I grab the Russian sailor’s massive forearm for stability while the Weddell Sea slams against the side of our vessel, tossing icy spears of water everywhere.
“Please, step control,” he says with a deep accent, pointing to the swell-lurching Zodiac bouncing below. It’s day three of our Antarctic expedition and although I have a major sinus cold I’m awestruck to be at the end of the Earth, about to take a rubber dinghy into the fog, blowing snow and haunting beauty that has both taken and awakened lives for centuries.
It’s summertime at latitude 64 south, longitude 62 west, and a balmy -4 C. The sea is teeming with marine life, a strange frozen aquarium of creatures, and us – middle-aged humans making our way down the bucket list.
There’s 100 of us adventurers in total, all giddily awaiting our landing on Almirante Brown, a old research station, in Paradise Harbor.
Through pounding waves we hide behind goggles, scarfs and each other, until someone spots a black bullet, then another and another. Suddenly, the sea is alive with slick Gentoo penguins leaping through the icy white foam like tiny missiles.
We land on the rocky continent and breathe in a sigh of relief. And that’s when the rancid ammonia of penguin poo hits like a punch to the nostrils. It covers the ground as far as we can see, like a thick, pink paste.
With our mitts covering our noses we hike up the snowy hill, past icy tributaries that flow down the side of the mountain. It’s here that I sit, just to the left of one of these pink veins – the penguin highway – and watch the birds hike back and forth, up and down, from the water’s edge on their endless quest for food.
Although fast, efficient and built for aquatic speed, on land the penguins look like overdressed geeks learning to moonwalk uphill. They shuffle and waddle on thin triangular feet, struggling to walk – let alone climb – with bellies full of fresh krill. Once on top they sit on their rookeries and regurgitate the mushy mess into the mouths of their fluffy, grey chicks, who scream for more. So they make their way back down the long vertical incline, step by step.
They stop an arm’s-length away from me and stare, giving me the once-over, like I am a traffic accident on their road of life. We take in each others’ strangeness, and when they’ve had enough the birds waddle off.
To sit and watch the penguins feed their young is like stepping back in time. As far as the eye can see is water, ice and snow. A symphony of noises fills the air: shrieks from the penguins, menacing yakking from the skua’s overhead, burping and yawning from the enormous Weddell seals.
For a moment, I feel as if I’ve been cast in a cartoon documentary – strangely connected but largely removed. I wonder what the penguins think of us, waddling around in our green wellies and blood red gear, slipping and sliding?
The weather is changing rapidly so we haul ourselves back into the soaked Zodiacs and leave. Everyone is smiling, but silent, looking back across the heaving ice, past the ancient bergs that rock slowly in the swell, to the continent where the penguins showed no fear of us strangers – just curiosity and a touch of frustration for having to detour around us on their never-ending trek along the penguin highway.
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