Martin wakes us to announce our arrival at Deception Island. His voice, as we are learning, is calming but with a gentle sense of urgency: "Get up sleepers or you're going to miss something. This is your only chance. In your entire life." Many people go on deck to watch our passage through the small gate in volcanic walls.
We've been told that today we will get to swim. Deception Island is the target for getting into Antarctic waters: these are heated by an active volcano. We can see we are in a volcano, but the evidence of heat is somewhat lacking.
But first a landing to have a look around. This is a fairly desolate place, it is the inside of a volcano after all, but it has a subtle beauty. The kayakers head off for the first time while the rest of us walk up a hill for a view.
For much of our walk we are on ashy gravel that is covering and insulating permanent ice coming down from the hills above. There is no penguin colony here. There's really nothing here but us. The remains of an old whaling factory can be seen way off in the distance. A Chilean base that was wiped out by the volcano. Another base that's been abandoned, probably because of lack of funding. These things are far away. It's just us here.
There are a few seals when we walk down the hill, and a few stray penguins here and there. Despite their size, it is hard to know a seal is there when you aren't paying attention. They blend in to the rocks, gravel and sand.
To me the penguins look like they are waiting for someone or something to come and take them away. One penguin stares off into the water at the kayakers. A single penguin appears to yearn, while penguins in their thousands, those are at home.
We have to get to the swimming location and do our business there and move on: this is a popular location and we need to get out of the way.
So we hop on the zodiacs and head for a steaming beach. At the water's edge it is warm. Older expeditions used to dig a hot tub there in the sand: damn things up, create a little pool, hop back and forth between the hot and the cold. Quark doesn't do this anymore. Too conscientious.
(I learn, later in the airport, that some other expedition company still does the hot tub thing. Our guides were scrupulous about always doing the right thing, and I liked it.)
Those of us who plan to swim have come with our bathing suits under our gear. I'm wearing a fair amount. It's not super cold (maybe 32 F, 0 C or thereabouts) but riding around in the zodiacs can kick up some wind. I have wellies, waterproof pants, fleece pants, hat, neck gaiter, gloves, glove liners, parka, shirt, heavyweight long underwear shirt, and swim trunks.
The plan goes something like this: strip down to bathing suit, hoppity skippity into water, take a full plunge, swim around a bit, get photo taken, run out get towel and tea with rum in it from staff, dress, done.
I undress. It is indeed cold. I make my way to the water's edge. The sand there is hot. Hot like black asphalt in summer in the hot parts of the world. Too hot to stay still. I step in the water. The water is not hot. No, definitely not hot. I shuffle to where it is deep enough and dive in and swim around a bit. I stand up and head back to shore. I stand around on the sand. I begin to realize I'm not cold. I stand there a while longer and wonder how this can be. I get towel, dry off some, and drink tea. I think about going back for another round. I'm still in my swim trunks. I'm increasingly confused.
Some small number of minutes pass as I watch others get in and then I realize I should dress.
We pack up, head back to the boat. Still feeling pretty good. We sail out of the caldera to the outside of the island. Martin wants to land us at a wide beach that heads up a green valley full of penguins but is concerned about conditions. The surf breaks on the beach. Scouts are sent out. Scouts come back wet. Good for surfing, not good for landing zodiacs.
We decide instead to go for a cruise in the zodiacs. This means riding around in the zodiacs looking for interesting stuff. It's beautiful. Birds. Sea stacks. Blue water. We land on a narrow beach in a secluded bay where the surf is not bad. The back of the beach is a high slope of ice and sand. We are at the back of the penguin colony we were planning to visit before. There are chinstraps here. They swim up to the beach and then climb the steep hill to their nests. A steep hill of fairly loose sand.
It is not very hard to get a closeup picture of a penguin. They are pretty chill: if you set yourself down on their pathways, they walk right past. It is, however, hard to get a good picture of a penguin with a camera that wants to do most things automatically: Exposure settings are quite hard to get right with a shiny white breast and a deep black back.
We have a very relaxed time on this beach. The penguins are in motion here, not nesting, so we can walk around without too much worry.
As we leave the beach we see the weather is starting to darken. Something is going to fall out of the sky soon and the wind is coming up. The Multanovskiy is parked in fairly open waters. Boarding from the zodiacs is hairier than it has been before.
Back on board, I realize that somewhere deep inside me, I'm cold. I take my one and only sauna of the trip. Delicious.
With dinner our day winds down. We'll make another overnight traverse of the Bransfield Strait back to somewhere on the peninsula. On December 23rd, 2006 we'll be at Danco Island. We're headed south and I'm glad of that. In my mind I think that south is where the real Antarctica lies.