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Member News: Antarctica Take Four


Submitted by Leslie Dye—In 2010, I wanted to visit Antarctica, my last of the seven continents, because it was the year of my 50th birthday. My husband and I went on a cruise with National Geographic and fell in love. Travelling with Peter Hillary was an amazing part of the voyage, but the continent is magnificent and captured our hearts. There was a family practice doctor on board for the passengers, and I asked her about the gig. She told me that many of National Geographic’s expeditions have a physician. I quickly got a contact and, as soon as we got home, asked if they required any other doctors. They needed none, but put me in contact with Quark Expeditions.

Fast forward to 2013, when I got my first trip with Quark over the Christmas holiday; we flew from Punta Arenas, Chile to the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica and boarded the ship for the trip down the peninsula. The requests for my services were not really what I expected, from a young man asking for condoms to a medical student who thought he had a pulmonary embolism. I refereed fights between a divorced father and his 11 year old daughter. We did need to fly back a crew member from another ship with a severe arm laceration with ulnar nerve damage and an arterial injury. Fortunately we were there on New Year’s Eve, when a Ukrainian neurosurgeon at the Argentinian base agreed to debride and clean out the wound!

In 2014, we traveled to Antarctica via Ushuaia, Argentina with a boat full of Chinese tourists (minus 4 people that were from other locations). The trip included 4 lovely round trip days across the Drake Passage, the waterway with the worst weather on the planet. If you ever want to be a hero, be the keeper of the meclizine on a trip like that!!!

This past January, my husband and I went on a Quark Expedition again, where we left Ushuaia and traveled across the Drake Passage to The Falkland Islands. From there we went to South Georgia Island, one of the most fabulous places on earth. We finished the month long trip sailing down the peninsula and back through the Drake Passage. This time I had to send a passenger back to Chile because he had new onset atrial fibrillation and chest pain.

Here are the most commonly asked questions and answers:

  • Isn’t it cold? The average temperature during the day (and it is almost always day) is about 40 degrees F, and some days were warmer. We had several meals on the deck. Most of the time we were sweating from wearing such warm clothes and hiking.
  • Did you see any polar bears? No. Most of you reading this are highly educated, but many people don’t know that polar bears are in the Arctic and not the Antarctic.
  • Where do you stay? Are there hotels? We stay on the boat, where we get three wonderful meals every day and high tea every afternoon. There are no hotels. There are no permanent residents in Antarctica.
  • Do you see penguins? What else do you see? Penguins EVERYWHERE! In South Georgia on one landing there were over 100,000 breeding pairs of king penguins and more chicks. We see seals, whales and all sorts of birds.
  • Can you pet the penguins? No.
  • Why do you love it there? It is the most glorious pristine place I have ever seen. The solitude is amazing and the scale and magnitude of the land is impossible to describe. Everywhere one looks are places that no man has ever touched. The wildlife is unbelievable and the history of Antarctic exploration is captivating. The best part of going there is seeing the faces of the people who are there for the first time.

Attempts to keep the continent pristine have helped, but it is still plagued by the bad players that hitch a ride with humans. Biosecurity includes vacuuming all outerwear for any organic material before stepping foot on land. Boots must be cleaned with a material like Virkon S before every landing. In South Georgia, they forbid people from putting packs on the ground, since centuries ago; rats invaded the island on a ship and nearly destroyed the environment. The rats have been eradicated through a painstaking process. Unfortunately (I guess it is actually, fortunate) there are no indigenous toxins on the continent. But leave it to man to screw things up. I recently read that mercury that is dumped into the water from various sources can be converted to methyl mercury by Nitrospina, a bacterium in the sea ice. What effect this has, no one knows yet, but maybe in the future a toxicologist will be required there! If so, I will be first in line.