Heaven freezes over

ANITHA K. MOOSATH | Updated on February 10, 2011 Published on February 10, 2011

Pole star: A polar bear ambles along as tourists watch in delight at Blomstrandhal- voya in the North Pole.

The tourist-filled zodiacs that are used to make polar landings.

An 8000-year-old Iceberg.

Shamim Mohammed's 59th birthday was literally a snowy affair. She was camping out in a pristine land where nature weaves frosty patterns fit for the likes of penguins and albatrosses.

“There were 15 of us lying on ice in our camps, gazing at the stars. We stayed awake the whole night to soak in those few hours of Antarctic glory,” says the geography teacher from Kochi, who went on a landing expedition to the South Pole last March, along with her son, daughter and cousin. “We always wanted to do a landing trip, not just a cruise. That's when we saw an ad by Kerala Travels Interserve, and there was no stopping us.”

K.C. Chandrahasan, Managing Director of Kerala Travels Interserve says, “We used to promote luxury liners to the Antarctic earlier. But not many were happy to be in large groups. In 2009, we tied up with the Scandinavian company Oceanwide Expeditions. Landing trips are more exploratory in nature, and the passengers don't exceed 108.” .

The Antarctic-bound tourists fly to Argentina's Buenos Aires, and from there to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. It's a dicey journey from there to the South Pole, braving the treacherous waters of the 800-km-wide Drake Passage that separates South America from Antarctica. Here the climate starts changing — from cold, humid sub-polar into freezing dry Antarctic, says Shamim.

Travel in warships

Polar expedition vessels are warships that have been ice-strengthened and redesigned for passenger comfort. Shamim and her family travelled on the Plancius, a ship that had earlier belonged to the Royal Dutch Navy, and there were 19 nationalities on board.

The high point of the voyage are the landings made in zodiacs (inflatable rubber rafts), which allow the passengers to go on exploratory walks. There is one guide for each group of ten travellers, both to safeguard against animal attacks as well as ensure that no one removes anything from the environment to keep as polar memorabilia.

“It was just fabulous — the ice sheet, blizzards, blue icebergs and swathes of snow-laden peaks, each an experience in itself. We made eight landings in all. At South Shetland Islands, we had a close encounter with chinstrap penguins and large colonies of gentoo penguins,” says Shamim. There were skuas, petrels, gulls and fur seals too.

The penguins weren't swimming because they were in the moulting stage (to replace worn-out feathers). Although we never tried to get too close, they would sometimes walk towards us with their endearing gait.

There were plenty of sea lions and dolphins in the waters. A minke whale came close to our zodiac at one point, says Shamim's son, Afzal Mohammed, who is a veterinary surgeon.

Experts on-board

The expeditions are much more than just loads of adventure. Many experts are on board — marine biologists, geologists, environmentalists and diving experts among others. “They used to give us lectures on various facets of the magical continent — its history, topography, blue ice formation, wildlife, etc,” says N.S. Ravindran, a Madurai-based businessman who had travelled to Antarctica with his brother. At the Palmer Research Station, which is one of the three US stations in Antarctica, he got his passport stamped with “proof of travel to the Antarctic”.

On the last of the 11-day journey, Ravindran went in for the ultimate in adventure — the enviable polar dip, with temperatures at around minus 10 degrees Celsius. “It was just terrific. I had to remove the several layers of clothing I had on before taking the plunge, and was almost frozen in those few seconds,” he adds.

The Arctic expedition takes off from the island of Longyearbyen, a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Oslo. “Daily, I spent an average of 20 hours clicking photos and experiencing the Arctic in my mind and body. The 8,000-year-old iceberg was a magnificent sight,” says travel photographer Ravisankar K.V., who cruised to the Arctic with Chandrahasan.

Memorable sights

During their first landing, at Blomstrandhalvoya, they saw something not quite in keeping with the terrain — a train and various pieces of machinery left behind by a marble-quarrying company in the first half of the 20th century.

“On the third day, we spotted 14 polar bears at around 30-40 ft away. They were yanking at a whale carcass that had been stuck in ice for several months, least bothered about us gazing in disbelief from our zodiacs,” says Chandrahasan. There were other sightings too — Arctic terns, red phalaropes, Brünnich's guillemots, northern fulmars, king eider ducks, little auks, walruses and reindeer.

Chandrahasan and Ravisankar got to visit the Indian research station Himadri at the world's northernmost permanent settlement of Ny Alesund; about ten countries have research bases on this island, which was earlier a mining hub. The most exciting part was sending letters from the world's northernmost post-office, says Ravisankar.

An eerie sight greeted them at Bamsebu — thousands of whale bones and skulls lay scattered across the landscape. The region used to be a centre for whaling — beluga whale in particular — during the 20th century. “We saw signs of global warming too — the massive King's Bay glacier that has melted to half its size (2 km), in a span of ten years,” he adds.

Polar travel is adventure-packed but doesn't come cheap — the Arctic will cost Rs 3.95 lakh per person and the Antarctic costs Rs 4.95 lakh per person on twin-sharing basis. It largely attracts high net-worth individuals looking for something novel, says Chandrahasan. Kerala Travels got 22 seats for the current Antarctic season, and they have been sold out.

As Ravisankar puts it, the poles are the last frontier for shutterbugs, discerning travellers and nature lovers alike.

But time seems to be running out — in a few years, polar expeditions may become frozen fragments of history owing to growing ecological concerns.

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Published on February 10, 2011
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