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  • Pru Warren

Bad-Asses At The Wheel


Wednesday, November 17—6:10 AM


Santiago stood up at the recap last night to make his report to the group. He plugged in his laptop and played a file for us and the room was filled with the honking, harsh, two-note cry of the emperor penguin. Since the five birds we’d been studying so intently that day had repeatedly made that noise, every one of us grinned or giggled in recognition. Song of the South—the No Kidding South.


“I’ve been coming to Antarctica for decades,” the ornithologist told us. “I’ve been here maybe a hundred and fifty times. I’ve heard the emperors call like that maybe three times—and never in conditions as still and quiet as today.


Well, that brought us all up short. We’d been whispering and ordering refills on our cocktails and thinking “Oh, I wish I’d sat next to THEM,” and here Santi was having this religious experience. We’d been pleased with our emperor experience, but had no idea that we’d been so lucky.


I should have known, too. I was on the bow (on the eyebrow balcony outside the chart room) when we’d been about ten feet off the ice, in a location the captain eventually lingered in despite currents and who knows what else. We were all using our binoculars (or our huge foot-long camera lenses) to admire four emperors on the not-too-distant ice pack, when Jean (of Jean and Craig, not Jeanne of Jeanne and Randy) uttered a yip. She’d just happened to have been looking in the other direction and had seen the fifth emperor pop out of the water like a cork about 30 feet from the boat.


Nothing draws the wildlife photographer like an incoherent, excited yip, and within seconds, all the people who had been focused on four black-and-white dots to starboard were suddenly hanging over the rail to port.


The penguin stood up on its black, webbed feet, regarded the massive ship off its right flipper, and came for a closer look. The yips of excitement were punctuated by the clicks of rapid-fire shutters and the coos from the assembled multitudes.


The penguin stopped, facing us. It’s tricky to photograph a penguin from the front when he’s standing on white ice—but every time he turned or flapped his flippers or craned his surprisingly long neck upward, then some of the black feathers would show in contrast to the snow.


Photographers were going mad—but I (with just an iPhone and no telephoto lens) wasn’t trying for the Nat Geo cover photograph. So I noticed when Santi ran by in his puffy green coat. (It can be hard to ID people on the bow from above when everyone’s wearing the same orange polar parka—but Santi wears green, Eduardo is in blue, Tua is in lighter blue with a longer coat, and passengers Christina and Richard are in matching pale green; it’s very obliging of them all, I’m sure. And Tommy is in shirtsleeves with no hat.)


Unlike the others with their huge lenses, Santi had left his camera behind. He had headphones on, bright-white cords snaking to some recorder device on a strap around his neck, and was carrying a boom mike, complete with the fluffy dead rat that gets pulled over microphones. He raced to the bow and leaned against the rail, becoming utterly still and thus invisible. And apparently he was recording the emperor when the bird turned its birdy beak up and made some kind of announcement.


What was it?


What was that bird saying?


Mike the Hero opined that the call was “Fuck off, you bastards!” which it could have been. Angela the school teacher thought it was a welcome. Santi the ornithologist was silent.


I have two thoughts. First—the bird was asking for more information. Like the wispy heroine in a scary movie, it was saying “Is anybody there? Who’s down in the basement?” Hoping the answer is “It’s just Dad, come to fix your circuit breaker, honey,” but suspecting that maybe the answer was “I’m the biggest god-damned leopard seal in the history of leopard seals and you’d do well to remain poised on those flippers, Bertram.”


My other thought occurred after we’d all been ferried, eight or ten at a time, by Zodiaks to the pack ice. We’d been asked to be exceedingly quite. The four penguins had drawn closer and Bertram had left the prow of the ship and joined them, and the naturalists were buzzed like a low voltage current was running under their feet and up their Herman Munster boots. They wanted to make sure they got everyone onto the ice who wanted an up-close view before the five took it into their overly-large avian heads to wander beyond view. So we were all whispering our yips of pleasure, and nodding and grinning at each other.


So we were a cluster of gnats to these birds; all of us grouped on the ice in a shallow C. The serious photographers on their bellies, the less-agile kneeling down, the hopeful standing, and the latecomers holding iPhones over everyone’s heads. We watched the penguins. The penguins watched us. Occasionally they, too, would drop to their bellies, but instead of whipping out Nikons and Canons, they’d use their flippers and feet to go scooting along the ice and snow like squared-off, plump toboggans.


And that is SO DAMNED CUTE.


It makes me feel bad that I’m filled with coos for the only bird tough enough to breed in the winter in Antarctica. They’re such bad-asses that they don’t even build nests for their eggs. The female lays an EOUS (Egg Of Unusual Size) and the male puts the egg on its feet, covering it with a fold of skin. This means that there will be no more tobogganing around. There will CERTAINLY be no slipping into the icy grey depths for a little krill brunch. The males stand around in gale-force winds for a month or so with an egg on their feet, huddling together for warmth while Mom waddles or toboggans maybe A HUNDRED MILES to the sea, where she eats as much as she can before waddling the hundred miles back to the penguin man-cave.


When the chicks hatch, Dad still has enough left in his shrunken belly—after a MONTH—to urp up a little fish oil as a first meal. And even then, Mom has to convince him to turn the fuzzy chick over so he can take his turn heading for the diner a hundred miles away.


I mean, these birds are Clint Eastwood. They’re Hell’s Angels. They’re the Bruce Lee of the bird world. They deserve awed respect and frequent genuflection and MAN I CAN’T HELP IT THEY’RE SO CUUUUUUUTE!


Wait. I had a point. I remember.


We were standing around looking at this gang of adorable thugs, and Bertram and his buddies were all occasionally letting loose with these “Who dat?” calls. After about fifteen minutes, I saw Lucho going to various photographers, patting them on their parka-clad shoulders, and whispering something, whereupon they all slowly and quietly moved to the far end of our shallow U.


Lucho passed near me and I heard part of what he said—which was “…coming from over that way.”


I looked over that way but could see nothing beyond the ice, broken into its low, fanciful shapes, all the way to the huge ice warehouse that ended our view. But eventually, three more emperor penguins hove into view. They stood or lay in what I imagine was astonishment at the sight of the world’s largest leopard seal bearing the words “NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER” on its head, and they, too, began calling “What the hell is THAT thing?!”


So now I’m wondering if the call had anything to do with us at all. If you wanted to keep a penguin cluster together on an ice pack (or across a wind-tossed sea), you could do worse than to occasionally utter an “I’m over HERE, Dave” cry every now and again. Maybe, and isn’t this always the way?, it wasn’t about us at all.


I gave up trying to sleep this morning. I’m in the library, which I have all to myself. Tom just wandered through, dressed improbably in shorts. He was on his way to the morning stretch class, but it hurt me to look at him. The wind is whistling even inside up here, and it’s cold enough that the tea is noticeably delicious as a core-body heat source, and my outer is wrapped in so many layers of parka that it’s a little hard to type. The cool kids—the ones in the know—have all unzipped the fake fur lining from their hoods, but I like it. I like the Bold Explorer vibe it gives me.


Outside, the water is agitated. It’s the color of a chalk board, if chalk boards had a hit of blue in their make-up. Waves and whitecaps are breaking randomly, assaulted by a howling wind. The Zodiaks and kayaks, stacked on the “wellness” deck, are frosted with snow, and the walkway from my cabin to the chart room was slushy.


The captain, who must be fearless, just charted a path between floating industrial parks. I could see six separate tabular ice vastnesses on my side, and when I swiveled to check the other side, there was no open ocean to be seen—just more industrial parks, carried on wave and wind and drifting erratically. Time to enjoy THIS beautiful navigation, I must say. Wow. Go on with your bad self, captain.


Buncha bad-asses out here off the Antarctic Peninsula this morning.


Yes, that's an iceberg. or rather, tabular ice. Remember that only 20% of its height is showing on top of the water. I mean, DAMN. That thing's the size of a planet! But they only bother naming tabular ice if it's longer than a nautical mile. Jeesh!

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