Antarctic Aloha: Surfing the South Pole
Europe had 563 million international tourist arrivals in 2013. Antarctica, on the other hand, had about 150,000 visitors, although only 35,000 were technically tourists, as the bulk were researchers and scientists. The World Tourism Organization, which monitors these comings and goings, barely recognizes Antarctica -- it's not even present on its tourism-growth infographic.
Just 100 years ago, explorers were aborting their expeditions -- or, worse, becoming permanently detained in the vast frozenness that is the bottom of the world. In December 2013, the Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian research ship, became bound up in sea ice, and the 74 people aboard had to be rescued. All things considered, 150,000 visitors in a year is quite an astonishing number.
But surfers in Antarctica? Until last year, the only surf trip to Antarctica was in 2000, when then-Surfer magazine editor Steve Hawk and photographer Art Brewer put a small exploratory crew together (including brothers Chris and Keith Malloy, whose younger brother Dan would soon venture on an expedition of his own). While they did stumble upon a few waves, the surf was relatively uncooperative, and the idea of the bottom of the world being the next surf Valhalla was more or less abandoned.
Chilean big-wave surfer Ramon Navarro had tracked massive waves in Chile for eight years before proposing an Antarctica trip to Red Bull. "We really wanted to do something great that nobody had done before," he said. "With those guys [Red Bull], you can say, 'I want to go surf Antarctica,' and they like those kinds of crazy ideas."
With the Red Bull team, 34-year-old Navarro spent two years researching and orchestrating the mission to tap into a fresh source of supersized waves. He also enlisted surfer/filmmaker Dan Malloy, 35, to come along for the adventure. "This was my first trip with him. It was really fun. He loves to surf, loves challenges and he had no problem with the cold water."
People generally reach Antarctica by ship after an approximately 10-day journey. But thanks to ideal sailing conditions after just six days on harrowing seas, Navarro and Malloy set foot on the seventh continent in search of monster waves. "It was six days in a gnarly boat," Navarro said. "Crossing this gnarly ocean and the Drake Passage. It was a big boat, but it was really dicey."
Home for the next 10 days was a Chilean naval base located one kilometer from the ocean. Because there were no roads, Navarro and Malloy had to walk that distance in deep snow, making it feel much longer.
"It was kind of the same routine every day," Navarro said. "Wake up really early, though it never got dark. It was really weird. It was light all day, so 24 hours a day, if the conditions were good, we had to be ready to surf at any time."
December in Antarctica is not only the month with the longest days, it's also the warmest month of the year. Antarctica's claim of the coldest temperature ever recorded -- 135.8 degrees below zero Fahrenheit -- has never been disputed. While Navarro and Malloy were there, air temperatures were only slightly below average: On the coldest days, the mercury hit 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water temp hovered right around freezing, occasionally dipping below.
They did surf-checks via boat every hour or two, and if the conditions weren't right, they returned to base. The frigid air made it impossible to wait out conditions on the beach.
"We used three kinds of wetsuits," Navarro said. "Two of them were dry suits with 8-mil on the gloves and booties. On a cold day, if you were not moving, you were freezing. If you were sitting for 20 minutes in the sea, looking for waves, you can't imagine how cold it was."
The team did find a reef break that held potential for monster surf, and they had one uncharacteristically decent weather window, so they hopped into a boat. But it wasn't long before heavy fog, snow and wind descended on the excursion.
"The weather there can change in 15 minutes," Navarro said. "The reports would say something, and the next day it would be the complete opposite. It was really tricky."
"We got kind of lost for 27 minutes in the boat," Navarro says. "We could only see 10-15 meters and couldn't see the coastline. That was a sketchy moment -- probably the sketchiest moment of the whole trip. You're starting to get cold, and it's very scary because you need to get warm and get clothes."
They had GPS aboard, and Red Bull made safety a priority by equipping team members and jet skis with radios and GPS devices, but the weather smothered the signal when it was at its worst. Big waves meant little visibility, but eventually the signal returned and they navigated blindly back to shore.
Surfing in Antarctica is probably as surreal as you imagine it would be. Aside from being cold and unpredictable, the lineup is packed with sea creatures, large and small, like sea lions, elephant seals and penguins. "And whales," Navarro said. "A lot of whales. I'd never seen that many whales in my life."
The waves broke at various depths, but the bottom was always rock. "We surfed outer reefs one day, and it was pretty deep water, in the middle of the ocean, with shallow spots," he said. "There's a lot of potential for big waves and big slabs there. It's just hard to get the right wind."
In the end, they didn't score giant waves, but Navarro maintains that the potential for surf in Antarctica is huge. "There are a lot of waves," he says. "Our plan was to go to Antarctica to surf, and we surfed a couple of waves. I'd never been to a place that cold, that crazy and that far away from the mainland. It was an amazing experience."