Sunday, February 23, 2014

Antarctica Day 6: Detaille Island

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


Last night wrapped up with a bar talk by the Incredible Huw entitled, "Real
Explorers Drink Gin", with should get a "huzzah!" from several of my peoples
back home, about the tipples of choice of some of the great explorers, the
history of maritime boozing, and why Gin is the drink of champions. It
wrapped up, appropriately, with bottles of expensive small-batch gin Huw—who
is sponsored by a gin company—provided. I am an
American/bathtub/"masculine"/ultra-piney gin girl myself, but it went down
smooth and was plentiful. Needless to say, once again, I didn't make it the
early night like I had sworn I would do. But if Huw is to be believed, my
health and general well-being at sea is better for the drinking.

But I woke up very, very tired, and went right back to bed after breakfast.
The weather had turned for the normal (vs. yesterday's unbelievably
spectacular), the seas were significantly more rough, visibility poor, and I
didn't feel like I was missing anything.

But five minutes after I crawled into bed, it was announced over the
intercom that an Emperor Penguin had been spotted off the port side of the
ship. One of the giant penguins from March of the Penguins. Where we are is
pretty far outside their normal range, but a few have been spotted in the
area the past few years, and there, sure enough was a lone sentinel hanging
out on a small iceberg, watching us coolly as the ship passed slowly by.

Then I got a whopping half hour to nap before the first lecture of the day:
a very interesting talk by Professor Thomas on the Antarctic Treaty. It
added to my feeling of having arrived on another planet: a world largely
outside the normal reaches of politics, free of permanent human settlement,
pristine and peaceful, a massive, continent-sized nature reserve, a place as
foreign to humanity as outer space.

And then we hit ice. Lots of ice. At lunch it was announced that the path to
the inlet we were headed to was full of pack ice. The captain thought that
we could get punch through it, our ship being ice-strengthened, but we'd be
going slow, and navigation would be tricky. Where normally we were welcome
on the bridge for bird- and mammal-watching, we were asked to keep traffic
down and stay silent until we got through. So of course that announcement
caused the second stampede to go check out the World Outside of the day (the
first being a record clearing of the ship to see the penguin). Leaning
through one of the portholes in the front of the ship and looking down to
see the ship's bow slice through the ice floes was impressive. This was
Antarctica as I had pictured it.

While ice-watching, we also saw lots of critters: Crabeater Seals looking
like enormous furry silver slugs lounging alone or in groups on individual
floes, Fur Seals propped up on their front flippers as if ready to beat
their massive chests at us, a pod of orcas with their characteristic black
fins slicing through the water in the distance, and a group of charismatic
little Minke Whales fairly nearby. After all of the shit I had given Ari
about not seeing any of these whales he claimed were around, Antarctica (and
Ari, with his sharp eye) delivered.

We made it through the ice into glassy waters near mountainous little
Detaille Island, home of another abandoned base as well as a large colony of
penguins. The kayakers suited up while the rest of the group loaded into
zodiacs, and we were soon back on the water. We paddled past several large
ice rafts where Crabeater Seals were sunning themselves. Several were
curious enough to look up, even caterpillering around the ice (really funny
to watch, these big fat beached mammals scooching themselves around on the
ice) to get a better look at us. At one point I paddled off a little ways by
myself to enjoy the view and the peace and quiet. After several days at sea,
although I love the people, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Over the
rhythmic sound of the waves against the kayak and the paddle striking the
water, I heard a strange sound, and stopped.

The sea was crackling. Little popping sounds were coming from all around me.
I looked around and didn't see anything unusual (other than, you know,
icebergs, seals, and Antarctica) when it suddenly dawned on me: it was the
sound of ice slowly melting and releasing the bubbles of 20,000 year old (or
more) trapped air! It was a special moment, sitting there in my kayak,
looking out at a vista of the iceberg-littered bay surrounded by towering,
glacier-covered mountains, as the sea crackled around me as though I was
sitting in a giant blue bowl of rice crispies.

I rejoined the group just as an Adele Penguin shot out of the water onto an
ice slab and waddled around it trying to figure out—you could see the
curiosity and confusion in its easily anthropomorphizable movements—what the
hell kind of seals? whales? we were.

After watching its antics for a bit, we paddled on past towering blue ice
sculptures in fascinating shapes: spires, bowls, striped wedges, and arches.
I was admiring one particularly lovely one when suddenly a Crabeater Seal
popped up right behind one of the other kayakers. Then another. The pair
swam around us, popping in and out of the water, for over five minutes,
curiously investigating this flock of red and yellow vaguely seal-shaped
things, before swimming off again. Wow.

I find myself saying Wow a lot on this trip.

It was a very cold day (In Antarctica), and when we got back to the ship and
it was announced that the sauna was open, that sounded like a very good
idea, so I changed straight into my bikini, threw on a bathrobe, and headed
up to the sauna deck. The plunge pool was also open, but that didn't seem as
appealing. I walked up the stairs to the 6th floor, stepped out into the
frigid Antarctic Evening air, climbed the ladder to the top deck (my
favorite spot on the boat—often empty, always stunning), and had to laugh
out loud. There I was standing in a bathrobe alone on the top deck of a ship
in waters packed full of icebergs with white mountains surrounding us in the
distance. Standing in a bathrobe in Antarctica.

On my way from the top deck to the sauna, I noticed that the hot tub on Deck
6, which up until now had been closed and tied up, was half-uncovered and
steaming. I pulled the cover the rest of the way off and climbed in. I
laughed out loud again. There I was. Sitting alone in my bikini in a
steaming Jacuzzi on the deck of a ship in waters packed full of icebergs
with white mountains surrounding us in the distance. Simmering in a Jacuzzi
in Antarctica.

I had a magic moment there by myself in the Jacuzzi as the ship started to
move back through the pack ice and the scenery and seal-topped icebergs
floated by before I was joined by a few others. Including Crazy Drunk
British Woman from Day 2, who may not have been drunk that night—that may
just be her personality—because the totally hilarious spoutings-off
continued. All peace was lost, but it was funny. The best—where the rest of
us totally lost it—was a monologue about saunas and the strange hours for
women-only and men-only use of the shipboard sauna and how it really
shouldn't matter if we're all "wearing kits" (I believe I correctly
translated that as clothing), but that some people don't like wearing kits,
and she's quite fond herself of going around without her kit but her husband

About an hour later (official rules stated 20 minutes maximum, but I'm a
rebel), I had the tub to myself again. The light was getting low and the sea
and mountains and sky were all pastel-colored. I was admiring another
beautiful, blue, arch-shaped iceberg, perfectly lit by the last sunbeam
streaming behind a wall of ominous-looking clouds, when all of the sudden
right in front of it a pod of what looked like a dozen Minke Whales

Another perfect Antarctic moment, with me sitting in a floating sky hot tub.

Perfect moments can't last forever, and one of the staff came up to kick me
out of the hot tub and close it for the evening and shoo me to dinner. I
helped her get the cover back on and took my time getting back downstairs,
breathing in some final views before heading back inside and stopping by the
sauna for a few minutes before going back downstairs and getting bundled up
for dinner.

Bundled up because dinner was out on the stern deck: an Antarctic BBQ!
Complete with dance party music, a buffet line of excellent BBQ, and hot
spiced wine.

Everyone was happy. The views were incredible. It was cold, but our stomachs
were warm. These guys know how to run a ship.


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