Sunday, January 17, 2010
Yesterday I passed a milestone in my Antarctic career: the polar plunge. And it really is a plunge, not a wade. A group of entomologists is leaving this week, so they chose yesterday to do a farewell plunge, which was an excuse for lots of people to jump as well. We went one by one, and everyone was watching and taking pictures. We jumped off of a big inflatable bumper attached to the pier, a drop of about 12 feet. Once in the water, you have to swim about 20 yards to a ladder in order to get out of the water. When my turn came, the first step was to leap out onto the bumper that was rising and falling with the swell. Once out there, I looked down and got scared. If the water were fresh it would be frozen but the salt lowers the freezing point so that the seawater is still liquid at 32F. Lucky me!
The not-so-secret here is that I really don’t like cold water. So this whole story can be explained by two words: peer pressure. And what got me out on the bumper to begin with is also what made me jump. Knowing that everyone was waiting for me, I just did it. Otherwise I probably would have stood there shivering for several minutes, agonizing and prolonging the ordeal.
Instead, I found myself underwater, feeling what the boating coordinator here calls “the icy fire.” The whole world was blue-green but it was lighter in one direction so my goal was to find that light. When I finally popped up on the surface, I realized that I had swallowed quite a bit of seawater. I was struggling to breathe and it only got harder as I got colder. I finally reached the base of the ladder, timing my approach to the rhythm of the swell to avoid getting smashed against the metal pier. As I climbed up, I was thinking “compose yourself, compose yourself.” I didn’t want everyone to see my expressive face, expressing how cold and desperate for breath I was. But don’t worry, it was captured on more than one camera, and made for some friendly bar-banter later. The best part of the whole experience was running over to the hot tub afterwards. And it’s lucky that the hot tub is a converted aquarium, so that it easily accommodated all 11 of us.
I hope to see another polar plunge as I leave on the ship back to Punta Arenas. It is a tradition for Palmer residents to jump off the pier after the ship to give it good luck for a safe crossing of the Drake Passage. But Palmer doesn’t need much of an excuse to take the plunge – say the second Tuesday of the month that ends in the number 7 could be a reason for everyone to feel that icy fire. If one person decides to go for whatever reason, they will be guaranteed to have some followers.
In the hot tub, I discovered that several of my fellow jumpers are members of the 300 Club. This is the tradition of a very select group of people at the South Pole, who subject themselves to a 300 degree temperature gradient. They wait until the ambient temperature (not counting wind chill) is -100F, and then wearing only boots and a scarf around their mouth they run naked around the geographic pole marker, a distance about about 75m. The sauna is set to 200F, making a 300 degree temperature difference. Even with the lung protection they hack for hours afterwards. Still, according to those who have done both the polar plunge and the 300 Club, the water is more painful. This statement prompted speculation from others in the hot tub about the convective properties of water versus air, but I won’t repeat it here.