While Russia drills for 20million-year-old water on Lake Vostok, Captain Osvaldo Mauro and the crew of the Antarktikos are also making a trip seemingly back in time, and not just in space: A time when human relations were simpler and camaraderie—the simple pleasure in seeing another human being, no matter his/her nationality or race—was the norm. A time when nature still held us spellbound by its ineffable beauty, flexibility, and diversity, where certain values held in common were thought to be more important than any personal or national interests. But where is this place, this Utopia, where peaceful human relations are preserved as perfectly as the fossils?
Sometime during the Mezozoic era, an isthmus connecting the last two parts of Gondwanaland broke apart, and two new continents, South America and Antarctica, began to slowly drift apart. The northern end of the isthmus is now an archipelago called Tierra de Fuego, including Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. Antarctica, completely isolated from the rest of the world by the Southern Ocean and exposed to the strongest wind speeds and most extreme temperatures on the planet, became a barren ice sheet, a remote frozen desert. It was, literally, out of sight and out of mind until the 19th century, when commercial interests brought it back from oblivion.
On 3rd June 1769, while wintering in Tahiti, Captain James Cook broke the seal on the secret orders from the British crown and read the following: “Proceed southward to 40th parallel and search for Terra Australis Incognita.”
Terra Australis Incognita was the name given to the land mass theoreticized since the ancient Greeks to exist at the southern end of the world. Later geographers confirmed that there should be something there, in order to explain the missing parts in their reconstructions of Gondwanaland. Captain Cook, as well-versed in the travels of other seamen as any, was aware of previous mariners’ claims to have landed on a ‘mist-shrouded continent’ somewhere around 60th parallel, and wished to confirm or rebut them.
Unfortunately, his crew’s encounter with malaria brought an end to the ambitions of his first journey south. A second journey, under the auspices of the Royal Society, was made to find the elusive continent, but to Cook’s chagrin, and having sailed “…as far south as any man has ever sailed and is ever likely to sail (beyond the 70th parallel)…” he landed on one of the South Georgia islands. He did, however, find an incentive to continue travel to the far south: the Antarctic fur seal.
The Antarctic fur seal was superior to whale blubber for the purposes of the late 18th and early 19th century mainly in that it was safer to hunt seals than whales. “…When they were first visited, they had no apprehension of danger; in fact, they would lie still while their neighbors were killed and skinned.” The relative abundance and ease of hunting seals encouraged many nations to send ships to the southern seas to seek out this interesting fuel source with the result that within 50 years, the fur seal population was annihilated. US and British sealers, seeking seal breeding grounds further south, happened upon the Antarctic peninsula, and disputed its discovery for decades, but in reality it was an Estonian captain, von Bellingshausen, sailing for the Russian czar, that discovered the continent. Subsequent voyages to the South Georgia islands, with whaling in mind, ignored mainland Antarctica as being bereft of lucrative commercial interests, too dangerous for safe mooring and having too hostile a climate.
The Search for the Magnetic South Pole
In 1836, pundit Jeremiah Reynolds burned the ears of the US Congress with the following declarations: “[It is in the] interests of the United States to establish propriety in the hemisphere…A British vessel touched at a single spot in 1832 taking from it an American and giving it a British name…American discoveries and commercial interests must be protected…” The irritating habit the British had of renaming their ‘discoveries’ did not go unnoticed by the French who, free of the political fanfare, and for the glory of France and science, secretly sent one of their top naturalists, Jules Dumont d’Urville, to explore (and claim) Antarctica.
But the British, not to be outdone, rallied support for an expedition to Antarctica with the following anonymous propaganda: “How could England just stand by and watch a foreign and in some points rival nation…step in and bear away the palm of glory…[England] must not allow a nation in her infamy to snatch laurels planted and watered by the toils of our seamen…”
The race was on, culminating in Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, which reached the magnetic south pole in 1907, and then the Roald Amundsen (Norweigan) expedition which arrived at the geographic south pole in 1911. The famous competition between Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott (British), which eventually claimed Scott’s life, was in effect to claim ‘the last important geographical conquest’.
Who’s Who in Antarctica
Attempts to survey the continent were fraught with difficulties. William Speirs Bruce, who led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-1904) set up a meteorological station on Laurie island while wintering there in 1903. Quick to understand the importance meteorological data could have in the future, Bruce offered the station to Britain, who rejected the offer on financial grounds. He then offered it to Argentina, who has manned the station (now called Base Orcadas) since then, making Argentine presence the longest-standing in the Antarctic circle in world history.
In 1908, Great Britain claimed sovereignty over more than 2/3 of Antarctic lands and islands discovered since 1775 ostensibly to secure whaling rights in the area. In a move that would have made Sigmund Freud proud, the maps submitted for this claim included huge parcels of what is now called the Southern Cone, i.e. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil and Paraguay. Despite their proclaimed ‘embarrassment’, the error was not corrected until 1917.
Other nations swiftly followed with their own claims: France claimed the lands discovered by d’Urville in 1840, Australia and New Zealand hastened to include their claims alongside the UK’s. Norway was not far behind. But it was the US that set the stage for the legitimacy of the claims with its foreign policy: “…the discovery of lands unknown to civilisation does not support a valid claim of sovereignty unless the discovery is followed by actual settlement of the discovered country.” (emphasis my own)
In 1928, Richard Byrd began his trip to Antarctica with an intention to occupy and claim sovereignty. His base, used for a period of two years to collect scientific data, was called Little America. On November 28, 1929, he flew over the south pole and dropped a weighted U.S. flag on the spot. When he returned home in 1930, he was hailed a hero. He manned four more long-term expeditions to Antarctica, effectively establishing US presence on the continent, the first attempts at living in Antarctica.
Over the next decades, other nations hurried to drop claim markers, usually bronze plaques with the flag embossed on it. Nazi Germany for example, would drop swastika-emblazoned plaques throughout the continent.
While WWII raged in the rest of the world, Chile and Argentina made their own move. Both claimed part of the peninsula, overlapping the UK’s claim. Argentina sent out expeditions during the years 1942-1943, dropping their own brass plaques. The UK, having blasted the moorings on Deception Island, supposedly to block the Nazi’s from using their harbours (although German presence in the southern seas was at all times during the war negligible) retaliated. With nothing better to do, the British battalion focused on Argentina, collected all Argentine plaques and returned them to their ambassador in Buenos Aires who in turn, presented them to President Juan Domingo Peron.
The insult couldn’t be ignored and the Argentine ship 1o de Mayo soon sailed for Antarctica for ‘survey’ work. The crew effectively ‘surveyed’ as many British claim markers, removing them or painting the Argentine flag over the Union Jack whenever possible. After that, things got sillier: “Huts were built, torn down, rebuilt, emblems and slogans from both countries were painted, covered, and repainted on rocks, whale oil storage tanks and buildings…” The competition between Chile, Argentina, and the UK was often solved by “football, rugby matches, or dart games…the winning country reigned over an island, base or hut until the next rematch…”
The Antarctic Treaty System
After WWII, eight nations–UK, Chile, US, Argentina, Norway, France, Australia, New Zealand—met to discuss land rights in Antarctica. Russia, although credited with discovering the continent was excluded from these talks and declared: “[the USSR] cannot recognize any decision affecting territorial claims because it had not participated in the discussions.” Eventually, world scientists led the way.
In preparation for the International Geographical year, members from twelve nations including Belgium, Japan, the USSR and South Africa declared their intentions of carrying out an 18-month study in Antarctica where ‘territorial disputes would not be tolerated.’ The amicable results of this international cooperation led to the Antarctic Treaty where among other things, Antarctica is set aside as a scientific preserve where no mining, no military activity, and no nuclear explosions or waste dumping may take place.
As the Treaty Preamble asserts: “it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” Critics of the Treaty say that it is only observed while the cost-efficiency of fuel exploration and transport exceed market prices. In other words, given the ever-growing scarcety of non-renewable fuel sources, there might be a day where the co-signers of the Treaty walk away from it and renew their claims on Antarctic territory. For example, the recent drilling of Lake Vostok increased tensions between Treaty subscribers who questioned Russia’s motives for the exploration.
If and when such a day arrives, Argentina has shown a clear and constant public policy towards their territorial claims in Antarctica. When a crewmember of the Antarktikos asked why the Argentine army was occupying such a remote location as Puerto Parry on the Isla de los Estados (Staten Island), the response was: “Presence and Sovereignty.”
To date, 49 countries have signed the Treaty, making Antarctica (defined as all the lands and waters beneath the 60th parallel) as the only continent on earth where no battle has been met. The only documented military maneuver, albeit without engagement of arms, was in 1965, by the Argentine army, who marched on the South Pole to reaffirm their territorial claims. When received by the US radio operator occupying the base, they were given “the best meal they’d had in weeks.”
Sailing to Antarctica
A map of Antarctica today, depending on where it was published, could have up to five or six different names for the same territory. For example, a British map of the Antarctic peninsula would call it “Palmer’s land”, and Argentine map would call the same land “Saint Martin’s land” and a Chilean map would label it: “O’Higgin’s land.” The most recent treaties have left Chile in control of the Straits of Magellan, the Beagle Canal, and the islands in the archipelago including Cape Horn. For this reason, a vessel wishing to find safe harbor before facing the Drake Passage, would have to do so on Chilean territory, and thus, the last port of call (and the place where one’s course must be registered) before sailing to Antarctica is in Port Williams, Chile–a tacit, bureaucratic confirmation of Chile’s claim on the continent.
Since the realisation of the importance of Antarctica as planetary heritage and the celebration of the Treaty, tourism has increased to the continent of the frozen desert. Nonetheless, despite professional tourist operators who carry tourists in any range of vessels, from revamped navy ships to 40-foot sloops, few make the attempt unsupervised by professionals, and all must comply with the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) requirements in order to ensure that no ecological footprint is left.
Only 40 years ago, in 1972, the first person sailed solo to the frozen continent: New Zealander, David Henry Lewis, in his 10 meter steel hulled Ice Bird. Ten years later, the first Argentine yacht, the Pequod, alighted on the peninsula captained by local sailing legend, Hernan Alvarez Fort. Although Fort admits his primary aims in sailing were “get there and return safe and sound,” he rejoices in the secondary results of sailing to Antarctica in that “two or three thousand Argentines found out that the Antarctica claimed by [Argentina] isn’t just a little triangle drawn out of scale on the bottom of most maps, but a bit of a promising and rich continent that deserves all the efforts we can produce to ensure it forms a definitive part of our national territory.”
On 13th February 2012, the Antarktikos (christened for Fort’s book recounting his travels) the third Argentine yacht to sail to Antarctica, started on its return trip through the perilous Drake Passage, en route to its new home berth in Ushuaia. Now, back at Cape Horn after more than six weeks sailing in the Southern Sea, the risks and fears that loomed so much in their imaginations before sailing, have become fait accompli, including capsizing in the outbound Drake crossing, icebergs, 100 mph winds, and summer temperatures far below freezing.
No captain—and Osvaldo Mauro of the Antarktikos is no exception—has sailed to Antarctica and returned unmarked nor unmoved by the silent continent’s impervious challenge to peace for the rest of the world, despite the grumblings and grousings that come from afar. Antarctica is the only place on earth where “all living organisms are to be treated as a single ecosystem,” according to CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) conventions, an ecological experiment without precedent at this scale in the history of mankind. Perhaps for this reason, howsoever the rest of the planet is broiled in dissension, the mere remoteness and extreme conditions on Antarctica, tempers and cools the hottest of conflicts. In Captain Fort’s words: “Antarctica defends itself.”