Captain’s Log, Day 14:I keep singing “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” It’s a new year dot dot dot I guess? Have lost all sense of time here on the last continent. The floor mats in the elevators indicate the day of the week. The sky is big, ocean is big, lots of ice, wildlife for days. Now sailing back to the rest of the world. Seven days left on the ship. Morale is high due to insane amounts of penguin sightings and increased intake of ice cream.
I’m currently in my “office” – the top of the boat known as The Crow’s Nest. There’s live music, windows to blue above and below. Something about all the sky and sea always makes me and my problems feel small and insignificant in a lovely way. The Nest provides a 180 degree view, lounge chairs we all politely fight over (and are reprimanded by the Captain over the PA system if we try to save one for a friend), and absolutely lovely Filipino staff who have called me by name since day 2, sing karaoke with me, and have a glass of wine ready at happy hour. Which is three times a day. Lino and Zilah and Jenny are my favorites – they ask after Grandma and we share mutual eye rolls at some of the more obnoxious passengers. I’m already dreading saying goodbye to them.
I continue to make friends with the international passengers. I’m somewhat of an anomaly on board – nearly always alone, reading or writing, wearing a penguin hat, drinking wine, but clearly too young and poorly dressed to be here on my own independent wealth. I don’t look or talk like the type whose much older husband has just died under curious circumstances. Whatever it is, it seems to send out distress signals to all elderly couples in the vicinity, and Austrians, Germans, Dutch, Israeli, Russian, Scottish, and English couples have thus far adopted me. I love hearing their stories and sharing mine and seeing what kind of mischief we can get up to during late night whale watching happy hours and piano bar sing-alongs and trivia games. People who travel always have something to talk about, and older people love hearing about your story and then offering advice.
And we have plenty of time to talk – we haven’t left the ship in six days. This is extended scenic cruising and if it weren’t so beautiful, I’d be going mad (plus they have a salad bar AND a nacho bar AND puzzle tables AND an all night reading café. I will live).
Antarctica is surreal – it’s impossible to describe. It’s stunning and wild and distracting. There are no signs of human life except for the occasional ship or tiny shed of a station, so it’s only when we do see one that we realize how very large the mountains and glaciers are. There is little else to give scale to the gigantic iceberg and glaciers and mountains. And supposedly we’re only seeing 1/8 of what there is – the rest is underwater.
There is a verse that comes to mind – something about how we cannot grasp how high, how deep, how wide, how great God’s love is for us. I feel that here. I always feel that in places of profound nature that exists solely for nature’s sake and to be admired. There’s no reason for it to be so beautiful, and humans can’t possibly live here on a permanent basis – it’s just beautiful because it is. The ocean is so full of life, the air so clean, the sky so blue. It seems to go on forever.
But it will all be over soon if we don’t protect it. Antarctica is heating up 5 times faster than any other place on the planet. The scientists on board keep lamenting the changes they’re seeing just from last year. The sea animals’ breeding and migration are thrown off. Krill and plankton and seals and penguins can’t reproduce without solid ice, and it’s melting faster than we can track. Global warming has never felt so real.
Being just rock, ice, water, and sky, you’d think there would only be three or four colors out your window, but the ice somehow goes from a sort of intoxicating, neon blue to the purest white, and then a serene lavender shade of white when the sun dips lower. The sea goes from a teal to a black, grey in the storms. At night the sun pretends to set and there are too many colors to count. I can’t decide if all these colors have some sort of scientific basis – all the light we cannot see somehow able to be seen here in the pure air – or if it is simply that my excitement colors everything.
I’ve done some whale watching before in California and Hawaii with little to no yield, but Antarctica is teeming with life. Every time I look up from this screen, I see penguins frantically swimming away from the huge orca they must think our boat is. We’ve chugged past five penguin colonies (Chinstrap, Adelie mostly) and it delights us all to no end to watch them through binoculars as they trudge up the hill to their young, slipping and somehow righting themselves again. One iceberg we floated past, at least 150 feet high, had a plateau where some penguins were – I kid you not – playing in a pool. They’d somehow catapulted themselves out of the ocean, climbed to the top, and found a pool to swim in.
The other night I stayed up until 2am, watching humpback whales circle krill pockets and blow air bubbles around them to confuse them into their mouths. They’d feed and then wave their tails to dive deep into the water. I stopped counting after 40 whales. I probably saw 100 that night. We’ve seen seals lounging lazily on ice flues as we pass by and pods of killer whales. I still hold irrational fears for all the small birds I see. It just looks so cold outside.
Despite the plethora of wildlife, it hasn’t lost its thrill. It’s like a treasure hunt to spot a whale, to proudly point it out to the people around you, to share the joy. I’d give anything for a camera that could actually capture the moments with clarity, but my memories will do. There’s so much to see – we could spit and hit a penguin or a whale – but you wouldn’t want to, of course. In fact there are about a thousand things you can’t do here on or off a boat, as part of the international treaty to protect Antarctica, which means the ship has extra litter patrols and security to keep us in line. We were warned over the PA system to be careful even when taking our hands out of pockets outside, because bits of paper can blow over and that’s illegal. So is outdoor music, unnecessary lighting, sports equipment outside, smoking, and food on the outside decks, in order to help preserve all the nature.
As we sail out and towards the Falkland Islands, I already miss this view. The sun doesn’t set here – I stayed up nearly all night the other night to prove it. It’s like an extended sunset fading right into a sunrise. It messes with your sense of time and meals and responsibility. I sat in the coffee bar and read and fell asleep for a few lazy hours yesterday. I finally looked at the time and it was 9:30pm. I’d completely missed dinner and a movie showing. And you know what dinner means to me.
It is cold – below 30 F and wickedly cold when it’s windy. I was genuinely worried about my climate reaction to Antarctica – living in Rio has made my blood thin and I was feeling a bite on my face stepping into the 70s of Chile. I’m still layered up in scarf, hat, wool socks and boots just to enjoy the indoors, but I’m trying to soak up every moment of “I’m FREEZING!” to remember when I return to Brazil and am too hot and sweaty to sleep at night. But we’ve had incredible weather by most standards. The people in the loft with me have decided it’s because we all went to church on Christmas. We’ve had some hail, rain, and snow, but all sunny clear days, which makes taking pictures easy and yet difficult – everything is a beautiful shot. When I get back to the land where wifi is free and upload the photos from my camera, I hope you’re ready for about 1000 photos of different kinds of water.
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries and lectures about the first explorers and the hazards they faced coming here. I can’t imagine what they must have thought – seeing the glowing, freezing splendor of the ice, watching the awkward gait and hearing the loud braying of the penguins, staring back at the lazy curiosity of the huge seals floating by on ice, wondering at the mystery of what huge beasts blew air loud enough to be heard from hundreds of yards away before waving a white-tailed goodbye. I have only seen the face of a whale once on this trip, and the entire ship went “whoa.” It’s out of this world.
In summer in Antarctica, with no sunset, there is no night, and there are no stars to guide you by. At night I can hear the haunting crackle of ice meeting the waves of our boat and there is nothing else. No wonder so many sailors went mad. No wonder they thought there were monsters and mermaids in this world beyond the world.
We rang in the New Year at the piano bar, with plenty of champagne and songs and silliness. No resolutions were made, except the silent one I’ve been making to myself as I walk around the ship to start taking better care of my skin and my body. Nothing like a long time with old people to make you value your youth and mobility and respect the fragility of life a bit more. And make sure to have good friends, fun, and times with family.This next year is full of unexpected. I’ll turn 33 in April. I have about six months left in Brazil. And I’ll have been out of high school for 15 years when June hits. I’ve applied to jobs in London, Milan, Morocco, Israel, Japan, Hong Kong, and more. Where I go will decide my geography from this August until roughly 2020.
I’ve changed my mind – there is one resolution I’m making – this past week in Antarctica, when I was tired or kind of bored or cold, I kept reminding myself “Get up and go out there. You will never see this again. This is one of a kind.” And so I was excited about everything and happy.
The coming year holds a lot of unknown professionally, a healthy dose of fear for the future of the United States and the world at large, and the ever-present personal concerns about relationships, finances, and life-purpose in general.
But I am resolving to do this – when it feels scary, or stands still, when I am unsure or when I am tired, I will remind myself: ‘Get up and go out there. You will never see this again. This is one of a kind.’
I am more blessed and more capable and more beautiful than I know, and so are you.
We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.
– Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest Antarctic explorers ever. I am newly obsessed.