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  • Pru Warren

Penguins


Friday, November12—9:52PM


I had lunch with a woman who said “When I step onto Antarctica, that will be my seventh continent.” Dang, thinks I, counting “my” continents—for which I needed only my thumbs (NA and Europe). Then the woman on the other side started counting on HER fingers. She could only name six continents; I proudly leaped in with “Africa!,” feeling that perhaps I could at least add some booksmarts to all these travel pros—at which point she said “Right—Africa. Then I’ve already been to all seven!”


I feel so provincial.


HOWEVER now I need my two thumbs AND MY NOSE to count my continents, for I have walked across Antarctic shores!


I’m at an island in the South Shetland Islands. I noted the name carefully, but really; why? Does it matter to YOU what island I’m on? Does it matter to me? I guess by naming the island chain, I’ve cemented it into reality. We name a thing to own a thing. Like Voldemort. No, wait—that was a different lesson… Perhaps I’m suffering from heat exhaustion.


The winds on the other side of the Shetlands (which sounds like an appealing flock of shaggy ponies and not a wall of snow-shrouded mountains with their heads disappearing into overhanging clouds and their feet landing in black stone beach fringes and grey waters) hang on. Have to start the sentence again.


The wind on the other side of the Shetlands is blowing at 40mph with gusts up to 70mph. This is the first time I’ve heard a wind speed mentioned, so I can’t compare that to the winds of Patagonia, which I foolishly thought were intimidating enough. Lucho and his intrepid naturalists are re-routing our trip so we can stay in the lea of the islands; otherwise we could never get the Zodiaks to shore.


And all this shifting around meant that we didn’t have our expedition until 9 at night. I mean—what, now? That is to say, AFTER the cocktail hour and recap, and AFTER the dinner where the guy with the bottles of wine lurks hopefully, waiting for someone to take a sip so he can fill their glass. As for me, my habit has been to eat my dinner, return to my stateroom, and crash like lumber in the forest—so this was startling to me.


But Lucho knows what he’s doing—for it’s 10PM right now and has only just begun to get dark.


So after dinner, we returned to our cabins to suit up for our polar expedition. The air temperature is about 39 degrees—balmy and enjoyable. But I am no longer fooled; that means the wind can still strip any hope of warmth from my inexperienced corpus. So time to haul out the odd details: Sock liners and wool socks. Long underwear under leggings under waterproof pants.


Long underwear shirt, shirt, polar fleece, inner lining of the arctic parka, outer lining of the arctic parka, neck gaiter, cap, fur-lined hood, gloves. And life preserver. And COVID mask to get me from my cabin through the mud room (where I picked up my decontaminated Herman Munster stiletto heels) and into the Zodiak.


My god, I was sweating before I waved my little card under the ‘Please check out here’ machine.


Javier (a bird guy) zipped us across the calm bay to the shore. When I got out, I felt cold water against my down-beach leg, but it was just temperature—no water poured into my boot. Again, and against all logic, the waterproof pants did their job. I can’t figure it. It’s not like they’re Velcro-ed tightly to my boot; why doesn’t the water flow up the boot, under the pants, and into the foot? Don’t ask me, Hortense; I just work here. Somehow it works.


And then I was wading to shore, up a beach composed of perfectly flat and shiny black pebbles—and even I, in all my homo sapiens-ness, could tell that THESE babies would make an EXCELLENT penguin nest. I mean, the bounty lay all around us.


And there, not twenty feet away, stood a cluster of utterly unafraid Gentoo penguins. We looked at them. They looked at us. We thought they were adorable; we cooed and posed for photos with them in the background. They curled their heads in curiosity and lifted their bright red lipstick beaks to the sky and sang a strange song. Of welcome? Of challenge? Of krill? Who’s to say? Hello, you peculiar little birds. How engaging you are.


Lucho and Alex had announced that the walk was easy and the snow was firm. They didn’t think we’d need our walking sticks, but we were welcome to bring them if we wanted. (The unspoken message, of course, being “if you’re a wimp.”) And once again—will I never learn?—I believed Lucho. Owa—tafoo—ly—am.


The easy walk up the hill to where Mada waited was across snow about two feet deep that half the time held under my foot and half the time sent me plunging downward. Each time I paused, waiting to see if I was going to fall backwards (graceless and awkward) or forwards (snapped shin and humiliation). This is how I overcame the struggle:


I became one with the mountain.


Up I went, determined. Like Tommy the photographer. I think I’m probably ready for Everest next.


I passed Eduardo on my way up; I paused to ask him about the wreck of some kind of large dory on the beach. He was skeptical. Not from the time of whalers; it was decaying too fast. I’m not sure what he thought it was and I couldn’t pry it out of him, but I wonder if he looked at it in contempt as something placed for atmosphere by an Antarctic tour group with shadier ethics. THAT would be a pleasing scandal, no?


I made it to the crest of the (admittedly quite small hill) and Mada pointed me to Santiago, standing with a group of people watching chinstrap penguins hanging out on a rocky outcropping. Well, most the chinstraps were hanging out. One had already found his mate and was busily bringing her rocks with which to build a nest. In the tradition of all females everywhere, she ignored his hard work—but I think in the end, he will have a Happily Ever After.



Hardier orange parkas had gone further down the island to look at the much-larger colony of penguins down the way, but I decided I needed to get the hell out of there while I was still happy. The descent was equally entertaining, but at least it didn’t make me sweat so much. I was two-thirds of the way down when the mermaid appeared, bounding gracefully up the hillside. (Like Legolas, she can walk on top of snow; it’s the benefit of those tiny hips and ass.) “Would you like me to help you down?” she asked politely.


At first I gave her the “I’m doing okay on my own,” but then I thought of how anxious they must be when they see a large, older female in great, awkward boots come stumbling down the path, and I took her outstretched hand. It was actually harder to keep my balance for fear that in righting my center I would wipe her out—but together we made it to the bottom in one piece. She sprinted back up the hillside to assist the next elephant seal make her descent.


We stood on the shore and watched gentoo penguins swim through the waters and then pop out onto the beach with an abrupt change of orientation; first they were horizontal beings and then they were vertical beings. The tremendous dignity of the birds makes them particularly endearing. Lucho said he’d heard of a cruise line where someone found a live penguin hidden under a guest’s bed, which I feel is probably apocryphal, but looking at those fearless beasts—so like a living stuffed animal—I felt the very slight urge to steal one for myself. WANT.


Back on board the ship, we scrubbed penguin guano off our pants and boots. I made my way to my cabin where I began shedding layers before the door had slammed closed behind me. Soon the small allotment of floor was ankle-deep in fabric and I threw myself down in great delight to cool off and consider how nice it is to have been on three continents.


Here's the question, though: Since that tramp up the hill (and then back down again) was somewhat annoying, do I need to go back out there again? Right now I’m thinking no… but sitting around while adventures go on without me?? What kind of poor sport would I be if I wimped out?


And at what point in my aging process do I stop caring if I am considered a wimp?!


I’m feeling quite righteous and feisty. You can’t make me if I don’t want to go! This will inevitably change as soon as Lucho says “Emperor penguins” or “kayaking around icebergs.” (Actually, the kayaking DOES sound like fun!)


It’s 10:30 and time for beddy-bye. They’re raising dripping-wet Zodiaks past my window to their storage on the Wellness Deck above, and then we’ll be off again for some new cove surrounded by scenery so alien and gorgeous that a set designer couldn’t include it in a movie because no one would believe it was real. Wild.



Greetings from Antarctica!



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