|Editor’s note: Hawaii residents Richard and Karen Fassler recently visited both the Arctic and Antarctica within a seven-month period.|
For me, when it comes to travel, opposites attract. That’s why my wife, Karen, and I found ourselves staring at a sign that warned:
“STOP. POLAR BEAR DANGER. Do not walk beyond this sign without your firearm.”
Since I didn’t want to meet a polar bear, and I didn’t bring a firearm, I thought it wise to retreat to the safety of the town.
July 2, 2014. We were on Svalbard (aka Spitsbergen), Norwegian islands, 800 miles from the North Pole, which is about as close as you can get to that desolate spot without trekking across vast sheets of ice.
Getting there is not as difficult as you might think. Snowshoes, sled dogs and seal-skin parkas are not needed. Nor is the bravery of explorers Shackleton, Amundsen or Byrd. Neither must you be an Olympic athlete. I’m 73!
With a healthy sense of adventure and a cabin on one of today’s comfortable cruise ships, anyone can take off to the frozen North or South.
There will be challenges; you might encounter blizzards and rough seas. But a polar vacation offers the opportunity to immerse yourself in nature — seal lions, penguins and polar bears, icebergs, glaciers and plenty of snow and ice.
You will also get an up-close view of how climate change is affecting glaciers and ice packs of both polar regions.
The North Pole
The North Pole — at the top of the world — is an immense sheet of pack ice floating on the Arctic Ocean where the water is more than 13,000 feet deep. So, you won’t see an actual “pole” or research station because the ice is always moving. Huge sections continually break off, resulting in icebergs.
So, technically, you will not be arriving at the North Pole, but by visiting Svalbard you can experience Arctic plant and animal life.
The area is home to roughly 3,000 polar bears. Warning signs posted on the outskirts of every town are to be taken seriously. Polar bears are both large — an adult male can weigh up to 1,700 pounds — and dangerous. Bear attacks average three a year and have resulted in a number of deaths; in March a Czech tourist was dragged from his tent before escaping. Seeing them from aboard ship is the safest way to encounter them.
Visitors will also see seals, walruses, whales, dolphins, reindeer and seabirds. Sunlight completely disappears at the beginning of November and will not reappear until mid-February. Winters are not only dark, but also bitterly cold: as low as minus-40 degrees.
Svalbard offers a perfect location for studying global warming, so there is a large, international community of climate scientists as well as researchers studying Arctic flora and fauna. Russia recently speculated that spies for NATO were among the inhabitants.
The largest city, Longyearbyen, with 2,118 residents, has a post office, a hospital, a cinema, a church, hotels and several restaurants including three Thai restaurants. Is there anywhere on earth where you can’t find a Thai restaurant?
The excellent Svalbard Museum offers information on the history and environment of the region, with many exhibits showing animals in natural settings. Here’s one surprising environmental detail, especially for Hawaii residents: There are 32 types of ice found in the Arctic.
The most unforgettable moment of the trip occurred north of Longyearbyen, when we cruised into Magdalenafjord under gloomy, gray skies. The captain cut the engines, and we were engulfed in utter silence — what it must be like to be on the moon. It was bitterly cold, but no one seemed to notice as we are spellbound by the frozen, quiet beauty of the place. Before us was a glacier, a towering, craggy sheet of blue ice. A chunk of ice floated by with a seal on top, hitching a ride. The silence was broken by a splash. We turned toward the sound just in time to see a massive, brown-skinned walrus slipping into the sea. Light-colored Glaucous gulls with yellow beaks circled overhead, looking for fish but keeping an eye on us, as well.
“Incredible,” said the man at the rail next to me. Agreed.
The South Pole
Having experienced the Arctic, we were curious about life at the opposite extreme. So, in February we headed south.
The South Pole is at the bottom of the globe in Antarctica, the fifth-largest continent. The terrain is marked by jagged mountains covered with ice and snow. Like the Arctic, there are many glaciers and icebergs. The region might look and feel like the Arctic, and much of the wildlife is the same (seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins and seabirds). But the most significant difference from the visitor’s standpoint is (drumroll, please) penguins!
I’ll confess that, before traveling north, I expected to see penguins up there. One associates penguins with ice, so they must be at the North Pole, right? Wrong! You’ll find polar bears (and, we’re told, Santa Claus and reindeer) in the north, but penguins are found only south of the equator.
Another misconception I had was that penguins live only on ice. Isn’t that how they are usually portrayed in animated movies and documentaries? Wrong again!
Penguins do reside in icy regions, but we saw Magellanic penguins digging burrows in the topsoil in areas where temperatures were more than 80 degrees. Indeed, because disembarking in Antarctica is an extremely expensive and often daring proposition (making land in Zodiacs), you are most likely to observe penguins, sea lions, seals and elephant seals during shore excursions either coming or going from the continent; for example, during stops in the Falkland Islands, a British archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, or Puerto Madryn in southern Argentina.
The most unforgettable moments of this trip were in the Falklands. We were riding in a Land Rover that pitched and bucked across barren rolling fields. Suddenly, there they were: a rookery of a thousand Gentoo penguins. Each seemed to be a duplicate of the next: about a foot tall — black and white with red beaks. They were, of course, adorable. There was no ocean in sight; the parents must have marched a mile inland to get there. Curiously, the birds made a noise that sounded like giggling. We cautiously approached them and, ever curious, they timidly moved toward us. The chicks were fat, hungry and demanding to be fed, while the mothers were lean and patient. The ground was covered with white feathers and poop that stuck to our shoes.
Our Falklands guide provided some surprising — even unwanted — informa- tion about the birds.
First, she told us that local folks enjoy eating penguin eggs. This practice is accepted because penguins lay three eggs, the first of which is unfertilized. Those are harvested, she said. The taste? “Kind of fishy.” That explanation sounded fishy, too.
Second, penguins are a kind of “poop machine,” our guide said. Fish and krill go in one end, and guano comes out the other, as if there’s no stop in between.
If you go …
>> When to visit: June through August
>> When to visit: October through March
C. Richard Fassler