In all of human history, fewer than 100,000 people have set foot on the frozen continent of Antarctica. During a once-in-a-lifetime, mid-winter getaway, Dominican University’s Dr. Daniel Beach became one of them.
“My wife and I took the trip together. We’ve been very interested in Antarctica, and we’ve done a lot of reading about it in the last several years,” said Beach, a professor at Dominican for 36 years who currently serves as chair of the Psychology Department. “We decided that we’d like to go there before it completely melts,” he added, joking.
In fact, Antarctica remains an icy expanse of ancient glaciers; mountains of ice that entrap 70 percent of our planet’s fresh water reserves.
“There was a highlight every day,” said Beach of his seven-day excursion through the northern peninsula of the continent as part of a National Geographic Expedition trip. “What’s so impressive is the scale. When you’re approaching land, it looks like there’s a glacier at the edge of the water that might be 50 feet high. When you get there, it’s 400 feet high.”
A world of black and white
The journey began at the southernmost port of South America, in a town called Ushuaia. There, the group of 140 passengers set off through the Drake Passage, a precarious stretch of open ocean some 500 miles wide. “It was easy on the way down. It was pretty rough on the way back,” he said.
The group traveled across the passage for a day and a half inside a vessel that Beach described as a cross between a small cruise ship and an icebreaker. When they finally reached their destination, he said the ship docked several times a day, although coastlines suitable for docking were hard to come by. “Most of the coasts are filled with these monstrous glaciers that come right up to the water’s edge, or these huge black mountains that come straight down into the water. You see no vegetation. It’s a world of black and white,” said Beach.
That includes the animals. “There are whales and seals and penguins and birds,” he said. The penguins are highly approachable, he explained, because they haven’t developed a fear of land-based predators. Virtually all of their predator threats occur in the water. Humans are altogether alien creatures and therefore warrant no alarm. But while he admitted penguins are quite cute, Beach said he had no interest in getting too close. “They’re messy. You can smell a penguin colony before you see it,” he said.
The ship traveled a total of 2,600 miles, stopping multiple times daily to allow passengers to enjoy the crisp summer air in Antarctica.
“Temperatures were in the high 20s, for the most part,” said Beach. Better than winter, where inland temperatures can dip to 100 degrees below zero.
It’s not the first time Beach has dabbled in extreme travel. Some years before he became a husband and father, he set off on a cross-country excursion with a colleague, determined to drive all the way to the Arctic Ocean. The weeks-long journey brought him through Canada and Alaska, and he eventually made it to his northern destination.
Another voyage found him on Tasmania, an island nestled off the southern coast of Australia. He’s been to El Salvador, spent an undergraduate year in Italy, and traveled through Kenya and Tanzania. Including Antarctica, he’s touched down on six of the seven continents, with Asia being the only exception.
The Antarctica adventure took Beach and his wife around a frigid shoreline in inflatable motorboats, across the watery mouth of a still-active volcano, and through a sea of icebergs in personal kayaks. In the end, they agreed it was the perfect time to embark on such a journey. “While we’re still young enough to enjoy it,” he said.