The Argentinean naval vessel drifted past the fragile wooden dock for the second time and threw its engines in reverse to back up and give it another shot.
It was mid-March and the brash ice was already beginning to thicken, turning the waters of Paradise Harbor into a treacherous obstacle course. Antarctic winter was approaching, and the scientists stationed at the Almirante Brown research base all summer were ready to go home.
If the navy icebreaker was unable to successfully dock, the scientists would be forced to overwinter, and no one wanted to endure that. Just ask Ernest Shackleton.
The ship missed its third approach.
Angela and I watched the drama unfold from the safety of our hike along the well-packed, snowy ridge, the trail marked with red flags bearing the G Adventures logo. With our own Zodiac excursion boats easily navigating the icy waters between the main ship and the rocky shore, we didn’t have any apprehension about getting stranded.
But it was easy to see just how fragile human existence is, clinging to the rare patches of bare rock and waiting for the only boat back to civilization.
We were on the G Expedition, a recommissioned Danish icebreaker that now hosts both Antarctic and Arctic tours for the Canadian-based G Adventures travel company. Our stateroom was modest but comfortable. And, although the crew is quick to remind everyone that this isn’t a typical cruise ship, the boat didn’t lack for creature comforts, including two bars, amazing food, and a fantastic band.
When Angela and I began planning this trip around the world, a visit to Antarctica wasn’t even on the radar. But the temptation of seeing all seven continents within a year was just too great to pass up. And, although this was certainly the most expensive portion of our trip, it was also the singularly most stunning portion as well.
With wandering albatross tailing the ship for hundreds of miles, pods of orca and humpback whales drafting alongside, leopard seals hunting among the icebergs, and penguins by the thousands showing their curiosity at our presence.
With tabular icebergs the size of fallen skyscrapers, ten stories above water and ninety stories below.
With the sound of glaciers cracking and groaning like the joints of great blue giants, the echoes bounding from one unnamed mountain to another.
With the sun rising and setting each day in impossible cotton-candy colors, lighting the windblown snow of distant peaks on fire.
Including our stop in the South Shetland Islands where Angela and I braved the zero-degree water for the polar plunge, we stepped onto the continent of Antarctica a total of six times. And each excursion seemed to present a new set of surprises. The fur seal that decided to chase us for no apparent reason. The gentoo penguin attempting to open our backpack even though it contained no food. The Ukrainian scientists at Vernadsky Research Base who sold us homemade vodka at a discount of 2 USD per shot.
Angela and I queued up for our picture with the sign marking the visit to our seventh continent. And we felt the weight of that act, that achievement. It was worth it to come to Antarctica and check that box.
But the real value of such an endeavor isn’t in the counting of countries or the planting of flags. It isn’t about the marks on a map or the perfect selfies.
It isn’t even about the memory of a place.
No, the real value of travel is its ability to change us. To create within us a passion to understand, share, and protect this wonderful, fragile, beautiful world.
Angela and I sat on the snow for a while, waiting for most of the other hikers to wander back toward the ship. With a raft of penguins leaping from the ocean and onto low rocks, and icebergs turning imperceptibly to catch the fading sunlight, we basked in the isolation for a glorious moment. And let the change come.
In the near distance, the Argentinean icebreaker successfully docked, and we heard a quiet cheer from scientists who were going home.