Peter Matthiessen has been around the world many times seeking rare birds and checking on environmental conditions. In 1998 and in 2001, he boarded ships bound for Antarctica with the staff of Victor Emmanuel Tours and a flock of serious birders, hoping to see penguins, other sea birds, marine mammals, and the icy world in which they live. The first trip began in Punta Arenas, Argentina and headed for the Antarctic Peninsula, while the second trip left from Hobart, Tasmania and headed for the western edge of Ross Ice Shelf. Matthiessen describes both expeditions in his 2003 book End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica.
At the time of Matthiessen's travels, tourist excursions to Antarctica were still very new. Even today not many people can set aside the time or afford to join these grand expeditions. So reading Matthiessen's account is as close as many of us will ever get to Antarctica. While not his primary focus, the author does describe the boats, the meals, and company, but mostly to contrast with the travels of historic Antarctic explorers, including Amundsen, Shackleton, and Scott, who were ever in his mind as he gazed at the icy shores of the continent at the bottom of the globe. Readers learn that should they now go on such a trip, they would have good food and warm showers, but they would still suffer from the high rolling in the frequent storms of the Southern Ocean and within the Arctic Circle. A few of the passengers were rarely seen until the ships reached calmer sheltered waters.
Matthiessen needed both trips to see all the birds on his list. On the first voyage, ice blocked them from getting to the emperor penguin colonies of the Antarctic Peninsula. The second trip was on an icebreaker that owned the record for getting further south than any other ship ever. His voyage set no records but did reach the emperor penguin colony below Mount Melbourne. With special guides to protect the penguins from too much human curiosity, Matthiesen and his fellow travelers got to visit remote colonies and witness penguin lives up close.
Matthiessen's strength is in reporting what he sees with added reflections on environmental issues. When he starts to get preachy, he apologizes and moves on. In End of the Earth and other books, the author's commitment to wildlife and wild places is evident. Sympathetic readers will also enjoy Birds of Heaven, his book about trekking to see endangered cranes in their remote habitats.
Matthiessen, Peter. End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica. National Geographic, 2003. 242p. ISBN 0792250591.