The Arizona Daily Sun published an article I wrote about my recent trip to Antarctica.  The photos they chose, and the placement used were stunning.  They also chose a better title than I used:  To the Bottom of the World - An NAU professor journeys to Antarctica.  The article, however, got mangled a little bit - instead of using my final version, an earlier version was used and a chunk was omitted.  The on-line version was complete, but still was not the final version I submitted.  So it goes.  Below is the final version I submitted, so differs a bit from the web version at the Daily Sun.  The photos included are the ones used by the paper, except for the one of me atop Observation Hill.  Click on any photo to see a larger version.

A Journey to Antarctica

by Dennis Foster

“Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.”

— Apsley Cherry-Garrard


     “Why Antarctica?”  Cherry-Garrard’s reason works for me.  Many years ago my interest was piqued by stories from the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration.  I used to daydream about taking a dog sled journey around the Ross Ice Shelf.  Alas, dogs are no longer allowed on the continent – snowmobiles are more environmentally friendly!

     Most visitors travel from Argentina and see the Antarctic peninsula.  However, the historic explorers came to McMurdo Sound, in the Ross Sea, which is closer to New Zealand and Australia.  There are only two ships that regularly visit these waters – the 112 passenger Kapitan Khlebnikov and the 48 passenger Spirit of Enderby.  Both are Russian ships, with Russian crews, catering to tourists following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The former is a world class icebreaker, which I chose for this trip.  And, a good thing too, as ice conditions in McMurdo Sound have been thwarting the Enderby’s attempt to reach some of the historic huts in that area.


The White Continent

     Our first landing on the continent was at Cape Adare.  We used zodiac boats and beached right alongside the world’s largest Adelie penguin rookery, comprised of some quarter million breeding pairs of birds.  Yes, penguins are birds.  This is also the site of the first structure built in Antarctica, a hut from Carsten Borchgrevink’s 1899 expedition. 

     I was immediately struck by the noise.  We were there late in the breeding season, when the chicks were about two‑thirds the size of the adults, and still dependent on them for food.  A parent arrives on land and heads to the nesting spot, calling out for its chicks.  The chicks call back, and amidst the many thousands of squawking birds, they recognize one another!  The parent regurgitates food into the chick’s mouth and then heads back into the water to get more food.

     Anywhere you turn, you will also see lots of dead penguins, or bits of them.  Skuas patrol the area, looking for dying penguins to eat, but there must be many that escape their attention.  With this extremely dry climate, if the remains are left, they will toughen up quickly and lie about for many weeks, months or years.  It really brings home the nature of their life and death struggle to survive in this harsh environment.


Iceberg B-15A and McMurdo Sound

     From Cape Adare, we entered the Ross Sea and cruised south until we reached the awesome iceberg B-15A.  This iceberg is a behemoth, almost half the size of the Grand Canyon. 

     We rounded B-15A and entered McMurdo Sound.  Dominating the landscape is Mt. Erebus, Antarctica's most active volcano, which rises to an elevation of 12,447 feet.  It’s not as tall as Mt. Humphreys, but, then, we are looking up at it from sea level!  Clearly visible was a trail of smoke and gas emerging from the summit caldera, giving the scene a primordial feel.

The Dry Valleys

     Across the sound are the famous Dry Valleys, perhaps the driest, coldest place on Earth.  It is a landscape that is more like Mars than it is like the rest of our planet.  This was our first landing by helicopter and we were packed in like sardines.  The effect is enhanced because we are all wearing bulky clothing, emergency life vests and carrying camera equipment.  We were able to spend some time walking through the rock-strewn wilderness and alongside a small lake at the base of a glacier.  Having hiked many thousands of miles in the Grand Canyon, I would have liked to strap on a pack and head for the horizon.

The Historic Huts

     It was especially rewarding to visit the historic huts of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.  Their expeditions attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole.  Shackleton got to within 97 miles, while Scott reached the pole only to perish on the return.  Even so, Scott was not the first, as the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had beaten him to the pole by a month.

     The huts are still in good shape, and active efforts are being made to preserve them.  All have supplies that were left behind.  In Shackleton’s hut, the two sledges used on the polar journey are still wedged into the rafters.  Also remaining are boxes of biscuits, jars of table salt and tins of cocoa, corn flour and mustard.

     Just a few miles south is Scott’s 1911 hut.  Besides the bunks, odd clothing and food stores left behind, there was a box of broken penguin eggs and strips of seal blubber nicely stacked in the covered porch.  One item especially stands out – the table that fills up the middle of the hut.  This has been made famous in a photo taken during the winter of 1911, with all the men sitting around it, celebrating Scott’s birthday.  It is with some reverence that we moved about the hut, remarking in hushed tones on the men who would journey out into this inhospitable land.  On a nearby hill I sat for about a half hour, looking out over the hut and the sea ice, and daydreaming.  The sense of history is palpable and one is easily overtaken by raw emotions as your mind drifts back to those times.

     Scott’s 1901 hut is at the site of the main American base in Antarctica, McMurdo Station.  This hut was not lived in – Scott and his men wintered over on their ship – but there are still supplies remaining inside.  A half mile away, on the other side of McMurdo Station, is Observation Hill, which provides a marvelous panorama of the surrounding area.  I was able to hike up to the top, where there is a cross, erected in 1913, commemorating the loss of Captain Scott and his party.

Research Stations in Antarctica

     We visited three working research stations – McMurdo Station, New Zealand’s Scott Base and the Italian station at Terra Nova Bay.  All are active and involved in a variety of projects.  We also visited Leningradskaya, a Soviet station abandoned in 1993.  It is difficult to get to – we had to fly over 25 miles of ice, even though the station is located on the coast and we were there at the height of summer.  It has been just three years since the first tourists visited this station.  Empty barrels, unused vehicles, a dozen buildings and a Russian sign pointing to distant places around the world mark this site.

Back to the Real World

     Leningradskaya was our last visit on the continent.  As we crunched our way through the ice northward, night once again returned.  A couple of days out we saw the Aurora Australis, stretching from horizon to horizon.  Soon enough, we were in rougher seas with overcast skies, as if passing from one world, which Amundsen described as looking “like a fairytale,” and back into another.  Waking up on the morning of our twenty-fourth day aboard ship and seeing the harbor of Hobart, Tasmania, I did have to wonder if the trip had been real.

Drygalski Ice Tongue and Orcas.  Mount Erebus. Leningradskaya.

Want to go?  Get your home equity loan approved, find a zero-interest balance transfer credit card and cash out some CDs, since the cruise alone will cost you from $14,000 to $27,000 per person.  Add to that airfare, travel insurance and any additional expenses if you want to extend your travel in Australia and New Zealand.

Choice of trips:  Every season, Quark tinkers with itineraries, sometimes trying something new.  They only announce these schedules about a year in advance.  For 2005-2006, Quark will operate four trips similar to the one described here.  Heritage Tours operates the Spirit of Enderby.

How to book a trip:  I booked my trip with Expedition Cruises (  Chuck and Lynn Cross run this business, have been on these cruises and can speak first-hand about the accommodations and relative merits of the different vessels and itineraries.  You also can go directly to Quark ( to find schedules, get booking forms and contact information.

One of my ongoing projects is to post up a daily log of my trip, with many more photos.  If you are interested, you can follow the link on the Kaibab Journal Home Page, or go directly to my Antarctica Home Page.