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Monday, March 20, 2000

Antarctica without the suffering


By DAVID WADDELL

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- Writing of his experience while exploring Antarctica as a member of the ill-fated Scott expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard recalled, "Such extremity of suffering cannot be measured. Madness or death may bring relief. But this I know: We on this journey were already beginning to think of death as a friend. As we groped our way back at night, sleepless, icy and dog-tired in the dark and the wind and the drift, death in a crevasse seemed almost a friendly gift."

Those with less tolerance for privation and hardship can still get a taste of Antarctica, with a visit to the International Antarctic Center in Christchurch. Located adjacent to the airport, the 8-year-old visitor center has evolved into one of the city's most popular tourist attractions, drawing an average of 200,000 visitors a year.

Christchurch has long been a gateway for polar exploration; the Scott and Shackleton expeditions embarked on their journeys from the South Island city and the headquarters of the United States Polar Research Program, as well as the Italian and New Zealand Antarctic research programs are located there.

The center offers a glimpse of one of the world's most inaccessible and pristine areas through a combination of interpretive and multimedia displays, hands-on exhibitions and breathtaking Antarctic photography. The center provides the layperson with informative and entertaining insight into Antarctica, but it is also a valuable resource for scientists and historians doing research on the region.

One enters the center through a dimly lit room with polar-themed murals and a replica of the Scott base, creating an eerie effect with the help of wind recordings, artificial snow and the interplay of lights. Following this, visitors experience freezing temperatures and real snow via the "Snow and Ice Experience," a cold vaultlike room chilled to a balmy minus 5 C.

Exhibits of the diverse organisms inhabiting Antarctica dispel the myth that the frozen continent is a wasteland devoid of life. On the contrary, the high levels of oxygen in the surrounding oceans support an abundance of plankton that directly and indirectly feeds whales, seals, penguins, cod, sea urchins, starfish and bird life. The fauna is highly adapted to the harsh climate. The Antarctic cod, for example, is equipped with glycoprotiens that act as antifreeze, allowing the homely fish to live in the frigid waters without its bodily fluids congealing.

A visit to the museum culminates with a slide show highlighting the incredible beauty of the continent that some have called "the world's largest outdoor laboratory." The images give the viewer a look at the flora and fauna and geography of this inhospitable, but strangely beautiful land.

Museum guide Therese Dobbs, 35, offers visitors firsthand knowledge of the region. A veteran of Antarctica, the diminutive redhead has spent a total of three years on six expeditions there as part of a carefully selected support crew that provides logistic support to scientists at the research base the New Zealand government has maintained since 1957. She has withstood temperatures of minus 51 degrees and the bleak Antarctic winter when the sun does not shine for three months.

According to Dobbs, living in the cold climate has some interesting physiological side effects.

"It throws your biological clock off," she notes, "and your metabolism and energy levels slow down." One must consume vast quantities of water to ward off dehydration (Antarctica is the driest continent as well as the coldest) and the cold temperatures stimulate hair growth at twice the normal rate as a defense mechanism to keep the body warm.

What lures her back to the icy land?

"The colors and majesty of the place are awesome," she says, her eyes sparkling. "The magnitude of the land is incredible, and it makes you feel small by comparison.

"Antarctica is a spiritual place."

For more information see the Web site at www.iceberg.co.nz The Canterbury Museum in Christchurch also has a section on the early exploration of Antarctica which will interest history buffs.


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