Grey choppy sea. Dark tabletop mountains. And overwhelming white. If it weren’t for the cobalt blue glowing from the cracks of icebergs, it would look like a black and white photograph. I’m sipping a coffee, and considering the book lying on the cushion next to me. I’m on the MV Ocean Endeavor, on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Ocean Endeavor is an expedition vessel that brings passengers to Antarctica every summer and I’m employed aboard as a guide and biologist. Among the members of the expedition team, is one gentleman who stands alone, Robert Headland, or affectionately, Bob.
When we first met last season, he immediately handed me ‘The List.’
“You must have a read, it is the latest 2017 edition,” said Bob.
‘The List’ is a chronology of three pages of 10pt font of the most ludicrous questions that passengers ask, season after season. He assured me that in 2018, a few more would be added.
This year however, Bob gave me something else to read as well: Four Antarctic Years in the South Orkney Islands.
“Have a read. I edited this edition, which of course until now has only been published in Spanish, Cuatro Años en las Orcadas del Sur, by José Manuel Moneta,” he said in deft Spanish.
Published in 2017, this is the first English, after 12 Spanish publications, the original from 1939. As the title alludes, it chronicles four years of the author’s thoughts, observations and adventures in an Argentine research base in Antarctica’s South Orkney Islands. The South Orkneys are one of the more inaccessible of the region’s peri-antarctic islands, lying east of the continent’s most visited and accessible region, the Antarctic Peninsula. Which itself is a spiny glacial clad stretch pointing north, across the Drake passage to the nearest continent, South America.
Born in 1900 in Buenos Aires, Moneta arrived in the Orcadas del Sur first as a meteorologist and was later a leader during four Antarctic winters.
Aside from Moneta’s account, the Orcadas station base is situated on an isthmus between the mountain cloud ends of Laurie Island. Originally founded by William Speirs Bruce from Scotland in 1903, an agreement was formed and Argentina took over in 1904, continuing what have become the longest continual meteorological observations in Antarctic history. Moneta House, where he and his men lived and worked, is now a historical site and for those who make it so far, is open to visitors.
When Bob first handed me the book I was skeptical. The thick volume was daunting and I judged it to be niche academic reading. But Moneta’s style, not to mention the deft translation and editing for an English speaking audience, is immediately engaging. The piece is illuminating, and a clear window not only to base life particular to the South Orkneys, but also Antarctica as a whole over a century ago. And rather than just appealing to an Argentine audience, the book brings voice to one of the countries with the longest continual history and deepest interest in Antarctica. If you’ve read Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen, also read Moneta. Up until now, the English-speaking world has mostly learned of the continent from the words of European explorers. And while priceless reads, Moneta’s account is invaluable.
The thick volume carries the original 1939 cover of art nouveau graphics, showing the base, radio pylon, Adelie penguins and the Argentine flag, a reference to earlier times. I found myself absorbed by the volume, enjoying Moneta’s droll narrative:
‘However,’ I pointed out, ‘I have read accounts of all the Antarctic expeditions, and the explorers fed entirely on seal meat, eschewing penguin which they deemed unpalatable.’
Bruhns and Plaggee agreed, but Valentiner said:
‘I have also read those narratives, but I have never had the opportunity to acquire a taste for seal meat. If you like, you can do so at any time, as it would do no harm to know about this alternative food. However, we all agree that penguin meat, well-seasoned, is edible; you are not fed up with eating it yet, are you?’
‘No,’ I replied ‘though I certainly miss a good juicy steak with a fresh green salad, but I can forget about his after eating on of Otto’s superb penguin milanesas.’
‘You are right,’ said Plagge ‘although I am not criollo like you, I like a good beef steak as much as you or your compatriots. As for the green salad, I have to confess I feel a huge nostalgia to be able to bite just a single fresh juicy lettuce leaf. How I miss the color green!’
(ch. 54, p 204)
But aside from entertaining anecdotes, he conveys the challenges of base life, of a lifeless and dark winter where even seals and penguins are absent, then the hope and exasperation at the growing light and return of life after mid-winter.
Moneta is frank in arguing for the Argentine Antarctic claim, but it doesn’t make the text any less valuable to outside or even British readers. One logical nationalist claim he makes is that unlike other nations, Argentina failed to recognize the immediate value of Antarctica, until fairly late, finally reaching the South Pole in 1965, long after Norway and Britain.
With 12 Spanish editions in 24 years, only now is it available in English. That it is relevant and readable today speaks to Moneta’s style and perspective, and that Headland saw it through speaks to the editor’s recognition of value. I pressed Bob as to why he felt it needed an English edition, to which he said it was an important account from a critical period in Antarctic history and without err, “There’s nothing like it.”
While a historian and lecturer aboard the Endeavor, Bob Headland is without par. His principle dedication is at Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute, one of the foremost centres on all things polar, covering research in history, biology, geology, oceanography, and the like.
Bob’s passion for Antarctica is palpable in his bright eyes and boyish demeanor. “I’m formally retired, but not very good at it! ‘Senior Associate’ they call me. One of the grey hairs in the attic!”
And like the explorers he studies, is a member of the Royal Geographical Society. Aside from his distinctions, he’s a kind and helpful colleague invaluable to the expedition team. Dubbed a walking encyclopedia, I’ve often wondered what he doesn’t know.
On par with his knowledge is his experience. In fact, when commercial Antarctic tourism was in its infancy, he was here, relating about horses clopping through the streets of Ushuaia, a city that today brims with international tourists and even has a Hard Rock Café.
I’ve considered penning in ‘Bob headland’ on the geological timescale pinned to the noticeboard. And without reference to his age, he seems like right from the pages of the explorers he studies. A British gentleman of yore his errorless dictation, refined British accent, unfailing recall, and dry wit are peerless. Dropping deadpan comments in staff meetings or affably scolding passengers for historical ineptitudes, to say that Bob is a character is an understatement.
British and Argentine relations have always been complicated, with the Malvinas conflict the epicenter. And Bob’s role does nothing to simplify this relationship.
In the early 1980s, at the height of British-Argentine tensions, Bob was working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studying botany in Grytviken, South Georgia. Grytviken, once a former whaling station, today is a historic site, as well as administrative and research center.
More than 30 years ago, while the Argentine forces invaded the Malvinas Islands, British military dug trenches in front of the small settlement and awaited an Argentine assault. Following the brief battle, Bob along with other civilian and military personnel had to temporarily abandon their work and be escorted away by the Argentine navy.
But following the war, it wasn’t long before he was back in business spending intermittent years up until the 1990s on historical documentation and other projects.
But despite this complicated national relationship, Bob is a historian and dedicated to reconstructing the past. His devotion to Polar history, especially Antarctic, helped him see the value in Moneta’s words.
In 2010 he contacted Moneta’s family in Buenos Aires, introduced himself, and proposed the first English translation. The book’s last edition was in 1939, so it had been some time since Argentine society has been reminded of their extensive and important history in the white continent.
While Moneta’s nationalistic undertone over Antarctica is contrary to Antarctica’s peaceful and scientific purpose, he also argued for more Argentine investment in the area. In the six years that I’ve guided in Antarctica I can count on my fingers the number of Argentine visitors that I’ve met. Passengers come from all corners of the globe, especially the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia to experience its wonder. It seems that the rest of the world sees what Moneta and Headland do, but very few Argentines can say the same.
While Moneta’s first time publishing in English will open Moneta’s words for the rest of the world, expanding Antarctic history, perhaps it will remind Argentina, what’s at its doorstep.