Friday, May 13, 2016

Antarctica (1981)

I don't think I've ever written about my trip to Antarctica 35 years ago. I was prompted to do so now because of the picture above. That photograph is an entry in the 2016 National Geographic photo contest.

I know this place, I recognize those mountains, this is the Bay of Isles on South Georgia. I was there December 19 1981.

The foothills are just under a mile from the beach. We landed in our zodiac down the beach to the far right. This is a king penguin rookery, on that day the only birds at the shore we either going or coming from the sea. We had to hike about half way to the mountains to be close of the clustering colony of adults and yearlings. The young chicks and parents were even farther away, I and my two companions did not venture near the rookery, best to stay far from the chicks.

So I walked to within twenty yards of the colony edge and stopped to watch and photograph. Slowly the adults returning from the sea would either push through the throng to get to their hungry chicks or, if they were not brooding parents, they would just stop at the edge of the colony. Over the course of an hour without moving I was subsumed into the colony.

The returning penguins eventually reached me and surrounded me as the colony edge expanded, I was one tall, red-jacketed bird.

Eventually, the ship whistle blew calling us back to the shore and our boat ride back to the safety and warmth of the Discovery Expedition. I edged my way out of the pack, to many squawks and a few beak pecks to my well-padded arctic coat. I worked my way towards the nearest open ground, which soon was to cause a problem.

I was headed back to the sea shore by the nearest route but not the one I had used to reach the penguin colony. My plan was to make it to the shore and then walk on the beach to the landing where the zodiac raft awaited.

Unfortunately, I had waded several small glacial streams deep inland on my way in but now near the shore, those streams had merged into a icy, eight foot wide flow of indeterminate depth. Looking back it was a big hike inland to where a crossing might be more sensible.

As I pondered my options, two penguins arrived on the opposite of the icy divide. I looked at them, they looked at me, they looked at the swiftly moving water, so did I. Then they looked at me again.

I took a single cautious step into the water with my water-tight, well-insulated booted feet. Six inches of water only. Another step and I was a foot deep. A quick calculation told me at this rate mid-stream might well be exerting enough pressure to knock me down, hypothermia was not a suggested course of action.

Just as I was about to step back on the bank and head back inland, one of the penguins stepped into the water on his side of the stream. With a knowing nod, he leaned forward and with his beak, tested the depth for his next step. Slowly he located a rocky ridge of stream bottom that meandered a bit upstream but stayed at the depth of less than a foot.

Once he was midstream, his buddy followed him and there they stood. If they fell in, they just swim out, being much better insulated than I was. I was pondering our situation when a loud squawk brought me back to my, I mean, our predicament.

I swear the penguin was suggesting I get with the program and do my part.

I backed out of the water where I had originally entered and moved upstream to where the two penguin buddies stood about three feet from my shore. There was clearly a deep, swiftly moving gully between them and dry land.

I noticed another shallow ridge just a bit upstream. I easily took two, three, then four steps on the ridge and found myself even with the penguins and just a few feet upstream. Taking the initiative, I hopped over to where the penguins stood. The buddy gave me one good, hard peck while his trailblazing friend duplicated my hop in the reverse direction. His buddy followed and now we were both within shallow sight of our goals.

If there had been an observer to our inter-species cooperation, they would have noted my three foot leap across the watery divide was much more elegant than the splash and dash approach taken by the penguins.

Then again, I was the one who had to be reminded that we were involved in a joint venture to ford the stream. The penguins had been there before, I was the rookie in the rookery.

1 comment:

Birrell Walsh said...

This is a first class story!