New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #2
February 20, 2012
The storm in the distance was on top of us within minutes. Snow whipped past the windows and whitecapped, steel-gray waves battered the sides, disturbing the ship’s rhythmic rocking from front to back and side to side, making it something entirely unpredictable. Thick nautical ropes were strung up in otherwise unnavigable open passageways our first morning crossing the Drake Passage, and again on the second afternoon. The porters soundlessly secure them whenever conditions necessitate, and when really bad, batten shut the heavy portholes of the lower decks, too. A dish of meclizine sits on the reception counter like mints.
Despite my best attempts at mind over matter, I spent my first morning doubled over, and the rest of the day in medicated sleep. Thankfully my discomfort was not long-lived. Like so many ships in the night, we had made it through this superlatively open ocean, and something magical started to happen:
We were in Antarctic waters.
The prescient captain had pointed out the first iceberg of the voyage, dark and distant after the weather the previous days. But in the clear light of the third morning, their numbers began to multiply, some of them substantial and reflecting back pockets of saturated blues, others like shards of ice cubes melting in a neglected drink. Dots of land reappeared, mountainous and snow-covered, and the animal sightings started in earnest: Adélie penguins, gentoo penguins, cormorants, crab eater seals, storm kestrels, aggressive skua, giant albatrosses.
A leopard seal captured an Adélie for lunch, batting it about, catlike, though not in play. It was trying to crack it open like a nut to get at the tender parts inside.
Meanwhile, I was looking for something else on our first stop, Cuverville Island.
Large moss banks and orange lichens flanked the steep inclines off the beach, the rich guano of the penguin colony providing nutrients, and the bryophytes literally creating their own turf on rocky outcroppings where the snow and ice have trouble keeping hold. While the moss is probably not as old as the 5,500-year-old moss I’m seeking out on Elephant Island, it was gratifying to see vegetation able to call this harsh and unpredictable environment home.
We pressed further southward through midday, the sky still vividly bright and cloudless as we anchored in Neko Harbor. I stepped from the ship down onto a Zodiac inflatable boat, and as we motored through the bay a pair of humpbacks popped both heads and tails above the surface. When their curiosity was sated they receded back into the deep, and us to a bit of sandy beach, muck boots splashing lightly in the icy water.
I stepped foot onto my last continent for the first time.
I’m gripped, almost physically, with the sheer magnitude of this place, frozen in deep time yet brimming with uniquely adapted life. And I am struck by how incredibly fortunate I am to be here, not just in Antarctica, but here on this planet, bearing witness to the oldest living things in the world.