An Antarctic Summer

In ContactZone

By Gracie Bouker


Antarctica has two seasons: summer and winter. My friends and I planned to wake up at three in the morning to see the sunrise, without realizing that the sun never sets in the summer. We wake to a pink haze that hovered over the horizon all night long. Where am I? 

*

The expedition leaders inform us that they will be called expedition leaders because this is an expedition. There is a tentative plan laid out, but each plan will have a subsequent plan B, C, D, E, and F. Antarctica is unpredictable, they say. The weather doesn’t depend on our plans. The biggest threat to our plans, they explain, is the wind. 

*

Crystal mountains pierce the blue sky and restless, aqua glaciers shimmer in the glassy, turquoise water. A shadow passes over the unyielding sun and I look up, expecting to see a dragon in all its glory. Shiny wind tangos atop the glittering snowbank, and the colony of unbothered, extraterrestrial penguins sitting at the peak of the island leaves me paralyzed. 

*

As I rock with the waves that night, I turn on Bob Goff’s audiobook Love Does. Even though we’ve never met, he feels like an old friend. He tells me, “It makes me wonder if the trees and mountains and rivers are things He planned in advance, knowing they would wow us.” If only Bob could see Antarctica.

*

At dinner, I hear a woman complain that her boyfriend lost his glove outside.  

*

Even in the summer, it’s cold enough to freeze my eyebrows in place. I wear three pairs of socks under my boots, leggings and sweatpants under my snow pants, three thermal layers under my monster coat, two buffs to protect my neck and face, gloves, and a hat under my hood. But more than the freezing air, the wind is what chills us to the bone. I don’t mind, though. How could I? 

*

I quickly befriend a couple from Michigan. They purchased their tickets two years ago, they tell me. They planned on purchasing the tickets one year in advance, but that would have cost an extra 7,000 dollars. They almost missed the cruise because of flight complications on one of the three connecting flights here. Thankfully, they made it. Who knows if a refund would have been possible.  

*

I love how the penguins walk with their arms spread out, fall on their faces, hop over snow, walk extreme distances just to pick up one tiny rock for the nest, live in colonies with other species of penguins, mate for life, guard their eggs with ferocity, and wait months for their mates to return. I’d never been a penguin fanatic… but I’ve fallen head over heels. 

*

The directors of my study abroad program probably got a discounted price for buying a package of 16 spots on the small ship so far in advance. We are the youngest passengers. The rest came alone or in pairs. Many happen to be older Americans and Europeans finally crossing off “Visit all 7 continents” from their bucket list. Some of us are, too.

*

Before and after each disembarkment, we disinfect our rubber boots. We step in a pool of disinfectant. Then, we rub the boots against bristles to get all of the penguin poop out of the crevices. Parasites live in penguin poop and cross-contaminating these parasites across islands could be devastating to penguin populations. We step in another pool. We rub again. We step. One of the leaders hoses down the soles as a final precaution. 

*

If the passengers who purchased this expedition had the opportunity to visit the crew members, would they take it? Eight men spend day and night below deck. They make the ship run. Generating electricity. Purifying water. Heating water. Moving the boat. Lowering the anchor. Fixing sinks. Every maintenance detail falls under their care. These eight employees wear earplugs to block out machinery that will nonetheless damage their hearing for life. Nobody thinks about these eight employees. 

*

I am just beside myself in awe. Looking out the window, I can see the majesty of glass mountains and Dr. Seuss icebergs all around me and this can’t be real. Cobalt blue water bursts into an electrifying hue next to the pale icebergs. I cannot believe the immensity and glory of this place. 

*

Some of us came to cross “Antarctica” off our bucket lists and take in the sights, but the directors brought us here to learn. We spend our days on the ship recounting our observations, noting different species of animals we see, meeting the captain, attending every lecture that the expedition leaders offer, debriefing after each disembarkment, taking a survey involving the passengers and the environment, and presenting our findings amongst ourselves.

*

Deception Island is a caldera on the northern edge of Antarctica. Black sand gives way to a dark beach. Waves crash against the rocky edges of the volcano nearly submerged in water. Its “u” shape makes it seem like an island, but it’s an illusion. We enter Deception Island unchallenged. Enormous, rustic tanks that used to contain whale blubber for sale dominate the landscape. Everything in their midst is sepia. This is Whaler’s Bay. Snow falls in angry flurries and the wind bites harder than it has. Within minutes, my toes are numb to the core. Still, the growth of moss in this place and the idea of Swedish whalers in the early 1900s taking residence here leaves me breathless. How did they survive without heat and insulation as we know it today?   

*

Leopard seals are known as the most dangerous Antarctic animal, alongside Killer Whales. They can weigh up to 1,000 lbs., measure up to 10 feet long, and they can swim up to an astonishing 29 miles per hour. These solitary animals are vicious and lethal, toying with their victims before devouring them. And yet, when I came face to face with a leopard seal in the water, circling my raft not more than five feet away , I couldn’t help but notice its gentle smile, spotted face, and easy grace in the water. 

*

I notice that I spend a lot of time behind the screens of my camera and my phone. I notice that everyone spends a lot of time behind the screens of their cameras and phones. I yearn to be present. That night, I set a goal for the next day: 10 pictures. That’s it. I will not take multiple pictures of the same scene. I will not take pictures of everything that takes my breath away. I will not be disillusioned by the idea of remembering each detail, because even with a photo, I won’t. 

*

I can’t get over how blue the water is. 

*

A penguin waddles towards me. Its arms are stretched out and it leans left, right, left, right. It stumbles on a patch of snow taller than its legs. My heart flutters. I itch to take my phone out of my pocket to take a picture. I ignore the itch. 

*

I slide my earbuds in and close my eyes. “I wonder if He thought each foggy morning, each soft rain, each field of wildflowers would be a quiet and audacious way to demonstrate His tremendous love for us.” I replay his sentence over and over. “… a quiet and audacious way to demonstrate His tremendous love for us.” It becomes my mantra. I think of the penguins’ waddle. Of the straits and mountains reaching the heavens, how I stood with my camera in front of my face trying to capture my surroundings so I’d never forget them, and had to force myself to lower the screen so I could truly be surrounded. Beauty and feelings of awe are some of the many ways God shows us he loves us. “… a quiet and audacious way to demonstrate His tremendous love for us.” How could I have not seen that before? 

*

Trails in the snow created by penguins are called penguin highways. They make walking up and down and across the landscape much more efficient for the short-legged penguins. In the tall snow, the highways look like little tunnels. Despite the cold, my heart melts in my chest. 

*

There is one captain of the ship and four co-captains. The youngest is 22 years old. The girls and some of the boys trail him with their eyes. Some work up the courage to talk to him. After each exchange, the girls swoon and giggle amongst themselves. The captain is glorified. He steers the ship. He makes the decisions about where to go. But who runs it?  

*

We were instructed not to walk on or even touch the penguin highways. But since humans are allowed to exist in this place, penguin police are necessary to protect the highways from humans who walk on them anyway. 

*

Punto Portal is surreal. White, glistening, windy, mountainous, immense. Perfect. I want to fall at my knees and thank God every time I blink.

*

We asked a question on our survey about global warming. Many responses resembled, “animals can adapt to changes in temperature better than humans because they reproduce faster and because they have been doing so for the last 40 million years.” The only correct response was that global warming will affect krill most negatively, and as the base of the food chain, all of the animals that eat them. The truth is, the temperature changes are not following the normal pattern that we have seen over thousands of years. Dying penguins are not adapting.

*

One of the expedition leaders asks if a plastic camera cap is mine. He found it in the snow. It must have fallen off of someone’s camera unnoticed. I shake my head.

*

Our ship is small. Only 90 passengers are allowed on because it makes disembarkments easier. Larger ships have longer disembarkments, meaning that they spend longer in the same place, limiting the overall amount of places they get to see. Some are so big that disembarkments aren’t allowed at all; they only see the penguins through binoculars. And while that might seem like a bummer, those cruises are less costly—for the bank account, and for the environment. Our small ship would litter 8,000 liters of fuel per day on our 10 day trip, meaning that each person would have emitted 8.45 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or 540 metric tons in total for our expedition. Un montón, the Argentinian crew might have said, if they knew. 

*

I notice my favorite couple at dinner and sit by them. They missed a disembarkment. They decided to sleep in. This is vacation, after all.   

*

I notice a daughter and her mother on the ship. They carry cameras equipped for the Grammys. The first time I saw them, the daughter was posing and the mother was behind the camera. Each time I see them after that, a photoshoot is underway. 

*

I ask two of my friends about their thoughts—what is the biggest takeaway from Antarctica so far? They shift in their bolted-down seats before revealing that this place has been incredible— unbelievable, even—but that they feel tension about being here because of what we’ve learned about the environmental impact of travel. I grimace and feel the same weight in my chest. 

*

“He shapes who we become with what happens to us along the way.”

*

There is not one single day on the entire trip that goes according to the original plan. One day, we don’t disembark at all. There was too much wind to land. Another day, our entire path is blocked by sea ice that has yet to melt. Nature yields to no one.

*

I never really thought about the environmental impact of flying a plane across the world or going to Antarctica. Like most people here, I didn’t know a cruise ship could directly contribute to climate change. I suppose if I knew how damaging my actions would be, I might not be here. Relief and remorse are the consequences of my ignorance. 

*

As we wait to be dragged away from the continent for the last time, I notice a man venturing off the designated trail. He walks with his camera occluding his vision towards a Weddell seal, bathing in the southern sun. Seals anywhere near bodies of water are lethal, and this one lies not far from the shore. The man continues approaching, but stops between the seal and the shore—the most dangerous place possible. Idiot. The expedition leaders call for him to return. To get away from the godforsaken seal. To stop valuing photos above his life and the well-being of everyone there. They yell even though yelling in Antarctica is forbidden: it disturbs the naturaleza. He doesn’t turn around. The seal starts flopping. We hold our breath. Finally, the man takes a step back. 

*

Acidification. Contamination. Carbon emissions that lead to change in climate. Habitats are disappearing and species are dying exponentially more quickly than in history. This is how we treat a gift of wonder? Maybe if we knew what we were capable of, we could take better care of our home, which is home to so much more than just humans. 

*

We’re in the Drake Passage again, the roughest patch of ocean in the world because it’s where the Pacific, Atlantic, and Antarctic oceans meet, with no body of land to buffer their rage. Thirty-eight hours (at the very least) of sure misery. Thirty-eight hours (at the very least) of swallowing my guts and rolling in bed instead of wishing Antarctica the best. Plus, we are leaving the most spectacular place on earth. The lyrics from the song my closest friend showed me the night before, “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere,” echo in my mind: 

Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere
 in the middle of who knows where, 
there you’ll find…

Something in the middle of nowhere, 
in the middle of clear blue air, 
you found your heart, 
but left a part of you behind

*

I left pieces of my heart with the waddling penguins and elusive whales and in the glorious mountains and in the turquoise glaciers, with the dragons that I never saw but surely felt. I swipe through photos that attempt to capture the reality of this fantasy land but fail. I clutch the ache in my chest knowing that I can never return. Antarctica is not pristine—not anymore. Each brief moment of contact with human presence further destroys its essence. What have I done? 

1 Comment

  1. Ahhh Gracie… you, my friend, are “… a quiet and audacious way that God demonstrates His tremendous love for us.” Your writing is exquisite. I’m just blown away by you. Thank you for taking me to Antarctica!! I’m so blessed.

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