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Her World

Summer at the Bottom of the Earth

February 14, 1988|JUDITH MORGAN

Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer.

To call on the continent of Antarctica was like venturing into the cold outer space. Each day we wore protective boots and gloves and layers of clothes with hoods. Each night, like astronauts exhilarated from a space walk, we returned to our ship to peel down, warm up and swap tales.

Antarctica was an all-powerful host--some days lavish with scenic spectacles, other days wrapped in a curtain of fog.

There was never a doubt that we were only visitors of this vast Southern Ocean, with its raw and shifting moods. We were only day-trippers on this island continent that floats at the bottom of the world like an icy lily pad.

What we saw from the pink of dawn, about 3:30 a.m. in Antarctic summer, until the purple of midnight, were shores of glaciers and ice cliffs, volcanic rubble and pepper-and-salt ridges that turned out to be penguins--hundreds of thousands in orderly colonies.

Wildlife was rampant, on land and sea and air. We were entranced by the maneuvers of those elegant ship followers, the pintado petrels, and by the enormous grace of wandering albatrosses, each bearing a white cross on its back. We were distracted by the ripping roar of calving ice and by the cries of "whale" or "rainbow."

Highest and Driest

There are few subtleties of nature in this bold continent, which is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest on earth.

Antarctica has mountains of ice that mirror the crest of the Himalayas; ice that in some places is 15,000 feet deep. It has full moons that bounce in reflections along snowy peaks. It has icebergs as small as buffet sculptures and others of terrifying proportions, including one the size of Rhode Island.

But it has no trees, no towns, no roads, no hotels, almost no docks. Our ship was our home; its decks and wide-windowed lounges were our viewing platforms. Our landings on the shores of Antarctica were in tough Zodiac rubber boats that carry 12 passengers and a driver.

In all the white continent, which is about the size of the United States and Mexico combined, the summer population is only 2,000, about half of which is at the United States' McMurdo base, far south in the Ross Sea. In the dark months of winter, the number drops to 800.

There are about 40 scientific bases in Antarctica. Most have a population of 40 or less. With our 89 passengers and a jolly Greek crew, we were the largest community for thousands of square miles.

The stations we visited along the Antarctic Peninsula were operated by Chile, Argentina, Poland and the Soviet Union. The Americans at Palmer Station refused to invite us ashore because they were busy working. The Brazilians suggested we come back later, which, with these distances, made us smile.

Showing the Flag

The missions vary, from pure science to merely showing the flag in this continent without politics. But the bleak buildings have much in common. What works is barebone architecture, a survival style born of the rigors of the climate.

The stations are like rows of boxcars set on stilts, so that snow can blow under them rather than pile up in wall-crushing drifts. From a distance, with their weathered paint of yellow and green and red, they could be discarded orange crates. Yet inside are dormitories, laboratories, mess halls and libraries, all made warmer by stoves and taped music, homemade vodka and the sound of laughter.

Even in summer it is cold in Antarctica, but that is not an overwhelming issue. We dressed for it and joked about it as we rolled from the ship like Michelin tire people, all round and padded in bright red parkas.

Along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, the mean temperature in December and January hovers around freezing. Most days are in the 40s; only the wind can make it painful.

Essential garments are long underwear, knee-high rubber boots for wet landings and water-proof nylon outer pants that are worn over wool pants or jeans. The outer pants keep you warm and dry and clean when crouching to photograph wallows of seals, or sitting on ice banks as Adelie penguins toboggan by, or riding through choppy seas.

And there were days--such as a glittering morning at Hope Bay--when the temperature was 54 degrees and parkas were thrown open or stripped off and stacked near the water's edge with our ship-to-shore life vests.

That was a day when sunscreen was needed and no one was chilled, except for the eight who were dumped into the sea by a wave that swamped their Zodiac when the balcony of an iceberg broke off as they passed.

They lost their cameras to the Antarctic, but not their lives or spunk. Two have signed on for next year.

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