Antarctica is a place that humans only visit. People head south for a season or a once-in-a-lifetime-tour voyage, but then they return home to other parts of the world. During the 2019–2020 summer season, the 14.2 million-square-kilometer continent hosted 74,000 tourists and around 5,000 expeditioners from the National Antarctic Program. Each one of those people traveled south with an idea of the place in mind: an imagined Antarctica, formed by films, books, photographs, and stories. This year, the idea of the place is all that is in reach for most. The Antarctic tour season is essentially cancelled thanks to the impacts of COVID-19. This pause is the ideal time to stop and reflect on what ideas about Antarctica we carry with us, and the ways these intersect with the “polar product” of an Antarctic voyage that has been sold in the past.
My own Antarctic journey began with a tourist trip to the tropics. In 2009, my partner and I were traveling in Vietnam when I fell ill with appendicitis. After much uncertainty and a medical evacuation back home to New Zealand, the pesky appendix was removed, and I was left scrambling to find one good thing out of the whole saga. That thing was “at least now I can go to Antarctica.” The story of the Russian doctor Leonid Rogozov, who removed his own appendix during the Antarctic winter of 1961, had lodged deep in my mind, and I vaguely knew that wintering expeditioners had to have theirs out before heading south. The loss of my own appendix was therefore the driver that quite literally changed the direction of my life, pointing me to the far south. I took part in the University of Canterbury’s Certificate of Antarctic Studies, which included a trip to Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic station. From there, I was hooked. This Antarctic experience, a desire to return, and a passion for sharing my newfound knowledge with others was enough to land me a role as a lecturer and guide for tourist trips going from Ushuaia across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Drake Passage is the stuff of legends. In crossing the stretch of ocean between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, you transit through the windy latitudes of the “furious fifties” and “screaming sixties,” where swells regularly reach seven meters. I didn’t sleep for three days before joining my ship, thanks to the imagined version of the ocean that I had received from so many films, books, and first-hand accounts. It didn’t help that after the first crossing south—but before we’d made it back to Ushuaia again—over the mess hall table my colleagues started casually sharing stories about the times they’d been on ships that had sunk. In the end, we had a flat calm sailing in both directions that voyage, leaving some guests disappointed about missing out on the “rite of passage” of the rough seas.
As a tour guide, it’s my job to be aware of concepts of Antarctica that guests bring onboard with them, and to deliver the Antarctic “polar product” that has been promised and sold through glossy brochures. In my capacity as a researcher back home, it’s those imagined versions of the place that I find so fascinating. My background is in literary studies, and I began by working on representations of Antarctica in theatre—how Antarctica has been brought to life on the stage. I then shifted my research focus to look at advertising, specifically how Antarctica has been used to sell things at various points in time. Advertisements act as a shorthand for ideas that are already in common cultural circulation, so they are ideal objects to study to find out how people have thought about Antarctica at different times: as a place for heroes, a site for extreme technology, or a land of purity in need of protection. Antarctic imagery has been used to market everything from alcohol to soap to tractors to insurance, as well as to paint the continent as a tourism destination in its own right. Whether travel brochures promise the opportunity to “walk in the footsteps of heroes” like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton or foreground encounters with wildlife such as penguins and whales, they activate existing expectations about the place by tapping into a shared polar imaginary. Tourist voyages must then deliver on those promises, transforming imagined places into embodied experiences.
Like so many things in the past year, this Antarctic tourism season looks very different from those of previous years. Ships that would usually be ferrying tourists between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula are sitting in warmer waters with skeleton crews, and hisorically busy landing sites remain untouched. Guides have began using the hashtag #PolarGuide2020 to share photographs of themselves at home, dressed in their polar gear and surrounded by Antarctic paraphernalia (be that penguin toys or portraits of polar explorers) in an effort to stay connected both with each other and with the southern continent.
This summer, as I peg white nappies on the washing line, I will be thinking of the crisp, white faces of tabular icebergs in the far south. It may not be as Instagram-worthy as a porthole onto a frozen vista, but it’s a reminder that the little slice of Antarctica lodged deep within all of us can also manifest back home.
*Cover image: Photo by author.
[Cover image description: A group of people crowd into the front of a boat. The boat is sailing in an ocean full of chunks of ice. In the distance, tall ice-capped mountains reach up toward the blue sky.]