SOMEWHERE IN THE SOUTHERN OCEAN — “Team Inspire, Team Inspire, Team Inspire! Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey. The chefs have been working all night to make you a delicious meal. Breakfast is served! Out.”
This is the crisp, lilting voice of Adrian Cross ringing out over the ship’s PA system at 7:55 a.m. He is a former British naval airman who for years has served as the chief expedition enforcer for 2041, the organization I am here with. 2041 is devoted to the lofty goal of preserving Antarctica and achieving energy sustainability.
“Jumper,” as everyone calls him, is tasked with making sure we all come back from the expedition alive.
“The chances of something happening are very slim,” he warned grimly, back at our embarkation point in Ushuaia, “but the consequences of something happening are enormous.”
So far, all that has happened is that we have been fed very well, and we made it through the Drake Passage without incident. We were lucky. The swell was gentle — a low, slow rocking that only occasionally lobbed me against a wall or the person next to me. Old hands who have made the crossing dozens of times, like Jumper, scoffed: that was merely “Drake Lake.”
Life on the ship operates according to bursts from Jumper over the PA throughout the day announcing: breakfast is served, lunch is served, dinner is served. There’s a lecture on penguins in 5 minutes. There’s a lecture on [Ernest] Shackleton’s expedition this afternoon.
All the while, slate colored waves roll around us, and we recede further and further from the rest of the world. Clouds come in; clouds disperse.
After a full day at sea, we finally pass the “convergence,” the barrier between the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters. The temperature drops. We wonder what land will look like, when we finally reach it.
How do you report on anticipation? What is there to say before the action begins?
In this case, everyone is doggedly focused on preparation. Our expedition guides constantly underscore the wildness and remoteness of where we’re headed. While we haven’t stepped foot on land yet, we’re expected to be in “expedition mode” all the same, which means: you’re on time at worst, five minutes early at best, and you’re always looking out for yourself.
That’s because on and off the ship, we are told, the dangers are many. They must be taken seriously. You could fall overboard, in which case you’ll become paralyzed almost immediately by freezing and terrible waters. You could get thrown against a wall when the ship hits a big swell. You could get your fingers slammed in a door when the ship pitches. You could get seasick. You could spread germs, since the ship is like an enormous petri dish. Once on land, you could slip on the ice and break a leg. You could fall through a crevasse, 20 meters to your death. An angry fur seal could charge at you.
Visions of this unforgiving, alien world of ice and snow haunt our dreams. We nervously pepper our guides with questions:
What happens if you have to go to the bathroom on the ice? (Hold it.)
How do we keep from getting queasy? (Go out on the deck and look for the horizon.)
What if we get wet on the Zodiac boats that ferry us from ship to shore? (Wear waterproof clothing.)
There is also an obsession with clothing here. What material is your underwear made of? Is your backpack water resistant or waterproof? Dress in layers. Don’t wear cotton. Never leave the ship without extra socks and gloves. Remember, we are heading to a place where gale force winds can whip up in a heartbeat, and temperatures have, during the coldest seasons, plummeted to the lowest recorded numbers on earth.
On top of all this, a one-woman-band journalist has endless gear switches to make, adapting lenses and tripods and microphones to whatever’s happening. I did not pack light.
Here is a multimedia reporter’s packing list, circa 2015, for covering Antarctica:
*Canon 5D Mark iii camera
*Tascam audio recorder
*Sennheiser shotgun microphone & windscreen cover
*Hot shoe mount to attach mic to camera
*80-200 mm lens
*24-105 mm lens
*Cards for the camera
*Cards for the audio recorder
*Batteries, batteries, batteries – lithium & alkaline
*Camera battery chargers
*Waterproof Lectrosonic lavalier mics
*Batteries for mixer
*Battery charger for mixer
*Sticker body attachments and little fuzzy windscreen covers for lav mics
*2 laptop computers (one for editing, one for writing)
*Chargers (for laptops, phone)
*Handwarmers (for gear, not hands)
*2 pairs gloves
*2 hats (one warm knitted, one baseball cap from King’s Ropes, Sheridan, Wyoming)
*8 pairs underwear
*8 pairs thick socks
*2 rainproof jackets (one heavy, one light)
*3 wool sweaters
*Stretchy yoga camisoles for bottom layer
*Comfy pants for sleeping
*Cucumber eye pads
*2 kinds of seasickness medicine
*Beef jerky and beef sticks
*Sweet & spicy tea
On the ship I pack and re-pack gear, passing time, wondering what the air in Antarctica will feel like. To spend two days on a ship in the middle of nowhere with 80 people from 20 countries, everyone anticipating a place that defies description, is to realize what we have in common in the face of the unknown. Antarctica is a blank slate for most of us, and everyone I have met – from a young Qatari filmmaker to an expert on plastic waste – grafts their fears, dreams and purpose onto the white abyss. What are these people’s dreams? Why are they here? On the ice, in the coming days, I’ll find out.