Sunday, January 24, 2010
So there are officially a big four hours without sunlight here now, and although it is still never dark, they do make it easier to go to sleep before 1am. But more importantly than that, it is much more appealing to sleep outside now that there is a short, dusky night.
Last night I went camping with four other people on an island near the station. It was a beautiful sunny day with very little swell so we threw a couple of tents and a stove and our sleeping bags in a boat. Some people who wanted to go out boating that evening dropped us off on Jacobs island. The first landing spot we looked at wasn’t protected from the swell enough so we chose a different one. Unfortunately, this one was even worse, and a large swell brought us onto the rocks and high-centered the boat. Standing in the unstable boat with the water surging around me, my heart got going pretty fast. Luckily we were able to get out of the boat safely, and one of the guys helped get the boat unstuck by wading out into the water. We all agreed to seal our lips about this debacle but Oops! I just told you. Can you keep a secret?
We had chosen this island to camp on because it has a flat campsite in an alley between two rock walls. We came upon what we thought was the place, and guess what? A female elephant seal had decided that this was a pretty nice spot too. She stared at us with her big beady eyes and and we got the point. Time to move on. But where? We scrambled over most of the island, getting shouted at by giant – and I really mean giant, over six foot wingspan – petrels and divebombed by territorial skuas. We stopped to watch a mama humpback whale pass by the island with her calf. Their backs rose so regularly that it was like watching a super slow motion carousel. Finally she spouted high into the air and we didn’t see her again. We eventually found a place to camp that was even better than the one occupied by the elephant seal, and set up our tents.
The island was made up of granite, cut by parallel sets of joints, and weathered into rounded lumps. There was no evidence of humans ever having been there before (although we know people have camped there before) and we felt alone with the seals, birds and whales. We climbed up to a high spot and watched the slow polar sunset. Pink washed over the snow banks on the adjacent island and highlighted the perfect peak and snow flutes of Mt Williams, towering over the cove. The waves appeared as wiggling black lines on the surface of a luminous silvery pool. Swallow-like storm petrels swooped around us. We shared a bottle of wine and lots of belly laughs. The sun sank imperceptibly and finally was a line hovering above the horizon that gradually got shorter and shorter until it disappeared.
I lost all track of time, so when we finally got too cold to sit around any longer and Rex said it was 12:40am I was sure he was lying to me. In any event, Amanda and I spent a cold night in our tent. But somehow the pebbles were in all the right places so I actually slept quite comfortably. When I got up to go to the bathroom, an Adelie penguin gave me a talking to on my way back. I was realizing that more than anywhere else, this place really feels like it belongs to the animals and we are just visitors. And in the morning the bossy penguin was gone.
After a tasty meal of breakfast burritos (remember this is like car camping – eat as well as you like!) we wandered over to a tidepool. Unfortunately the tide was too high to see much in the water, but a fur seal was sleeping nearby. I think she was planning to start her day at about the time we came by anyways, because she yawned, stretched and slowly lumbered over to the pool. Once in the water, she stretched her flippers and swam forward while turning her body like a corkscrew. She turned around and came back, doing another lap of corkscrews before finally exiting the pool through a chute filled with roiling water. It felt really special to see this fur seal go through her morning routine, warming her body up for the water like a swimmer might.
The wind had picked up overnight and the sky was overcast when our ride home approached. We threw the boat bags in and jumped after them before the zodiac could get caught on the rocks again. We had a rodeo of a ride back and circled a beautiful iceberg with a window in it, like the seastacks back home in California.
The opportunity to camp like this is unique to Palmer station and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience it. I hope that by my description of this night out in Antarctica I have been able to share with you at least some of my feeling of wonder.