Double Entendre of the Day:
“So I hope that you all enjoyed your first humpback experience.”
– Rupert again.
“Can you imagine the nads on the guys who did this in covered wagons? Pioneers, Brian! We share their spirit!”
– Stewie Griffin, on driving across the continental United States.
You can multiply this by twenty for the guys who first explored the Antarctic. Agreed, they were mostly commercial sealers and whalers who for nothing more than money initiated the near-extinction of both species over the next century. But to get here in the first place, they must have been swinging sets of nuts so ponderous they needed to carry them round in a hammock. All other lands ‘discovered’ by Europeans already had residents, who were either driven away or swallowed up. But no-one lived here, no-one had been here, no-one knew anything about it. Even today a substantial portion of the waterways remain uncharted in terms of depths and hazards. But a couple of hundred years ago there was literally nothing, just a handful of stories and then the few rough charts of some of the pioneers. Around the Antarctic Peninsula is an absolute mess of islands of islands and channels, most of them choked with sea ice and bergs. To navigate blind through an area like this, in tiny rickety wooden ships, with only sail and oars to rely upon, in water cold enough to kill you in a minute, with rudimentary medical knowledge and absolutely no emergency recourse should misfortune befall you – I cannot comprehend the daring that it took to venture here. There was no GPS, no radio contact, no emergency beacons, nowhere to call mayday, little chance you’d survive a sinking, and even less chance of rescue if you did. In fact, not only was there no way for these ships to call for help, but a lot of them didn’t even tell anyone where they were going, because they didn’t want competitors to find their hunting grounds. They left in secrecy and returned the same way. If they went missing their chance of being found was nil.
That said, I’m glad they’re not still about. The seals were almost wiped out, but have rebounded well. The whales were even closer to extinction, and are taking much longer to regenerate due to their very slow reproduction cycles and the difficulty of raising a calf to adulthood. Apparently back in the day the seas around South Georgia and down to the Antarctic were positively thick with whales; on this trip we’ve seen a handful in many days of sailing, despite the number of attentive eyes on the bridge. It remains to be seen what effect new threats will have, such as global warming’s effect on plankton and krill, and the effect of dire over-fishing that is still going on. Only a couple of intransigent countries are still going after the whales, but most are still going after the fish, to an extent which is already disastrous in many areas, and the fact that this mightn’t be a good idea has failed to make it into the public consciousness or into policy discussion in any meaningful way.
Still. We had whales today. Five humpbacks, first a mother and calf, and soon afterwards three others swimming together. They were unbothered by our Zodiac, and we were able to amble up to within about twenty or thirty metres and follow their leisurely path. They stayed considerately on the surface for the most part – a spray of whale-spout here, a giant flipper there, a big square head gulping at the krill on the surface, the distinctive curved back and small dorsal dipping up and back into the water, the broad flukes following after it in a lazy curve. Every twenty metres or so the tails would emerge again, a long slow flip upwards before sliding back down beneath the surface.
And then we drove. For two hours or more, in and out of iceberg fields, along glacial cliffs, through water thick with Brasch ice. This is the magic that I came back for. By February, Antarctica has already begun again its long slow freeze. The first signs of sea ice have begun to form, mushy pancake ice floating thin on the surfaces, in places consolidating into platelets. Later the platelets will begin to merge, but only when the water temperature has dropped to -1.8. When it’s winter, and 40 below outside, the water is the place to be.
But then there are the big icebergs, the real showstoppers. Frank Worsley describes it far better than I could, in another passage from Shackleton’s Boat Journey:
They rose and fell on the heaving sea, drawing deceptively apart, then closing with a thud that would have smashed our boat like a gas mantle between thumb and finger. Castles, towers, and churches swayed unsteadily around us. Small pieces gathered and rattled against the boat. Swans of weird shape pecked at our planks, a gondola steered by a giraffe ran foul of us, which much amused a duck sitting on a crocodile’s head. Just then a bear, leaning over the top of a mosque, nearly clawed our sail. An elephant, about to spring from a Swiss chalet on to a battleship’s deck, took no notice at all; but a hyena, pulling a lion’s tooth, laughed so much he fell into the sea, whereupon a sea boot and three real penguins sailed lazily through a lovely archway to see what was to do, by the shores of a floe littered with the ruins of a beautiful white city and surrounded by huge mushrooms with thick stalks. All the strange, fantastic shapes rose and fell in stately cadence, with a rustling, whispering sound and hollow echoes to the thudding seas, clear green at the water line, shading to a deep, dark blue far below, all snowy purity and cool blue shadows above.
He’s not exaggerating. Today we see the Sphinx turning in a current, a giant whale mirroring a mate across the lagoon. A berg with a devil’s tail, or the very mushroom he was speaking of. Great cliffs of ice sheer and solid as a city block, higher and deeper and heavier than our ship. It’s beyond my ability to explain the sheer variety the ice can have, and how wondrous it seems. The range of colours and shapes.
I can tell you why it happens though. The berg’s shape and size depends on how and where it breaks off. Tabular bergs break off ice shelves and are utterly flat, their tops forming geometrically perfect lines that you so rarely see in nature. The more jagged bergs tear away from glacial cliffs. Then they wander. Some circle cold seas for dozens of years. And every step of the way, they’re sculpted. The sea, rain, and wind all work on the berg’s surface, prising open weak points. Waves overwash the top. Bergs get grounded, have tide lines worn into them, break free, move on. Then they roll, as the underside is worn away by water and the berg becomes top-heavy. Rolling in all directions, again and again, until the dead-horizontal strata lines point at all sorts of mad diagonals, and sharp-cornered pyramids are formed, assaulting the sky. Each berg’s strata is different, varying thicknesses and colour, sometimes layers of dirt trapped between. Other layers can be bent and curved, and cracks in the ice fill with new water and freeze again, adding another shade to the palette. The deepest colour means the densest ice, free of bubbles, where the concentration of oxygen reflects vivid blue light. Breaking from the glacier, these chunks can be twenty thousand years old – the entire span of our semi-civilised history, floating quietly in the bay.