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  • Pru Warren

Sunlight


Monday, November 15—11.38 AM


Someone in the Facebook comments—was it Katheryn Anderson?—said that she needs to take a day of alone-ness when on a group tour. And does that ever ring true for me! I spent all day yesterday feeling low and grumpy and depressed. I hid.


And now I feel completely different. The depression has lifted, the mood is ebullient. If I was manic depressive, I’d say I was manic.


We’re sitting in a bowl formed by snow-covered mountains. The bowl is filled with flat silver water, with icebergs floating around in it. The sky is cerulean, with puffs of clouds. Some of the moutaintops are wearing misty veils of clouds, but for the most part, the air is clear. Occasional Gentoo penguins scallop their way across the glassy surface, on their way to something terribly important, and Antarctic cormorants fly off busily from their stinky rock nests on the cliffs. The water against the mountains is crystalline; it’s easy to see to a depth of about twenty feet (after which thinks get too dark and black to see farther.)


I have no idea why, but the ship has been brought to rest with its nose so close to the mountain that a Zodiak can barely fit between at the waterline; it’s the damnedest parking job ever. ALL the Zodiaks have been deployed. Various naturalists are plying the waterways with groups of guests, and all the others are in their own boats—and although I’m sure they are calling it something else, they are playing with icebergs.



A large drift of ice is too close to the ship (or so they insist), so all the Zodiaks, their drivers standing up in the stern and holding on to the phallic outcropping from their snarling Evinrudes, converge to put their rubber noses against the iceberg. Then they all power up together and push that iceberg away. They do it with such stern faces that there can be NO DOUBT AT ALL that inside they’re hee-heeing and hooting and cheering and jeering at each other. Outside, of course, they are SO SERIOUS. Inside, they’re playing with ice.


I got all togged up in the endless fucking layers and got into a Zodiak with Ezra. First we wandered through the fairlyland of icebergs and blue skies and mirror-like reflections. He turned off the engine and we drifted in silence for a while…and slowly my dislike of Antarctica melted in the sunlight. I went from “Hm, I guess this is okay” to “Fuck me—this is amazing” to wishing everyone else was gone so the clicking of cameras, the creaking of rubber boots against the deck, the shifting of rumps and huge, waterproof parkas would be silenced.


Okay. With THIS much sun…and THIS little wind… and THIS mirror stillness… yeah. Antarctica is worth the trip. I admit it. Grudgingly.


We marveled at the shapes the icebergs took. Some are flat on top and you can see their blue depths—their “glacial blue” depths—sinking down, down, down into the clear water. Some are carved by wind into astonishing shapes. I saw the statue of a rearing horse’s head, a spiraling fan worthy of any Las Vegas showgirl, and one scorpion’s sting of a collapsed pinnacle which, as we drifted slowly past, was revealed to be alarmingly anatomically correct—a representation of what made all those explorers attempt to go where they were so clearly not wanted.


(Just below me is an iceberg carved, impossibly, into three gleaming white mushroom caps, joined below the surface by a psychedelic blue platform. Why did I leave my iPhone in my cabin to charge?!)


But sometimes we’ve come across icebergs that have turtled, and then you can see the effects of water on the formation, instead of wind. They look like an insane ceramicist—George Orr, the Mad Potter of Biloxi—has formed something featuring deep finger gouges and extrusions over the knuckles, and then dipped it thickly into a pale glaze before firing.


Some of the hillsides have a similar sheen to them. The snow seems perfectly flat and crusted, with a luminosity that looks like backlighting. We sat for a while in a bowl of the hillside and the walls around us (except where snow had broken away and fallen down, or crevices had formed) was as sleek as the side of a coffee cup. And not a dainty cup, either; this was serious, unbreakable diner china. From a distance, it has a tactile quality that I long to touch.


(Up close, it has a break-through-the crust-up-to-your-knees quality that fills me with despair. So, like so many other things in Antarctica, we are best off with a look-but-don’t-touch philosophy.)


After a while, Ezra puttered us over to a cormorant cliff, where we were assaulted by the guano smell (charming, after so much pure ice and clear water), and we paused for photos photos always photos. Next we motored over to the currently-unused Chilean station, which had been taken over by some Gentoo penguins. (By the way, if I was doing Antarctic research at the bottom of the planet and a cruise ship pulled out and dumped dozens of Zodiaks filled wout would-be photographers into my bay? I’d be annoyed.) Even I was compelled to pull out my iPhone and photograph the penguins. I have (or at least I hope I have) a video of penguins both dropping into and also popping out of the water; the soundtrack is the coo of delighted passengers.


Ezra had a yen to spot some Weddell’s seals, so we went looking for “sausages.” He found some, too; they were singularly uninteresting, lying inert on the ice. We watched them for a VERY long time, while people cooed if a fin was flexed. But it was tranquil and lovely, and we could watch three Gentoos climbing an impossibly steep snow-covered hill, and I could stare down into the crystal water to the rocks and plant life below. From the surface, I couldn’t see sea stars, but I’m sure they were down there. Like Lucy at the bow of the Dawn Treader, I felt I ought to be able to see entire landscapes below the surface.


We’d slowed and then stopped to watch a cormorant in the water. Like all the other wildlife here, the birds are fearless and don’t at all seem to object to having dozens of orange parkas staring and pointing long lenses at them. A second cormorant joined the first—eliciting coos of delight from the Zodiak, so we needed to drift for longer to ensure everyone got their photo. I was looking into the water, hoping to see more of the bottom (and the strange, alien landscape that exists below the surface of this strange, alien landscape) when I saw a penguin swimming underwater like a bullet. It popped up mere feet from the cormorants, who were utterly uninterested. More Gentoos popped up around our boat like popcorn; it was a moment of effervescence.


Still without sunblock, I am probably irradiated in odd patches. Only the skin of my face was exposed (everything else was coverd by the aforementioned endless layers) and I had a poorly-fitting cap on and the strangling neck gaiter, which I pulled up over my nose whenever I remembered to (or when the boat picked up enough speed for the 32-degree air to feel uncomfortable in the breeze). Add the sunglasses, and I’m hoping I only burned my temples and the bridge of my nose , which should be a TERRIBLY attractive suntan.


The ship is leaving “Paradise Bay” now (I scoffed at the name when Lucho announced it last night—but what a difference clear skies and no wind can make!), on our way to someplace that will no doubt look very much the same. He’ll want to do a landing, and I might even be up for it. Maybe. The landings tend to be exhausting. But if we kayak (and Mike the Hero said he’d kayak with me again—yay!), I’m in. There’s also the potential for the “polar plunge,” and I’d be happy to hang over the edge of the ship to laugh at the fools who do it. I, however, won’t be one of them!


I’m sitting in the library with Song and Marianne. Song is typing busily on her laptop. Marianne has curled her head impossibly to the side and opted to take a nap. If I slept that way, I would wake up profoundly broken.


I spent some time at the bow with the naturalists; I’m told that the dark blobs I saw were a crabeater seal, some Adelie penguins (my namesake penguin!) and two, possibly three, humpback whales. I would have hung with them for longer but my lack of sunblock and the brilliance of the sun had me mildly worried.


We’re passing massive penguin colonies. There is no lack of penguins in Antarctica; they cluster up like fleas on a dog. A very unhappy dog. And they make a fierce mess. Often, I’ve noticed their dirty brown guano before I realized that the specks on top were hundreds and thousands of penguins.


A walking penguin holds his flippers out and back like a pectoral/biceps stretch. They waddle determinedly around in this pose as if to say “I don’t know how many more times I can TELL you!” I know they’re wild animals and I shouldn’t personify them—but FUCK me, they are just damned adorable. So massively cute in their dignity and awkwardness.


And they porpoise through the water, alone or in groups. When a dolphin does it, it’s beautiful and sleek. When a penguin does it…it’s cute. I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could explain why even the most serious and grumpy human is forced to coo in the presence of penguins, but I can’t. I just know that they are a delight.


Boy. One day off has really done me some good!

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