Double Entendre of the Day:
“Pardon me and my leaky box.”
Kayak guide Shelli helps clean up.
“Hey, it’s the sun, and it makes me shine.”
The Polyphonic Spree
At last, after days of grainy black and white, the big skyfire finally makes its way down to us. It streams through a thin layer of high fog that cuts the worst of the glare, but still allows through enough warm yellow rays to light up the ice in a riot of contrast and shade. The early glow across the shoreline mountains and glaciers makes me shiver, the way the aforementioned song always does (if you haven’t heard of the Spree, find an album called In the Beginning Stages Of. It’s saved my life more times than I care to remember). I catch a boat with Tim, the tech guy I’ve mentioned before, and we get out into the middle of it. I like his style, no chit-chat, no paranoid faff about safety procedures, just getting on with things. Like a male Jo Hart. Unlike Jo, he’s also rocking a serious moustache. I mean, one that would make Boony feel like a bit of a girl.
Off past an Adelie penguin colony (the littlest and blackest of the penguins, the kind cartoons are based on), a big leopard seal takes a shine to us. He starts following our Zodiac, close, two metres off the stern. He porpoises in and out of the water, coming up to flare his nostrils in great snorting exhalations, then diving again. We cruise around a few islands. He follows us. We pass through a field of other Zodiacs, four or five of them wandering in different directions. He surfaces, looks around, spots us, and tracks us through them, showing no interest in any of the others. We hammer it half a k across open water to check out a huge berg. Ten minutes later he surfaces behind us, sounding short of breath and looking a bit miffed. He’s stunningly agile and fierce, his reptilian head the size of a bear’s, his body when he dives almost the length of the boat. Slick grey hide and dark spots rippling in the sun as he loops above and below the surface. All up he follows us for well over half an hour, a steady pace behind the boat, his puffs and snorts the metronome to our movement.
The light brings things to life in a way we haven’t seen before. The blues are bluer, whites are whiter. It’s Cold Power day. The high cloud clears, and the sky is so blue it hurts. Half a dozen minke whales shimmer past us and slowly on their way. Everything sparkles with the light – the deep blue water, the fields of bergs off into the distance, the bizarrely-shaped lenticular clouds (only in my trips to Antarctica have I seen these shapes), and the jagged landscape, a series of sudden black-white contrasts, like the fantasy-novel look of South Georgia multiplied out by an unknown factor. Up close, the sunlight makes the icebergs even more stunning. I won’t crap on, as you’re probably supremely sick of icebergs by now, but the pictures might give some kind of indication.
In the afternoon we visit a Ukrainian research station, whose signage makes pirates feel right at home, as well as housing a number of more perplexing signs and items (can anyone explain the image at left, for example?). All up it feels like a school building – long lino corridors with offices opening from them – and I can’t imagine having to bunker down in here for months on end with no sunlight and no chance to get outside. Though I guess Ukrainians know how to deal with winter. And yes, they do brew their own vodka here.
With no fog, at last we can see the evening sky. Everything is orange, purple, gold in the late light. The sun doesn’t set until after 11, and even then only retreats just below the horizon, leaving the sky lit up. It will stay that way for several hours until the sun rises again. Last trip I stayed up all night watching it and drinking gin on my own, then drunkenly climbed the radio mast and howled at the morning sky. This time I make it to 4 a.m. The sky shifts constantly. To the east it glows a deep backlit blue. To the south, purple and violet behind a mountain range, as a half moon rises through thin cloud bands. To the west the sharp and misty mountains look like they’ve been extracted from China, and even at its lowest point, the sunset simmers umber and orange like a dying fire. The best part comes around one o’clock, when the ship is deserted, and five humpback whales come swimming past. Ever so slowly, taking the best part of hour to pass from view. The sound of their exhalations coming perfectly clear across the stillness from a couple of hundred yards, their broad backs breaking the surface, dipping below it, again the lazy flick of the flukes, or rolling sideways to waft a giant flipper in the air. Tomorrow is our last day here. I think it’s a bit lame when people anthropomorphise animals all the time. But it’s also pretty hard not to wave back.