Travels Along the Edge

In this excerpt from "Travels Along the Edge," David Noland describes a memorable odyssey among the animals and other wild wonders of Antarctica


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David Noland
September 30, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

we are embarking on a voyage to the greatest of all wild places, a place where light, water, and ice make colors found nowhere else on earth, and where one can stroll among 8,000-pound-predators. Only one thing is on my mind: vomit.

To reach Antarctica, our puny ship -- the 237-foot M.V. Professor Molchanov, a Russian polar research vessel converted to carry thirty-eight passengers -- must traverse the Drake Passage, the windswept 600-mile gap between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula that is the roughest stretch of water on the planet. As the Molchanov leaves the protection of Tierra del Fuego's Beagle Channel and bravely heads out into the open sea, we begin the rhythmic, wallowing pitch and roll that will continue for the next two days. The sky is leaden and the wind whips the whitecaps.

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Clinging to my bunk, I read the words of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who described these waters as "supreme strive ... a seething chaos ... So great were the seas that often our sail flapped idly in the calm between the crests of two waves. Then we would climb the next slope and catch the full fury of the gale." One enormous rogue wave nearly crushed Shackleton's vessel. "During 26 years of experience of the ocean in all its moods," he wrote, "I have not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing apart ..."

I stroke the scopolamine antiseasickness patch behind my ear like a talisman, feeling both fear and the shame of my fear. Whimpering in my bunk, I am a cowardly maggot compared to Shackleton and his men, who, after their ship was trapped by pack ice in the Weddell Sea, spent seventeen months drifting helplessly through an Antarctic winter, dragging sleds across ice floes, and finally rowing and sailing a tiny lifeboat 870 miles through these same waters to a whaling station on South Georgia Island. And they did it all without patches.

Fortunately, both God and Ciba-Geigy are on my side this day, for the seas are moderate by Drake Passage standards -- waves no more than 10 feet, with winds of only 20 knots -- and the patch works its chemical magic. Fighting the drowsiness that is a side effect of the drug, I sit on the ship's bridge, watching the rain spatter on the windows and the gray ocean roll by at 12 knots. I try to imagine myself out here in Shackleton's 22-foot open lifeboat, the James Caird, instead of a snug, glass-enclosed room warmed by the glow of the ship's instruments and the Slavic murmurs of its Russian crew.

On the second day, as I semi-doze on the bridge in my scopolamine stupor, Captain Maximoff calls over and points to the ocean temperature gauge, which has in the past couple of hours dropped suddenly from 6 degrees C. to one degree (about 33 degrees F.). We have crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the beginning of true polar waters. A few hours later, we sight our first iceberg, a massive floating mesa of ice a half mile square and 200 feet high, big and flat enough to land an F-14. (Of course, ten times that volume of ice lies beneath the surface.) Penguins appear off the starboard bow, leaping out of the water like tiny porpoises.

First landfall is Deception Island, a volcanic atoll about 40 miles off the Antarctic Peninsula. Its inner caldera is connected to the sea by a channel barely wide enough to accept our ship. Safely inside the bay, we don knee-high rubber boots and ineffectual-looking life preservers, then board small inflatable Zodiacs for a shore excursion. (Life preserver or not, anyone who falls overboard will be dead from hypothermia in four or five minutes.) We put ashore on a broad, smooth beach of black volcanic sand; the sensation of solid ground is intoxicating. As snowflakes flurry in the 35-degree air, the brave and high spirited among us -- it is perhaps superfluous to mention that this group does not include me -- strip down to bathing suits and plunge into a geothermal upwelling of hot water just off the beach, their heads faintly visible in the thick steam. The rest of us hike up a nearby ridge, where the wind tears at the red-hooded parkas Mountain Travel has issued for our shore excursions.

We meet our first penguins the next day at Cuverville Island. These comical creatures quickly charm us with their earnest waddling and astonishing indifference to our presence. All of a penguin's predators -- mainly killer whales and leopard seals -- live in the water, so when a penguin leaves its ocean habitat to nest on a small pile of pebbles ashore, it loses all wariness. A human can quite easily sidle up to a nesting penguin and pat it on the head. We were forbidden to do so, however -- it seems that despite the penguins' outward calm, an Antarctic researcher has discovered that their heart rates increase noticeably when humans approach. But considering that the penguins in question were chased down by the researcher, captured, put in a bag, carried squawking back to the laboratory, anesthetized, and surgically implanted with a heart-rate monitor, one perhaps cannot blame them for subsequently being a bit jumpy around the red-parkaed aliens.

The rules do allow us to sit motionless and let the penguins approach us as close as they like, sometimes within a foot or two. Such close encounters can be risky for humans, however, as penguins are given to sudden bursts of horizontal projectile defecation. Their nests are decorated with shit streaks radiating from the center in all directions, like ejecta from lunar craters. Penguin guano is pink and smells of fish, and once dried, sticks tenaciously to our rubber boots.

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By the time we visit our sixth or seventh rookery, going eyeball to eyeball with penguins has lost its novelty. On Paulet Island, home of an estimated 1.2 million Adelie penguins, I am satisfied to sit on a small rise and look out over the vast totality of them: a squawking, braying, fish-smelling sea of black and white and pink that stretches to the horizon. The usual joke comes to mind about penguins dressed in identical tuxedos, each indistinguishable and interchangeable. Then I notice my compatriots wandering among them, each dressed in a bright red North Face parka and green L.L. Bean Wellington boots, indistinguishable and interchangeable.

Fortunately, just as penguin apathy begins to set in, we land at Livingston Island, inhabited this day by a herd of elephant seals. Hundreds of the 15-foot-long, 4-ton living mounds of blubber bask on the beach, sprawling lazily upon each other in large and small piles, snorting, barking, belching, farting, and smelling very bad indeed. One enormous pile contains about seventy-five seals, an agglomeration of blubber that must weigh half a million pounds. Like penguins, the elephant seals ignore us entirely, and we walk close enough so that our camera viewfinders overflow with eyes, noses, and whiskers.

For all their sleek agility in the water, elephant seals are ponderous and awkward on land (think of a quadruple-amputee hippopotamus). The flippers, too small and weak to walk upon, serve mainly to prop up the animal's front end if necessary. To actually move on land, the elephant seal must, with great heaving effort, hump itself along on its huge jelly-belly a foot or so at a time, its blubber rippling in a wave from tail to head with each awkward lunge. This mode of locomotion leaves a pair of odd-looking knobby streaks in the sand, and the beach at Livingston appeared to have recently hosted a dune-buggy meet.

Male elephant seals, otherwise so flaccid and blubbery, can boast of unflagging rigidity in one location: the penis, which contains a 2-foot-long retractable bone. This arrangement has certain advantages, particularly for the more elderly bulls, but comes at a price. A marine biologist on board the Molchanov told how he had once observed an enormous bull elephant seal busily engaged in mating when a smaller rival brazenly approached an idle member of the Big Fella's harem. Roaring in jealous rage, he disengaged in mid-stroke and flopped off to attack the intruder. Unfortunately, the Big Fella had neglected his retraction procedure, and as he lunged forward, his Brobdingnagian dick caught in the sand, bent backward, and broke under the behemoth's weight. The snap of the bone was clearly audible from 100 feet away.

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Much of Antarctica consists of broad featureless plains of windswept snow and ice, but the Antarctic Peninsula is ruggedly mountainous. As we pick our way through the loose pack ice of the Lemaire Channel, the hull grinding and clunking, snowcapped granite peaks tower on both sides, and glaciers creep down to the sea. The effect is that of cruising through the Himalayas with sea level unaccountably risen to 18,000 feet and the light turned eerily crystalline.

The light of Antarctica is like that of no other place, an ever-changing panorama of sun and sea and snow and cloud. Sunlit icebergs float in matte-black seas, the contrast so great that the eye cannot cope. A cloud of high-altitude ice crystals glows like a rainbow. I stand on the foredeck of the Molchanov for hours at a time, gazing in wonder at the water and the distant shores as the sun plays through low-hanging stratus, my camera dangling unused because I know this light can never be captured by film. If Monet could stand beside me now, he would weep.

This unique Antarctic light is the result of several factors. During the summer, the sun orbits the sky never far from the horizon, providing twenty-four hours a day of the "golden hour" so treasured by photographers, when the sunlight turns orange and soft, and long shadows bring out detail and texture. (My Molchanov cabin mate, a professional photographer, shot eight hundred rolls of film during our trip.) Because the air is so cold, it is quite dense, and thus refracts light more powerfully, giving rise to mirages and other optical illusions. Moreover, Antarctic air is surreally clear. For an eye that has spent a lifetime seeing more distant objects as progressively hazier, such clarity is disorienting. A large iceberg we pass in the Gerlach Strait could be 5 miles away or twenty-five; it is quite impossible to tell.

Shackleton made note of the optical trickery of Antarctic air. "Mirages are continually giving us false alarms," he wrote. "Icebergs hang upside down in the sky; the land appears as layers of silvery or golden cloud; cloud-banks look like land; icebergs masquerade as islands ... worst of all is the deceptive appearance of open water, caused by refraction, or by the sun shining at an angle on fields of snow." Antarctica -- where reality and illusion blur together, where night does not always follow day -- is a place that reminds us: The things you take for granted are not always so.

As the Molchanov ends her Antarctic sojourn and turns due north back toward Tierra del Fuego, the mystical light begins to fade and the spray once again flies in plumes over the plunging bow. If Monet could stand beside me now, he would puke.

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David Noland

David Noland is a freelance writer living in Mountainville, New York. He is a regular contributor to Outside magazine and his articles have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Discover, Smithsonian Air & Space and the New York Times travel section.

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