Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Neko Harbour and Two Hummock Island

December 26th, 2011

I'm thinking about how quickly anything in life can become “normal.” You have or you don't have, you're with someone or you're not, it's raining and three degrees or it's sunny and thirty. You get up to the alarm clock and go to work or you wake up and put on your gear to go kayaking among icebergs.

A week exploring Antarctica and being here feels normal. Last night was Christmas night and because we feasted in the afternoon, dinner was low key – soup and fresh bread.

Before turning in for the night, I found some space alone at the bow of the ship, looking out at ice-covered islands, icebergs, and glaciers along the edge of the peninsula. I was trying to name the feeling I had. Melancholy? I was missing my family and aware that they were having a very different Christmas night without me back in Canada. But no, not melancholy. I wasn't sad or lonesome, wasn't happy or joyful either.

What I felt was belonging. I felt at home and it surprised me that I would feel like that. Who would feel at home in Antarctica where humans have not, historically, lived? What kind of person feels at peace in a place that is almost utterly inhospitable to all forms of life, let alone people?

And yet there I was in my toque (a word unfamiliar to my Auzzie and UK shipmates), winter coat, boots and gloves, dressed the same way as I had been on so many mornings growing up in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay and Saskatoon and Calgary to go to school or go out to play on days when the wind-chill factor was minus thirty and skin would freeze in minutes. Being in the cold is normal for me, but it is more than that. Somehow the landscape seems familiar. Could be thirty years reading about Antarctica. Just maybe.

At Neko Harbour we have a quick breakfast and gather gear for the kayaks. The bay is glass-calm but full of ice so we have to be carful when we launch. A current pulls our boat toward the stern of the ship and we have to work to paddle out of the way of the propeller which is running in case the ship has to maneuver away from an iceberg heading toward it. Most sailors need only worry about reefs and running their ships into rocks. Antarctic mariners have to worry about icebergs running into them.

We spend the morning on a fabulous circuit around Neko Bay, past a parade of gentoo penguins on a iceberg, past a sleeping crabeater seal on another floe, and along the edge of a magically blue glacier that calves into the sea now and then. We take a pause to stop and to try to do nothing but listen for a few minutes. It is an exercise in realizing where we are and later some of the paddlers will say this is their favourite moment of the expedition. It is a silence that would be hard to find back in that other world we come from.

We've seen it all before, of course: ice like blue steel, penguins preening in the snow, whales surfacing to blow, and glaciers heaving off great chunks of themselves, but I think this would never get old for me. I think I could spend years with penguins and every day would be a new day. I think I could paddle the same bay weeks in a row and it would be different every time.

We land on the continent again and walk among the penguins, comic in our own funny suits. A Waddell seal has crawled fifty meters up the shore and sleeps so deeply that I'm sure I could lift its flipper and tickle it without a response.

We paddle back to the ship and load the kayaks. Though Antarctica is often represented in photos as a contrast of white and blue in bright shining sun, it is more often grey, overcast and foggy or stormy. But you can't take pictures in the fog so the impression of Antarctica becomes unrealistic. What we have not yet had on this voyage is a landing while the sun is out. I have made a very conscious decision to see Antarctica through my eyes more often than through a lens, but the photographer in me would like to photograph penguins in the soft afternoon sunlight. However, that doesn't look likely. For a few hours in the afternoon, we sail up the Gerlache Strait through cloud and even a little light snow, heading for Hydrurga Rocks and Two Hummock Island.

On our way across the Drake Passage, I told a few people that my brother and I are Amundsens. Robyn said, “Ah, I had no idea we had Antarctic royalty on board.” Amundsen may have had his problems later in life but Antarctic folks understand the skill of his accomplishments in the Polar regions. When Gary heard about our heritage, he said we'd have to go someplace special and that's where we're headed. We've been sailing in the same waters Amundsen was in as a twenty-five year old mat on the Belgica in 1897. “He landed at Two Hummock Island,” Gary tells me, “and climbed up to test his skis and so became the first person to ski in Antarctica.”

Hydrurga Rocks is a collection of rocks just off Two Hummock Island named after “Hydrurga leptonyx” which is the Latin name for the Leopard seal. It is a tiny island but is home to a chinstrap penguin colony and there is a sheltered bay big enough for a zodiac to land easily. We anchor in the strait and load into the inflatables. The clouds are so low now that I can't see the rocks until we're within a hundred meters of them. We make land and wander over the rocks among the penguins. A few Weddell seals have also humped their way over the rocks to the patches of snow higher up and they snore like middle-aged men. It begins to snow steadily and the clouds pack themselves in just a little tighter. My camera isn't weatherproof enough for this so it looks like I won't get any photos at all. Not only that but I haven't even had a glimpse of the peaks Gary tells me are across a short stretch of water—the peaks that Amundsen skied down over a hundred years ago.

If the only pleasure to be had this afternoon is to watch penguins waddle to and from their nests, then that's ok. I'll treasure the time anyhow.

As I'm looking across to where the mystical mountains are on Two Hummock Island, a little window opens high up in my line of sight. At first I'm not sure whether I can, in fact, see snow on a peak or if it's an illusion of cloud. Yes, it's snow and that's land. I decide it needs to be documented so I get my camera out and snap some quick pictures before the clouds close back in.

But they don't close in. Instead, it stops snowing and the clouds lift so fast it's as though someone just removed a tarp from the sky. The clouds simply disappear and are replaced by deep blue sky and bright sun. I keep the camera out and go photo crazy in case the light changes again just as quickly. I shoot Two Hummock Island from every vantage point I can find, I get penguins from a hundred angles, I pose by the snoozing seals and have other people photograph me. It heats up fast and I have to peel off layers. I'm sweating as I run around the rocks capturing everything I can on film.

And now the sun is beginning to go down and the last zodiac is about to leave. I'm not the only one who has been going paparazzi on Hydrurga Rocks. Andrew, who is probably the most tech-crazy passenger is getting a little more footage with his iPhone and Craig, an “amateur” photographer with impressive skills and a treasure chest of equipment is still snapping away as well. “Penguin silhouette” I say to them as we're making our way back to the last boat, and all three of us turn and fire.

Almost as soon as we're in the zodiac, the clouds come back and by the time we're heading for the Polar Pioneer, I can not longer see Two Hummocks and then I loose Hydrurga Rocks in the fog.

We swing by an iceberg where a young leopard seal is tormenting anxious penguins who look down from the heights of ice to see the predator circling. The seal is curious about the curious humans and lifts himself out of the water way too close to the edge of one of the boats. The zodiac lists to starboard as its passengers shift suddenly to one side.

Back on board, I spend an hour flipping through the three hundred new images on my camera and I'm still a little stunned by the coming--and going--of the light. I don't know what the gods look like, but I know they smiled on us this afternoon.   


  1. Thanks for all this, Jay. It's wonderful stuff. I was wondering when I would start to see more of your adventures, and these pictures and videos and commentary fill me in brilliantly. Can't help thinking there's a book in here somewhere, although I have to say I wasn't fond of Atwood's New Yorker story that she based on her northern experiences. You can do far better than that. Your material is so much richer and more compelling, too. I imagine writing it all up is good therapy these days. Continuity, life moving on, reflecting, revealing meaning. A good lesson for us all.

  2. Jay & Scott:
    What another great day - and to think you both saw where Roald Amundsen's skis made it down the slope for the first time a hundred years ago - and the sun opened up the sky for both of you to have that memorable experience with all onboard the Polar Pioneer.
    Mom & Dad