Photographer Jenn Emerling and father discover moments of magic at the end of the Earth
photography by Jenn Emerling
Antarctica is a place that can teach you about what you are really capable of, if you are open to learning from it. Right at the outset, we were told by our expedition team to disregard any set schedule—we were at the mercy of The White Continent. It would tell us where we needed to go, and when. With no internet and no itinerary, I welcomed the complete and total disconnect from the mainland and found myself able to stay more present and in the moment than on any other trip prior. I was there to surrender myself to Antarctica.
Back at the Santiago airport, my Dad had handed me his copy of “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” and said, “Here—read this. What these explorers did is beyond impressive.” My father’s wanderlust mirrors a lifetime of reading history books, awakening his insatiable need to see the places described on each page. He then passed that wanderlust on to me at a young age through annual summer road trips throughout the American West, inevitably transforming me into a world traveler in my own right. It was fitting, then, that our shared travel bucket list overlapped with the ultimate destination of all: Antarctica. This would be his seventh continent, my fifth, with 35 years between us, one tiny ship cabin for two weeks. We were new age explorers bound for the bottom of the earth.
Once we got our sea legs, we socialized with the 130 other well-traveled passengers from 18 different countries. There was a communal feeling of hunger for the unknown that permeated ship life.
"We were new age explorers bound for the bottom of the earth."
One night, the quietness of the ship was interrupted by the loud cracking sounds of the very thick and very expansive sea ice surrounding us. I ran to photograph it from the top deck, where I was greeted by a sky of eerily dark blue known only to a polar twilight, as it was mid summer then and the days were long and night never truly settled.
Through the mist, I found a kindred spirit also hypnotized by the late-night sea ice. Originally from Germany, she was deep into a three-year Pan-American Highway honeymoon-turned-lifestyle with her Canadian husband. Alone together on the top deck, we talked openly about our desires to follow our intuition, and what it means to walk away from our most comfortable existence when something deep inside calling us to follow a more unconventional path. It's a desire I had been wrestling with for the past year and found myself constantly seeking out permission to explore, not knowing I would finally find it in Antarctica.
On our second day cruising the peninsula, David Bowie sang “Ground Control to Major Tom...” over the speaker system as we all gathered on the snow-covered AFT deck, counting down to the very moment we would cross the Antarctic Circle. A surprise flurry of snow had arrived since the early morning, which we delighted in by building tiny snowmen with the guides.
At the exact moment of crossing, there was no land in sight, just endless gray skies and water as far as the eye could see. “No line,” my dad joked. But there it was on the GPS: 66°33’S, the Antarctic Circle. The furthest south I’d ever been, and now an imaginary explorer badge I can carry with me forever.
Another explorer badge came in the experience of camping in Antarctica—or rather, on it—which I was promised would be a meditative experience, if nothing else. “If you’re lucky,” one guide said, “you might hear some Antarctica thunder or see Antarctic fire.” Though the curiosity captured my attention it was not enough to entice my dad, who opted out due to lack of comfort. For a split second, I considered that staying in my warm, climate-controlled cabin could actually be the more sensible choice, but the chance at getting eight full hours to be alone with Antarctica was too tempting for me to pass up. I was there to learn from the land, after all.
Our supplies were minimal: one sleeping bag, one fleece blanket, one bivy (to keep us dry), and a shovel to dig a “snow coffin” with—clearly a guide joke—and substitute for our lack of tent. I settled in for the night, with no intention to sleep. The snow would end up seeping through the bivy by 4 A.M. anyway, so the best distraction for cold toes was taking in the view, which was spectacular.
The Antarctic thunder (glacial calving) pulsed the night’s soundtrack, along with the distant conversational growls of neighboring crabeater seals. Antarctic fire revealed itself, too, marking the first sunset I was able to see on the trip. It was unlike any other sunset I had seen before: soft, luminous, multi-dimensional, everlasting. At one point, a sliver of light crested the glacier across the bay like a highlighter to a page. I couldn’t stop staring, as it if was telling me, “remember this, it’s important."
On land, it was always made clear to us to keep to the path flagged out by our guides, as one false step could lead us into a crevasse that we could not see. Our one true continent landing was also the most pristine and untouched of the whole trip, nestled against a steep mountain that Adélie penguins managed to climb up and down with ease, despite their always awkward balancing acts in the snow.
The penguins, we decided, were endlessly amusing and we would never grow tired of them. Dad found a rocky seat that looked out over a small crested bay, where he sat for over an hour watching the water lap up against the shore as the penguins came and went. “This is my favorite spot,” he said. In that moment, a memory of him sitting on a deck overlooking the Amazon river in Ecuador years before flashed before me, and I was immediately transported back to him saying the same thing as he mused about his love of rivers.
Every zodiac cruise was different. Some days we’d wake up at 6 A.M. to beat an incoming storm but still find ourselves sloshed by 6-10 foot waves while navigating the tricky black rock narrows of places like Spert Island, dodging icebergs that could crush us if we didn’t time our passage right. It was always a thrilling adrenaline rush to zip past icebergs the size of school buses, each completely different in structure, but often with very subtle color differences. The icebergs—like Antarctica itself—are transformative in nature: always changing, sometimes by the minute. We had developed a habit of pointing out what the shape of an iceberg reminded us of: a dragon, a dog, a needle, a Swiss cottage.
One afternoon, we approached a particularly unique iceberg that illuminated a bright turquoise hue with two arches perfectly linked together. By this point, the morning’s monotone gray sky had retreated, though a long, black cloud remained floating above the horizon, invoking a scene not of this world. As we sat in awe of this iceberg, an Australian man stood up and politely asked the group if he could name it after his late wife, Kathryn, who had died the previous year. Without hesitation, we all unanimously said yes, deeply moved by his gesture to honor her memory. He humbly thanked us before he snapped a quick photo on his iPad and sat back down.
As we cruised back toward the ship with full hearts, I turned to my dad and told him I would love to come back to Antarctica someday, maybe in 10 or 20 years. “Then you can find another iceberg and name it after me,” he replied.
I let his words sink in while the cold wind pierced my face and turned my gaze toward the horizon. The implication that he might not be around in 10 or 20 years, that this really was his once in a lifetime experience, while I still had a lifetime to finish—much of which could be without him in it—was almost too much for me to bear. I allowed that sadness to wash over me for only a passing moment before reminding myself that I was in Antarctica and to be fully present. “We are together now,” I thought. The moment was all that mattered.