Day 5: Penguins
Overnight the weather conditions worsened and our intended destination of Wilhelmina Bay was overrun with ice. Instead, we continued to Cuverville Island, home to multiple Gentoo penguin colonies. Unfortunately, we could not land on the island due to strong winds of around 30 knots with gusts up to 56 knots. Our captain steered us to the leeward side of the island and we were able to do a zodiac cruise instead.
Before the cruise, I attended a lecture on penguins from the resident ornithologist. There are 17 species of penguins in the world. Except for some individual Galapagos penguins, all wild penguins live exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere. The Antarctic Peninsula is home to six species of penguins. On this cruise, we would attempt to see two species: chinstrap and Gentoo. We were not going to see any emperor penguins, which live far from water. During the short summer season, the birds mate, nest and raise their young. During the winter when Antarctica essentially doubles in size due to the sea ice, the penguins remain at sea. Penguins cannot fly, but are adept swimmers.
On our cruise, we saw seals, at least 1,000 Gentoo penguins on land, Gentoo penguins swimming in the ocean, and tons of icebergs in a dramatic bay. While disappointed by not being able to land, I quickly realized that the decision was the right one when the zodiac briefly pulled into the 56 knot gusts on the windy side of the island.
Solan then announced that it was time for the Polar Plunge, where guests could willingly jump into the 28 degree Antarctic waters (salinity brings down the freezing point). According to a poster near the dining room, the Polar Plunge would improve both my immune system and sex life. Always up for the challenge, I decided to do it – as did 67 other passengers or half the ship.
After waiting in a long line, I finally reached the gangway where we load zodiacs to go on shore excursions. The gangway was open to the air so I was very cold at this point. When it was my turn, I stripped down to my bathing suit. Then the expedition staff put a harness on me in case I couldn’t get out of the water.
I walked down the metal staircase to the water to the sound of cheers from my fellow passengers. Yes it was cold, but I couldn’t show it. I reached the bottom of the staircase and on the count of one..two..three..three-and-a-half, plunged into the frigid Antarctic water.
The water was as cold as advertised. Luckily, I was out in under 10 seconds. As I walked up the stairs back to the boat, I hooted back to the spectators.
Back in the boat, I was given a towel, commemorative patch and shot of vodka. I downed the shot and walked back to my room to get in the shower. My body was chilled to the bone for about 5 minutes before I recovered and felt refreshed. Was it worth it? Oh yeah! Would I do it again? Probably.
A couple hours later, we were ready for our final landing of the day: Danco Island. This snow covered island was home to thousands of Gentoo penguins. As we looked out towards the island, snow began to fall at a moderate rate. This was exactly how I imagined Antarctica would be.
The zodiac quickly cruised past icebergs towards the shore. We spotted one seal hanging out in the water. Solan the expedition leader once again greeted us at the shore. We stepped into the water and then walked onto the ice. Immediately we were greeted by penguins.
Four gentoo penguins walked over towards me. Their awkward steps were so cute. When they got to about five feet away, they stopped, looked around, and eventually wandered away. This was so magical.
Then I wandered up a gigantic hill towards a large colony with a few hundred penguins.
I climbed all the way up to the tippy top of the mountain. It was probably 300 vertical feet above the shore. Here at the top of this small frozen kingdom were three smaller penguin colonies. I felt like I was in the video game Mario 64 and would not have been surprised at all had I been greeted with a star by a giant penguin king.
I hung out here for a while and sunk it all in: here I was at the top of a snowy mountain island with snow falling surrounded by hundreds of penguins. What could be more amazing than this?!?! I stayed up here for nearly 45 minutes before wandering back down the mountain and towards the shore.
After dinner, I heard a lecture/slideshow from one of the staff members who spent a winter in Vostok Station. This Russian (then Soviet) station has the distinction of being the coldest inhabited place on earth. Temperatures regularly hit 70 degrees below zero. How or why anyone would go to those temperatures was beyond me. He talked not only about his winter in Antarctica, but also about extraordinary winters that other faced where problems occurred and help could not arrive because it was too cold for aircraft to land. Some of these problems included altitude sickness and in one case the diesel generator breaking and everyone spent 2 months with just a stove to heat the station.
My favorite story from his lecture was when a plane was going to visit from the American South Pole station at the end of his winter. The Americans asked the Russians what they wanted as a gift. Having spent months in an all-male environment, the men of Vostok asked if the Americans would bring a woman along on the flight. The Americans responded by bringing an all-female crew and a blow up sex doll. The doll lasted one night.
The take home message was that the interior of Antarctica is much much colder than the coast and only crazy people would want to spend significant amounts of time there.
When I returned to the cabin, Michael had turned on Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle and I almost died of laughter. The movie had become somewhat of a joke ever since I watched it twice in its entirety on the first day at sea. Since then I have watched it in bits and pieces nearly every day and could now recite about half the lines in the movie. Michael has consistently been making fun of me for still watching the movie. But there he was watching the final scenes where Eggsy and Galahad storm Poppy’s base in Cambodia and save the world. It was a beautiful moment.