Museo Antártico Ushuaia Dr. José María Sobral

Research

AN EXPEDITION TO ANTARCTICA

By Sebastián Benedetti (*)

TRAILS LEFT ON THE ICE

More than thirty people, including Argentinian, Spanish, Portuguese and American members, boarded the small vessel Ice Lady Patagonia. A twenty-one-day voyage touching at a great number of abandoned bases located in an inhospitable continent by definition — Antarctica. Scientists and sailors set off for this continent on January 29th, looking for the trail left by the first visitors to the Antarctic Circle, those who stepped on the ice more than a century ago and left their furtive footsteps hidden.

The Argentinian Carlos Vairo, an expert in maritime ethnography and holding parchments confirming this fact, was also there, in charge of the scientific aspect of the expedition and monitoring it as a whole. They departed with specific aims in mind — “Our intention was to carry out a topographic survey in ten whaler harbors to see what we could find in them,” Vairo says. “We only had approximate locations; no subsequent visits were made after the whalers were gone. They were used until 1929.”

At the same time, the experience was also considered a look into the future, as the Ice Continent is essential for the study of climate change.

THE AIM

Antarctic anthropology is related to sealers whalers who arrived in the Ice Continent towards the end of the nineteenth century. In Norway, when the harpoon gun was invented, three decades were enough to kill almost all whales living in Arctic seas. As a result, Norwegian, British and some Basque sailors started to look towards the South. The Norwegians kept the best natural harbors and hunting places in secret; this way, they filled their warehouses with whale oil and furs between 1906 and the end of the 1920’s. The floating factories remained in the southern area from December to March, the season when the weather was milder. For the rest of the year, fixed bases were set up. A century later, the crew of the Ice Lady Patagonia set off looking for them.

The expedition, which was almost a natural consequence of some previous research tasks, was undertaken at the beginning of the International Polar Year.

The group was made up of Americans belonging to the NGO Global Green; Spanish men, such as Lieutenant Colonel José María Jayme —who took part in five Antarctic campaigns—, José Carlos Tamayo —a mountaineer—, and Miguel Ángel Vidal, who had reached Vinson Massif, summit of Antarctica, twice. Luis Ramos, BF Goodrich Iberia’s CEO, sponsor of the expedition, was also a member of the crew. The Southern Patagonian Association (Asociación Austral Patagónica) also joined the expedition, contributing the Ice Lady Patagonia. This forty-six meter-long lady of the ice was built in Finland in 1959, and was specially designed for freezing seas.

THE WHALING STATIONS

Vairo describes the explored harbors with enthusiasm. “Some of them presented every feature needed for whale slaughtering. That is to say, there was an islet inside the harbor that enabled firm mooring of the vessels with chains and wires. These islets were also used as temporary bases.” The expedition found the sheltered Orne Harbor, which started to be used in 1912 as a meeting point for vessels of old expeditions. Orne Harbor is characterized by an outstanding feature — the impressive Black Nunatak, a two-hundred-meter-high steep hill where snow never piles up. “It’s like a huge traffic light in this White Continent,” Vairo remarks. And he evokes those times wonderfully — “Those were real men. Just to think they found their bearings only by means of references, without charts or equipment, and didn’t get lost, is amazing. A whole expedition could find at the Black Nunatak a good meeting point. They crossed the world and penetrated Antarctica practically with no references. Just by saying, ‘Go past Gerlache Strait until you reach the Black Nunatak and wait for us at that harbor,' or ‘Sail on six miles south until you reach an islet where you’ll find moorings.’ It would be as if you are traveling to the Moon and you are told, ‘When you find an oval crater, wait there for some days until we arrive.’”

And those harbors held surprises; finds that were not in their plans. “On Cuverville Island —in fact, on some unnamed islets between Cuverville and Ronge Island— we found a five-meter-long boat, a typical primitive construction of that period, some chains around big rocks and a thick triple wire that had been cut,” Vairo explains. Surprisingly, that place started to be visited by excursions made by boat to sight minke whales, which are usually seen in the summer. But they go past close to them without knowing what there is ashore. The vessels avoid the place because of the rocks and the shallows, the same features that gave the old Antarctic visitors shelter for their chores. Nautical charts do not give information about those places, or they summarily state — “Unexplored places.”

According to Vairo, “we didn’t expect to find moorings and boats. Those finds corroborated our data, which are no longer a legend but a true fact.” Many things are known about whalers, but only by means of references. None of them wrote their memoirs or carried a diary, let alone published a book. During this voyage, we visited almost all of the most important points used by whalers located in the Antarctic Peninsula. Only two places remained, but we have very vague references regarding their locations, maybe because whalers didn’t want their position to be known or because they were used only a few times.” In order to consider his task of rediscovering the past of the White Continent completed, Vairo is planning to embark on another three voyages to Antarctica, to the Orkney Islands, and to some other specific area of the peninsula.

THE CLIMATE AT FIRST SIGHT

In the novel The Drowned World, written by the English author J. G. Ballard in 1962, climate changes cause the melting of the poles and, consequently, an increase of water level and global warming. It is clear that much of those changes are already taking place. The aim of part of the team aboard the Ice Lady Patagonia was the study of the consequences of climate change in Antarctica, an issue of great importance for the future of humanity, as this continent stores the biggest freshwater reserve in the planet.

The data and samples gathered have started to be processed only recently, but Carlos Vairo ends this talk by disclosing some apparent conclusions, and his photos can back them up — “I can assure and show that islands with cask deposits, coal bunkers and lifesaving boats that used to be covered with snow and ice are now completely uncovered, and the boats as well as the casks collapsed because the wood got dry. That means these places chosen by whalers at the beginning of the twentieth century had been covered by consecutive snowfalls, but then the snow thawed. However, they got frozen afterwards, but today they are uncovered again. Is this part of a cycle or are we experimenting the symptoms of global warming? These are questions that should be answered by scientists, but the differences can be seen year after year. And I see the tangible consequences.”

The Man at the End of the World

Carlos Vairo arrived in Ushuaia in the winter of 1983, when he was less than thirty years old. He already had a degree in Business Administration and stepped on Fuegian soil to take a course on radars. He met some seafarers during that journey; he traveled around Tierra del Fuego and was intrigued by the little maritime tradition of such a maritime place. It was the land of the Yamanas, and almost nobody belonging to that people remained there, except in Puerto Williams, Chile. And there Vairo went. After that first decision, he devoted himself to maritime ethnography. He lived in the Mediterranean, in Roskilde (Denmark), and Oslo (Norway). There, he studied with the famous Thor Heyerdahl and devoted himself to the reconstruction of Viking vessels. But, Vairo recalls today, his mind stayed in Ushuaia. He came back in 1987; he settled down and started research activities in the area — Cape Horn, Isla de los Estados, and the Lighthouse at the End of the World. He made inquiries about Piedra Buena’s shipwreck, which he later found at Franklin Bay. This research started to form the regional history of routes, shipwrecks and islands that gave origin to the foundations of the Maritime Museum of Ushuaia, today led by Vairo. In his life as a researcher, he wrote twelve books, several articles, and documentary scripts. During the boreal summer, he moved his research abroad — he stayed in the Kingdom of Tonga, in the Pacific Ocean, last year. Before that, he was to Egypt, Turkey and Croatia, and this year he will travel to Thailand to study old sailing boats.

(*) Extract from the newspaper La Voz del Interior, section: Rumbos magazine, 29-04-07