March 11, 2017:
The preeminent question I get asked about journeying to Antarctica is, “How cold is it?” Sure, it is frigid, and this is only summertime, but there is something different about experiencing the bone-chilling cold that comes from plunging your exposed body into the icy waters in Antarctica. To dispel any sort of confusion on whether the water is cold, I did a polar plunge in the sub-freezing water of Antarctica. Yes — it’s pretty chilly.
We lined up in the corridor of the ship in our swimwear, huddled together, trying to hold on to our body heat, as we awaited our turn to jump off the ship into the ocean. For those familiar with my disinclination towards roller coasters, I most closely equate the feeling of anticipation with the anxiety of waiting in line at amusement parks.
Soon it was my turn to stand on the gangway, primed to jump. I took a scan of my surroundings: a steep mountain covered in ice and glaciers, an ice field scattered across the water in front of me, and the fins of two humpback whales protruding about 100 feet away. I pointed at the cameraman, took a deep breath of the sharp air and plunged into the icy waters.
As much as I tried to prime myself to relish the feeling of the water, my natural instincts wouldn’t have it. After a moment of numbness while my body tried to figure what exactly it was feeling, literally every muscle in my body began to contract and all sensation slowly dampened. I popped my head above water, looked up at the sky and then as quickly as it all happened, my body flipped into survival mode, forcing me to scramble back to the gangway.
You don’t really feel the cold until you are back on land, as the air bites every wet surface. But it didn’t bother me, as the camaraderie in the air was intoxicating. The team celebrated each person as they clambered back on board, shivering from having pushed themselves to the brink of their physical limits.
It’s pretty upside down when you think about it — that voluntarily subjecting ourselves to the elements breeds more community and sense of accomplishment than most everyday activities. But perhaps that is the beauty of mankind. That when we are faced by circumstances that challenge us equally, we transcend our barriers, affiliations, and differences to support each other in overcoming a common challenge. That same human spirit is what leaves me optimistic about our ability to address one of our greatest challenges — our changing climate.
Polar plunge aside, the day brought another moving experience. Earlier in the day, we explored a part of the “Iceberg Graveyard,” sailing through the picturesque Lemaire Channel and navigating around Booth Island. Hundreds of icebergs populate the vista, all of different shapes, colors, and gravity-defying formations. Our guide navigated us to the center of a number of these icebergs. She turned off the motor, and suddenly we heard the waves lapping at the sides of our boat, the crackle of the ice, and the muffled grunts of crab-eater seals lounging on the ice. For ten minutes, we meditated, becoming acutely aware of our breath, presence, and the raw but pristine nature surrounding us. It was a powerful moment, and one I can’t quite articulate. But if there are a few moments that will be forever engrained in my memory, this was one of them.
Post-polar plunge, the day was capped with definitively the most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed. Our ship navigated a narrow channel as the setting sun highlighted towering peaks all around us with brilliant hues of pink and orange. The pallet of colors reflected in the glassy, undisturbed waters, occasionally punctuated by the ripples caused by a surfacing penguin.
At the beginning of the journey, many told me that “you leave your heart in Antarctica.” But I’m getting the feeling that one actually has little choice in the matter — Antarctica takes it from you.