Antarctica: Straight to the bottom of the earth

USHUAIA, Argentina – My journey to the ends of the earth begins at a Popeye’s chicken restaurant in Louisiana. There, with greasy fingers, I type out a response to an utterly unexpected question from The GroundTruth Project, which was essentially: do you want to join an expedition to Antarctica in about ten days and go look for some stories? 

Really, there is only one response:

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. 

As soon as I type it, I feel the thrill of a journey to the unknown and an almost physical pull toward one of the world’s last frontiers. Antarctica. The bottom of the world. I pull up maps and pore over the vast, white expanse of tundra, awakening a grade-school curiosity about what’s at the very base of those old globes you had in class which you could spin with your finger. I realize I am starting from scratch.

The last time I’d contemplated a trip to a place so remote was also with The GroundTruth Project and a “Special Report” we published on GlobalPost. Charlie Sennott, the co-founder of GlobalPost who is now heading up The GroundTruth Project, traveled with me. He is the one who reached me in Louisiana to see if I wanted to journey to the other end of the earth as part of The GroundTruth Project’s expanding coverage of climate change.

Back in 2012, Sennott and I traveled the Alaskan Arctic. We made it to the Bering Strait and the tiny, remote islands that flank the passage. The trip involved lots of cold weather gear and lugging my camera and sound equipment between indigenous towns on the Arctic coast, listening to locals describe hard lives of subsistence fishing and hunting.

In the Special Report titled “Arctic Melt: Oil Rush at The Top of The World,“ we documented a fear of change that loomed as the Arctic recorded historic levels of ice melt and oil companies circled, hoping to tap the vast oil reserves that lie underneath all the melting ice. The bottom of the earth must be, I figured, in some ways similar, with similar tensions and worries about the delicate ecosystem.

Except that no one is indigenous to Antarctica. There are no locals. It is a body of land, sea and ice without a government and a people. Truly wild. It is as untouched, these days, as our planet gets.

I muse on these facts, cancel everything I had planned for the next few weeks, and begin to prepare.

First, there’s the organization I’d travel with, called 2041. And there is its leader, Robert Swan, a British explorer, environmental evangelist and self-proclaimed “survivor.” I read about how, when he was a young man, it took Swan seven years to convince people he wasn’t crazy, seven years to raise the money to fulfill his childhood dreams of polar exploration. Finally, he would walk hundreds of miles to both the North and South Poles. He is the first person in history to have done so.

In a 2014 TED talk, Swan passionately outlined why, since 2003, he has taken 1100 people from 72 nations to perhaps the most far-flung place on the planet. “Antarctica is such a hopeful place,” he declares, beaming, and his organization reflects this optimism.

Swan’s organization, “2041,” is named for the year when the international treaty that bans exploitation of Antarctica can be modified, re-negotiated or chucked altogether, potentially paving the way for development and extraction in the last pristine place on earth. Swan, who is not a man afraid of sweeping statements, believes his expeditions can prevent this destruction from happening.

“I have worked hard for 23 years,” he says, “to make sure what’s happening in the North… can never happen in the South.”

Swan is familiar with both extremes – the oil wildcatters and mineral mines in the Arctic North, and the virgin fields of ice in the deepest South. While hopeful, he has a cautionary tale to tell in the comparison of the two.

The way he cautions is by stirring the imagination; he hopes to introduce a new generation of leaders to the delicate ecosystem of Antarctica and make them fall in love with the place. In an almost constant stream, he uses words like “inspire,” “impact,” and “impossible” (as in, nothing is). His hope is that, on these 2041 expeditions, he’ll inspire a bunch of bright-eyed people under 35 from all over the globe, as well as a smattering of entrepreneurs and deep-pocketed corporate types, and they’ll take the message home that Antarctica is worth preserving.

The majority who have come on this expedition seem to be a cross section of future BRIC country representatives. They’re from hot oil-rich places. Crowded “emerging” nations. I scan the email list of participants, and most of the names appear to be Arab, Indian and Asian.

The trip costs tens of thousands of dollars. Some on the expedition are able to fund themselves. But I learn that some, quite a few in fact, find ways to raise the money in their hometowns through sponsorship and pounding the pavement. GroundTruth is paying for this trip through a grant from the Bake Family Trust. In several instances, the voyage for a participant is in itself historic. Within 24 hours of embarking on the expedition, I will meet the first person from Qatar, the first person from Kuwait, and the first person from Kenya to ever set foot on the Antarctic continent (all women).

While I’m still packing in New Orleans, Swan and I schedule a phone call. Speaking quickly and brightly, he tells me that I have secured the last spot on this year’s trip. All I have to do is send in some forms and get myself to the bottom of Argentina in about a week’s time.

The first chapter of The GroundTruth Project’s field guide for correspondents is titled “Be There” – get to where the action is and see it for yourself. Don’t report from afar. This is a simple rule of the road for any journalist, but sadly it is an increasingly rare modus operandi in a world where more and more international news is regurgitated and disseminated by talking head analysts from a cubicle in an office thousands of miles away. Digital technology puts us virtually everywhere, always. Foreign bureaus are becoming a dusty relic.

And so here I am, getting a shot at the ultimate kind of old school/new school foreign correspondence. And getting myself there, on the ground, wasn’t going to be easy, or fast. I would depart from New Orleans. Then Miami. Then an overnight flight to Buenos Aires, where it is currently 80 degrees Fahrenheit and people are eating ice cream on the sidewalks at 10 o’clock at night. Then a flight to Ushuaia, at the very bottom of Argentina, where it is currently 30 degrees Fahrenheit and afternoon snowstorms coat the jagged peaks that cradle the city. Ushuaia – just across the Chilean border, just above the Beagle Channel, named after the boat that ferried Darwin to this part of the world.

It was here that I stepped off the plane Friday, knowing the true adventure hasn’t yet begun. Today we board a 114-passenger vessel called the Sea Spirit and head for the Drake Passage, the section of the Southern Ocean that separates Cape Horn and Antarctica. On the shuttle in from the airport, a man from Virginia who has made this trip before told me that the Drake Passage is at this very moment experiencing 100-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot swells. When the Drake is calm, seafaring folk call it Drake’s Lake. When it is as it is on this day, they call it Shaky Drakey. From the brave souls who have made the passage during Shaky Drakey, stories of sickness are legion. Dramamine is deemed essential. I’ve brought a small pharmacy with me.

Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. I’m 7,000 miles from my starting point. Three years ago, I disembarked with Charlie Sennott in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in North America. The fact that I’m treading the ground of these geographic superlatives astounds and humbles me. If it’s Shaky Drakey tomorrow, I better not drop my notebook in the ocean.