Maria Semple, in her acclaimed new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” “asks Seattle to laugh at itself” and takes readers through a joyful romp of not just life in Seattle, but the confluence of Antarctic travel and scientific research, as well. I won’t give away the somewhat surprising ending, but suffice it to say that even I learned a bit about Antarctic cruise ship collaborations with researchers and the medical requirements of joining a team at the South Pole (which requires a mouth void of any wisdom teeth!).
Lead character Bernadette, described by NPR as “notorious, hilarious, volatile, talented, troubled and agoraphobic,” has promised her daughter Bee a family trip to Antarctica, a trip that really only Bee looks forward to. When her mother refers to their pending cruise to the South Pole, Bee corrects her, informing her that visitors generally just go to the Peninsula and only scientists and their staff get to the actual Pole. The book is a breezy and entertaining read, written by an author who happens to live part time on Vashon Island, home of TravelWild Expeditions.
South Pole vs. the Antarctic Peninsula, luxury cruise liners vs. ice strengthened vessels…misconceptions about polar cruises are common. Indeed, some travelers are surprised their trip to Antarctica doesn’t include polar bear sightings, and visitors to the Arctic are sometimes disappointed after they’ve looked forward to communing with penguins. This is surprising, given the host of scientific research at the Poles.
Helping to shed further insight into life, culture, and nature at our polar extremes are many of the staff supporting polar researchers, including doctors, chefs and musicians. These women and men enjoy the challenges unique to the place, and they often further our education of it by sharing their experience.
Antony Dubber, head chef at the British Antarctic Station, has taken some stunning photographs of the research station, and some interesting photographs inside the living quarters. He explains,
‘The Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton brings all the supplies we need at the end of February when it picks up the summer staff. Once it leaves, we’re on our own.’
He prides himself on preparing a varied menu, packed with as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible.
‘I have to figure out how much food is needed to last the winter. Everyone knows that once the supply ship leaves in February I can’t just pop down to the nearest supermarket.
‘I also miss bone-in meat. There is a no-bone policy here which is tied to the Antarctic Treaty.
‘Food waste is buried in the ice and poultry bones might be infected with bird viruses that could affect the emperor penguin colony.
‘The workers eat five times a day. They have to as the bitter cold burns up the calories.’
British favourites like Typhoo Tea, Heinz baked beans, Jaffa Cakes, Bovril and HP Sauce are among the most popular treats.
Alcohol is strictly limited to two cans of beer a day with champagne reserved for birthdays and special holidays like Midwinter’s Day (June 21).
After that the sun slowly starts making its way back to the southern hemisphere. Dubber rarely gets bored.
‘There is a gym here and we watch a lot of movies and DVDs. We play a lot of pool. The only thing I miss is a bath. Every drop of water here is melted ice: every day we dig ice and melt it.
‘We are allowed a two-minute shower each day. I’ve had three birthdays out here and each time I’ve camped out under the stars. The temperature was below 45 degrees Celsius but there’s nowhere else on Earth I’d rather be.’
Cheryl Leonard is a composer and instrument-maker from San Francisco, whose work intersects music with nature. She spent time at Palmer Scientific Station recording the many quiet and natural sounds of the Antarctic Peninsula—ice dripping, glaciers calving, whales and birds singing, seals barking, wind blowing, and most beautifully, the twinkling sounds of icicles melting, breaking and being played. When asked about the Southern Ocean’s natural music, she gave us an auditory insight into this otherworldly soundscape.
CHERYL LEONARD: I was surprised how noisy it was there! Because it was the summer and it was the peninsula so it’s on the coast and there’s a lot of wildlife, and all the wildlife is frantically trying to reproduce in the short summer. So there are lots of bird sounds, lots of sounds from different kinds of seals, lots of whales that visited us. And then you have all the sounds of the ice melting, so the ice from the glacier next to the station constantly falling off into the ocean making these huge thunderous sounds, the little pieces of ice floating on the ocean, clinking and clunking and popping as they melt—it was really quite loud (laughs).
MARTINA CASTRO: Is there a sound that was unexpected, or that inspired you, that you found particularly beautiful or interesting?
LEONARD: One day I got to go out on the glacier and get lowered into a crevasse, which is a big crack in the glacier. And inside the crevasse, because it was summer and it was melting, were all of these icicles, just like thousands of icicles. So one of my favorite sounds was the sound of the icicles. You could tap them and they each had a pitch. If you hit them too hard they’d fall off, but the sound of them falling into the depths of the crevasse and bouncing off of other icicles was really neat.
CASTRO: How cold was it?
LEONARD: It wasn’t really that cold, I have to say. I went to the warmest part of Antarctica in the austral summer, so temperatures were usually around freezing. It’s kind of like going to Lake Tahoe in the winter here; it wasn’t really that bad.
And on the human health front, Alex Kumar continues his blog about his work as a doctor at the Concordia Research Station and his research about human behavior, circadian rhythms, and sleep in extreme situations. Most likely he and some of his fellow South Pole residents look forward to the beginning of the austral summer as their first opportunity to leave Antarctica, just as TravelWild Expeditions travelers are gearing up to head down there.
The Poles are our planet’s unique places where popular literature, nature’s music, food, and travel intersect with science. With the plethora of free online information and popular programs like David Attenborough’s “Frozen Planet,” travelers are usually well-prepared for their trip. But even those who’ve read up on the historical expeditions, researched the animals likely to encounter, and have spoken with polar experts like TravelWild’s Dennis Mense, they are usually speechless at the beauty, majesty and other-worldliness of the place. And a traveler usually returns from his or her trip a more learned and scientifically-versed layperson!