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The black pebble beach
The black pebble beach

An Antarctic Safari - Page Two

On another solo excursion, hiking for hours along a 100-foot wide, black pebble beach sandwiched between a soupy bay of iceberg bits and a half mile-high glacier, another penguin theme materialized.

Antarctic shores are littered with whalebones, the disturbing legacy of a merciless, now outlawed whaling industry. Often, you see several penguins holding court, ceremony style, near upright whale vertebra.

Once you develop an eye for it, you notice many penguin tributes to departed whales. They guard the bones. So as I sat there with two hundred penguins, some guarding whale remains, others umpiring tag or anticipating seal awakenings, it also dawned on me that this penguin/seal coexistence is a metaphor for some American marriages: the hunter lazily lounging amongst their prey.

Fur seals resemble handsome, hairy, mouse-faced dolphins with amphibious flippers and a rotting sardines/musk scent. Know someone like that?

Tag, both waddle and toboggan mode, rouses sleeping seals, which is like rousing someone hungover and not in the mood to assert territory, find the remote control, or defend their partiality for breeding harems. [Note: Female leopard seals, for instance, outsize and outweigh males times two at 12 feet/1,300 pounds (3.6m/590kg)].

The penguins colonize within feet of the potentially deadly seals, but keep the peace. Many potential volatile situations are brushed under the carpet, likely to surface later in therapy.

The Lords of the Ice breed and breathe here. Antarctica is the iceberg factory of the southern ocean: lips of gigantic glaciers slowly creep forward to oceanic edges as rivers of ice and break off in chunks ranging from car-sized bits to the 183x15-mile (294x24km) behemoth that recently broke from the Ross Sea ice shelf, and has since broke into a few pieces, each one still bigger than Connecticut.

On average, there are 350,000 bergs in the Southern Ocean. Some are perfect rectangles, icy sea buttes, other are Gaudiesque sculpted masterpieces – every one of them a beguiling Rorschach test.

Guarding the whale bones
Guarding the whale bones

Ninety percent of an iceberg looms underwater where nearly frozen seawater melts, polishes and sculpts the undersea portion until the berg becomes top-heavy and flips/inverts to expose unfathomable frosty art.

Organic material trapped in ice dictates color hues from green to blue to black ice, which is actually crystal clear. Then the mighty wind takes its turn sculpting.

Constantly evolving glaciers and icebergs also resonate with personality soundtracks including creaking doors, bellowing groans, quaint moans, accelerating clicking, big bolts being tightened, and hammering. None mimicked cell phones, alarm clocks, newscasts or human whining.

Getting to and fro the ultimate disconnection from civilization requires crossing the infamous Drake Passage – the tourist filter. The two- to three-day journey from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica leaves Ushuaia, Argentina via the Beagle Channel and spans the turbulent intersection of the Atlantic and Pacific with predictable gale or storm force winds and gigantic swells.

This ocean crossing – an undulating plain of dark blue aquamarine might – heaved, pitched, rocked and rolled the ship as if it were inside a slow motion paint-shaker; the tilt alarm sounded when rolls exceeding 40-degrees.

Quark expeditions leases Russian icebreakers.
Quark expeditions leases Russian icebreakers.

Crossing the Drake, as 30-foot swells crashed across the deck and onto the bridge’s windshield, I bonded with the captain and brushed up on my Russian. Standing outside on the roof of the bridge, in the midst a raging sea of tidal waves tossing the 229 x 42-foot (69.7 x 12.8m) ship around like a toy, was more than an adrenaline rush.

I sensed a tinge of what pioneering explorers faced for years: the unknown. The Tilt-O-Whirl obstacle course encouraged most of the 45 passengers to be either strapped into their beds or lumber about the ship wearing mild panic faces and be far less chatty than usual.

Locomotion for the daunted during the crossing resembled severely intoxicated, loopy, spastic zombies. The journey to Aunt Arctic was queasy for some, but not the albatross, who can weather any storm, have wingspans approaching 12 feet, and go seven years without touching land.

Departing the peninsula for the return trip to the tip of South America was a grand finale: groups of penguins swimming like porpoises, seals peering from mini iceberg islands, whales breaching in every scan of the horizon, flocks of low-flying birds, and a setting sun behind alien clouds. All on cue.

The Antarctic ice sheet holds ninety percent of the world's ice.
The Antarctic ice sheet holds ninety percent of the world's ice.

By the way, several species of whales are making comebacks here. Though they’re upstaged by penguins, it’s equally earth-shaking when your kayak or zodiac gets close enough for them to roll over on their backs and look at you – and then smell their breath. Whales won’t flip a kayak or zodiac unless either looms above a sleeping whale that is disturbed and awakened.

There’s no one to stamp your passport here; the white continent remains as ripe for exploration and adventure as when the first Europeans reached its icy shore two centuries ago. Unspoken: it’s still the place to understand, this is how our faultless planet intended on passing time, enduring eons.

Polar travel is a flash into an inexplicable, magical ice kingdom dream. The south continent is the where you truly get away from it all.

But it’s not all magic down here. In this age of extinctions, the southern ocean’s icy breath blows a wake up call: Global warming and the ozone hole widening over Antarctica are arguably the most alarming problems facing all life on earth.

If this ice sheet were to melt completely, the accumulated water would lead to a mean sea-level rise of 197 feet (60m) throughout the world, drowning many of the major global cities and leading to massive displacement.

I came face-to-face with the urgency of melting ice. The U.S. government is in total denial that our neglect is accelerating the melting of the icecaps, especially after the Kyoto Protocol was ratified and the USA was the only first-world holdout.

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