Penguins on snow highways. That was one of the photographs I wanted to capture, Today was the day.
After three days at sea it was exciting to be doing an excursion again. This morning we would be landing on Halfmoon Island, with three big Chinstrap Penguin Colonies, and perhaps one or two Macaroni penguins.
It was like being in grade school again. We were all very excited. Waterproof bags were shouldered with camera kit and after breakfast we loaded onto the zodiacs and landed near the wreck of an old rowing boat.
There were no seals here, just snow ice, penguin highways and penguins. I stepped of the contour highway that passed the first colony on my right. You have to step off to give the penguins right of way. I was on my knees gazing at the sheer beauty of the colony nestled on rocks stained red with regurgitated feed against a backdrop of black peaks shouldering above the white ice.
After a while I flopped exhausted onto my back and gazed up at the blue grey sky. Everyone passed me on foot and looked down at this crazy snowman. But I was so happy. And tired. I was exhausted by being bunk bound for so many days and not eating. But this was the new me on ice and snow.
I moved to a saddle where a few people were sitting. It was a great position as from our left we could see the penguins walking towards us along a contour, and from our right we could see the clean penguins coming up from the sea, cresting in the s-shaped path.
We made our way along the beach to another colony where we say the macaroni Penguin and many
young Chinstraps. We could see across the bay to glaciers carving their way through mountains reaching the sea.
It was wonderful and invigorating to be on solid land again, even if it was covered with ice. The outing broke three days of sailing and being ship bound. It was good to get back to the Vavilov and have a hot lunch.
The topic at lunch was the visit to Deception Island and the Polar Plunge. Before the trip I had thought about the raw beauty of the continent I was to see, of the explorers of the last century and of the amazing wildlife spectacles I would witness. But I had no idea that people made a thing of swimming in the icy waters. I first saw this the morning before we left when I was doing some research on the small ship I had seen from the helicopter. But I knew I would want to do something crazy like that and soon I would be.
We entered Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island through a narrow gorge. More tension showed on the Russian crews’ faces. About as much tension as on the faces of the rest of us who would be doing the swim. We landed in a Mad Max world of the remains of a whaling station. This was destroyed not only by the severe climate but also by a volcanic eruption in 1970. Yes, we were in the crater of an active volcano. The air temperature was -2 °C and the water surface temperature was 2 °C but close to zero a few centimetres below the surface. It had snowed heavily here two weeks before, and although thick snow lay on the slopes, the beach was dry with dust from the heat of the volcano. I took my gloves off and could not feel any warmth. Come to think of it, my feet were not warm either!
Marius, Steven, Johan and I walked around the bay, up onto a hill and had a relaxing afternoon of fun photography. It is important to do that in photography, because if you do not have fun your pictures die a slow death. It always amazes me how photography ( or any creative pursuit) is just like life. Best to enjoy it.
Then we met at the water’s edge for the swim. I joined the girls who would be swimming with me: Angela, Danielle and Alex. The truth be told I could not sneak a peak at them in their bikinis because my eyes were watering. There is only one way to do the Polar Plunge. Strip and run into the water. You have to submerge your head to qualify. I did
that and came up with a mouthful of sulphurous volcanic gravel.
Back on land everything froze. The wind had picked up. It was difficult to dress: numb fingers would not pull zippers, my face and head were locked in a grimace, trying to breathe but there was no warm air. I do not recall any of the pain of entering the water or submerging. Nor trying to run out onto the dry gravel. But the drying and dressing part was excruciating.
After what seemed like a full moon rise we clambered aboard the zodiac and saw whales breaching between the Vavilov and the beach. On board I had a hot shower (I declined the invitation to the sauna with the girls on account of me still searching for my manhood) but took my bottle of whisky from duty free that had not been touched for two weeks up to the bar and celebrated.
I was Polar One. Angela Polar Two. Danielle Polar Three. And Alex was Polar Four. We were crazy enough to have gone for a swim in midsummer in the Antarctic waters.
I was so happy. What a fantastic day on and about the Vavilov!
Thanks to Johan Slazus for the pictures of the Plunge.
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