Astronomy professor returns from third trip to Antarctica

Dale Smith has been to the ends of the Earth.

Having recently returned from his third trip to Antarctica, he explained his wanderlust.

“You get hooked. It’s the remoteness. It’s off the beaten track. London, Paris, New York City, they are on the beaten track and Antarctica is not,” Smith said. “On the Antarctica peninsula was a mixture of snow and ice, icebergs, ice flows and wildlife. The visual memories were being surrounded by snow and ice. There was wildlife, penguins, seals, albatross and whales.”

Smith, who is 71, is an astronomy professor at Bowling Green State University and also runs the planetarium.

He is a big fan of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. On his first trip to Antarctica, in 1996, he was able to see explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s hut.

This trip to Antarctica included a stop at Grytviken, which has the gravesite of polar explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and his right-hand man Frank Wild.

The town used to be a whaling station on South Georgia Island.

“You don’t want to think about the horrors inflicted on the whales,” Smith said.

The station was opened in 1904 and closed for whaling in 1966 and no longer has permanent residents.

Shackleton died in Grytviken during his fourth trip to Antarctica, Smith said.

“The number one goal in Grytviken was to stand at Shackleton’s grave. It was a rite of passage. So I saw that and saw the church, which still serves its original purpose and has been restored. Walked around the ruins of the whaling equipment and an hour in the museum at the end,” Smith said.

Shackleton made the island famous after his aborted third attempt on the south pole in 1914. After the team’s ship, Endurance, was crushed in pack ice, members successfully sailed a modified life raft the 779 miles from the uninhabited Elephant Island, at the tip of Antarctica, to South Georgia Island. They then blazed a trail across the South Georgia Island mountains to Grytiviken station, ultimately resulting in the rescues of the remaining 28-man crew.

He credits the new J-term at BGSU for making the trip possible. He said that the dates all lined up. He returned from his latest trip on Jan. 9, having left on Dec. 18.

Smith pulled out a detailed map to help describe the trip, because the ocean voyage was well over 1,000 miles and went to a number of stops.

Smith’s trip started with a flight down to Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. It is the southern tip of South America. It is considered the southern-most city in the world. Then, by boat, they traveled two days to Grytiviken.

Because of bad weather, the ship was diverted east to the South Orkney Islands, eventually making its way to the northern edge of the Antarctic peninsula.

While that meant less time in Antarctica, the diversion was a welcome surprise for Smith, because his primary goal was the church and grave site in Grytviken. He had also been to Antarctica on two previous trips.

Bad weather was avoided this time. His previous trip, in 2001, had harsh weather. The Southern Ocean is one of the most violent. The ship was rated to hit angles of as much as 45 degrees, half angle to the side. They said it could go safely to 60 degrees.

“The mantra is ‘one hand for the ship,’ grabbing a railing,” Smith said, referring to walking on the ship and always holding something for stability.

It did make him sick and he wished he was taller for sleeping. While Smith is 6 foot 2 inches tall, the way his bunk was oriented meant he would slide down and then back up three inches, hitting his head. He also had a roommate on that trip, with a bunk oriented in the other direction. He had to be belted in.

“This is the banana belt of Antarctica,” Smith said. “It was typically in the mid-30s, because it’s sea level and mid-summer. We saw a mixture of snow, ice and water.”

Cold weather gear is supplied for travelers to Antarctica, including boots. The boots are important because the ship would anchor off shore and ferry to shore on a Zodiac.

Zodiac boats will be familiar to fans of Jacques Cousteau. They are the semi-rigid inflatable boats with an outboard motor. These had multiple air compartments, in case of damage and deflation by ice. They were used extensively for both landing on shore and on trips to see wildlife around glaciers.

“In my 40s I did every Zodiac trip. I did not enjoy them this time,” Smith said.

There were several trips available each time the ship anchored, but on this trip Smith would go out only once a day.

In addition to Antarctica, he has been to more than 60 countries. There is a map on his office wall with red pins indicating every city he’s been to, worldwide. Many of those cities are in the far north: Norway, Canada, Greenland and the North Pole.

Smith is planning another trip to Antarctica, but next time he would go to the South Pole, which would be by air.

If you’re crossing campus on a cold day and you see a man walking in a bright yellow parka that seems just a little heavier duty than than it needs to be, that could be Smith. In addition to photos, he was able to keep the jacket. The boots had to stay.

Dale Smith looks over a map while talking about his trip to Antarctica. Smith looks over a map while talking about his trip to Antarctica. J.D. Pooley | Sentinel-Tribune

Smith points to a map while talking about his travels around the world. points to a map while talking about his travels around the world. J.D. Pooley | Sentinel-Tribune

Smith on a boat in Antarctica. on a boat in Antarctica. supplied photo photo


By Roger LaPointe