It would have been worth noting, when we signed up for the “Nimrod Centennial Expedition” to Antarctica, that Sir Ernest Shackleton’s pole-seeking Nimrod expedition was a failure, and that venturing south under his name was tempting fate. But we were trying to do only what he had accomplished—in fact, only part of what he had accomplished—and not what he had aspired to do. We anticipated that with a hundred years of technological advancement, we would easily reach the hut he had built at the edge of the Ross Sea, meant to last one winter a century ago but still standing, testament to his high standards and to a climate hostile even to the microorganisms that cause rot.
Before we launched at 4 p.m. on New Year’s Day 2008 from the same berth in Lyttelton, New Zealand, that Shackleton had used at the same hour on January 1, 1908, we were blessed in the Anglican church where Shackleton’s party had prayed, and sang the hymn they had sung, whose Cassandra refrain asks, “Oh hear us when we cry to Thee/For those in peril on the sea.” A substantial public had gathered, including descendants of Shackleton’s crew. A brass band played and Samoyeds whose forebears had pulled Shackleton’s sledges barked as the crowd waved us off, and we were escorted out to sea by the very tugboat that had pulled the Nimrod.
Promotional material had touted our ship as the Spirit of Enderby, and tied onto the upper deck railing of our vessel, a small banner, the sort a laundromat might use to announce its grand opening, read Spirit of Enderby. Gigantic Cyrillic letters on the hull, by contrast, proclaimed the boat as Professor Khromov, as did the lifeboats, the maps, and the equipment on board; we entered and left ports as Professor Khromov, because that was in fact the name of the ship. Spirit of Enderby was a flight of the enthusiastic imagination of Rodney Russ, owner of Heritage Expeditions and our trip leader. In the same advance material, there had been references to a “refurbished Russian ice-class ship,” which suggests a more active intervention than the installation of industrial blue carpeting throughout a battered Soviet research vessel from 1984—but the pretend name and the primitive accommodations seemed part of the bravado of our enterprise. (A number of far more luxurious ships sail to Antarctica, but few of them are equipped to make it through the ice to reach Shackleton’s hut. Heritage was recommended to me by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the New Zealand–based organization responsible for the maintenance of the historic expedition bases.)
The first attraction on our monthlong itinerary, two days later, was the Snares, some of the sparse scatter of subantarctic islands between New Zealand and Antarctica. The Snares pulse with such dense birdlife that every path disrupts nesting or breeding grounds, so we toured in Zodiacs and saw the charming endemic crested penguins. Back on board, my partner and I mingled with the other 46 passengers, including two other Americans, one Canadian, and a smattering of New Zealanders, Australians, British, white Zimbabweans and Namibians, and one guy from Costa Rica. Sailing onward, we ran into 40-foot swells, which made me feel like a lost sock endlessly stuck in a tumble dryer; the Professor Khromov’s ice capacities meant a loss of stability in rough seas. We figured out how to wedge our possessions so that the sound of laptops smashing into cameras was muted by sweaters and thermal underwear. Even in the relative safety of the cabin, there was a certain amount of one’s head ramming into one end of one’s bunk in a fashion that seemed to compress the neck, then one’s feet ramming into the other and compressing the knees. I had hoped to lose weight, not height, during an athletic adventure in challenging climates.
Enderby Island, the first shore stop, tended, as islands do, to stay mercifully fixed in one place. Again we saw a stupefying array of birds, including skuas, several species of albatross, and the occasional yellow-eyed penguin. Trekking through thickets and fields of megaherbs, we almost tripped over Hooker’s sea lions, which would leap up from slumber and roar, true to their name. More rough seas led us two days later to Macquarie Island, a nature reserve with a small research station that allows only a few hundred visitors a year. Its shoreline is carpeted in wildlife: royal, king, gentoo, and rockhopper penguins, as well as elephant seals. The penguins gather around you curiously, and if you hold out a hand to one of the royals, he will nibble on your finger. There is something arrestingly human about any bipedal animal, and the penguins, running around on their two feet and using their flipper-like wings primarily to gesticulate, nodding back and forth to each other, looked like commuters milling around Grand Central before their departure track has been announced, some of them molting like old ladies in moth-eaten fur coats. At one end of the island, more than 200,000 breeding pairs of king penguins live in conditions that make Tokyo look bucolic. The seals tended to plop on top of one another, forming the sort of pyramids that high school cheerleaders perfected in the 1950’s. The young ones and the females had inconceivably sweet faces with huge, liquid eyes; the older males had knobby trunklike noses, wobbling and battle-scarred.