Antarctica – Part III

It was 6:30 am after an overly, unexpectedly intense 36 hours in Antarctica.  We had just gotten back on our ship from our overwhelming camping trip.  The ambiance of the restaurant, full of campers, was exactly that.  Pure exhaustion.  We sipped on some coffee before retreating to our cabins.  We hadn’t slept since 5 am the day before.

Shortly after we laid down, an announcement came on that the conditions outside were not good and that we would just be sailing to another location that morning.  I think every camper could have told you that given what they just experienced.  But I was glad that I wouldn’t be missing any activities.  I fell into a deep, deep sleep instantly.

Three hours later, another announcement was made.  “Attention.  Attention.  While we cannot get out the zodiacs to go to land, we will be doing the Polar Plunge in 15 minutes.  We will be doing the Polar Plunge in 15 minutes.  Please meet in the gangway if you will be participating.”

Tony and I stumbled out of bed.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.  No, I knew I couldn’t do it.  My body was so lethargic.  I was drained.  The rest of my family was in another room on another floor, and it was lunchtime, so I figured they might be in the restaurant already.  We made our way there, and yes, they were there.  And, they were doing the Polar Plunge.  They begged me but I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t find the energy within me.

They rushed down to the gangway, stripped down to their bathing suits, and jumped in, one by one, a harness tied around their waist in case they fell limp when the ice-cold water – around 31 degrees Fahrenheit – hit their skin.  Just 2-3 seconds in the water and they climbed up the ladder and back into the ship.  Do I regret not doing?  Of course.  Regret is one of my most hated emotions.  I regret it when I feel regret!  But I also know I probably would have been the one to fall limp, and the metal stairs to get in would have been absolute torture, just brutal, on my knees and hands as I flopped around getting back to safety and warmth.  So I missed out on it – I’ll admit it – but I had to.  This time, I just had to.

On the days where there were no afternoon expeditions, the crew would set up an afternoon Tea Time.  There would be hot coffee and hot tea, and an abundance of sweet treats.  It was all set up on the fourth floor, outside of the restaurant, and the entire ship would line up, filling their bellies with the goodies.  While we often went our separate ways on the ship, no way of connecting with each other since there was no cell service or WiFi, we always knew that when it was mealtime or Tea Time, we could find each other in the respective area.

That night, during our daily briefing after Tea Time, we were given the disappointing news that our ship needed to head back to Argentina a day early.  The conditions in the Drake Passage were starting to look too rough to navigate through and we would need to either leave a day early or get back several days late putting ourselves in harm’s way at the same time.  By this point, we understood that plans change quickly in Antarctica and had complete and utter trust in our expedition team.  We hoped for a fun-filled final day before we began sailing.

When the announcement came on the next morning at 7:30 am that we would be kayaking, I was full of excitement.  On this kayak trip, just Natalie and I would go.  Each of the others in our group had another activity planned – snowshoeing, photography lessons, and a landing site on an island.  Natalie and I bundled up – all the layers and the dry suit – and proceeded through the steps to get to our kayak.

It took just a few minutes of paddling and orienting ourselves before we both realized that this was the absolute coolest thing we had ever experienced.  The sun was shining brightly – something that hadn’t really happened for us yet.  The penguin colonies on the surrounding islands were alive with energy.  They were jumping in the water, often swimming up next to our kayaks and jumping alongside us as we paddled.  The icebergs were fantastically white, floating in water so clear you could see their bases deep inside the ocean.

We navigated through floating ice rivers, around icebergs where seals were sunbathing, up against rocks where penguins were mating and preparing their nests for their upcoming eggs.  We heard ice shelves breaking off, falling into the water, creating small tsunamis that we navigated through in our kayaks.  This was one of the moments in my life where I tell myself, “Remember this.  Engrain everything about this into your brain.  You don’t want to forget this.”  I was floating in a tiny piece of plastic, on the surface of The Southern Ocean, at the bottom of our planet, in a place where only seals, penguins, and whales get to touch this water.  I was so far away from anything even remotely close to what I call home.  I felt like I had gone to an afterlife.  Everything, literally everything, was white.  The sky was a perfect white.  The mounds of snow and rock were white.  The icebergs were white.  Everything was white.  A perfectly clean, untouched, heavenly white.  There wasn’t a single color to be seen.  Just white.

That afternoon, in a location nearby, we took our final zodiac tour.  The weather was worsening, as our captain and crew had predicated, so we only had about an hour to explore on zodiacs.  But you better believe that every person who wanted one last taste of Antarctica was on those zodiacs, bundled up, cameras in hand, and ready to feel Antarctica one last time.  We saw our final penguins belly flop into the waters.  We saw our last waddles.  We navigated around large icebergs.  We just saw.  And then, out of the blue, we saw a whale’s tail.  And suddenly, just 10 meters from our zodiac, a humpback whale came to the surface and did an overly grand dive out of the water, arching it’s back so we could see the enormity of it.  Slow and graceful, just for us.  He was gone as quickly as he came, and while we continued to search for more whales, the experience of a humpback so close to us was unbeatable.

It was a perfect last day in Antarctica.  The next three days were much like the first three.  We started to put our belongings back in drawers, laid my wheelchair safely on its side, slid several inches back and forth on our beds as we slept and fought the seasickness.  But we were different this time.  We had experienced something so profound that we all knew it would take days, weeks, to process the intensity of this trip.  It was grueling in a physical way, but the emotional response of something so grandiose isn’t a feeling that can be processed overnight.  It’s a life altering experience, to feel something that so few people experience.  It’s a privilege to be with the penguins and ice, and to know that your eyes might be the first to see that very site.

As I reflect on this trip, now over a week behind me, I wonder how a place with no human beings can be so profound.  I’ve always found beauty in the people I meet around the world.  It’s my favorite part, hearing their stories, letting them touch my life in an unexpected way.  And yet, I feel touched in an unexpected, outstandingly powerful way after being in Antarctica.  The stillness of it, the beauty of it, the magical disconnect from the rest of the world has invoked a calmness within me that is so surprisingly unexpected.

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