Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saying Good-bye to the Penguins - or - One Wedding and a Polar Dip

Deception Island, Whaler's Bay. The sun is shining, the sky is blue; it's the perfect place for a swim. Or a wedding.

The sun is shining, and the sky is blue, so why is it that I can't seem to move forward? Every time I lift my foot to take another step, I seem to float backwards like an ethereal spirit trapped about a Scandinavian passenger ferry. When I make contact with the solid ground once more, it lands in the same position from where it lifted off. The winds blow at more than thirty knots, and the ice on the deck does nothing to improve the progress-requiring friction.

Grasping for rails, and clinging to whatever their hands manage to come in contact with – ropes, pulleys, other peoples jackets, or arms, I find solace in the fact that I am not alone in my struggles. When I reach the front rail, I make sure to grasp on, and not let go. It would be such a shame to miss the passing through Neptune's Bellows, especially with the lighting conditions being what they are.

With great ease, my beard takes on a life all its own. No longer is it a part of me, but instead a creature all its own. At times it feels great hatred for he who had kept it imprisoned, reaching up to block the world from me. At other times such a withholding of sight doesn't seem enough, wrapping around my neck in a hope to strangle away all future breath. My only respite comes from the moments when internal disagreements cause it to break from single minded directives, splitting in the middle, an attempt to escape without cohesion. It is during this moment that I can manage to tame it, and return to a life lived under my own control.

This return does not happen until a number of people had taken a number of pictures of me during these moments, of course, but that's all part of the charm, I'm sure.

With the bellows entered, the wind seemed to die down somewhat. Heading back to our cabins and dressing in our cold weather gear, with a tiny alteration, we made ready to land at Whaler's Bay.

Situated under an active volcano, ash coats much of the beach. Much of the whaling station that served this area at the turn of the century, had been washed to sea during a volcanic eruption in the mid seventies. Buildings, oil barrels, and a cemetery for those whose life was lost in the line all now lay beneath the waves.

An airplane hanger, some huts and a number of oil barrels loom large as our zodiacs pound the waves, kicking ocean spray in the face of those, unlucky enough to pull a front seat, While they would normally be the main draw for this stop, they find themselves avoided. The few seals laying near the beach garner some attention, but even they are quickly passed by as the parade up to Neptune's Window, an opening in the cliffs, begins.

A constant stream of people climb the path as each new zodiac unloads ten more units to join in the march. Once all guests had arrived, a ceremony was to begin. The wedding of two passengers. In snow suits, they stood ready to exchange vows, but before that could begin, a veil was adorned on the bride. At this height the winds whipped with the same fury they had on the upper decks, hours before. To keep the veil in place, and offer some form of comfort, a frost fighting thermal headband was placed atop.

Streaming through the breeze this veil added the final touch of beauty to the ceremony, and added a great depth an interest to the wedding photographs – especially when taken at close range with a 10mm wide angle lens by a professional photographer. And there, with the wind muffling, vows were exchanged. And the two were pronounced husband and wife.

Depending on your understanding of, and take on the legal system, you may not agree that the two were joined. And while I was of this mind at first, seeing two people in love, exchanging rings, making vows, and being at peace with one another – why should there be limitations on who can join together these people, and what right is there to say that such a connection can only be made in certain locations? Furthermore – why should papers and legal documents have any control over how people wish to spend the rest of their lives? These people were married this day, looking over the ocean, on a barren rock in Antarctica, with seals barking below, birds swooping overhead, and the waves crashing into the cliff face on which they stood.

And then we all ran down to the water for a swim.

Perhaps we didn't all go for a swim – but nearly a third of us did. And maybe we didn't run down, the winds were picking up, lessening the lower we descended. For a moment I thought I might not go in. While I wore shorts on deck in the morning, I was now prepared to admit – the first honest and true time this trip – that I was a little cold. I wondered how jumping into the water would play against that.

It is said that if you dig down into the beach you will uncover pools of water heated nearly one hundred degrees from the volcanic activity. There was a time that these pools would be constructed for those who braved the surf, to warm up afterwards. This is no longer allowed in Antarctica, through the attempts to keep the landscapes pristine, and unaltered by man as much as possible. We'd just have to take their words about the warmth trapped away.

Behind a floating dock, visible in picture postcards of the whaling station floating in the bay decades past, now resting upended upon the shore, we changed out of our gear. It's only when the gear is taken off, outside, piece by piece, that you really come to understand how much you're wearing. Stripped down to my bathing suit, I was ready to enter the waters.

The few whom had plunged in ahead of me entered with a scream, and exited with many expletives shouted for all near, and far, to hear. They then quickly grabbed for a towel, and returned to dress once more.

I walked in slowly, coming to terms with the water temperature, and when up to my waist I pushed into the surf, taking a few strokes, to make it an official swim. Eyes open underwater, I was surprised with how brown and murky it was. On the surface it appeared so clear. While it was cold, it wasn't breathtakingly so. For a moment I thought about kicking around for some time longer, until I made a move to stand, and could not feel the bottom. Fear pulsed through me – what if there was a rip? What if there was an angry leopard seal? Suddenly my attempts to reach shore seemed as hurried as those of all others.

Back on dry land I grabbed a towel and made my way, slowly, back to my clothes. The cold was not me enemy here, but instead the stones beneath my feat. I would much rather have stood, wet and in the winds, than feel the sharp rocks underfoot.

Watched by a seal, I re-dressed and boarded the zodiac back to the MS Expedition. There was a sauna on board. I discovered this on the first day, but could never think of a time when it would be needed. Now, when all feeling in toes had abandoned me, it seemed the perfect time. Inside were other swimmers, also trying to warm their toes. Only the toes seemed affected.

It was there that stories of the cold were exchanged. Some claimed it to be freezing, and painful, for others it wasn't so bad. I put forward the idea that cold water swimming is like getting a needle at the doctors. If you expect it to hurt, it will – if you don't, you'll be fine. It's all internal, and all in your mind. And if you want the experience of talking later about the time you went into the Antarctic waters, and were chilled to the bone, frozen in a heroic act, well then you'll start to self narrate it moment of, screaming and shouting as you leave the sand behind. And that's fine. Subjectivity, rather than objectivity, is rule here. And really, that's how it should be.

Hibernation until lunch seemed to be a general rule – and it was then that I ran into Anna. “How'd the swimming go?” I asked her. She paused a moment and then claimed that she did not go in. I reminded her that she had made a promise to another passenger that she would. And that's when the hitting began. The violence in these people, I tell ya.

The afternoon took us to a chinstrap penguin rookery. This was our final excursion – our last time in the zodiacs, our last time putting on the auto-inflating pressurized life jackets, our last time stepping foot on the strange continent. But no one was thinking of that as we fought the ocean, each swell testing the watertight seal on pants and jackets as we made a hard turn towards the shore. And then once on land, all thoughts were towards the elephant seal on the shore. It was our first sighting, and our last opportunity to see one. While not the odd looking male, it was still a good spotting.

Blue sky overlaid snowy peaks, reflected in crisp lakes below. The scenery was spectacular, as we had come to expect. Somehow each departure managed to be just a little beyond the one previous. I wondered what those who stayed the twenty-five day trips would end up seeing. Still, walking along a path to reach the far shore, passing chinstrap penguins, stopping to photograph one or two while heading towards the gentoos, I felt that this trip had been the perfect length, and I had seen everything – and more – than I could have hoped for.

There, as penguins porpoised in to the land, I watched a disturbance in the distance. A bird circled some far off splashes, that grew closer. A leopard seal had caught a stray penguin, and was thrashing it around on the surface, rending its flesh, turning once cute bird into an afternoon meal.

As the final bites were taken, and the waters returned to their peaceful calm, we were called back to the landing crafts. Or final excursion was at an end. Walking those last steps over the slippery ice, and jutting rocks – stopping now and then, granting penguins the right of way as they crossed paths – it finally dawned on me that the trip was nearing its conclusion. Those people with whom time had been spent, on land, would rarely be seen over the next two days, and after that, perhaps never again. These animals that had traversed from foreign to well known, and well loved, may forever remain locked away from sight. The lands that once were seen as barren, now viewed as beauty, were closing their doors, setting the chairs on the tables, and sweeping up the floors.

As with all endings, returning to the boat was bitter sweet. Dinner was mostly silent. And afterwards, I could not keep my eyes open. Sleep called, and I answered, earlier than I had before. The sun had set on this adventure.

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