Saturday, March 13, 2010

Stepping Off the Boat

The lizard breathes. As I watch the Antarctic water pulse slowly as we pass over it's scaly surface, I can picture nothing else save for the sleeping dragon sprung to life.

In the early morning the loud speaker called us down to the mud room. It was time to take our first journey away from the MS Expedition, and after three days trapped on board everyone was eager to leave. Yes we'd seen the snow and the ice from the ship's deck, but it would be nothing, we knew, like seeing it from water level inside an inflated zodiac.

I prepared for the journey. Removed were my shorts, replaced with winter thermals, and long pants. Short sleeves were met with a thermal undershirt. Feet were covered with arctic socks made for just such an occasion. Waterproof pants, with waterproof feet were pulled on, and covered with my boots – not waterproof in the slightest, but thanks to the wonders of my pants, I've not needed to lug around Wellies with me everywhere I go. The final pieces? My rain coat, gloves, and a Peruvian toque.

I don't think I've ever been dressed this warmly in all my life. And I think it just might be overkill – but better to wear too much than too little. Right?

Down in the mudroom we put on your life jackets, self inflating when they hit the water, like something worn by future-Marty McFly. Once those were on, we flipped tags to indicate that we were off the ship (I am number 104) and boarded the boats. As we tore away from the main ship it became easy to see just how small we were. The Expedition, which seemed so hard to navigate, passengers loosing themselves in the labyrinth of corridors and staircases, was dwarfed by endless oceans, and ice shelfs rising up from the deep.

The surface of the water was covered with ice, though not solid. It's what is referred to as pancake ice, flat ovals that float atop the water. Eventually these ovals will join together, and form an ice sheet. But as of right now? It simply looks like the back of a breathing lizard, as the waves run ever so gently under the flows.

As we pressed through towards the frozen cliff faces, loud cracking could be heard in the distance, as great chunks of cerulean shelf came away from the land, crashing into the waters below. Avalanches were all too common just out by the water's edge. And it was there to which we headed. Recent collapses created small icebergs for fur seals to climb up on and rest during the day. They barked as we approached, but remained calm, content to simply look at us, as we looked back at it Each party just as curious as the other.

And just like that it was time to head back to the ship, time to re-flip the tag, replace the life jackets, and strip out of the gear that was quite warm on the water, and thus even more so on board the ship, heated for your comfort.

While we had not stepped ashore yet, that was of no real concern. After lunch we would head towards a small island with abandoned research stations, and allow our feet to connect with solid ground at 67”. We would walk below the Antarctic Circle.

Meals, which up to this point, had been a highlight of most passengers' days were now quickly shoved aside, taken in as fuel rather than enjoyment. Suddenly there had been a change that rippled through the entire boat. No longer were we content to just watch things go by, we wanted to get out there and explore. And knowing that in just a few short hours we'd have that very experience, led to all number of eager travellers.

When the announcement came, back on went our cold weather gear, replaced were our life jackets, and in line for the landing craft we waited. Prior to boarding we had to step into a bucket of pink liquid, supposedly to kill everything undesired on our shoes, so as to not contaminate this seemingly-barren continent.

On the craft I felt as if I were a character in C+C, being ferried to the landing zone. As my boat raced out, others who had just dropped people ashore zipped by on the return trip, looking to take even more out again. This would continue for a half of an hour before all were on land. But once there the world opened up into something new, and something amazing.

The ice, the bergs, the surrounding lands – all glowing blue under the cloudy sky. For so long I'd thought ice was white, or clear – but it's not. And it never has been. It's blue; the natural tint can only be viewed when ice exists in such extreme quantities. We pulled up on shore beside a crab-eater seal, lounging on a small piece of floating ice. So secure was it in its slumber, and safety, that it didn't even look up to greet us.

Eyes panning around three old buildings could be seen. Though only sixty years old, the elements, and the lack of care and upkeep, left them looking like something from the days after man.

Near the closest shack a penguin hopped along the rocks, waddling and jumping to overcome whatever obstacle was in it's path. Staying a safe distance away so as to not distress it, I sat and took photo after photo. At one point he made it all the way to the end of the path, looking up a slight icy elevation. Determined not to give up he would charge, take three steps up, and then slide back to the bottom, charge, take three steps up, and slide back to the bottom. For some time he repeated this task, never quite making it farther than any previous attempt, and with that he seemed to shrug, turn around, and hop off into the water, swimming out to the dozens on a neighbouring island.

The main research station was constructed out of wooden boards, though the insides were still quite impressive. Bedrooms still had sheets and blankets laid out, with coats overhanging the rails. There were pantries filled with rusted cans of mayonnaise and tinned fruit, and the ladder leading up to the attic allowed for a view of row after row of canned custard.

Shelves of books had been left behind, as well as equipment, now all but destroyed by the salt air. The radio room had messages to be sent, or recently received, laid out on the desk. Who knew if any of these things would still function? Who knew why so much was left behind?

I'd seen an episode of the X-Files where they headed out to Antarctica and nothing good came from that. I could only assume that it was or similar reasons that the occupants of this shelter abandoned it with such such speed. All would seem strangely out of place, if not for the two modern additions. One was a log book to claim that you had made it this far. The other? A note posted over the kitchen sink in 1997, alerting people to the fact that this building was still used as an emergency shelter and that it should not be dismantled for fire wood.

Who would come out this way to start a little camp fire? Especially one made from the only shelter for miles and miles?

Outside the building I threw myself to the ground in an attempt to make a snow angel. I was asked what movie that was from – where I had got the idea? I tried to explain that this was just something we did back home. We did it not because we'd seen it in movies, but because that's just what one does when there's fresh snow on the ground.

I was not believed. Mind you this lack of belief came from Aussies – the same group of people that had no idea when I formed a ball of snow in my gloves that it was going to be aimed right at them. It was only after they were hit that they thought, wow – what a good idea? There attempts to return fire were futile. I had twenty three years of experience in snow wars – and they? They just discovered it after the first attack was launched.

I find it hard to describe the experience of stepping on land, and wandering in regions where few people will ever set foot. There just aren't enough similes for the colour blue. Everything takes on a different shade, a different tint, all contrasting, clashing, enhancing. You'd expect nothing but fields of white, and yet it's rare that white overpowers.

Cameras fail in the face of snow. The turn the brilliance to grey, and force saturation lower than it should be. Bounding over the waves, back to the boat, salt water is picked up, and kicked into the faces of the passengers. They all hold their cameras dearly, for while they may be angry at them for not taking the colours as they're viewed, they don't want the salt water seeping, corroding, destroying.

Not half an hour after we'd returned, stripping out of our cold weather gear once more, and attempting to relax, an announcement went over the loud speaker. Whales at one o'clock.

Once more everyone rushed up to the observation deck, and looked out into the sea. Whales, indeed, were there – but I had been spoiled by the breaching orcas days past. These whales were playing in large groups – more than a dozen – but they were just rising up, and letting their backs become visible, before blowing, and then kicking with their tails. For an hour we watched them, freezing little by little – as none had time to put their proper gear on. Some ran straight from the shower, hair wet, and turning the ice. I made due, with only my fingers numbing.

Hundreds of pictures were collectively taken of tails. Many, many, tails. Yes these are whale pictures – but how many images of similar tails does one really need? Sunlight hit a mountainous peak in the distance, causing it to glow against the darkened sky. This was the image that should be taken. But most eyes were focused on the little mounds popping up and then going back under.

If a picture of the landscape should have the tail in it? All the better – but just the tail? A delightful picture it does not make.

Still, no one dared leave. No one dared return below decks, for they all knew the second they did something amazing would happen. Without doubt, if they went back where it was warm and comfortable, a pod of ocras would pop up, passing a seal between them, ready to eat. It was only when we were called to eat that people relaxed and went inside. If those hypothetical orcas popped up now, well that was fine – it's o.k. if no one gets the picture – but if just one person does? Jealousy would abound.

Jason, the resident National Geographic photographer, gave a presentation on photography, showing some of his work over the past twenty years, explaining how he became a photographer with NatGeo, and talking about the lifestyle. Years ago I thought that would be a delightful way to live your life. And I'm sure for many it is. But being on the road eleven months out of the year? Yes, you get to see the world, but at what cost?

That – and sitting in a tree for two weeks to get just one perfect frame... Well that's, perhaps, not as exciting as the lifestyle seems when you just look at the pictures in the magazine. But that's true of all things, isn't it? The glamour only exists in the minds of those looking in from without, or from those who were once within, now looking back with tinted, perhaps tainted, memories of what once was.

Imagine picking just one thing in life and working at it until yo become the best there is... It sounds wonderful, until you think of all the other things you'd never get to experience. So what's better, Jack of all trades, master of none – or to be the best there is at something?

I'm not sure I know.

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