South XIII: Over and out

Double Entendre of the Day:
“It is pleasure to get you on my boat.”
The Russian skipper gets all gooey in his speech.

“I’d like to thank the Captain for his skill in manoeuvring us all into such wonderful positions.”
Fellow passenger Roger reciprocates.

Killer whales. Killer whales. Killer whales. Orcas! Killer whales! This is what we see today. Killer whales are the coolest animal I’ve ever seen. They’re fast, they’re dangerous, and they’re the smartest suckers in the sea. They have good dress sense and mad skills. Also Orca was the name of the boat in Jaws, which was the coolest movie in the world when I was twelve. Orcas are the last thing I’ve been really hanging out for, and on the last day they come cruising right by the ship. Down a broad channel between the cliffs, a whole big pod of them, maybe a dozen in the middle, then three or four outriders a hundred metres to the right. We spot them from way off in the distance, their distinctive high dorsals slicing the flat surface, and tracking at speed, man. These dudes can move. They’re hunting, hungry – like Jo Hart, no messing about. Straight to the point. Orcas, killing stuff, two syllables! Orcas aren’t French, I can tell you that. As they come past us you can see the markings, the glossy black and clean white patches gleaming as they rise from the water, the keen grins and the bright eyes. A few minutes later, as I pelt round the lower decks alone, a stray orca surfaces not thirty yards from the ship and cruises by, that dorsal far more menacing than any shark’s. No-one sees it bar me and one of the Russian crew. “Kyiller whale,” he mutters to himself reverently. It is our little moment with the sea.

We drop the boats quick-smart, but the orcas, like the Polyphonic Spree, are on their way. But looking for them we do run into a bunch of humpbacks, and get the closest we’ve been yet. They’re everywhere, surfacing and diving. The tail-stem as they dive is thick as a tree-trunk, an incredible corded mass of muscle holding devastating power. Even at its narrowest point you couldn’t put your arms around it, and all of that bulk is pure strength. The flukes fan out above you like branches, and tall as a tree, each one decorated like leaves with a unique pattern of spots and colours. Their breathing as you get close is so loud, great steam-engine huffs, billowing spray up into the air.

I learn something else I didn’t know about whales today – of the 0.5 to 1.5 million minkes estimated to live in the Antarctic, Japanese whalers take only 400 annually. Admittedly it is still a foot in the door to reopen whaling of other more vulnerable species, and higher volume whaling of minkes. But still, at present it’s not any actual threat to the species. Then coming from the other perspective, it also means the industry is not a major or important one for Japan, so a cessation wouldn’t damage their interests. The whole issue is solely about political standing and saving face. It’s interesting to have this new perspective on it.


Sound advice.

I missed  the morning trip to Petermann Island after my late night (figured the all-night sunset was worth the trade), so that’s it as far as exploring goes. Petermann is where Jean-Baptiste Charcot’s expedition over-wintered in 1909. The most interesting thing about this was that they brought a year’s supply of newspapers from the year before, and released one per day, in order to try and keep a sense of normalcy. They also stayed in a cove called Port Circumcision, “because it was spotted on the 1st of January 1909, the traditional day for the Feast of the Circumcision.” The fact that there is a place called Port Circumcision is disturbing, but the fact that there is something called the Feast of the Circumcision is even more so. I mean, really. Ew.

My other random explorer fact goes back to just how goddamn British Shackleton’s party were. After the ridiculously dangerous and arduous journeys first to Elephant Island, then to South Georgia, every time they escaped death they celebrated…by shaking hands. Just like cricket used to be before all that hugging and schoolgirl carry-on. But the clincher is what Worsley says after they’ve completed their crossing of Georgia’s mountains, across perilous cliffs and glaciers, and they hear the whaling station’s whistle, and realised that finally, after two years of exhausting ordeal, they’re finally saved. “For the second time on the journey we shook hands, and I could not refrain from yelling ‘Yoicks! Tallyho!’”

Our Antarctic mission, so paltry compared to theirs but so amazing for us, is done. Churning out of the peninsula, I sit alone on the top deck watching the peaks recede into the distance. The day is Valium-calm. Barometric pressure has been rising slowly for days now (this is good), in an incredibly stable holding pattern. Wind speed is negligible, the thermometer is rising, and there are clear high skies above. Of course all this means slightly less than jackshit to the Drake. The passage back to civilisation is waiting out there off the coast like a billion blue blankets being shaken by an army of cyborg housewives. Even without the luxury of hindsight, I can see what comes next. The Drake Passage will give us what mariners so aptly call ‘a lumpy sea’ – great confused waves moving in contrary directions, their blind snouts nosing together. Every minute or so the ship will lift on a crest and slam into the next with an almighty hissing rush, sending a crash of whitewater over the bow and up to the fifth deck windows. The curtains will again stand out from the wall. From time to time the whole ship will shudder deep through its frame like an old man in a hailstorm. And as we round Cape Horn, me and that proud Adelaide boy Coop will be out on the bridge wing in the wind, singing “In South Australia I was born, heave away, haul away, South Australia round Cape Horn, bound for South Australia.”

For now, though, it’s just a long slow falling away, the sun bronzing the water, the whites of the shore burning whiter than ever. Out to starboard a long tongue of land, covered in smooth-domed snow, reaches out after us. To port and out around is nothing but open sea. Antarctica is fading away from us. Over in the distance a long flat berg is lit up by the late sun like a golden stretch of beach. A handful of others are dotted into the distance, lights down the runway, the final markers to trace out our farewell.

Yoicks. Tally-ho.



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2 Responses to South XIII: Over and out

  1. Simo says:

    and so it ends. I need not remind you of my jealousy.
    I’m going to ask you how it was and even you won’t be able to find the words…I bet.

  2. Geoff Lemon says:

    I wrote 15 000 of them and I don’t think I’ve conveyed five percent of how it felt.

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