A few snowflakes fell as Pamelia and I touched down at the small, ski-chalet-like airport. Around us rose white peaks of the southern Andes. Alongside us flowed the Beagle Channel, the 150-mile Atlantic-Pacific passage famously sailed by Charles Darwin and named for his ship. To reach this starting point of our trip to the Antarctic, we had traveled 7,000 miles from the coast of Maine in North America to the world's southernmost city, Ushuaia, Argentina, which proudly calls itself El Fin del Mundo—the End of the World.
Ushuaia is one of a handful of ports around the world from which Antarctic trips depart. It's hilly and panoramic, with colorful metal-roofed houses, outdoor-gear shops, penguin-souvenir emporiums and more than a smattering of hostels and young backpackers. It's the capital of the province called Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), a mountainous group of islands named by Ferdinand Magellan for the many small fires (made by indigenous peoples) he saw along its shores.
Ushuaia's beauty and jobs (in tourism and electronics) have led to a more than tenfold growth in population, to at least 60,000, in the last four decades. At city's edge, up a hillside, trees have been clearcut for houses for the swelling numbers. We noticed how much the city had grown in just the ten years since we had last been here, while working on a travel-magazine article on Rounding the Horn and Chile.
Throughout our trip we would think about this endlessly repeated conflict between pristine nature and human population growth. How might it play out in the Antarctic, where no one lives but human influence nevertheless extends? To what extent was it already playing out there?
During our voyage an award-winning photographer named Rob Stimpson, a member of the One Ocean Expeditions team, would share with us a wonderful quote from the late Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani: "It's not how far you have traveled. It's what you've brought back with you." Pamelia and I hoped at the end of a nearly 20,000-mile journey to bring back a clearer sense of the Antarctic, one of the world's most environmentally important places, to share with everyone we could reach.
For our two-and-a-half days here in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere's spring (late October), however, we focused on final trip preparations and on exploring Ushuaia, its coastal wildlife and the Beagle Channel. In good weather (sunny, 32 F) the channel was a 45-minute walk from our lovely center-of-town hotel, the Lennox; the journey was considerably longer when we were battling blowing sleet and snow.
"We're preparing for the Antarctic," Pamelia reminded me one afternoon as the wind almost knocked her backwards. "This is how it's supposed to be."
On our final morning in Ushuaia, we finally laid eyes on the ship that would take us on our 19-day Antarctic expedition. The Akademik Sergey Vavilov is a Russian science-research vessel on which we and our 90-plus fellow explorers would embark on the evening of October 30. There is a story to tell about the flesh-and-blood Sergey Vavilov and his older brother, Nikolai, both of whom were great Russian scientists, but I'll save that remarkable tale for a later day, when we're at sea.
As Pamelia and I prepared to go on board, we already had absorbed so many new sights and so much amazing nature that we said to each other that we could go home now and feel happy.
Little did we grasp how much more lay ahead.
Coming next: We and our famous Antarctic-bound stowaway hit the high seas...and I do mean high seas.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood