Reporting from the bottom of the world, straight outta Antarctica. It is an endless plane of massive icebergs, ice shelves, glacial ice and sea ice.
We have a few different varieties of albatross swooping around the ship, as well as varieties of gulls and petrels, but it’s the albatross that most captures my interest. Besides the connotation of failure and doom associated with the bird, for me, there is the John Cleese/Monty Python connection, from one of their early sketches. Whenever I see them gliding by my window, I can hear Cleese yell, “Albatross!”
It took two days of travel through the Drake Passage — legendarily turbulent but quite calm for our journey — to get down here. In that time, it was nothing but gray skies and endless sea. But on day three, the view became obstructed by towers of snow-capped basalt rock and icebergs that are often bright blue, signifying that the ice is very old. Antarctica is one mind-blowing visual after another.
After hours of briefings, diagrams, pictures, safety drills and repeated warnings of environmental do’s and don’ts, our first excursion onto land happened yesterday. Eleven people per inflatable Zodiac boat headed to shore.
Several yards out, the smell hits you. Penguins ahead. A lot of them.
As I got out of the Zodiac, I looked up at a ridge and saw a solid line of penguins looking down at me. To my left, a large group of gentoo penguins was walking, quite unconcerned by our presence.
One of the rules is to always give the penguins the right of way. It’s really great to have to wait for a penguin, which walks up and stares at you, seems to conclude that you’re not all that interesting and proceeds on.
The penguins were for the most part gentoo, with a small cluster of chinstraps. The chinstraps have different appearances and calls, which makes standing among them all the more interesting.
A few minutes before our departure, one of the staff pointed to two gentoo standing a few feet from us, and asked me if I knew what they were standing on. It looked to me like a large tree stump, which was probably not the right answer, so I replied that I did not know.
It was a whale vertebra, left over from more than a century ago, when whale killers would render them on shore. I can’t use the word “whaler” because it makes it possible to forget that their mission was to hunt down, kill and hack whales to pieces.
The penguins were fantastic, but it was the whale bone that stuck with me. It made me think of the lecture I had heard the day before, about the early explorers to the region, such as Shackleton and Ross. They were braver and crazier than I would ever want to be. Ultimately, their discovery of these areas led to the near-total extermination of seals and whales in the years that followed.
It is not easy to get here, even in this state-of-the-art ship with Internet (how do you think this column got to my boss — a vision quest?). When the whale and seal killers first came through, the journey was even trickier. Still, the humans could not be kept away from a chance to kill animals far more beautiful, graceful and integrated into this pristine environment than they could ever be.
That’s one of the sad twists of this place — there is nowhere on the planet where any animal is safe from humans. As soon as we see potential profit in an animal, they would be best advised to save time and hop in the endangered line, because humans will come at great risk, even to the end of the world, to wipe them out.
Some of the visuals are barely believable. In the middle of a football-field expanse of water and sea ice is a small iceberg. On top, a seal. Our boat operator takes the Zodiac up for a closer look. The seal checks us out, stretches and goes back to sleep. Out of nowhere, penguins erupt out of the water, their bodies arching over the surface and back in again.
The thing that keeps coming back to me is that it’s humans who attach all the ideas of beauty to this region. It is humans who think penguins are cute. The animals that actually live here are too busy surviving for the luxuries of all the wacky bullshit we get up to. They don’t think anything is cute.
What I’m trying to say is that for all our achievements, humankind is like the proverbial privileged kid who is born on third base and thinks it hit a triple. The beauty of my current surroundings — the utter perfection of it all — is more amazing than any city. Paris, New York City, whatever sparkling urban miracle you want to put up against Antarctica will seem almost corny by comparison.
It’s amazing to me that for every moment I have been alive, Antarctica has been here on the same planet as me, doing its thing. Antarctica asks nothing of anyone.
But we have messed with this region. One of the only reasons it is still looking so great is because it is so strong, so many millions of years in the making, that flimsy humans are having a hard time screwing it up. But we’ll do it.
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Last night, I dozed off and on in a sleeping bag, while several meters away, hundreds of penguins brayed and squawked all night. My phone, which I use as a clock, flashed a temperature warning. I don’t belong here!
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