It is said that Antarctica is the place on Earth closest to anything resembling another planet. Indeed, the icy continent boast majestic black mountains covered in layers of snow, extreme cold and weather conditions, and wildlife perfectly adapted to this harsh environment. Not unlike what one might imagine another planet to be. As an astronomer, I was curious and the Homeward Bound voyage offered an opportunity to possibly experience this.
As we reached the South Shetland Islands near the north-western tip of the Antarctic peninsula, snow covered mountains framed the ship. The landscape was very amazing, although, from a distance, not looking fundamentally different than perhaps the French Alps where I had learned to ski some 20 years earlier albeit with trees in the mix.
Our first zodiac landing on a little island was marvelous as we got to see hundreds of cute little Gentoo penguins. They were jumping in and out of the water, waddling around building nests, stealing rocks from each others to impress their mates, and loudly voiced their opinions at all times. It was fantastic and deeply memorable experience but I was not transported to another planet.
The next day, it was announced that we would reach Deception Island which is actually the caldera of an active volcano. Early that morning, our ship entered it through a narrow opening called Neptune’s Bellows. Passing through this volcano’s crater, a different geology was welcoming us. It was characterized by clear signs of past lava flows that left behind an artfully checkered terrain made of black, gray and white.
With our zodiacs, we soon landed in Telefon Bay on the far side of the caldera on a beach made from pitch black volcanic sand and gravel — unlike anything we had seen earlier. Behind the beach was a marked path in the snow leading up to a ridge overlooking the entire bay and caldera.
With all our gear, which included wearing life jackets at all times during landings, and the loose snow causing me to sink in a foot with every step, I was slow and soon rather sweaty.
We had to cross a large snow-covered field before climbing up the ridge when I finally lifted my head to look around. There was so much blinding white everywhere I couldn’t make out much at first. But with every deep breath and every heavy step, more and more of the mountainous landscape opened up in front of me. This place suddenly had a very different feel to what I had experienced before. As I climbed up towards the ridge, I increasingly felt part of this vast yet intricately styled black-and-white landscape.
Moving silently along, I became a true explorer, fully immersed in the environment with all my senses. The snow smelled fresh as it crackled under my boots. I was so present in the moment, I didn’t even notice that I had dropped a glove and others had started talking to me. My eyes and heart were wide open and adventure-ready. Would it feel like this to stand on another planet? Would it perhaps look as rugged as this? Could it? My mind was passing through the Solar System and beyond until a strong wind gust caused me to tumble a little bit while ascending the peak. My thoughts abruptly re-entered Earth just in time to get to the top of the ridge. The view of the mountains, valleys, cliffs and snowy ridges surrounding me was simply breathtaking. It felt both like a painting and another planet — and simply out of this world.