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My Last Continent

By´╝ÜMidge Raymond


As I lead tourists from the Zodiacs up rocky trails to the ­penguin colonies, I notice how these visitors—stuffed into oversize, puffy red parkas—walk like the penguins themselves: eyes to the snowy ground, arms out for balance. They’re as determined as the penguins to get where they’re going—but they’re not here to ask about the birds, about these islands. They don’t seem interested in the Adélies’ declining populations or the gentoos’ breeding habits or the chinstraps’ dwindling food sources in the Antarctic.

Instead they ask about the Australis.

How many people drowned? they ask. How many are still missing? How many bodies now belong eternally to the sea?

None are questions I want to answer.

Back in 1979, a sightseeing tour, Air New Zealand Flight 901 out of Christchurch, crashed into the side of Mt. Erebus in southwestern Antarctica. More than two hundred and fifty people died that day. It was the worst disaster in the history of this continent—until five years ago. Until the Australis.

According to records, we know that both crafts—the plane and the ship—went down due to navigational error. Each was felled by what its crew knew existed but was unable to see, or chose not to see.

Sometimes I wonder whether some other force is at hand—something equally obscured, warning us that none of us should be in Antarctica at all.

We cross sharp-edged hills near penguin nests, the rocks covered with pinkish red guano that seeps into the snow like blood. At this time of year—late January, the middle of the austral summer—the birds are fat, their chicks tucked under their chests; they lean over to warm and protect the downy gray-and-white bodies as they watch us pass. The Adélies stare at us with their white-rimmed eyes; the chinstraps look serious in their painted helmets; the gentoos twist their heads, raising orange beaks into the air to keep us in their sights.

More than anything, the birds remind me of everything I’ve lost. And somehow, this only makes me more determined to save them. And so I return.

I’d prefer not to answer the tourists’ questions about the Australis, but I do. This is my job, after all—I work not only for the penguins but for the boat that brings me here every season.

So I tell them.

I tell them I was here when the massive cruise ship found herself trapped and sinking in a windswept cove of pack ice. I tell them that the ship was too big and too fragile to be so far south, and that my ship, the Cormorant, was the closest one and still a full day’s travel away. I tell them that, below the Antarctic Circle, the phrase search and rescue has little practical meaning. There is simply no one around to rescue you.

I tell them that 715 passengers and crew died that day. I don’t tell them that 2 of those who died were rescuers, whose fates tragically intertwined. Most want to hear about the victims, not the rescuers. They don’t yet know that we are one and the same.


The Drake Passage

(59°39'S, 61°56'W)

From the motion of the M/S Cormorant, it feels as though we’ve hit fifteen-foot swells. This is nothing for our captain, who chugged through thirty-foot waves a little more than two weeks ago on a previous trip through the Drake Passage, where the Southern Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic meet and toss boats around like toys. Though the Cormorant will make the voyage six times this season, it will never become routine. The Drake never gives the same experience twice.

I’m not nearly as seasick as I pretend to be, but the downtime helps me ease into my role as tour guide. Because 90 percent of the passengers are sick in their cabins and will remain sequestered for the next two days, our expedition leader, Glenn, doesn’t mind if I hide out in the crew’s quarters until we reach the South Shetlands.

The company’s flagship vessel, the Cormorant, was built the same year I was born, nearly forty years ago. While I’m five foot nine and single, she is just shy of three hundred feet long and carries one hundred passengers and fifty crew members. We are both built for the ice—I’ve got a thick skin and a penchant for solitude; she’s got stabilizers and a reinforced hull, allowing us to slip into the tiny inlets of the Antarctic peninsula and, weather permitting, to go south of the Antarctic Circle—something all visitors want to check off their lists of things to do before they die.

The promotional brochures for this cruise highlight not only the wildlife but the onboard experts like me. I’m one of six naturalists on this voyage—a group of wildlife experts and historians hired by Glenn to educate the passengers on penguins, whales, seabirds, ice, and the stories of the continent itself. While most naturalists will remain on board for the full two-week journey, several times each season two of us will disembark at one of the peninsula’s uninhabited islands, make camp, and gather data for the Antarctic Penguins Project. After another two weeks, when the ship returns with a new load of passengers, we’ll join them for the journey back to civilization. While I’m on the ship, I’m on call, available to answer questions, pilot Zodiacs (the small but sturdy inflatable boats that take us from ship to shore), herd tourists, spot whales, and give presentations in the lounge after dinner. This part I love—introducing the continent as it was once introduced to me. The part I dread involves the questions that venture far beyond the realms of flora and fauna.