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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

-- Photos by Dick Saale

Gentoo penguins are found in rocky areas on the Antarctic peninsula.
A trip to the bottom of the world


There are no indigenous people on the Antarctic continent -- the harsh environment keeps human presence to a minimum. Antarctica is the coldest, highest and windiest continent on Earth with winter temperatures averaging about minus 70 degrees F.

An iceberg in the frigid waters surrounding Antarctica

It is quite possibly the most remote place that exists on Earth. For eight-and-a-half months each year, planes cannot resupply the U.S. research station located near the South Pole -- the wind and low temperature make air travel impossible. Cargo planes equipped with both wheels and skis resupply stations when weather permits. Researchers at the South Pole station say that a winter rescue would be easier to complete at the International Space Station than the South Pole.

Our ship, a former Chilean icebreaker converted to a cruise ship

With all of this in mind, I still wanted to visit this continent. I came in January, the Antarctic summer, flying from Kansas City, Mo., to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. Then it was two days across the Drake Passage on a small ship carrying 78 passengers. The size of the ship makes it large enough to travel the open, rough sea but small enough to anchor anywhere.

The skeleton of a whale, a relic from the days when whaling was prevalent in the waters surrounding Antarctica in the early 20th century.

Once into the water surrounding Antarctica, the water was clear and calm. Temperatures were usually in the 20s until the wind picked up; then it would drop well below zero. We covered everything but our eyes.

With the possible exception of the migratory whales, the wildlife here has not been harmed by humans, so they were not afraid of us. The ship’s crew and the raft operators enforced “the 15-foot rule,” trying to keep at least 15 feet between us and any wildlife.

A seal swims past an iceberg.

Ninety percent of the world’s ice and 70 percent of the world’s freshwater are located on this continent. One cannot gather more than 100 people at any one location at any one time, so as not to leave a large human footprint on the land.

The exception to this rule would be the 40 to 50 research stations scattered across the continent, representing various countries. The National Science Foundation oversees the U.S. stations. The land on which these stations sit is not owned but claimed: There is no government and no land ownership in the Antarctic. Treaties and agreements signed by many countries prohibit any military presence or resource exploitation.

Dick Saale

We saw no litter here, no pollution. We were asked to observe and then leave the continent just as we found it. During our seven-day visit to Antarctica, we ate and slept on the ship. The crew of the ship, primarily from Chile, do everything they can so as not to disturb the land, wildlife or the icebergs.

Dick Saale lives in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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