tired you are.

Jackets, zippers and velcro are given a “bio security check”: they’re hoovered down to remove any seeds or plant life stuck to them. Before getting off the ship, one must soak the soles of your boots in liquid to kill any microbes. On the way back, you do the same to ensure you don’t bring anything back (including, occasionally, penguin poo!)

Animal planet

The continent with no native human race has a far cuter, majority inhabitant: the penguin. You’ll soon be able to distinguish between the orange beaked Gentoo, the Chinstrap with its black strap on its neck, and the Adelie, with a white ring around the eye.

Whales are not just the most majestic creatures on earth, they are also the engineers of the environment
Whales are not just the most majestic creatures on earth, they are also the engineers of the environment

The penguins do not seem to fear humans, and while we’ve got rules, these guys step on human highways frequently.

I’d never seen them swim like dolphins do. Penguins are black and white for a reason: when in water, their black tops make them invisible to any predatory birds in the sky; and the white torsos make them hard to spot for big fish in the ocean.

Romantics believe penguins are monogamous and they travel thousands of miles to mate with the same partner every season. But they don’t spend too much time with their lover through the year. Another lesson for humans, maybe?

Things to keep in mind
Things to keep in mind

In Antarctica, a team of naturalists and animal behaviourists will accompany you on every landing, and when on ship, they’ll conduct sessions giving you an endless stream of information. They’ll point you to birds flying alongside the ship, get excited about seals they spot (though the seals will hardly lift their heads, if at all), and, if there are whales in the vicinity, the ships’ public announcement system will be employed, telling you which deck to head to and where to look.

Whales are not just the most majestic creatures on earth, they are also the engineers of the environment, we are told. What they consume helps maintain balance on earth and in water. They navigate across the planet in various migration patterns, and in Antarctica, it is common to see them prep to feed, circle their prey, and dive in when the time is right.

“If the killing of whales has been banned, why not fishing? That’s taking away life as well, isn’t it?” an Indian from our group asks. The marine scientist takes a moment to answer, “Ecologically, whales are limited in number and are needed to maintain balance, which is why whaling is banned. Ethically and philosophically, it is a different matter altogether.”

Michelin-starred chef and recently appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire, Vineet Bhatia
Michelin-starred chef and recently appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire, Vineet Bhatia

More than geography

Before you start thinking of this “expedition cruise” as a geography class, let it be known that there are bars and entertainment acts on the ship as well. But those happen on every cruise liner, don’t they?

In addition to “landings,” activities like kayaking or the polar plunge for the brave hearted, are the popular things to do.

I opted for kayaking to get as close to the cold Antarctic waters as I could, and as my boat smashed against floating pieces of ice, I thought of the Titanic. Icebergs around me broke midway under the afternoon sun, changing the shape of the landscape and creating waves, not just ripples in the water. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make videos because my hands were occupied. I also noted just how tiny the tip of an iceberg really was: a never-to-be-forgotten life lesson if there ever was one.

Vasim Shaikh of The Q Experiences, a luxury expedition company
Vasim Shaikh of The Q Experiences, a luxury expedition company

Suppose you do nothing during your entire trip and simply stay in your stateroom and look out of the window. You’ll still be witness to sights that will be etched in your mind forever.

The soul of the adventurer

I was first introduced to the idea of Antarctica about eight years ago when I was the editor of the luxury magazine, Robb Report. A travel entrepreneur from Pune, Vasim Shaikh, was curating a luxury trip to Antarctica for Indians, complete with a Michelin-starred Indian chef and vegetarian meals onboard. He extended an invitation, but the huge price tag prevented me from even considering it.

In the years that followed, a close friend from the US undertook this journey on a Canadian ship. Social commentator and ad man Suhel Seth did it in early 2018 and wrote about it for HT Brunch.

Suhel Seth visited Antarctica in 2018 and wrote about it for HT Brunch
Suhel Seth visited Antarctica in 2018 and wrote about it for HT Brunch

A few months ago, my American friend put the idea back in my head. The time was right: it wouldn’t kill anyone if I went off Wi-Fi for a bit so early in the year. So, I texted Vasim, asking for prices and dates. A sailing was scheduled a few weeks later, he replied. But the price was almost prohibitive. Till date, there is no single trip I have spent on more than I did on this one.

What surprised me most when I boarded the French cruise liner was the profile of the guests. For a trip costing upwards of 15,000 USD, I expected bratty rich kids with a taste for adventure. Instead, I met an 80-year-old grandmother who had brought her grandson along, families of four, and many singles who had saved for years to undertake this journey.

Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia was onboard, which attracted vegetarian families from Gujarat, Marwaris from Calcutta, and even excited the many Europeans.

Outwardly, my Indian co pax were traditional: vegetarian, Bollywood-song loving, chai, chaas and whisky drinkers; visibly, they were of all shapes and fitness levels. But, in spirit, each one was an adventurer, wanting to undertake every landing with gusto, climb slippery, icy slopes to the top and make each day count.

I returned to Delhi to the news of two Indian men who had set a Guinness World Record by travelling to all seven continents in three days. I realised I had flown five continents to get to Antarctica: from Asia to Helsinki in Europe, New York in North America and Buenos Aires in South America. In fact, I had almost gone to the Arctic Pole to get to the Antarctic!

Even if that’s not worth a record, it certainly is worth every penny I spent on the trip of a lifetime.

 Follow @JamalShaikh on Instagram and Twitter

From HT Brunch, January 14, 2023

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Jamal Shaikh is National Editor - Brunch and New Media Initiatives at the Hindustan Times. He is a well-known TV host and magazine editor, who has launched and edited the Indian editions of Men’s Health, Robb Report and Discovery Channel Magazine. He tweets and Instagrams @jamalshaikh

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