Encounters at the End of the World is about the wildlife that lives there and the human characters who pass through. Viewed from our uniform and compliant hemisphere, they seem as unusual as each other.
My base was McMurdo Station, the big US scientific centre on the frozen shore of the Ross Sea. From there I travelled to different satellite camps, such as the one where the divers operate. They work from a sturdy tent, rigged over a hole in the ice, collecting organisms for scientists to study. Some have never been seen before. Three new species were discovered while I was there.
I wanted to dive myself, but only the most expert are allowed. It is extremely dangerous. With the water temperature around -2C (28F), the divers are trussed in layers of neoprene and risk being swept away by tidal currents. Yet they work untethered; safety lines could impede their work. That means they have no aids to help them get back to the hole, which is their only way to the surface. Compasses are no use because the needles would always point straight up. If they get disoriented, and can’t find the exit hole, they perish under a 20ft ceiling of ice.
Like so much that is beautiful, the Antarctic conceals a lot that is unlovely. One diver described the organisms that live under the ice as inhabiting a horribly violent world, much creepier than science fiction. And he is a sci-fi fan. The movies he shows to his colleagues of life-threatening extraterrestrials are kindergarten stuff compared with the slimy “blobs” with ensnaring tendrils, and worms with mandibles to rip their prey apart, that he sees underwater. No wonder the mammals of prehistory retreated from the oceans to get on with their evolution in the relative sanctuary of dry land.
You don’t have to be in the Antarctic for long before recognising how strange and alien a place it is. It is night for five months. At the South Pole you turn left and it’s north, and then you turn further and it’s still north. Everywhere is north.
At the pole itself, oddity turns into absurdity. If archaeologists in aeons hence excavate the ice beneath the pole to determine what the human race was doing there, they will need a sense of the surreal. What they will exhume at the mathematically precise true South Pole is a tunnel containing a bizarre cache of mementoes. Among them are a deep-frozen sturgeon and a tin of caviar, left by the Russians, and a display of dried flowers framed in a garland of popcorn, left by the Americans. Beside them is propped a poem.
The flowers here for you to smell
Came from far and wide to this frozen hell.
Sent by mom, friends, grandmas, great aunts and such,
They look nice and did not cost too much.
Such are the remnants of our existence.
Polar politics – or lack of them – are unique. Antarctica has no government as such; it doesn’t belong to anyone. The continent is run under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, in my opinion the most outstanding international agreement in existence.
It came into force in 1961 and its provisions could not be simpler or more idealistic. The Antarctic, it declares, should be used only for peaceful purposes and scientific research. International co-operation is a constitutional requirement, and there is an unequivocal ban on nuclear testing or dumping of radioactive waste. And that’s it – possibly the finest document of all time, committing an entire vast continent to the principles of peace and knowledge.
The size is something else to which you must adjust; you need to recalibrate your perceptions of scale. Antarctica is one and a half times the size of the United States, bigger than Europe or Australia. I met a glaciologist who was studying a single iceberg that was larger than the Lebanon. The water it contained was enough to keep the River Jordan flowing for a thousand years.
The people in the Antarctic are different, too. With no indigenous population, no one there has anything in common other than a shared attraction to this immense, unspoilt and untouched area of the earth. It was suggested to me that everybody who is not tied down falls to the bottom of the globe. McMurdo Station is said to be populated “by full-time travellers and part-time workers.”
There was a Bulgarian fork lift driver, who happens to be a philosopher – I think he also has a PhD in comparative literature – who has a similar theory: that some process of natural selection is at work, making the kind of people who want to jump off the edge of the map gravitate to Antarctica.
One such was a journeyman plumber, part Apache, who believes he is a descendant of Aztec and Inca royalty. As evidence, his middle and ring fingers are the same length, as are his index and little fingers – which he demonstrates in the film.
Scientists are drawn to the Antarctic by the opportunities they have for cutting-edge research, some of it quite rarefied. I watched a huge helium balloon being launched 25 miles into the stratosphere to search for almost undetectable subatomic particles called neutrinos. Neutrinos were fundamental to the beginning of the universe. They can be measured and their behaviour predicted, but they seem to exist in another world where scientists can’t get their hands on them. In Antarctica, where detection instruments can function free from electrical interference, things might be different.
Undoubtedly there are travellers today lured by the distant echo of romanticism that rang originally from the epics of the Antarctic’s first explorers. For all their courage and fortitude, their quest to be the first to reach the Pole a hundred years ago was culturally very damaging.
It ended human adventure in the classical sense. That ancient concept lost its meaning as it degenerated into silly antics that are now more the stuff of the Guinness Book of World Records than pinnacles of human endeavour. I am waiting for the first person to reach the South Pole barefoot… walking backwards.
The romantics sober up quickly because if the Antarctic represents anything, it is stark realism. McMurdo itself is like an ugly mining town, full of noisy construction sites and earth-moving machinery. About 1,100 people live there in the austral summer. They have neither the time nor resources for any embellishment.
That is not to say McMurdo hasn’t collected some of the sillier flotsam of modern civilisation. Here, at 77 degrees 51 minutes south, a little more than 800 miles from the South Pole, you find not only an ATM but yoga classes and an aerobics studio.
I stayed there in something like a college dormitory. On Mount Erebus, the active volcano, I slept in a tent. It was not easy. The sun shone all night and I was mummified in a sleeping bag with just a hole left open through which to breathe. After an hour or so it was rimmed by a solid crust of ice. When I moved, it broke; the ice fell on my face and woke me.
We were a two-man crew – my cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, and me. I acted as sound recordist as well as director because I didn’t want to exploit too many of the McMurdo resources. It’s exorbitantly expensive to accommodate people there. The recorder had tiny buttons, so small that I had to take off my gloves to operate them. Instantly my fingers were numbed by the cold. Just switching on and off was a hassle.
It wasn’t that bad. In winter things are far more disagreeable. About a quarter of the McMurdo population remains at the station through the months of darkness. Mainly they are maintenance people, although a few scientists, such as astronomers, choose to be there because of the extraordinary conditions for long-term observations. There are some peculiarly unpleasant penalties if you do stay on. Your wisdom teeth and appendix have to be removed, even if they are perfectly healthy, because you can’t be evacuated and they couldn’t be operated on at the station. From March to the end of September McMurdo is completely isolated.
I met some astonishing people in making this film. As in the fairy tale, I felt as if I had held up my apron and golden coins rained into it.
I came across a man in the McMurdo greenhouse, itself an anomaly. He worked in computers but withdrew to the lettuce beds and rows of unripe tomatoes to read.
Our conversation was about disappearing languages. It resonates with me still. We have something like 6,000 languages and within 50 years 90 per cent of them will be extinct, many of them gone without trace. That’s an extraordinary cultural tragedy occurring almost unnoticed. We know the numbers of whales are dwindling, and that snow leopards are fighting for survival, but nobody talks about disappearing cultures and languages.
What is overwhelming, from talking to so many of the scientists in Antarctica, is the certainty that our human existence on this planet, our survival as a species, is not sustainable. Many express grave doubts about our long-term presence on this planet. Nature, they predict, will regulate us.
Life on the planet has always been interrupted by cataclysmic events. The trilobites and dinosaurs hung in there for quite a long time, but eventually they were extinguished. We are next. The human species evolved very quickly and it will disappear very quickly. Not just because of climate change. That would be the most primitive and simplistic of explanations. There are many other factors that make it highly improbable that we have a long future here.
It doesn’t make me nervous. It doesn’t matter whether we have another 20,000 or 200,000 years. We have to fortify ourselves with philosophy to accept whatever is our destiny. I developed a very acute sense of that in the Antarctic.
It becomes quite evident, for example, talking to the volcanologists on the rim of the crater of Mount Erebus, that there will be events that might be so apocalyptic that there won’t be any survivors. And the more technically sophisticated we become, the more vulnerable we are. Imagine London, or any of the world’s great cities, without electricity for two weeks.
The film’s title – Encounters at the End of the World – is, of course, ambiguous. In one sense it refers to a place on the globe at the end of all the converging lines of longitude, and in a second sense that we will not last very long on this earth. There is nothing gloomy about that. Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he were told that the world would end tomorrow. He said, “I should plant an apple tree today.”