December 28, 2011
People suffer in the polar regions. Anyone who goes to the far north or the far south knows before they get there that there will be challenges. Even with modern equipment there are hazards; frost-bitten noses, fingers, and toes are still common. And yet many adventurers come because of the challenges, and not only are they prepared to suffer, they expect to.
Amundsen became fascinated with polar exploration partly through his reading, as a teenager, about Franklin's Coppermine Expedition in 1819. Franklin's account, says Amundsen, thrilled him as nothing he had ever read before – for three weeks the men struggled to keep going in horrible snow storms with nothing to eat except lichen until they were “reduced to eating their own boot leather to keep themselves alive.” Even as an adult in his fifties, Amundsen admitted that “the thing in Sir. John's narrative that appealed to me most strongly was the sufferings he and his men endured. A strange ambition burned within me to endure those same sufferings.”
So for those souls aboard Polar Pioneer feeling that we have not suffered yet, the sea graciously provides. We do not collapse under the strain of man-hauling sledges, we do not freeze our extremities, and we do not starve, but we do find the rough seas that we escaped in the Drake Passage and several previously unscathed passengers are bruised, battered or green with sea-sickness. Overnight, we sail from the relatively sheltered waters in the lee of Brabant Island into the more open water of the Bransfield Strait on a course for Deception Island in the South Shetlands.
I wake up at two in the morning and hear my brother Scott saying, in his half sleep, the word “ridiculous” over and over. The ship rolls and pitches wildly and his bow-to-stern oriented bunk threatens to roll him off the edge of his mattress. I once again congratulate myself on choosing the port-to-starboard bunk because although I am rocking back and forth, I am not being thrown out of bed. Scott seems less impressed with my choice and I think about offering to trade and then think better of it. I should keep myself from getting seasick so I can help him out later, I reason silently. Later Gary suggests stuffing a pillow under the side of the mattress to keep from getting rolled out of bed, but as it is far too late by then, Scott seems not too impressed with the advice. I doze a little from two until about four-thirty in the morning and then decide that I might feel a little less of the ship's tossing if I am on the bridge and can see what is happening.
It isn't easy to climb down to the galley to make tea and is harder to climb three floors up to the bridge with one hand for the rails and one for the tea mug, but I take it slow and get myself there with only a moderate number of bumps. If I was on land, this ladder would be set on a trampoline on the back of a flatbed truck travelling around a hairpin highway and I wouldn't even think about climbing it, but at sea one doesn't make such comparisons.
It is the only time the ship slams into some weather. The sky is light and the sun is even shining through in places when I get to the bridge, but the wind is strong, gusting from the northwest and the waves are so big that when they burst over the bow, they wash the entire deck and often splash two floors up to the windows on the bridge.
Half of the passengers are missing at breakfast, preferring to ride it out with empty stomachs although I note that some of the people who were seasick in the relative calm that was the Drake are now eating oatmeal despite rough seas. Thus we adapt.
When we get to Deception Island the winds are still strong and it is too rough to attempt a landing so the ship motors slowly along the shore to Bailey Head while we take care of a few departure details. Tomorrow we sail for King George Island and leave the ship, so this down time is our chance to exchange email addresses, photos, and settle accounts.
After lunch, Gary decides that we can risk a landing. Bailey Head is always a challenge and many expeditions don't get the chance to land here. The sea is often rough and it's a tense “wet” landing. The beach is steep and rocky and the waves curl and break just at the shore so landing requires an experienced zodiac driver who can bring the boat close enough to shore that passengers can get out without the craft being swamped by breaking waves from behind. It takes ten trips in the zodiacs and as I watch the operation I see members of the Russian crew up to their armpits in the Antarctic water as they struggle to keep the boats from being washed over, but all goes well and before long the entire entourage is ashore.
Bailey Head is home to one of the largest chinstrap penguin colonies anywhere. There are between 80,000 and 100,000 nesting penguins here and since the have an average of two eggs each and it is the height of the season, there are maybe 300,000 penguins on this edge of the island right now. The melting glaciers create a stream from the heights of the island to the sea and this bed is also the highway from the ocean to the furthest reaches of the colony. I stand by as a freeway of penguins travels to and from the breaking waves in lane after lane of determination. It's like being up against the wall at Grand Central Station at rush hour and the flow of birds is fascinating.
I hike up one of the small peaks and when I get to the summit, I am standing on the podium of a huge Greek amphitheatre of penguins that stretches so far that the tuxedoed audience looks more like snow than individual birds in nests.
I have not yet been troubled by the smell of penguin colonies, but this one is a test. The scent is strong and distinctive. They eat mostly krill but the waft of the penguin colony is less maritime and, to my nose anyway, more of a smell of something vaguely burnt.
Getting back in the zodiacs and aboard the ship is as impressive as the landing in the first place and once we're all accounted for and tagged up, the captain brings the ship about to make an attempt at Neptune's Bellows.
Deception Island is a volcano and the caldera is flooded by the sea so that this island is one of a very few places on earth that one can sail into an active caldera. The narrows are the entrance and not only is the passage narrow, but there is a large rock like a spike or a tooth in the middle of the narrows that is only eight meters below the surface waiting to tear a hole in an unsuspecting ship. Despite the still high winds, the captain decides the passage is worth an attempt and no one speaks as the crew slowly manoeuvres the Polar Pioneer past Deception Islands' portals.
The ship anchors in Whalers' Bay and the zodiacs are lowered again but this time the landing is uneventful. The beach inside the caldera is one of the most sheltered bays in Antarctica and has been a refuge for sealers and whalers since the early nineteenth-century.
Deception Island is a haunted place. There are the remains of a whale rendering factory here – great rusted refinery tanks left behind as whale oil became less valuable, but not before the corpses of thousands of animals were piled here. The volcano erupted violently in 1968 and 1969 and the large research stations that moved into the space the whalers left behind had to be abandoned as well.
The beach is volcanic. Black sand steams in the cool air. I wander around the rotted buildings feeling a kind of sadness and judgement as I think about the whalers as marauders pillaging the sea. But it may be that what I'm really feeling is the human presence here in the form of abandoned buildings, and also the realization that soon I will be going back to the world of news reports and politics, of oil spills and corporate power. It may be that it's not so much what happened in the past that I'm finding vaguely depressing, it's the fact that I'll again have to think about what's happening now in what some people so wrongly refer to as “the real world.”