I looked at my husband and decided to tell him, “I always dreamed of going to Antarctica and seeing penguins. Lots of penguins.” It was finally out. Penguins? What was I thinking? I didn’t believe I would even survive that night, let alone do something so adventurous, go somewhere so remote as Antarctica. I was in a hospital emergency room. I had just suffered a heart attack. Squeezing my hand, my husband assured me, “We will go to Antarctica. You will see penguins.” His promise (albeit a “death-bed” one) ignited my penguin-hope. As the anaesthetist sedated me for an angiogram, I imagined penguins dancing, happy feet on ice. I started to count them.
And so, a year later, we are sailing on an expedition ship called Ortelius, visiting various bays of the Antarctic Peninsula. Towering black-rock peaks encrusted with snow and ice surround us, flanked by glaciers built up over centuries with accumulated ice, deeply crevassed and moving so slowly. The glacial faces hang poised to splinter and drop into the sea. They are cracked and sliced, exposing layers of whites, greys, and hues of iridescent blues.
Ortelius moves daily from one bay to another. The captain and crew closely watch for icebergs and pack ice, alert to maintain the ship at a safe distance from danger, yet close enough to access the shore, where each day we are kept busy with two activity-based excursions.
Bill, a proud Scot dressed in a kilt, is one of the Ortelius expedition leaders. He prepares the one hundred and seventeen passengers to “look, see, and think” as we venture outside. Most have selected to do the adventure activities offered: Zodiac boat tours, kayaking, snowshoeing, mountain climbing, and camping overnight on the snow in bivvy bags.
Bill regales us with the whaling and sealing history from last century, when thousands of whales and countless seals were decimated to near-extinction. Even with treaties to stop the slaughter, their numbers remain dangerously depleted. He implores us to raise awareness, protest against the current harvesting of krill, which is the very basic element of the Antarctic food chain.
We are aware of the prevailing fear that the earth is warming and this fragile Antarctic environment is on the edge, like the shards and blocks of ice teetering on the glaciers, about to break and tumble into melting sea ice. The Zodiacs skim across the smooth water between the icebergs.
The large floating ice chunks are both beautiful and mysteriously dangerous with their hidden unpredictable size. Many smaller ones are carved and hollowed out into crazy abstract shapes. They shimmer crystal whites and vivid blues.
When we step ashore, we strap on snowshoes and ready our cameras. The landscape transforms from being suffused in muted light to being brilliantly sharp in dazzling sunshine. Everyone is poised to catch glimpses of: blue-eyed shags, albatrosses, whales, Weddell seals, and Adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins. Anything and everything.
One morning I stand beside a rookery with thousands of gentoo penguins. I smell the acrid penguin poo. Hear them honking. Their red beaks and white marking on their foreheads are distinctive against their sleek black coats and white chests. They waddle close by, seemingly unfazed by us as they march a familiar route up a hill to find their mates.
Another day, as we alight from the Zodiac, nearby penguins slither with ease from the water, glistening and perfectly clean. They clamber over rocks and onto ice, shifting their weight from side to side with their flippers held at right angles to their torso. They drop onto their chests and slide forward, paddling their webbed back-feet for purchase on the ice.
Many scamper to and fro, collecting pebbles for their nests by clasping them in the end of their pointy beaks, testing each for size and shape, dropping one, collecting another. Stealing pebbles from another penguin’s nest, they turn to sneak away. The other prods the thief with a snapping beak. I smile, laugh aloud, and silently applaud the cheeky survival-of-the-fittest tactics.
We go kayaking when no wind disturbs the reflections cast upon the pristine water. We stop and gently float with every sense hyper-alert. A photomontage is imprinted onto my brain, like an old movie reel capturing myriads of flickering exposures: the mountains, the crisp bright icy whites of icebergs, flashes of colour, the glare of sun striking water momentarily ruffled by mere breaths of breezes. Sensations are embedded, like subtle faint whiffs of penguin aromas, my heart racing, my mouth tasting dry and penetrating cold.
Even with two layers of gloves, my fingers gripping the paddle are becoming chilled and damp. Sunlight pierces the cloud cover. I raise my eyes and hold my breath. I feel a swelling pride, yet I am insignificant. I want to cry out with exultation, yet I bow in existential humility. I am here but for a moment in this timeless frozen art gallery. I try to whisper but it catches in my throat.
The sound of silence is splintered by the movement of a group of penguins dipping and plunging nearby. Buoyant, agile, leaping just above the surface as if they are flying. I laugh with effervescence because I am here. I am flushed and stirred with adrenalin usually reserved for experiencing mountaintops, rock-climbs, and skydiving.
Between two icebergs a lone Weddell seal emerges, lifts his nose just above the water with his whiskers glinting. His large black eyes stare at us. We stare back. We hold our paddles aloft, not daring to break the spell by moving or speaking. We are privileged observers embracing more meaning than just taking photos. This seal is my reminder about survival against the odds.
I return to the ship and stand momentarily on the deck, awestruck by the surrounding grandeur. I scan for whales, seals, and more penguins. I close my eyes, breathe deep with a sharp intake of cold air.
I think of Captain Cook’s journal from 1775, which describes sailing south to the Antarctic and being forced to retreat with fear that his ship Resolution would become stuck in the gathering pack ice: “The [risk] one runs in exploring a coast in the unknown and icy seas is so very great that I can be bold to say that no Man will ever venture farther than I have done… that Land which may lie to the south will never be explored…”
That is how I felt a year ago – facing the fear I’d never venture further. Man did venture and did explore farther than Captain Cook. I dared to dream of this seemingly out-of-reach goal. Tears could start to freeze on my exposed cheeks. I smile. Smug.
I turn towards my warm cabin, reminded of the fragility of life and survival in the Antarctic. Ortelius has ventured beyond Cook’s furthest southerly position. And, like Captain Cook, I am just passing through.