New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #4
Februbary 23, 2012
We had come upon the island in the night. I was up before the alarm, standing on the bridge with the ship’s captain, looking at a 1987 photograph from the original moss research expedition. I hoped to match the forms in the cyan-tinted, dust-specked picture with the outlines of the rocky coastline.
I realized the photograph’s downward slope to the sea was angled in the wrong direction – the image had been scanned backward. Not only that, but the published scientific paper misidentified the landmass in the background as Clarence Island when it is, in fact, Cornwallis. These understandable human errors underscore the difficulty of maintaining accuracy in this vast and largely homogeneous continent, particularly in the days before GPS. The challenge was so great, in fact, that one of the first ancient mosses discovered in the early 1980s has already been lost to history – discovered once and never found again.
Our first stop was Point Lookout, on the far west. I eagerly went ashore with the staff. My chances of setting foot on Elephant Island had been given single digits, so I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, even though my ambitions were set eight or nine miles to the east. So many different factors had to align to make a landing. Clear skies aren’t enough; the total of any given days’ weather is compounded many times over, brewing on one shore and actualizing on another.
When we landed on the rocky beach, I parted from the group and scaled a steep, icy slope to browse a number of small mosses. From afar it had seemed improbable that anything could live here. But the cushions of green were luxuriant, and they were hardly the only living things there. The group had shifted position while I was on higher ground, so I had to make my way through packs of chinstrap penguins and less benign, adolescent male fur and elephant seals – one of them so large it hardly seemed real. My heart beat wildly as they barked their complaint and bared their dull, bacteria-riddled teeth at me. Any one of them could bowl a person over with their ungainly body weight, like a couple of angry football players advancing clumsily in a shared sleeping bag.
From the other side of the gauntlet, one of the naturalists waved me through with a big O.K. sign.
When I had safely returned to the ship, I went directly back to the bridge. In addition to the original materials, I was equipped with some of the more advanced tools of the intervening 25 years, thanks to the help of Paul Morin of the Polar Geospatial Center. A high-resolution map of nautical approaches and a marked-up satellite image of Elephant Island were open on my laptop. We neared Walker Point, which morphed from an abstraction into a tangible form jutting out between two blankets of glaciation.
The captain picked up the binoculars, fixing his gaze slightly starboard, and then handed them to me. The skies were clearing, and I could see the moss, a blush of warm green sunning itself on a high shelf of otherwise spiny mountain.
I made it.
I ran down to the mudroom, where the expedition leader, one of the naturalists and the well-known explorer Peter Hillary geared up to join me on a rapid-fire landing. I had an extremely short window of time to get ashore and make some photographs. We climbed aboard a Zodiac suspended alongside the ship on a device that looked suspiciously like a rope swing, and were slowly lowered into the bucking waves below.
We sped across the distance to the shore, pounding hard against every wave while I white-knuckled a thick rope in one, ungloved hand, later bloody from the friction. I clutched a camera inside the pocket of my parka in the other. At moments we were completely airborne, an exaggerated second hanging in the air, bracing for the impending impact. I thought back to my 2008 expedition to Greenland, where Martin Appelt, a Danish archeologist studying Norse ruins – who had already won my admiration by catching trout out of a glacial stream with his bare hands – had coached me to relax my muscles as we careened across the fjord. No one wins a battle of strength against these seas.
Once ashore, Mr. Hillary – who has scaled Everest more than once, trekked overland to the South Pole and served as trusted guide of Neil Armstrong to the North Pole – became my photo assistant, helping me get cameras out of waterproof bags designed to protect against the salty sea spray. We scampered up slippery rocks, stirring up a riot of wildlife as I scanned for a vantage point to make images of the moss. The bank was high on a cliff, at least a couple hundred meters high and still some distance away, but just as we landed it was time to return to the ship.
I depressed the shutter and advanced the film.