An Antarctic Prospect: Exploring the World's Last Wilderness

credit: John 'EJ' Gurley for Borton Overseas

In early March I'll be in Antarctica, far offline and away, visiting what is the earth's last wilderness. I will be discussing ocean issues with citizen scientists aboard MS Island Sky, a small cruise ship operated by Polar Latitudes and Borton Overseas, and accompanied by the award-winning Big Blue Live film crew from BBC-ONE and researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, tagging whales and studying krill patterns and conditions in southern ocean.

Let me say first what a privilege this is, an experience that is available to only a few and I am grateful to be a part. Since I can remember, Antarctica has been a place distant and wild, terra nullius - nobody's land, inhabited only by hearty flora and fauna able to thrive and endure in what are most challenging conditions for life on earth. Endurance is the operative word for such survival: a term made so vivid by the exploration and reports of the first Europeans to visit there, the expeditions to reach the South Pole, to study the unique ecosystem, and to survive on the ice, in the mountains, moving among the dangerously shifting surfaces, and risking a failure so cold, so dire, so lonely, so lost. The journals and photographs of these explorations, on ship, by sledge, on foot, captured my imagination: the durability and resourcefulness, the intensity of human interaction with Nature and human nature, optimism derived from successful passage and discovery of the unknown, and pessimism derived from dangerous circumstance, sudden condition shifts, and the power and taking of human life vulnerable to natural events beyond human control.

Ernest Shackelton British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–09. Credit: Public Domain Review

Nothing evokes those contradictory facts and feelings than the story of Ernest Shackleton, his serial attempts to best Antarctica, the loss of his ship to the crushing ice, the absence of any sense of survival other than by a superhuman attempt to cross a seemingly impenetrable mountain range to reach a place by which to mount a rescue so improbable as to defy imagination. I have been reading Shackleton's publications and letters and am amazed by the matter-of-factness of his accounts, the spirit that he and his men kept alive through poetry, song, dance, games, and theatrics as distraction from the boredom, the daily routine, the demanding resourcefulness, the constant danger. Imagine the feelings of those men left behind as their leader departed in search of rescue, and then the exhilaration in the sighting a small boat returned to bring the survivors home.

Ernest Shackelton British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–09. Credit: Public Domain Review

Antarctica presents to my mind an ultimate place where civilization has not yet intruded or corrupted, one realization of Earth at is origin. Its preservation and protection as such a place has been achieved as a result of its inhospitable conditions and its distance from everywhere else. Thus, even today, it can be protected by international agreement from the many egregious intrusions of the modern world, as a place for science and research, some perimeter tourism, and various highly marketed expeditions, such as the recent "race" across Antarctica by two hearty record-seekers.

What are the real threats to the Antarctic? The most obvious is the consequence of human activities far away: CO2 and other emissions affecting air quality, acid rain, ozone concentration, temperature rise, ocean warming, glacial melt, sea ice disruption, increased pollutants, and other anthropogenic conditions that upset the natural history and processes of the place. With these also come the creeping negatives that have threatened other ocean resources worldwide: the aspirations of the extraction industries - oil, gas, deep ocean mining - and the industrial fishing industry that is looking for new product to replace what has already been decimated by unsustainable, frequently illegal harvest throughout the rest of the ocean. The results emerge in the form of decline and dissolution toward accelerating, irreversible change, more and more evident in the last wilderness. I fear for the place as a free and empty space, a possibility, an instruction, a vestige of the un-compromised natural world.

So I depart on this voyage with mixed emotions. I approach the place as reality and symbol of unfettered Nature, but that is undercut by awareness of the context of my experience to come, my intrusion upon the clarity of an idea that may be foolish, certainly naïve. Am I just another part of the problem, brought home most vividly by bearing witness? I will report back.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.