Dispatch from 65˚ South
My fellow spirited travelers,
What goes through the mind of those lunatic Polar Bear divers who jump into freezing waters? I now know. Nothing, because it’s too cold to think. Your thoughts freeze. I was mandated to go big*. Just ahead my friend Rosalee jumped in cheerfully while double fist-pumping the air. Her smile was the width of a three-lane highway as she shrieked with delight. It was the second time that day her and I had pierced the frosty, iceberg laden surface of Antarctic waters (after she had fallen in paddle-boarding, I jumped in for solidarity). She has made me famous by telling the entire ship. Also, Rosalee is a four foot, hundred pound, seventy-four years young blazing comet of good energy. She also just invited me to SoCal to go paddle-boarding, an invitation I’m inclined to accept.
*Went for the backflip.
“Why are you going to Antarctica?” We’ve all asked each other on the ship and it is the most common question I get from friends and family. I admit, my answer has changed. Previously, I had a canned answer or two about visiting all seven continents or having seen a friend’s pictures. Now I can firmly answer. I came because Antarctica is pure fucking MAGIC. Some of you perhaps know about my magic curating prowess. I have at least the desire to find it, harness it, extrapolate its properties to possibly recreate it or, dare I dream, to carry a bit of it with me. If I had a bottle that held magic, I’d fill it a little bit each time like one does with sand from different beaches, until it was on the verge of bursting. Then I’d drink it and a couple of magical hours later I’d shit magic all over everything. Can you do that with a bottle? Perhaps I’d need a lamp (to keep the magic in, not to shit in).
Antarctica could fill a sixer of magical lamp-bottles. The scope of it all, the light, the color palette, the wildlife, are majestic. Life is earned here through a millennia or two of deliberate evolution. They still discover new penguin colonies that no one knew existed, deep in the heart of the ice plateau. Standing on the deck of the ship, leaning over the rail, one’s mind wanders quite easily. What the hell were people thinking? Navigating these coasts in tall-ships with the sun and the stars as guides seems lunacy. Awesome, amazing lunacy I’ll grant, but still certifiable henhouse level crazy. And I suppose we’re all a bit crazy too. I’ll ask Rosalee, though I expect I know her answer.
The first day was just ridiculous. It started with the last minute program change to include SUP — stand up paddle boarding. Our guide Meghan is a super hip West Virginian who owns a SUP and surf shop. Both her and Abbey, driving the support zodiac, were keen to get us out on the water for one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. The peace on a paddle board to experience the wondrous Antarctic panorama is without comparison. Seals came up to investigate and then play with me. We spotted a leopard seal. Rosalee later involuntarily jumped in, I joined. While the rest of the ship explored Mikkelsen Harbour, the eight of us got lost among icebergs.
Later we had a planned zodiac cruise and then a landing. Everyone had their fingers crossed for weather to hold to step on the continent. I couldn’t have cared less after what we experienced in the zodiac. Cierva Cove is a huge area and we lucked out to have Marla and Nick driving us around (zodiacs go out in pairs for a safety and such — so two boats). They took us off the beaten path. Growing up with a woodsman father one apparently gleans certain gifts. I remember a moment in Alaska on a family vacation. I was 11 or 12, I think. We were driving though a forest animal sanctuary and my Pops slams on the breaks and jumps out of the car. Notorious for spotting animals, we all followed suit. There was nothing. My Dad, squinting at the ridges in the distance said he saw a Grizzly Bear. Y’all, there was nothing up there. Other cars were stopping, under the impression we had stumbled upon a find. Anyway, sure enough, a speck about the size of a cane sugar granule was making way across the distant slopes. It was a bear, though the memory that lasts was his sniper-like knack for discovering its presence in the first place. So it was that a glint of tail-flick, a leathery glare of light, a black backdrop in a blue and white world all caught my eye at the exact same moment and I knew it was a whale. I had been projecting it mentally moments earlier (as has been weirdly happening lately, most recently with fried chicken — Ill keep you updated on this). Nick cruised ahead, b-lining for the position I’d witnessed. I had erred, but only in the direction I thought it was moving. Clearing the final ice berg, we found ourselves in the same square nautical mile of roughly eight to ten feeding Humpback Whales. They were extremely friendly, show-offs even, and they hung around all morning surfacing, blowing, flipping their enormous fins. One surfaced roughly fifty feet from our zodiac, throwing us a look that said she (I’m guessing) was unimpressed with our size. Our solitary afternoon with new, fat friends, it was unforgettable.
Days like this come around once in a great while, when every minute is stuffed with activity. And the conclusion of this one came to fruition with the polar plunge. As described earlier, fifty-four of us went for the big chill, and fifty-four came out with faces in burning, existential shock. Without doubt, the coldest water I’ve ever touched was this day. For those who haven’t participated, it’s exhilarating (and apparently good for your heart, lungs and sex life).
The next day we went went on a zodiac cruise and landing to Cuverville Island. It stunk something fierce. Penguins don’t shit magic, they shit guano. It is truly a horrific sensory perception and just a shameful thing to do your nose. And I’m partially smell-blind. I cant imagine what people with full olfactory capability were experiencing. Admittedly, thankfully, after ten minutes it dissipates. My favorite part of this location anyway, was not the Gentoo Penguin colony (still cool), but the ice. The ice was palatial. Opulent blue ice bergs littered the bay and speckled the water as far the eye allowed. They appear as castles, mansions, everyday objects like giant salt shakers and blocks of cheese. The scope is overwhelming. The visual stimulation is demanding. It’s sensory overload. So I meditated. In just ten minutes, I had actualized the moment much more effectively. I heard sea birds above I hadn’t noticed. Caught the soft crackling of the ice - think the sound of sparklers - as air, possibly trapped 500,000 years ago, escaped their tired pockets. I got surrounded by the pitter-patter of chicks chasing their mothers for a snack. No penguins were staring back at me upon completion this time. But there were ten of the yellow humans taking pictures of me, so I felt like a penguin.
Which would be a really funny promotional video for this expedition company. What if people behaved toward other people like they do with rare and isolated animals. Imagine eating dinner and looking up to discover twenty people, all dressed exactly the same, are huddled in a group and all maniacally taking photos of you. Or you’re taking a shit, you hear a guide say “now we must be very quite so as to not disturb the human”, and then the door opens to the bathroom and click, click, click, click, click. The thought continues. We all saw two penguins making sexy time and there were definitely photos taken. Is that penguin porn? Wait, don’t answer.
Finally. we made a continental landing. At Neko Harbour, a former Argentine summer outpost, we touched the mainland of the Antarctic continent. Although, we all consider the islands as part of the continent, I think there was a consideration that being able to walk to the South Pole — if one were so inclined — was a special acknowledgement. The most intriguing aspect in my perspective was that we had to zodiac in three nautical miles to the beach because the ship could not advance to to heavy ice. I love that shit. Antarctica is my JAM in this way. Neko sat surrounded by a cove and a glacial ice shelf that was roaring to be let loose in the water. Each time, a thunderous clamour would rumble from beneath the ice and break off a chunk into the sea. Finally the big shards gave way to a block the size of a mansion releasing itself into the cove, sending decent sized waves reverberating onto our beach and outward into the small gulf. So much power exists in nature here, and it’s simple to realize that only by living with the elements, instead of against them, can one survive.
We’ve had two full days at sea crossing the Drake Passage, seen as a right of passage for those visiting the continent. The fist day was not forgiving. The evening prior, we toasted our farewell and were joined by a squad of Orca Whales, escorting us out of the channel. I was asked to co-DJ the dance party that ensued and subsequently drank way too much (also, they top off your wine at dinner so one never knows how much they are drinking). The next morning on the Drake was brutal. We had the biggest, hardest seas so far. My hangover intensified, heightening the effects of the “Drake Shake.” I had previously been the model sailor. However, I was able to digest the trip that day, if nothing else. And as my roommate Brian suggested, if I were to go down any day, it may as well have been a foggy sea day. Tomorrow we disembark in Ushuaia, returning to civilization for the first time in two weeks. I’ll be glad for reentry into the lives of friends and family. Nonetheless, I will regard our little ship community as a period to be missed, and to be remembered.
I’m excited to share what I’ve seen to anyone who will want to listen. And what a fantastic feeling that is.