The Lindblad Experience
Tuesday, November 16—2:48 PM
This image typifies the Lindblad experience, I think. Here we see a table in the library (where observing pack ice and Emperor penguins and seals and the astonishing diversity of tabular ice floes is behind huge panes of glass). On the table: A camera with a long lens. A pair of gloves. A pair of binoculars. Some sunglasses. A second camera on the window ledge. Two empty chairs…
…because the owners of this collection of several thousands of dollars worth of possessions, has wandered off, correctly assuming no one will filch anything. I’ve left my laptop unattended in the library for hours. I don’t lock my cabin door. Maybe this situation would be different if we had the full complement of 148 passengers—but since there are only 63 of us, and since by this time we tend to know each other’s names, there’s an impressive spirit of community.
Now: On the subject of tabular ice…
I can’t bring myself to call these things “icebergs,” because they’re more like super-massive ice warehouses. Most of the ones drifting past us are far, far longer than the ship. These are huge hunks that have broken off from the polar ice sheet, and apparently the fracture lines are at 90 degrees to each other, because these babies look like someone milled them with a computer. Although there is NO way to judge the sense of scale, I suspect it’s not far off to say that the walls go straight up from the sea for 80 or 90 feet to an absolutely flat top. It’s like watching the lid of a box go sailing past…if the box could hold entire suburbs.
Each one is striated horizontally—a million lines, thin and thick. Easier to see at the top. I’m assuming these are different snowfalls, going back thousands (and maybe millions) of years. I checked with Eric, the naturalist/photographer who apparently has a thing for ice, and he confirmed that the standard iceberg measurement holds true: We’re seeing roughly 20% of the tabular ice floating on top of the water…meaning each one is also extending down below the waterline for (if my very vague assumptions are right) roughly 800 feet.
Yeah. These ice creations have to be MILLIONS of years old. This is pure time, floating past me and blown where the wind takes it. Diggity-dog. And I can see about a dozen from my window alone, on the LESS interesting side of the ship.
The effects of wind and ocean are gasp-inducing on this tabular ice. To start with, the warehouse shapes often have crenellated tops, where fraction lines are beginning to form. The corners at the leading edge of a warehouse tend to be tipping forward alarmingly. Enough wave action at the foot, mixed with wind pressing against the growing fraction lines, and eventually a cube will break off, calving into its own cube. The result will seem small compared to the mother ship from whence it comes—but once freed from confinement, this square will bob and turn merrily in the waves. Eventually it will fetch up against the pack ice and get frozen into place. Maybe it will be upright; maybe it will have eroded enough on one side to have become a perfect pyramid, standing some 60 or 80 feet tall. The first one I saw had been carved by the wind so one face was an effortless swoop.
If I.M.Pei came down here and did a little architecture, he couldn’t do better. It’s like a “Yes” album cover out there. In the library, watchers (still in full parkas because that’s what you need in a glass-enclosed bubble) peer through binoculars and call directions to each other. “See them? Two emperor penguins?”
“See the pyramid?”
“The big one or the really big one?”
“The little one. Look where I’m pointing. Look at me. Look at ME. Right. See that pyramid?”
“Okay—now scan over towards the Fortress of Solitude to the left. No, you’re going right—not the castle. Right. Go that way. Slow down—see? In front of the leading edge? Two black dots?”
“That’s dirty ice.”
“No, it’s not. Watch… watch… there!”
“Huzzah!!” The entire library erupts in cheers because one of the two emperor penguins, many MANY long feet away on the ice has risen to his plump little feet and now the orange and yellow patch at his throat is visible IF your binoculars are strong enough…plus you can easily imagine it if not. Applause and glee. And then a comment that the dirty ice behind that pair is actually a seal—see it? No, not that way. Look over here.
When emperor penguins were first spotted and the announcement was made, I was having a nap, curled up with Rusty’s Vermont jacket pulled over my face to block out the utter whiteness outside. (I could close my curtains, but doesn’t that seem like cheating? I mean, I’m HERE, after all?) I was going to ignore the message. After all—ANOTHER penguin? I’ve seen thousands by now…
…but I lay there thinking about it and found my feet were itchy. My legs were jittering. My sleep had vanished. I got up, struggled into my parkas, checked for binoculars-iPhone-hat, and raced out through the lounge to the stern deck…
…where I damn near took flight, the wind was so insane. I lasted outside long enough to film a seven-second video in which I shouted “God damn, how about this wind?” as loud as I could with which to entertain you, but when I listened to it in my cabin later, I was still inaudible over the screaming of the wind.
Yeah. Got it. Library for me.
And now we’re finding a place where the ship can break through the pack ice. I suspect once we get situated properly, the crew will put out a bridge from the mud room door to the ice and invite us all to get off and walk around a bit. Which I shall do, since it appears the wind has died down. FOR NOW.
The sky has been filled with signs and portents, but none of us can read what they mean. Against a backdrop colored like a six-day-old bruise, dark purple bands of vapor write incomprehensibly. I can’t even call them clouds, because a cloud is something whispy and vapory, not to mention white. These ain’t that at all. Someone asked Tua, the celestial navigator, what the sky was telling him; he responded “There’s a lot of wind up there,” which seems like something of an anticlimax.
I am unconcerned; the weather in Antarctica is on a speed change setting. In five minutes it will be snowing. In ten the sun will be so brilliant that only sunglasses will allow us to see our phone camera displays. In twenty the wind will be assaulting us, and in half an hour we’ll be hip-deep in penguin colonies. Again, there are no landmarks. No way to anticipate anything. You go with the flow or you go to sleep; those are the two options.
Earlier today, there was a knock on my cabin door; a benefactor handed me an entire tube of sunblock. “Now can you quit bitching about it?” Don’t ever let anyone tell you you should hold in your emotions; it’s bad for your psyche if you do, and strangers rarely give you sunblock to shut you up. O happy day!
Ultimately, there must have been 70 or 80 people standing on the ice watching five emperor penguins in hushed appreciation. Sailors were ferried over in the Zodiaks once all the guests were on the ice, and the housekeeping staff. Waiters and waitresses walked among us, all grinning with the glee of seeing a four-foot-tall bird ignore us totally. The air was so still that I didn’t bother with gloves. Mostly I took pictures of all the people who were taking pictures.
Emperor penguins have a very distinctive, warbling honk of a call. Let’s call it the siren song of the icy south. I’ll upload a short video to Facebook when the internet is a bit more reliable.