Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Polar Plunge

Well, the bold - or maybe the barmy - did it. And I was first to leap into the Antarctic waters lapping up on the black volcanic sands of Deception Island. Yes. Our first effort a week ago had to be aborted, but we had a second chance on the return.

Me, pulling the ship in through two feet of ice. Hard work, yes, but somebody had to do it. The captain was too busy steering.

Yesterday at dinner time the weather was ideal - calm winds, sun shining, and some of us were starve to get off the ship. Our captain loves to please - and to laugh.

The captain had eased us across risky Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance into the caldera of the volcano of Whaler’s Bay, and offered us a couple of diversions. A sheet of sea ice covered half of Whaler’s Bay. But the Captain plunged the ship’s bow through the ice (about two feet thick) and parked the Endeavor there, inviting us to come down the gangplank and take a walk on sea ice. (Different from pond ice we used for ice skating.) We’ve spent many an hour walking on hard glacial ice these six days on the peninsula and continent of Antarctica - there were no other options.

Grateful, the captain gives me a big hug.

But everyone donned red jackets and boots and red wool caps and descended the plank for photo opportunities - like tugging the thick blue rope normally used to secure the Endeavor at port. It gave the illusion, when photographed, we were one by one pulling the ship through ice. Then beer and hot dogs were served by the kitchen crew and others built snow penguins or made snow angels. We were in an active volcano - that happened to be filled with freezing cold water and ice - and so we could act any way we wished.

I was most anxious for the chance to swim in the Antarctic seas. Quickly, of course, but I have a certificate signed by the captains saying I did it, as did quite a few others. First, we had to protect ourselves for the Zodiac ride to shore by covering our bathing suits with water-proof pants, our all-weather red jackets, orange life jackets and the famous Muck boots. In my hands I carried special water shoes as we were warned the boiling thermal water could blister our toes. The naturalists and scientists and geologists guffawed as they helped us out of the Zodiacs in this amazing black and white environment where ice and volcanic rock have melted so the mountains gave a zebra effect.

Alright, I'm standing in the freezing Antarctic Seas at Deception Point. Am I crazy or what? Don't answer that.

They collected our life jackets and handed out towels when those of us who copied the penguins and dove in, came running back out. No one warned us that the warm water was only in tiny indentations along the shore while the bay inviting us was below freezing. So after I ran courageously (stupidly?) in, I ran similarly out - and yelled, "Where’s the hot springs?" "Oh," a staff member guffawed. "Reach down on the shore's edge. Feel that tiny area of water?" I did. It was hot, so I dug a small gully, sat down on the infinitesimal segment coin, well, the size of a doily maybe, where thermal water seeped out. There were various patches along the shore which others sat on scaulding our butts until a languid icy wave broke in and cooled us off. Polar swimmer I had become, I ran back into the frigid sea once more, and, after a total of ten minutes, said enough, wrapped in a blue towel and started redressing for the frosty Zodiac return to the ship.

Now don’t think this visit to the volcanic shores was penguin free. A few feet beyond our dipping hole about a dozen Gentoo penguins stood on the black sand in the black and white setting with their beaks open, surely confused by these odd mammals in outrageous bathing suits and hats, exposing unattractive white bodies and screaming and roaring (the men, of course) as they jumped into the water, coming up, alas, with no fish. Seriously, there was so much krill in these waters that the krill were trackable on a fancy X-ray machine (I don’t know what it’s called) on the bridge.

"What do these silly, nekkid humans think they're doing?" An audience of penguins, gawking at us from shore. (Note the sand, volcanic rock, and snow.

Antarctica, Antarctica. What a fond farewell. When we began we couldn’t do the leg swings to exit the Zodiacs and carried sticks so we wouldn’t slip on unfamiliar ice and snow, stayed well away from the animals even when we didn’t have exotic lenses for our camera, and how we have changed. We are no longer intimidated by the blizzards, and waves, and giant elephant seals, and masses of stinky penguins nor the challenges of getting in and out of Zodiacs when waves pull it back from the landing site. We have learned to be tougher than our age allows. We have lived through distress calls and dramatic rescues, kayaking adventures (we were allowed to kayak three times, rather than the usual one time) and spending hours in horribly cold winds and snow on the bow of the ship trying to photograph humpback whales and Orcas. It takes stamina.

Photo: We left our footprints in the ice at Deception Island.

Now if we can survive the two day crossing back through Drake's Passage onto Argentine soil, we will carry with us that awareness of Antarctica’s footprint on us, not ours on Antarctica. I believe each one of us has cleaned out his soul, tossed his stress into the sea, and has become an advocate to stop global warming , the world -wide slaughter of seals and whales, have learned the value of krill and to speak out for an untarnished, unpolitical, unexploited Antarctica.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Audrey you blog is awesome! Stay safe, and we can't wait to see you back at church.
Jay, Sound Girl