I began believing in ghosts early one morning-at what would have been dawn if Antarctica bothered with dawns-on the bridge of the National Geographic Explorer.
I was mentored there in the ways of unseen things by the ship’s first mate, Piers Alvarez-Munoz, his name rivalled in its magnificence only by his beard. His radar screen was a mostly useless wash of scattered green specks-ice floes and monstrous birds with three-metre wingspans and maybe a giant kraken-and through the windows we couldn’t see much beyond the bow of the ship. A snow squall had blown across the Drake Passage and was now upon our decks, another one of the vest-pocket storms that kept rising out of nowhere and returning there just as quickly. Alvarez-Munoz checked his paper charts and compasses, and plotted our course with a thick pencil line, finding his way by hand because these waters defy even the most advanced of our machines. Then he nodded: Antarctica was in our immediate range. He was doubtless, even though the only instrument able to find any sign of it was his heart.
After such a long journey, and in the absence of more tangible evidence, it was hard to accept his assurances that we were almost there. My 140 fellow passengers had funnelled to this featureless patch of ocean from across the better-known world, every last one of us having originated somewhere due north: flights first to Buenos Aires, and then a Lindblad Expeditions charter to Ushuaia, a small, colourful town at the bottom of Argentina that lays claim to the southernmost civilized everything. Then we had boarded the Explorer and nosed through the shimmering Beagle Channel, to our left the mountains of Argentina, to our right the slightly more dramatic mountains of Chile. We underwent a lifeboat drill, quietly deciding who among us looked the most delicious, before we escaped the last grip of land and slipped into the Drake Passage sometime around midnight. The seas grew rougher where the Atlantic and Pacific met, joined in their union the next day by several of our half-digested breakfasts and lunches. Nearly 40 hours after we had pushed away from safe harbour and four days since most of us had left home, there stood Alvarez-Munoz with his pencil, insisting that, any moment now, Antarctica would appear before us.
When it did not, he unrolled another one of his charts to justify his belief in paranormal land masses. The ocean, now the Southern one-its fluid boundaries another of our perhaps mythic inventions, a function solely of a steep drop in water temperature-was as much as 5,500 metres deep here. But nearby, underwater peaks rose within 200 metres of the surface. Beneath us were entire ranges that dwarfed the Andes. No one had ever climbed or even seen these kilometre-high monuments, but that didn’t mean they were not there. It might seem impossible that there are destinations on this planet we haven’t visited, even remotely, but in many ways Antarctica is an article of faith more than a hard physical fact; its ranking among the continents will last only so long as we believe it does.