Thursday, December 10, 2009
"First you fall in love with Antarctica, and then it breaks your heart." - Kim Stanley Robinson
I stand inches from the outermost edge of the last continent; a sheer and indisputable boundary. To the South lies an entire CONTINENT of ice and rock, (home to only two species of plant, and ZERO terrestrial animal life). To the north stretches the dark blue of great oceans and the rest of the planet. The cartoonish abruptness with which these two worlds meet has me in search of some sort of Hollywood gimmick. I strain my eyes to the east then west and see a straight unerring line with deep vibrant blue on the north, and pure silent white on the south. Things as simple as this are not supposed to exist.
After nearly half an hour contemplating the validity of what I’m seeing, a strange powerful blast makes my hair stand on end before causing me to turn its direction. I whirl to see the arched hulking back of some sort of monster sink silently out of view. What the hell was that? It’s not long before I see it again, a whale. A whale surfacing about one-hundred meters out to the north. I had not expected to see whales down here. I am completely shocked, and fumble with my camera (as I do in fact still feel the need to take pictures of whales). Before I get it figured out, the giant swings round. It’s swimming directly at me. My heart stops, I feel the blood drain from my face, not out of outright fear, but out of the possibility that is beating may ruin this moment. The whale surfaces again twenty-meters out. He dives and I expect to him surface again farther away. Suddenly it is literally at my feet. I look straight down as this bus sized apparition screams up out of the darkness. Its rubbery mantel breaks the surface no more than five feet away. I revert to preschool. I wonder what that thing feels like. I could touch it. I should touch it. My mind tries but I can’t move. I struggle to grasp this thing, so close, but out of reach. Suddenly another blast, this time it nearly staggers me as hot humid air explodes in my face. I can’t even wipe my cheeks off. The monster has arched down, and is diving directly beneath my feet. I watch the rest of its long grey body slip silently under my toes.
It is a long time before I process what has just happened. The conflicting emotions that accompany the realization of a dream flush through me; exhilaration, fright, pride, humility, happiness, mourning. A whale? It is a strange thing; this fulfillment of dreams as yet undreamt of.
I stare into the blackness for a long time afterwards. For some reason I am waiting for more. I know that it will never happen again. When I do look up the world comes back; I see the Adelie penguins shooting out of the water onto to the Ice. They scamper back and forth like a mini circus, clowns wobbling around. No, tight rope walkers, wings out for balance. They mill about chasing and wrestling one another.
I see another penguin belly-sliding its way toward us. This one it different, from nearly a quarter mile away I can tell it is an Emperor. Slowly and methodically it paddles its way toward us. Head held high, he moves with an air of dignity that commands attention. The little Adelies fade into the background. I am entranced, amazed as I start to hear the consistent shush of his gleaming belly gliding so effortlessly over the snow. My mind disagrees, these sounds are not right, I should not be able to hear this. I concentrate and it just becomes louder as he nears. He stops, pushes his bill straight into the ice and arches his neck. His pearly underside rises up effortlessly. He is standing. Towering above me as I lay on my own belly less than two meters away. I wait for action, he will flee, cower, attack. I am disappointed. He stands stoically, glistening in the polar sun. These penguins seem all too aware of their common name, as they represent nobility and stature incarnate.
Adelies crowd around the new giant, squawking and frolicking like children. They receive no acknowledgment. For half of an hour this emperor stands as a statue among the chaos of the Adelies before I spot another penguin sliding from the other direction. The two Emperors great one another, although rather solemnly. Quietly they stand side by side, as though they are aware of the difficulties of this place. An attitude of deliberate purpose.
I marvel at the penguins and whales for hours, I can not bear to pull myself away, keenly aware of the uniqueness of this moment. Soon it is nearing dinner time and those I have come here with are hungry, we pile into the Hagglund (see; amphibious tracked military personnel carrier) and rattle our way back to McMurdo.