Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Christmas Eve, 2011

Overnight we sailed up the Gerlache Strait. The weather continues to be fair, the water calm. I wake up at 6am with a headache and sore muscles. I am sleeping five or six hours a night and I spend a good deal of that time dreaming. I think the headache comes from the sheer volume of visual stimulation I'm getting. There are so many colours, so much light to take in. When I'm awake, my eyes are always wide open.

Before breakfast I take my place on the bow alone as we sail into the Errera Channel. Many of the place names here come from the Belgica expedition. Errera was a professor at the University of Brussels; we're heading for Danco Island, named for Emile Danco – a scientist who died on Belgica; and the mainland peninsula that is one side of the channel is the Arctowski Peninsula, named for Henryk Arctowski – the Polish oceanographer who made important observations for Adrien de Gerlache.

Most of Antarctica is completely ice-covered so the landscape all around is white. Great domes of ice and snow cover most of the “land” we're travelling through, and in spots blue glaciers cascade in slow time to the edge of the sea where they calve now and then in spectacular collapse. The sea is a nest for icebergs. The cloud ceiling is low but there are often breaks in the clouds and then the peaks of mountains reveal themselves as towers. In front of the ship, penguins porpoise through the water, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups as they feed on the masses of krill that swarm the waters here.

Danco Island is small, just a kilometer and a half long and two hundred meters high. There is a thin, rocky shoreline where we land the zodiac but the rest of the island is a dome of ice. In places along the Island's elevation there are rocky outcroppings that are themselves islands in the snow and these rocks are where gentoo penguins nest. They are hatching their chicks right now so the colony is busy. Males and females take turns sitting the eggs. There is a ritual of greeting. The couple lean their heads back like coyotes and howl, if penguins howl. It's more like a purr and a squawk. The one that has been sitting the egg (or sitting the chick in some cases) transfers the precious cargo to the arriving penguin and then heads out to feed. They travel up to their nests via “penguin highways” in the snow. The highways are flipper-pit deep and go from the rookery down to the sea. The highest nesting site is near the top of the island so to get back from shore each penguin is climbing what I imagine is the human equivalent of the stairs to the top floor of the Empire State Building.

I struggle to the top of Danco with others where there is a 360 degree view down both sides of the channel. The waters are crammed with icebergs and our ship looks puny against the drama of the landscape it moves through.

One of the other prime directives of penguin interaction is to stay off the penguin highways. As I climb through the snow to the top of Danco Island's dome, my feet often punch through up to the hip (by the time I reach the top, I have shed layers and am wearing only a wool turtle neck and I am thinking about the explorers who had to haul their sledges over pressure ridges and sastrugi. Difficult to manage clothing working so hard in -30 degree temperatures). A hole like that in a penguin highway would mean that they would have to forge a new path—an exhausting task for them as well.

But the human track we have made to the top hairpins just a few meters from one of the highways and on the way down I park myself there to watch the penguin traffic. I will never tire of watching penguins. I think we love them like we do because of their imperfections. Because they are bipeds on land, we tend to see them as tipsy little people weaving uncertainly on their webbed feet. At a public panel discussion I hosted on environmental literature we talked about the “serious” quality of most environmental poetry and stories. The Canadian philosopher, Jan Zwicky, said there is little humour in discussions of the environment because the natural world inspires reverence, not humour. Much of my experience in Antarctica holds true to this line of thinking. I am in awe of the world around me and I am reverent. And then there are penguins. They are clowns. Awkward on land, they waddle up from the sea clean as scrubbed potatoes and slip and stumble their way along. They hop athletically from rock to rock but with little grace or poise, either on the edge of falling or falling. I watch them pass one another on the penguin highway. Upcoming penguins pass on the right just like North American cars and there seems to be no conflict when those coming up meet those going down despite the narrow width of the passage. Then one upcoming penguin decides to go left and hoicks himself off the path and into the snow to let the downward penguins by. His webbed foot is no snowshoe so he punches through the snow right to the top of his leg and falls forward, beak-first into the snow. But he pops up, shakes the snow off and stumbles his way back to the highway where he carries on as though the embarrassment of his detour didn't just happen. We see in them something of ourselves in the way we stumble, fall on our faces, make mistakes. On land they are a version of imperfection we relate to.
They are also trusting and vulnerable. Most of the penguins I came close to were, if anything, curious about humans. In our interactions with people, we are used to seeing others protect themselves. We hide our vulnerabilities, take our time revealing ourselves to one another, protect our secrets. So when someone does make themselves vulnerable to us we tend to see the beauty of it. I think we respond to penguins the way we do at least partly because they take so little care to protect themselves from us. They practice the art of being in ways we admire.

There is no one agreed upon collective noun for penguins: a huddle of penguins, a march, a shiver, a waddle, a tobogganing. Gary (who spent a year on the continent studying Emperor Penguins so is a good authority) says “a parade of penguins” and that's the term I prefer. As I sit in the snow watching them hike up to and down from their rocky homes, they are a fantastic parade of activity and it's all I can do to resist the urge to hug one.

After lunch I feel asleep, completely exhausted by the past few days. An hour's sleep is astonishingly regenerative. My headache and my muscle aches are gone. I wonder if the sheer will to be healthy while I'm here is part of my sudden ability to heal myself.

The ships steers its way a little further north to Orne Harbour. The morning was about penguins and the afternoon is about ice. Orne Harbour is a bite into the peninsula and is completely bounded by glaciers. We make a circle of the harbour in a zodiac, staring up at the walls of glaciers. It's a cold afternoon and the wind is blowing twenty knots yet it seems silent here. Light comes through cracks and holes in the glacier illuminating them like the stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral.

In addition to his other talents, Dr. Gary Miller, our expedition leader, is a student of ice and he shares his knowledge freely. Some of the icebergs in the bay appear ribbed which is due to the action of bubbles working their way to the surface along the ice and slowly wearing down the surface with rivers of air. An explosion across the bay announces several thousand tonnes of glacier cracking off into the water. The waves a calving makes can easily be big enough to capsize a zodiac so we are wary as we travel along the blue shoulders of these sleeping beasts.

After dinner Liz, a teacher from California with a lovely voice, leads the group in Christmas carols and I'm reminded how far away from home I am. Being in Antarctica is life on another planet, but this familiar music takes my heart home and I imagine my family warm and sipping eggnog. Santa Clause may visit them late tonight but I have no magic sleigh to take me to the other end of the earth. I step on deck again and feel cold plunge down the collar of my shirt and wrap itself around me. It begins to snow which is not, in fact, a very common occurrence in Antarctica despite the evidence all around. The Australians on board seem particularly interested and before long others are outside and there is a full scale snowball fight going on. The deck is treacherous though and it's not hard for me to picture someone going overboard, especially if they have had an extra glass of the mulled wine that has been going around. The revellers retire inside again and I'm left alone on deck which is what I prefer right now. I can hear the Christmas carols from inside and I find myself wondering what the penguins, themselves gifted with original voices that they can identify in colonies of thousands, would think of this strange human music.

1 comment:

  1. What an incredible story - absolutely fascinating! A Christmas you and Scott will always remember as a very special Christmas for very special reasons.
    Mom & Dad