This is our last day in Antarctica. Everyone knows it. A mood of finality has settled in. We are quiet, contemplative. The Multanovskiy is anchored in Paradise Harbor. It is, as Martin tells us in his soothing voice in the morning, yet another beautiful day, but the weather is changing. Clouds are coming in and the staff is hinting of bad weather out in the Drake. Our trip home may be rough, so get your pleasure in while you can.
Our plan for the day is to hang out a bit here in Paradise Harbor, stop at Useful Island and then haul ass out to the Drake to get an afternoon start on fighting the wind.
Most of us hiked up a steep snow slope to a rocky outcrop which looks out over the water. There is very little ice in the very deep water. I walk away from the whirring and clicking cameras and find a quiet spot with a view down the cliff. I can see the rocks below the water, green and pulsing with life that is so hard to see (beyond the penguins) above the water.
Then from somewhere I can hear the blow of a whale. I start looking. I hear it again. Then I see it: below the surface I can see the full body of a minke whale. It's huge and swimming with such lazy grace. Selfishly I want to keep the experience to myself, but I get over it and wave people over. Together some few of us bask.
Then it is time go down the hill. We slide down on our butts. A few more pictures of penguins (gentoo). And then on to Useful Island. Goodbye to the Antarctic continent.
This is our last landing. The quiet mood from the morning is now even more still, more silent. Once on land everyone splits off for their own place of solitude. The island is made of up slippery, treacherous rocks; deep, treacherous snow; and stinky, treacherous penguin doo. There's more shit here than we've seen anywhere else. As the snow melts, successive layers of guano melt down to join a layer underneath.
No one cares. It is beautiful here in its own unique Antarctic way. I head for the other side of the island where I sit with a gentoo (pictured above) and watch the small icebergs go by. The weather is cooler than it has been in quite a while. We have snow and ice. We have penguins. Across the water are snow covered mountains. We are still in Antarctica.
As I sit I worry and fantasize about being left behind. No one can see me here. In some alternate universe the many safety systems (counting life jackets, the shore tags on the ship) could fail and I could be left behind to fade into Antarctic History. I'm too responsible and start looking for Sean.
He's being doing the same sorts of things, staying away from people, and I feel bad for intruding. We separate again but keep each other and the landing point in sight. It's clear that people are starting to gather for the return but if there are a few more minutes I want to milk them. I fall over in the snow a few times.
Finally we must leave. Later on the ship I write:
We're on our way home now. The waters are more rough than last time. Thus far not too bad, but we're expecting some roughness.
Our last landing, on Useful Island, I didn't want to leave. I stayed until the last minute. I do not want to go away from this place. It is so full of what seems to be a very simple life. A small number of different plants and animals living a very interdependent life in a harsh but simple seeming world.
I looked out on the icy mountains earlier today and realized I like it here because it is a small number of stimuli. It is water colors, snow colors, rock colors, penguin colors.
Land is still in sight. We're near the Melchior Islands. Someone has spotted a pair of humpback whales. Everyone rushes to the front deck or the bridge. It's built into our collective consciousness: Humpbacks are special. And they are today. They show us. We guess that it is a mother and child. The captain pilots the boat in extraordinary ways. We get many views of blowholes, fins and huge tails. I do not try to get photographs. My camera is too slow and the sense of the moment would never fill a lens. The experience is as much about our recognition of something special as is it about what we see.
And with that we head out to rough seas. People take their drugs or apply their patches and settle in for what is expected to be a rough night. Tomorrow will be December 26th, 2006 on the Drake Passage.