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Antarctic voyage

A firsthand look at the effects of climate change near the South Pole.

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Capt. Klaas Gaastra stands watch as the Dutch three-masted bark Europa transits Lemaire Channel off Antarctica.

Photos by George Tombs.

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“Our square sails are braced right now for the changing wind that we expect ahead as we cross Drake Passage, between Cape Horn and Antarctica,” says Mike Stewart, the boatswain of the Dutch tall ship Europa. Surging along the crests of 20-foot, slate-gray waves, the Europa is taking 15 crew members and 40 sail trainees to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The wind moans in the rigging, setting every brass hook and teak panel clanking, rattling, shivering, and heaving. Regularly thrown off balance, the men and women on board are willing to put up with discomfort to see the effects of climate change in Antarctica firsthand.

The impending collapse of the 5,600-square-mile Wilkins Ice Shelf adds a sense of urgency to the voyage. The Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches 750 miles north from the continent into Drake Passage, is arguably undergoing the fastest rate of climate change of any region on earth.

As the Europa approached Antarc­tica in late January, snow fell frequently, forming sodden clumps and then melting. Gentoo penguins leapt in the sea like miniature porpoises.

Antarctica is breathtaking. It’s a frozen desert with almost no precipitation. Along its coasts are the breeding grounds of humpback whales, seals, and penguins.

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