Wednesday, April 23, 2014


III.  Gray sea heaves under us and hard wind bites our faces as Austen and I sway in our ten foot inflatable boat.  Miles now from land, we belly over the side to pull in our samples - big gray bottles of seawater. High clouds cast us in a flat gray light, and across the whitecaps we see the jagged black mountains of the Antarctic peninsula.  As I pull in our last dripping bottle, we share a glance and Austen guns the motor, aiming for an island-sized iceberg between us and our little research station.  Forbidden, but irresistible: caves and towers and bluffs over the sea, painted a cool blue against the dark water.

Drifting in close, even from my perspective we seem to shrink.  It towers eighty feet out of the water, wider than an island, bigger than anything. Huge swells heave water onto the ice, where it whips over shining ice beaches and sprays off of icy cliffs.  The whole thing lunges up and down in the water, churning the sea around us.  We wanted to stand on it at least, but twenty feet away my heart washes out of me and I’m left drenched in cold, white fear.  Austen cuts the motor and we float, frozen.

II.  The last of the wind is finally dead and sunlight warms the sharp black rocks around our little research station.  Looking out the window of Lab Ten, I see the water beyond our pier is smooth – most of the ice that usually crowds our harbor has wandered out to sea – and birds swoop and play in the air.  Erin’s voice crackles over the intercom.  “Time for Kevin’s birthday jump!  People to the pier please!”  I grab a coat and push out into the sun.  Behind me, Andy comes down the hill from the shop, beaming beneath his bush of grey hair.  A crowd gathers around Kevin at our little gravel pier, standing ten feet above the frigid, ice-less water.

Kevin stalls, but we won’t have it, so he gives us an apprehensive grin and strips down to boxers and fur-lined boots.  One more look over his shoulder, and he bounds out onto the bobbing, giant black bumper that keeps ships from smashing against our rocks.  We cheer and yell and whoop, and he plunges ten feet down between a few remaining hunks of hard ice.  The shortest possible time after the splash, he is yelping and swimming hard for the ladder.  Throwing off our clothes, we leap, cavort, dive, and drop terrified into the cold salty water.  Those who couldn't be persuaded to join us grin from the balcony of the dining room, and across the harbor an elephant seal rolls over to watch.

I.  On the front deck of our giant orange ship, wind carries the diesel smoke and greasy food smell north, back towards Chile, so it just smells cold. The metal bulkhead’s chill seeps through my down jacket and sucks the warmth from my arms as I lean out over the smooth water.  Alone on the deck and grateful for the solitude, I gaze out into the thick fog that’s found us in the middle of the southern ocean. We've spent the last three days pitching and yawing and trying not to puke or fall out of our bunks, so this sudden calm is wonderful and eerie.  I know that Antarctica looms nearby, cloaked in this gray. Ice drifts silently out of the fog.  It is a flotilla of little flakes – a sheet of frozen ocean shattered by the swell and softened by snow.  As we push south, I hear distant clacks and pongs against the bow.