After lunch we entered Cierva Cove. The Vavilov moored in the bay.
We lined up eagerly on the gangway. The northern sky was a foreboding grey yet filled with texture.
Humpback whales were swimming in front of giant icebergs.
Nothing can prepare you for the beauty and peace of this land at the bottom of the world. The ice masses intrigue. From steel blue to pure white, geometric and haphazard, the shapes appear in front of your eyes and fall away as the next more beautiful piece appears.
Near a giant iceberg we slowed the zodiac and had humpback whales diving in front of us. Their deep sigh near us as they breathed out resonated somewhere in my soul. I have felt their breath before in False Bay in the Cape, but here in this wilderness I was truly honoured.
We followed another whale, then another, trying to frame the big tail as it dripped water first against a glacier face, then an iceberg and finally a black cliff. Taking pictures in the freezing cold and poor light from a kneeling position in a zodiac is not easy, but the experience was worth just being there, even without a camera.
We left the whales and made our way to the western edge of the bay, to look at giant icebergs. Along the way we saw smaller more interesting shapes and shades. We had penguins on the ice, a small group on a massive slab. Then two on a smaller block. Suddenly they became three as one flew onto the ice from the water. Penguins transform in water as pure swimming machines to land on ice as clumsy clowns. The transition is instant.
It started snowing and we headed back. We were far from the ship and were thinking up excuses for Boris, the expedition leader, to explain the delay:
“Tell him we had a puncture” piped up one voice.
“No, tell him a whale breached right next to us and we nearly sank” said another.
As we joked and squinted through the sea spray and snow three Minke whales breached right next to us a few times, feeding. It was a beautiful and inspiring sight.
Back on board the Vavilov we celebrated with a whisky on glacier ice. As we steamed out of Cierva Cove we had humpback whales circle feeding on either side of the ship. The lounge erupted like a rowdy football crowd, with each side cheering as their whales breached.
Truly, a spectacular sight.
I have no idea why we still hunt whales. Nor do I understand why we are systematically destroying our fragile earth?
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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I started a course of antibiotics and took anti-inflammatories to control my fever.
At least I was not nauseous. I just lay in my bunk alternately sweating in my shorts on top of the duvet then shivering under the duvet and two blankets with my thermal underwear on.
I left my bunk on the morning of day 13 on the Vavilov.
Over the last two days I missed incredible talks by the ship’s photographers, historian, biologist and ornithologist. I also was too sick to watch the reenactment of Shackleton’s journey across the Weddel Sea where a group of modern day explorers did the same trip from an ice flow to South Georgia in a small boat built to the original specifications with the same clothing and food: Shackleton, Death or Glory.
Day 13 was a crisp day with us cruising past Elephant Isle. The sky was a strong blue with streaks of cirrus clouds laying a soft pattern in the sky. The white of the clouds matched the snow and ice on the island. We got in close enough to see the bust of Captain Luis Alberto Pardo, the Chilean captain of a steam tug “Yelcho” that rescued Wild and 21 others. We had started their trip in reverse. First we saw the harsh Alps of South Georgia where Shackleton had landed and crossed the snow and ice laden peaks. Then we crossed the sea to Elephant Island, and now we were moving towards the South Shetlands and we seeing icebergs along the way. Schackleton and all his men had survived an 800 mile trip through ice and storms. It is one of the most incredible expedition stories of our time. Although the expedition itself was not successful in it’s objective to cross the Antarctic from side to side, the journey expressed the strength of men and solid and visionary leadership. Shackleton was truly loved, admired and respected by his men. The story is worth a read or watch the film.
First thing that morning I went to the bar, weak again from not eating, and was happy to see Amanda’s smiling face and the blender filled with fruit and berries for a smoothie. I sat next to one of the older passenger whom I had only greeted before. She looked and me, said good morning then asked:
“Do you dream?”
I was flabbergasted, then remembered that this universe is filled with synchronicity.
“Oh, yes I do” I said to the stranger. “In fact I really had a terrible dream about someone close dying last night. But I know they are OK for now, but that it will happen in the future.”
“I didn’t dream so much when I was on medication for depression”, she said, us not having said anything before except “Hi, where are you from?” She was from New York. “Now I dream more and talk about it a lot to my therapist” she finished, and sipped her smoothie.
I then told her about Ian Player and his Dream Centre Workshops in the Karkloof, and how he has kept a Dream Diary for most of his adult life
We parted and I continued my dream trip to the Antarctic.
I had not penned a poem for years but as I lay curled up in my bunk rocking from side to side, my mind light from the two-day fast and the drugs to try control the nausea, my thoughts floated away.
I grasped these words out of nowhere when I realized how important it was for me to touch people, physically and with an aura of thought expressed in writing and pictures.
Liz and I had some deep conversations when she visited me but I cannot remember any details. We spoke of travel, of exploring, of growth, of wilderness and of the collective subconscious.
Then out of nowhere came this poem:
Far away, where even eagles do not soar,
Where sunset never happens but can hold the evening.
A land so harsh, yet a land so beautiful.
A land where our dreams are lost, where the spirit is gone.
Emptiness fills the silence and the white.
A land where the sea closes you off with waves,
Or great ice blocks your passage.
An empty land, cold and fearless,
Where our collective unconscious fails.
God fails almost?
Something I saw a lot of was bird feathers; when the penguins moult the feathers collect in patches at the water’s edge and then get blown into the snow to form pockets or ice to form frozen fossils. Finding feathers all over the place was reassuring, and slowly I began to record the dreams I had and look for the feathers. My spirit was connecting but I was struggling to define to what. There seemed a paucity of spirits in this place, like no other wilderness I had been to. Yet there were just so many messages that I saw but I was just not ready.
Quiet in heaven’s soft light
Glaciers glowing blue at the water’s edge
Cold feet and fingers frozen
Eyes watery to frame a feeling
Close enough to touch
And to dive into the water
Black blue land on the horizon
Swallows a single stony peak
White fades into blue into grey
Absolutely nothing in the way
The sea waves stop moving
The world is growing closer
Still colder camera battery fails
Slow picture making
No wind or sun just being
Slowly a picture appeared at my side and then in the camera:
Three weeks later as I walked down the steps into my home a single feather floated down in front of me and whispered: “ Everything is going to be just fine. You’ll see.”
I felt an immense peace descend on me in the midst of the bedlam of city and surgical life.