By Elmar P. Sakala ’73-A
What I found to be true about the Antarctic:
1. The beauty of the Antarctic cannot be described in words — only experienced. That is absolutely true. Before the Alumni Association Silversea cruise, I did my homework and googled photos and descriptions posted by previous Antarctic visitors. I looked at the photos and write-ups and observed, “Yes, that is pretty.” But they did not prepare me for the pristine unspoiled beauty I found in the Antarctic. I look at the same photos now after my return and just say, “Wow, I can’t believe how much I missed before the actual experience.”
2. The Antarctic is the most remote place on Earth. This is a fact that was too apparent to all on the alumni cruise. The Antarctic is unattached to any other continent. The southern tip of South America is the closest land. The Argentinian port of Ushuaia is the southernmost city on the earth, where most Antarctic cruises originate. It is 1,000 km (620 mi) from the Antarctic peninsula, and it advertises itself as being “at the end of the earth.” Our alumni cruise started and ended at Ushuaia.
3. The Antarctic is the home for some of the most amazing creatures on Earth. Our cruise scientific staff confirmed this to be true in their almost daily lectures on the Silversea expedition. These experts dazzled us with their incredible knowledge of Antarctica. The migration route of the Arctic tern from Antarctica to Iceland and back again is an incredible 40,000 miles. In the icy waters of the Antarctic, most of the native fish have special proteins in their blood that act like antifreeze. The proteins bind to ice crystals, keeping them small to prevent the formation of fish popsicles.
4. Tropical plant and tree fossils have been found in the Antarctic. This is true. The continent of Antarctica was once part of the super-continent geologists have named “Gondwana.” Coal deposits throughout Antarctica testify to the presence of a past temperate or even tropical climate with abundant plant life. Needless to say, we did not see any tropical climate on our alumni cruise.
5. The largest water current on Earth is the Antarctic circumpolar current. Few people have heard of the enormous clockwise movement of the relatively cold Antarctic water encircling the entire continent. Our lecturers shared with us the fact that the flow is equivalent to the volume of water discharged from 500 Amazon rivers. Where the warmer southward flowing water meets the relatively colder Antarctic water is known as the “Antarctic Convergence.”
What I found was a myth about the Antarctic:
1. The Antarctic is a silent place. While this is true for human sounds, it is not true for nature’s sounds. Icebergs create sounds as they drift, collide, and grind against each other, producing loud noises and vibrations. Seals sing underwater with songs that can be heard through the ice. Glaciers announce their calving with crashing sounds. The sounds of whales blowing and breaching are unforgettable to our alumni cruisers. Penguin colonies generated a cacophony of loud vocalizations that we heard almost every day on our cruise.
2. The Antarctic is too cold for life to flourish. This statement is definitely false. The Antarctic convergence creates a zone of high marine productivity where Antarctic krill are profuse. Krill are the most abundant animal species in the world with 300-400 trillion individual organisms. They serve as a primary source of food for whales, seals, and penguins. We found krill washed up on the rocky shores of our wet-landing excursions.
3. The thickness of ice is similar in both the Antarctic and the Arctic. Absolutely not true. Arctic ice is frozen seawater with up to 10 feet of ice floating on the water. On the other hand, the Antarctic ice is an average of 7,000 feet thick, which lays on top of solid rock, resulting in an average elevation of the continent at about 8,200 feet. The Antarctic peninsula where our Silversea vessels cruised was at sea level. Snow-capped mountains arose right from the water’s edge, rising up to meet the clouds.
4. The Drake Passage is the roughest water in the world. This statement gets a “yes” and “no” answer. The Drake Passage is unprotected water between South America and Antarctica, the site of the polar convergence. The winds can be ferocious and are the stuff of legends. Crossing the Passage is an event that many Antarctic passengers either look forward to or dread. There’s something quite exhilarating about experiencing rolling waves aboard an ice-strengthened Antarctic expedition vessel. Our alumni cruise ship experienced “rocking and rolling” on our southern crossing but found the water relatively calm on our northern crossing — overall not at all as horrendous as many predicted.
5. Alumni from different graduation years had nothing in common. Don’t believe it! Even though our class years differed widely, we shared the bond-affirming commonality of being graduates of a medical school that unashamedly promoted Whole Person Care in the example of Jesus Christ. Whether riding the zodiacs from ship to shore or enjoying a relaxed dining room meal, the closeness of our group was apparent. Would we sign up for another alumni activity? Absolutely!
Dr. Sakala is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at LLUSM. He has been a faculty member for 40 years and practices maternal-fetal medicine.