Story: Hoang Phong

The last continent to be discovered, Antarctica remains a realm of otherworldly landscapes and spectacular natural sights.

Antarctica welcomes visitors with giant floating icebergs on the frigid Southern Ocean. Here, warm water from the three surrounding oceans encounters cold water in the Southern Ocean, creating convection currents that draw up a great abundance of nutrition from the sea bottom. The nutrition nurtures the seaweed and algae that are the food of krill. These krill, which mount up to hundreds of millions of tons, are consumed by numerous animals, including giant whales.

Summer in the South Pole (between December and April) is not too cold, as daytime temperature may hit 10oC. It’s an opportunity for animals, including great numbers of penguins to head back to land after several months of wandering offshore to mate and reproduce. On the South Pole, Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins are abundant. They usually make their nests with pebbles on “rock islands” rising above the ice. Connecting different islands to the sea are “highways” created by hundreds of penguins that diligently tread above the snow to pave their paths. Once the paths have been cleared, penguins can slide on them at incredible speed.

The penguins may look clumsy on land, but they are agile and flexible in the water, speeding up to 35kph and diving 300m deep. Gentoo penguins can even jump above the water while searching for food underwater like dolphins do.

Preservation of the South Pole’s natural environment is strictly enforced. Beside the unwritten rules of cultured travelers: “Only leave your footsteps,” oversized and cramped vessels are not allowed to make landfall on the South Pole to avoid excessive disturbance to the wildlife here. Travelers are also reminded to keep their distance to prevent infectious diseases to wild animals, and even walking should be done with caution so as not to trample upon the highways of penguins or rare lichen habitats that grow only one centimeter every dozen years. It’s no wonder that animals in the South Pole from skylarking penguins to fattened seadogs and lonesome, elongated leopard seals with their sharp teeth go about their natural lifestyle without paying heed to curious visitors.

Perhaps the most fantastic experience in the South Pole, however, is whale-watching. These largest creatures on earth were once exposed to massive hunts but nowadays, thanks to preservation efforts worldwide, the number of whales has increased. It still isn’t easy to spot them, but on this expedition I was fortunate to see a couple of humpback whales searching for food just several dozen meters away from our canoe.

Their feeding process resembled a synchronized dance that started with a water spray of over five meters high, followed by a dive into the sea, ending with colossal tails raised high like a farewell. The dance may last ten minutes, in which you can observe these 15m-long creatures with their skins stuck with countless barnacles like old vessels, even smell the steam emitted through their spiracles at the top of their heads. Those who are extremely lucky can even watch these 30 ton-whales jump out of the sea.

Standing on the windy deck, watching the sun rise in tandem with the moon in the sky made the vast icy landscape of Antarctica even more mysterious. The South Pole boasts some of the most spectacular scenery on earth, and for any adventurous traveler it is truly worth the effort to visit here.