Day 7: Natural Contradictions

March 12, 2017:

Robert Swan may have been the first explorer to walk to both the North and South poles, but I’m pretty sure our team is going to be the first in history to complain about it being too hot in Antarctica. Sure, it is the end of summer in Antarctica, but as you have gathered by now, our classic benchmarks for conditions generally don’t apply to this continent. So it really is remarkable when we began to sweat through our base layers and voluntarily removed our jackets and parkas in Antarctica.

We had just arrived on Danco Island, a small piece of land with a small pebbly beach that turns into a rapid elevation rise. Hundreds of molting Gentoo penguins roamed the shore and could be seen hiking their way up the 600 foot elevation, navigating the icy slopes with surprising agility.  This is the furthest south that this species of penguins lives.

Upon disembarking on shore, we hiked upwards, anticipating the views we would get from the top. It was a cloudless day, the azure skies devoid of any blemish, and the sun smoldered above us. Sunrays rained down and reflected back on the ice, and as the morning hours waned, the unseasonable temperature began to climb to 40°F. As we trekked up the slopes, we struggled to get traction in our muck boots and stared in disbelief as the typically clumsy penguins expertly hopped their way past us.

The penguins were clearly unaccustomed to temperatures north of freezing — many of them panted or laid on ice to keep themselves cool. On my way up, I saw a sizable pool of melted ice water that had collected. This had become a summer resort for a group of rather energetic penguins who were enjoying a refreshing bathe in the heat. It was entertaining to stand there and observe the little guys splashing around and bowling each other over, moving faster than their clumsy feet would allow.

After about 30 minutes of winding cutbacks through ice and rock, we made it to the “summit,” turned around and admired the sprawling vista unfolded in front of us. The blazing sun lit up the view — the ice glimmered, reflections of the mountains danced in the water, and far in the distance you could spot misty puffs of whale blows. It was magical to sit there, perched on a rock high above the landscape, as a bird would, taking in the massive scale of the pristine beauty in front of me.

On my descent, I witnessed some fascinating penguin interactions, between parent and child. The young chicks, still molting and unable to hunt for themselves, are entirely reliant on their parents to be feed. Similar to many other birds species, the adult penguins regurgitate food into the mouth of their young. When these chicks are slightly mature, however, they actually chase the adults and beg to be fed. What ensued was a hilarious spectacle of the adults hysterically fleeing the young chicks in pursuit. Amidst the squawking and flapping both birds would trip, get back up and continue darting around. This ritual generally takes place for penguins that have multiple offspring, and it is quite an ingenious mechanism by which the parent can ensure both offspring are fed. Generally, a chick will only expend the energy to chase if they are truly hungry. Thus, if the stronger of the chicks has been fed, they will give up chase, and then the weaker chicks will have a chance for nourishment. Yet another way in which nature, the ultimate problem-solver, had devised an elegant solution to impose order.

But this natural order is contrasted by destructive chaos. After lunch, we relocated to Neko Harbor, a similarly picturesque overlook but this time also accompanied by a glacier known to be actively calving. You may not realize it, but calving is a phenomenon that most of us are acquainted with. Think back to those epic National Geographic or Discovery Channel videos of massive glaciers splintering and crashing into the water underneath, generating a deafening sound — that is ice calving. The live experience was indescribable — you would catch a glimpse of what looked to be a small quantity of ice falling into the water. After a few seconds delay, a thundering crash would follow, amplified by sound waves rebounding off of the surrounding ice. The magnitude of sound never matched the seemingly small quantity of ice, reminding us that the event was visually deceiving. The glacier ice had been packed under massive amounts of pressure over thousands of year, becoming incredibly dense. What looked like small chunks of ice were actually countless tons of ice plowing into the ocean. The resulting tidal wave would cascade outward, shaking the scene.

On this journey I have watched nature create, sustain, and destroy. It is raw yet elegant, graceful yet devastating, uplifting yet humbling. I am brimming with these seemingly upside down contradictions, but now can only ask myself a single question — how can mankind’s fleeting existence ever exert any kind of control over such a superior force?

I am reminded of the closing lines of a poem by Walt Whitman:
“What good amid these, O me, O life?

    Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

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