Part III: The Itinerary
The daily itinerary followed a similar pattern. Wake early to a sun that had never properly set, eat a huge breakfast, put many waterproof layers on, make landfall and coo over the hundreds of penguins populating the beach. Then, a zodiac ride around the landing sight, following whales, photographing dramatic floating ice palaces, giggling as penguins shot out of the water at irregular intervals.
The expedition company had historians and naturalist on staff and on the daily treks. They were there not only to make sure their guests didn’t stray too far into a penguin breeding ground, but also to provide interesting tidbits of information. As we stumbled across seemingly abandoned refuge huts, built sometime in the last 100 years, the resident Antarctic historian Bob Headland appeared several times, as if out of nowhere, and in a comically proper Cambridge accent, wove a complex yarn that knit together a detailed historical background. It was a little odd. But so much about Antarctica is odd.
Carnivorous leopard seals, spotted like their namesakes, bask on icebergs, twisting to watch a passing zodiac in a fashion more serpentine than seal.
Minke, grey and killer whales swim within sight of shore in sub-freezing temperatures, diving in their endless pursuit of krill or in the case of the orca pods – hunting for larger prey.
Penguins actively engaged in larceny, deftly stealing one pebble from a brother penguin’s nest then waddling away from the scene of the crime, loot held proudly aloft in its beak.
The bays were filled with a thrilling variety of naturally sculpted icebergs but one in particular caught our eye from the bow of the ship. Designed like ultramodern architecture, bleached white and brilliant blue, it stood precariously high, timeless and immovable. It consisted of three towers, all connected at an enormous base. As the ship approached we raced across the decks to get a good shot of it. When Magda ran out of film we ran to the room, changed rolls, and then hurried to the stern of the ship to steal another photograph. Unfortunately the angle was strange and the moment was gone. Fortunately the ship had come to a stop and the crew was dropping the zodiacs down, we still had a chance to shoot it from the water.
We boarded the little inflatable outboard and asked our pilot if we could swing around the incredible ice-structure. She agreed, but just as we were pulling away from the stern of the Ocean Diamond, there was what sounded like the report of a rifle and one of the great towers began to collapse. An explosion of ice chunks sprayed in every direction as the nearest tower sank into the sea. It sent up a giant spray of water. Immediately a huge wave rippled outwards and the pilot rotated the zodiac to take on the coming roll.
As soon as the wave passed beneath us the iceberg start to groan. It was rebalancing now that a part of its weight was gone. On its far side, a flatiron shaped block began to rise up on a blue post of ice, much too thin to support the block’s massive weight. It rose 10, 25 then 50 feet in the air. At its height it resembled a mushroom cap and stem. Then it slowly sank down again like a retracting piston, the whole iceberg learning, straining to find balance. The piston rose once more, cracks now visible in the column. Halfway on its way back up, another snap split the air and the ice-iron toppled into the waves. With this second blow to the balance of the berg, the remaining tower leaned and exploded as well, sending another great wave towards us. By this time we’d motored into a cove, protected from the swell. When the mist settled the remains were unrecognizable chunks of ice, white and foaming. An iceberg hadn’t ceased to exist, several smaller ones had been created.
The Ocean Diamond moved from Island to island until the fourth day of the trip when we finally touched the Antarctic continent. I felt I’d been in Antarctica for days, but those aboard searching for their Seventh Continent* were relieved when we finally reached shore at Almirante Brown Base, an Argentine research station established by the Perón government. President Perón believed only Argentina and Chile had any legitimate claim to Antarctica and set about building a series of bases on the Antarctic Peninsula to solidify his claim. Almirante Brown Base in Paradise Bay was one of these stations. In 1984 a doctor assigned to the base year-round went a little mad and decided the best way to avoid serving another brutal winter was to burn the place down. He was successful in burning all but one of the buildings, but he failed to be relieved of his duties; he and the rest of the irritated crew were forced to winter in the last remaining hut before they could be rescued. The chill outside of the hut must have only been exceeded by the chill inside during that long absence of sun.
As eager as the Seventh Continent contingent was a young Argentinian stationed at Brown Base named Manuel who stood next to the crowd of tourists chatting with everyone he could. He was halfway through his first tour at the station and the summer brought much needed entertainment in the form of tourists from around the world. He grilled the passengers with his excellent English, collecting names and exchanging stories. We took his email address and asked if we could write him at the station. He said no, and his wide smile dimmed somewhat. No Internet here.
On Danko Island, while Magda was shooting pictures, I sat and tried to sketch the penguins as they waddled by. The nice thing about drawing penguins from life is that if I missed a pose, or didn’t quite capture a way of walking, a perfect clone of my model was only seconds away. I had time to reflect on how awkwardly the penguins navigate on land, a place they only spend a small portion of their time and have no real natural predators. These clumsy upright walking creatures transform themselves before your eyes as soon as they reach the water’s edge. Stumbling over rocks or slipping over chunks of ice, the cute, top-heavy penguins fall forward into the sea and become guided missiles. With a flick of their wings they’re off, darting and swerving in underwater flight. They are suddenly as graceful as they were clumsy on land. Penguins at least have one element they are perfectly adapted for – I wouldn’t call myself graceful on either the land or in the sea.
We visited Port Lockroy, an old whaling station and currently a museum, gift shop and post office run by the United Kingdom. It was also the site of a scientific study on the impact of tourists on penguin colonies. One part of a nearby island we were allowed to visit, the other was off limits. So far it seems that the side where tourists are allowed is doing better. This makes sense only when you realize that the one problem animal penguins deal with on land is the skua, a brawny brown member of the gull family who make it its business to steal penguins eggs and chicks. Without human interference, the skuas run rampant, heckling the colonies without mercy. But the skuas don’t like humans it seems, and sure enough it was rare that one would stick around for long if we were very near.
Now to do a study on the effects of humans on skuas. The penguin study strikes me as another example of species favoritism. We like penguins because they meet the standard of anthropomorphic charm we hold for certain animals. When they walk they look pleasingly, adorably familiar. Skuas fall short of our standards. They appear to be jerks. If by some miracle we manage to save the world, we might only get around to saving the parts we like.
*they insist on calling Antarctica the Seventh Continent though by my count there are only six:
Apparently the definition of a continent is extremely hazy, and therefore allows for Europe to be a different continent simply because it didn’t know it was connected to Asia for such a long time.