Joan Larsen’s Travel Stories: Wild Exploration at the Bottom of the World

Posted on September 5, 2012


By Joan Larsen

Huffington Post 08/07/2012 headline: Antarctica Was Once Home To Rainforest, Say Scientists


OH REALLY… aren’t you a bit late with that news??

At this house, we rolled our eyes… a lot.  For where have those scientists been for the last twenty-five years or more???  We had already photographed and had documentary proof of that long ago?  How did I get to the fern fossils before the rest of the world?????


From childhood, our home library had the largest assortment of books written by those who travel to remote places.  Books that I devoured.Books that colored my dreams.  I knew then that I wanted to go to The Ice of Antarctica as an adventurer would.  Long ago, only a single ship was taking wanderers to the frozen planet.  I wanted to go in a more adventurous way.

And then… with perfect timing, the Argentine navy had run out of money to run their yearly supply ships to their year-round bases in Antarctica.  And so they made an irresistible offer:  they decided to offer a very small number of civilians from around the world (11 countries, all told, but mainly Japan) passage to visit The Ice.  The “carrot” was that, unlike expedition ships, passengers would be allowed on shore for as many hours as it took to unload a year’s supply of everything needed for a full year by the bases.  That meant more hours than anyone EVER was allowed on shore.

A year ahead of time, I was first to raise my hand to take part in this rare opportunity.  But first, I had our own U.S. experts in Washington DC look into this ship to be sure it could go down and come back.  I did not want to die there.  In return, I received a letter from our government, going into every detail of the Argentinean ship and its renovations, history, and more.  Washington – well, didn’t say – but “implied” that the Bahia Paraiso (below) passed muster.

I had become an adventurer… albeit a novice one.  I never thought to ask about accommodations before signing on.  Later I thought:  A supply ship?  We weren’t going to be in crew’s quarters?  YES.  OMG.  And so we found ourselves as far below deck as you could get.

But that was not all.  Crew’s quarters were small.  Tiny.  A room with 4 bunk beds with gym lockers for our bulky Antarctic gear. And so I found myself living in a very small space with three female strangers, each from a different country, traveling alone – one fashion plate from Paris in the bunk below.  On the bunk above her, I crawled to my bunk like a worm, the ceiling 8 inches above.  My husband  – (did I mention that I had thought we were traveling as a couple – wrong!) – had the same arrangement on another corridor.  I hardly saw him on this expedition as he was with a Greek, a Norwegian, and an Italian man, all trying to understand each other.  All information on the loudspeaker was given in 6 languages!

An aside:

In its next Antarctic expedition three weeks later . . .

Well, Bahia Paraiso hit a reef and sank forever ~

so no one EVER again was able to have our experiences

as they never were offered again.

We always seem to hit it right!

(see below)

The quest for the “fern fossils” was soon to begin.  When we arrived at an Argentine base, we jumped from the ship onto WWII landing craft – the kind where the end drops down and you run ashore like you were on Iwo Jima.  But this run to the shore through the surf was done in heavy Antarctic gear and bunny boots.  I admit I thought it wondrous!

It was FUN and we had up to 12 hours on land – and could, if we wanted, be dropped off at the base for a few weeks of cross-country skiing and dog-sledding, living in a hut – and the Argentine navy would pick us up on the next trip down.  Some passengers did just that – and some – who had taken the option on a previous journey, came back in their places.  However, they did not talk to us – only to each other, knowing full well they were now in a private fraternity of Antarctic survivors.  However, we got the idea we missed a great deal with our choice.

All right.  We were now old hands and about to disembark at the second Argentine base – called Jubany (the place of the fern fossils).  The landing craft wove thru icebergs to get to shore:

Not too hard to take.  Most of us headed up on the right side of the mountain, now knowing what a nature paradise lay ahead of us.

An Argentine scientist took us higher on the mountain… quite high in fact!  You see – there were FERN FOSSILS embedded in the rocks all over the place.  Had Antarctica been at one time moist and tropical?  How easy is that to guess?  And only TODAY are the news agencies telling us what the Argentines have known since the early 1970s???  We saw and photographed fossils 25 years ago.  We don’t have the wool pulled over OUR eyes.  Am I wrong or are those scientists a bit behind the times??

The science lesson over, we now headed for the beach where Jubany had a huge colony of adolescent elephant seals.  Just imagine a mile of teenage girls lying down, turning over, parading for the boys on a Florida beach…  and out in the water, teenage boys who swam just far enough offshore to ogle the girls – but not quite sure enough how to make a smooth approach.

These seals weighed a ton but were not fully grown yet.  The female teenage elephant seals lay in lines on the beach close to the water, knowing full well that all the males were out there in the water admiring them, constantly swimming back and forth but not coming to land.  (Jubany actually had an “off limits by scientists” beach where adult seals had gathered, with more grown-up ideas in mind on what to do!!)

So yes…  Antarctica was tropical long ago and we have the evidence.  Since then, the Jubany base is off limits for expeditioners.  But I will leave you with this photo – just one of the hundreds of males just offshore picking out their hoped-for “Marilyn” for next year!

“Does the gorgeous gal on the right notice me?” he asked.