Ghosts of the Southern Ocean

By CARIN CLEVIDENCE

An image of the deck of a vessel on the South Atlantic Ocean

My mother cuts the outboard motor. Over the slap of waves on the boat’s black pontoon, I hear the fur seals barking. The cliffs are dotted with white albatross. Seals sprawl along the rocky shoreline: gray fur seals with black, rowdy pups, and brown elephant seals beached like massive timbers. Their smell carries across the water, a familiar, testosterone-laden stink, like a mix of musk and onion rings.

“See the try pots?” my mother asks. There are ten of us in the sixteen-foot-long Zodiac she’s driving, all in bright red expedition-issue jackets. On our way to Antarctica, we’re stopping at Elsehul Harbor at the northern end of remote South Georgia Island. Other Zodiacs cruise the harbor, and the red jackets and black boats stand out against the muted greens and browns. Here in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean, 1,200 miles from Cape Horn, there are no buildings, no cars, no telephone poles or cell towers. The landscape seems untouched by people. It takes me a minute to spot the three rusted cauldrons my mother’s pointing out, sunk amid the green tussock grass halfway up the seal-littered beach. A gull perches idly on the middle one.

From the end of the eighteenth century onward, both fur and elephant seals were hunted here in the Southern Ocean. The elephants, as sealers from England and New England called them, were killed for their blubber, rendered into oil in pots like the ones half-hidden now among the tussock grass at Elsehul. A single bull seal could produce eighty-six gallons. One of the earliest of these expeditions left London in 1792. As wild as this landscape seems to us, how much stranger it must have been for Captain Pitman and his crew. In a letter to a fellow sealing master, Pitman advises: “[B]e careful you are not deceived by the islands of ice.”

A gang of men, dropped off in a harbor like this one, would clear the beaches of seals in a matter of days. Fur seals were hunted not for blubber but for their skins. The sealers killed the bulls and cows, leaving the pups to starve, because, as Pitman writes, “[t]he small skins are of little value.” Both species were abundant and easily slaughtered. As for the sealers’ diet, Pitman notes the men “chose the hearts of the Elephants preferable to any other food.”

Pitman returned to England with fifty tons of seal oil and fifty thousand skins. Sealing in the Southern Ocean continued for over a hundred years, until there were too few seals left to turn a profit: commercial hunting on South Georgia ended only in 1913. When my mother first came here in the 1970s, traveling as a guest of her ornithologist father, a fur seal was a rare sight. Now their populations have recovered.

In the stern of the Zodiac, my mother gives a practiced tug on the cord, restarting the outboard engine. She drives easily, legs firmly planted, one hand on the throttle. Every winter for the past twenty-five years, she and my stepfather have worked on expedition cruise ships in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. Together with their naturalist colleagues, they pilot this fleet of small boats between the ship and the landing sites, or on excursions by water, like the one we’re doing now. My twelve-year-old son watches his grandmother keenly. This is the first time he has seen her at work, and I know he’s wishing he could drive the boat himself.

He and I joined the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina, in Tierra del Fuego, two days ago. If you picture Antarctica like a fist with a raised thumb pointing toward the South Atlantic, that thumb is the Antarctic Peninsula—the most accessible part of the least accessible continent. That’s where we’re headed after our stop here in South Georgia.   Since leaving South America I’ve been searching for signs of whales. Like the seals, they were also hunted to near extinction here. Unlike the seals, they have not recovered to anything like their former numbers. Elephant and fur seals rebounded, in fact, partly because the dearth of whales has resulted in less competition for food. Standing behind the wide window on the bridge, out of the way of the ship’s officers, I scan the rolling Atlantic, optimistically mistaking the crests of countless waves for distant blows.

Whales have fascinated me since the day my mother took me out of school to see a humpback washed up near our home on Long Island, New York. I was eight years old. The size of it stunned me. Later, working as a deckhand in the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, I got close enough to a living California gray whale to feel its massive, bumpy skin under my hand. That same season I saw a blue whale for the first time, as long as seven Zodiacs tied end to end.

In spite of their scant numbers, my mother has seen whales often over her long career on ships. Once a humpback mother and calf stayed beside her Zodiac for nearly an hour, curious and unafraid. In Paradise Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula, she found that minke whales would sometimes follow her boat if she drove it in a circle.

I’m hoping to encounter whales on this trip so my son can see them. Elusive and alien, with complex social systems and vocalizations we do not understand, whales inhabit a separate, parallel world. For me they’re a humbling reminder of the limits of human knowledge. In this, they remind me of Antarctica: largely unrevealed and endangered by human rapacity. Searching for a glimpse of a far-off spout, I want to reassure myself about the world my children will come of age in.

 

Like a fascination with natural history, working at sea runs in my family. In the 1970s my grandfather was hired as a lecturer and interpretive naturalist by Lindblad Expeditions on trips to remote places, including Antarctica. Back then, the Lindblad Explorer was the only cruise ship taking passengers there. Accompanying him in 1978, my mother met my future stepfather, who was working onboard as an able seaman. After I left home for college, the two of them started careers as freelance Zodiac drivers, hired by different travel companies around the globe.

Later I got a job with them, through nepotism and luck: the expedition leader on a Russian cruise ship needed an assistant at the last minute, and my mother recommended me. Fresh out of graduate school, living in an apartment by a gas station in Oakland, California, I jumped at the chance. I was in my twenties, enthusiastic and hopeful, eager to see the world. We spent the season making trips between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, stopping occasionally in the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. It was a heady, formative time.

Hired again the following year, I was on the ship when it ran aground off Chiloé Island on the coast of Chile on the way south. The season ended abruptly, and with it my cruise ship career. I got married, had children, wrote a novel, got divorced.

But the memory of the landscape never left me: a vast, unspoiled continent of which I had glimpsed only the fringes, the wind-swept islands and blue-tinged glaciers, the tabular icebergs, the snowcapped mountains of black basalt. Through the twenty intervening years, short on money and time, I dreamed about going back. Four years ago, I was able to bring my daughter, then aged ten. This season there was room onboard for me and my son at the discounted family rate. When I told him, he was thrilled but not surprised: as far as he’s concerned, traveling to Antarctica is his birthright.

We left Massachusetts and flew through Miami and Buenos Aires, finally boarding the ship in Ushuaia, hours late because of a flight delay. My tough-as-nails mother stood waiting at the top of the gangway, smiling so wide there were tears in her eyes.

 

Dear passen-ghers, the French captain exclaims over the loudspeaker. His disembodied voice, filled with benevolent authority, sounds like God. Dear passen-ghers, God tells us, I hope you will enjoy the penguins.

I’d forgotten the cacophony king penguins make. There are sixty thousand breeding pairs here at Salisbury Plain, a wide stretch of peaty ground between the sea and the glaciated inland mountains, on the eastern coast of South Georgia. The youngsters whistle their insistent complaints. The adults make a sound like thousands of kazoos. Their cries carry over the water.

We ride to the rocky beach in Zodiacs, and an army of red jackets disperses along the shore. The wildlife doesn’t bat an eye. Elephant seals lounge in a companionable huddle. One tosses sand over its molting hide with a lazy flick of its flipper. Fur seal pups scuffle by the water’s edge. Four king penguins weave past us in a stately line. They move slowly and with deliberation, placing their tough, scaly feet on the rounded stones.

While my mother drives passengers back and forth between the ship and the landing, my son and I walk up to the rookery. We skirt a low plain tufted with green tussock grass and dotted with the white fronts of king penguins. On the hill before us are clumps of brown where adolescent penguins band together in loose creches. Called oakum boys because the down that covers them resembles the rough brown fiber used to caulk ships, the young penguins look comically different from the sleekly elegant adults. Early explorers mistook them for another species entirely, believing they were covered not in feathers but in fur.

We’re strictly warned to keep at least fifteen feet from the wildlife. If an animal approaches us, though, we’re allowed to stay still. Up on dry land my son sits down quietly. Soon a king penguin chick shambles over, peering at him like a shortsighted old man in a tatty fur coat. Moving very slowly, my son extends an arm. He wriggles his wrist. The penguin chick leans over and pecks at his sleeve. Next it pokes inquisitively at his boot. My son catches my eye, ecstatic, trying not to laugh.

Farther up the beach, the ship’s polar historian sits on a folding stool. “Mind the seal,” he calls out, as groups of passengers approach a large male fur seal dozing nearby. Unperturbed by the traffic, the seal is nearly stepped on half a dozen times.

Bones lie scattered among the guano-splattered rocks, little memento mori. A giant petrel jabs at the carcass of a black fur seal pup. The living ones seem like overgrown puppies, more playful than threatening. Then we pass too close and one charges. Suddenly I’m looking down at a fierce, bristly face with quivering whiskers and liquid black eyes. My heart pounding, my body remembers what to do. Drawing myself to my full height, I clap my hands as loudly as I can. The pup retreats with a grunt.

We reach the top of the low rise, and the vast rookery spreads below. A sea of penguins stretches toward the dark hills in one direction and down to the water in the other, tens of thousands of them. The smell of guano hangs in the air, and the whistling calls echo around us. The blue sky is edged with low clouds above the paler blue Atlantic. My mother joins us, and my heart swells as I take photos of her with her grandson against a backdrop of penguins and sky.

How much longer will she and my stepfather drive Zodiacs in the Southern Ocean? I wonder. She is seventy years old. It pains me to imagine them one day hanging up their hip waders and balaclavas, spending the winters at home.

Entering Cumberland East Bay, midway down South Georgia’s eastern side, we pass the British research base at King Edward Point. After days spent in the wilderness, I’m startled to see the roof of a building out my cabin window. A cluster of penguins stands in front of the door, like well-dressed Christmas carolers. At the base of the mossy hills and snow-streaked mountains lies the ghost town of Grytviken.

This jumble of buildings and rusted debris is all that remains of the heart of the Southern Ocean whaling industry. Before the advent of factory ships, which processed the carcasses at sea, whales killed off South Georgia were towed to shore for butchering. Of eight shore stations on the island, Grytviken was the first, the largest, and the busiest. When it opened in 1904, whales were so abundant the ships didn’t need to leave Cumberland Bay to harpoon them. Men once worked in shifts so the station could run twenty-four hours a day. A hydroelectric plant generated power for processing the enormous quantities of blubber, meat, and bones. Grytviken operated until December 1966, when whales had become too scarce to profit from any longer.

We land to the south of the old whaling station and follow a path up a mossy rise to the small cemetery. The ship’s bartender hands out shots of Dewar’s for a toast at Ernest Shackleton’s grave. Shackleton, known to his men as “the Boss,” died here in January 1922 on his way to Antarctica for what would have been his fourth expedition. Beside him lies Frank Wild, his unflappable right-hand man, whom Shackleton left in charge of the crew on Elephant Island before sailing eight hundred nautical miles to South Georgia for help. Raising our plastic tumblers, we chorus, “To the Boss.” (“To wives and sweethearts,” ran a popular toast of that time, the historian tells us. “May our sweethearts become our wives, and our wives remain our sweethearts.” Frank Wild’s version went: “To wives and sweethearts. May they never meet.”)

In Grytviken the massive, corroded tanks stand higher than the red-roofed buildings. Everywhere rusted, outsized equipment looms, abandoned in situ. The scale of it boggles the mind. From the bow of the old whale-catcher Petrel juts a massive harpoon. Along the shore stretches a wide flensing plan where entire whales were winched so men with specially designed knives on poles could strip off the precious blubber.

Converted into an open-air museum, the town feels safer and tidier than when I first saw it some twenty years ago. Young elephant seals called weaners spar and bellow in the water nearby, rolling their wide black eyes. Inland the white and green Norwegian church gleams with fresh paint, its roof recently restored. I remember finding bags of bone meal, ground from the skeletons of long-dead whales, spilled like whitish rubble across the floor of a tumbledown shed. Now most of the dilapidated buildings have been removed, and entry into the others is prohibited. Signposts guide and inform the tourists. But a haunted feeling lingers in the massive tanks and drums, in the winches brown with rust and the hillocks of gigantic chain, and the slowly sinking hulks of the ships docked in the harbor.

Among the species butchered here at Grytviken were blue whales, the largest animal that’s ever lived. The technology this required was far more complex than lances and try pots. Walking among the tumbledown evidence of this systematic and sophisticated extermination, I’m overcome by a sense of despair. When I first saw these ruins, they seemed to belong to the distant past. Now I understand them as part of a larger pattern of exploitation.

The old manager’s cottage houses a museum dedicated to the history of the whaling industry, as well as to the flora and fauna of South Georgia. Beside a row of sperm whales’ teeth, each as long as my hand, a whale’s dried eyeball sits. Mottled and brown, it resembles a desiccated grapefruit. On the same shelf, a humpback fetus, roughly the size of a rabbit, floats in a glass bottle like a pale ghost, its eyes closed, the embryonic flippers folded against its belly.

Around the corner, blubber hooks and flensing knives hang on the wall. Enlarged color photographs show men in oilskins hacking the carcass of a leviathan that dwarfs them. On the adjacent wall are bone rakes in three sizes. I’m struck with a combination of nausea and fascination at one of the most far-flung abattoirs in the world.

In its heyday, Grytviken supported a thousand workers. Besides whalers, there were radio operators, carpenters, masons, welders and electricians. Like Captain C. A. Larsen, founder of the station, many came from Norway, where whaling had long been practiced in the arctic. Often men were hired from the same town, some as teenagers barely older than my twelve-year-old son. One black and white photograph shows a boy standing next to a sheep. Ralph Summers, the caption says, in 1938, aged fifteen and a half years. He’s quoted below: “I went to the pictures one evening, when I came home my father was packing a kit bag and told me I was sailing that night … I cried all the way to South Georgia.

The men lived in a barracks and worshipped in the small Lutheran church. In their spare time they played soccer and went to the cinema, billed as The Most Southern in the World. They held skiing competitions, kept pet cats, darned their socks, got homesick. One of the exhibits—Illicit Still—shows how they made bootleg hooch.   

In my twenties my sympathy was only with the whales. I didn’t think about the men trying to make a living in dangerous conditions halfway across the world from home. Nor did I consider how family and circumstance often determine the work we find ourselves doing.

Outside the sun shines on a massive anchor, on try pots, harpoon heads, and spars. My son climbs into one of the pots until only his boots protrude. From inside I hear his muffled voice, instructing me to take a picture.

 

From South Georgia, we head southwest for two days toward the Antarctic Peninsula. Surrounded by the gray waters of the Southern Ocean, we float suspended, cut off from telephones and the internet, the routines we keep at home. Time seems to blur and fade.

Dear passen-ghers, cries the captain over the loudspeaker. We are approach-ing our first ice-bherg. I hope you will enjoy this view! The iceberg looming to starboard is as high as a city building and three miles long, its whiteness blinding in the sunlight. The sea washes the base of the sheer cliffs. Caught in the waves are chunks of gleaming ice.

My mother and stepfather’s colleagues, other members of the expedition staff, offer daily lectures on geology, polar history, ornithology, marine biology, climate change. The geologist, Henry Pollack, looks past the wildlife to the rock below, which, like the ice, is moving, always moving, though at a pace even slower than glacial. “Time is different for geologists,” he says. I remember a line from the poet Wisława Szymborska: I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

We arrive at the Antarctic continent on a day of blazing sunshine, at a spot called Neko Harbor. Gentoo penguins, one of the brush-tailed species and much smaller than the kings of South Georgia, nest at the foot of a steep, snow-covered hill. Hiking up it for the view, we begin to overheat. Soon we’re stripping off parkas, hats, and gloves. My son, down to his T-shirt, starts a snowball fight.

The austral summer is brief and fierce. After months of darkness the sun reappears. The ice shrinks back, exposing rocky cliffs and beaches. Penguins return to build their pebble nests, and the rookeries ring with noise as thousands of breeding pairs squabble and mate and rear their young. Leopard seals hunt them through the water, and on land the skuas snatch up unattended chicks and eggs. Snowy sheathbills strut along the perimeter. Stark white, the sheathbills appear beautiful from a distance, fluttering like doves. Up close you see the scabby pink and gray flesh around their beady eyes, their air of dissipation.

From the top of the hill above Neko Harbor, I look down on the ice-choked water and the gleaming snow. The sky is mirrored in the surface of the harbor. Ice and snow stretch in every direction. Our elegant ship bobs in the vast expanse of white and blue, toylike. Beyond the people and the busy penguins rise mountains of folded basalt, and glaciers that have been inching their way here for centuries.

An image of penguins

We arrive at Deception Island, part of the South Shetland archipelago north of the Antarctic Peninsula, one of my favorite stops from the season I worked here. Formed by the collapsed peak of an underwater volcano, the island is shaped like a slightly squashed donut. At first it looks impossible to enter, hence the name. Deception’s inner harbor can only be reached through a narrow channel called Neptune’s Bellows. On the port side of this formidable entrance jut the rusting remains of a foundered ship. The chart on the bridge shows a rock submerged near the center. Four years ago, when I brought my daughter to Antarctica, this entrance was blocked with floating ice, impassible.

Our captain seems unfazed. Dear passen-ghers, he announces, I hope you will enjoy this view of Neptune Bellows! From the starboard bridge wing I spot the spirelike rocks known as the Sewing Machine Needles. The ship eases past sheer cliffs on the starboard side, mobbed with darting Cape petrels. Once we’re inside Port Foster, sloping black volcanic hills surround us, smeared here and there with long white tongues of ice.

On my first visit here, we went swimming. The volcano’s sulfurous gases leak out through underwater fumaroles, which heat the water, though very unevenly. Back in the nineties the expedition team would bring shovels ashore and dig out pools in the shallow water, mixing the hot and cold to a bathlike temperature. I remember the ship’s Swedish hotel manager serving spiced glühwein beside stacks of fluffy white towels. In an old photograph of my mother’s, I stand wreathed in steam, wearing a red bathing suit and black rubber boots. Now there’s no food or drink permitted at any landing site, and no tampering with natural features. To protect the fragile environment, all onshore activities are strictly controlled. The bathing parties are a thing of the past.

Also off limits are two enormous tanks that once held whale oil. Empty now and pocked with holes, the rusted tanks list slightly in the volcanic sand. The ruins here at Whaler’s Bay have been left to the mercy of time and weather. Unlike Grytviken, where the plaques in the open-air museum help the visitor interpret the remaining debris, this wreckage lies mute and unexplained. Peering into the light-stippled interior of an oil tank, I recall how good the acoustics sounded when my mother and I stood inside and sang “Amazing Grace.” I feel nostalgic for that time, and for my younger self. How differently would my life have turned out if I’d continued working here like my mother, stepfather, and grandfather? For a moment the path I didn’t take seems filled with lost promise and I feel the sting of narrowed possibility. And then I think of my children, their futures spreading like wings.

Steam rises in thin wisps from the wide, low beach. Sheets of corrugated iron and bleached boards lie strewn among the oversized remains of rusted processing equipment. Weathered posts protrude through the black sand. A long white building with a red roof still stands, sagging in the middle, as well as a dilapidated shack crammed with ice and flotsam from the avalanche that swept down in the last eruption.

Farther up the shore, I stumble upon two white crosses, propped by cairns of small stones. Discovered in the wreckage after the eruption and re-erected, these are the last remnants of a cemetery that held thirty-five graves and a memorial marker for ten souls lost at sea. There’s something touching about the forlorn crosses, the tribute makeshift and provisional. One bears the numbers 71–28. It takes me a moment to realize this represents a whaler’s lifetime.

I think again of the men who worked here, their precarious existence. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! writes Melville in Moby-Dick, not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

When I first came to the Southern Ocean, mortality was the last thing on my mind. Now I think about my grandfather, who died two months after my son was born. I was thirteen when I first traveled with him, from New Zealand to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and then up to New Guinea and the Philippines. He loved Antarctica deeply and brought his children here, the way my mother and Pete later brought me.

Like the Great Barrier Reef, the seventh continent is threatened by climate change. In the last three decades, the volume of ice lost from the unstable Thwaites Glacier—or Doomsday Glacier—has increased five-fold.

My son runs toward me across the volcanic sand, waving a thin bone. It’s connected to the webbed foot of a bird, the dark skin limp and soft as chamois cloth. We take it down to the beach, where my mother waits with the other Zodiac drivers to shuttle passengers back to the ship. A storm petrel, she says when my son shows her his find. She points out creatures called brittle stars, like delicate starfish, that have washed up on the sand, along with limpets and a few krill, cooked pink as cocktail shrimp in the fumaroles.

Back toward the entrance to the inside harbor is a break in the caldera walls called Neptune’s Window. Working here, I never had the chance to hike up to this vantage point. Now my son and I head in that direction, past the outwash plain dotted with the weathered posts of old buildings. Huge, pale vertebrae poke through the dark sand like the stumps of trees, the remains of a vast forest of bone.

At the foot of the cliff, beneath darting terns, the ship’s marine biologist, Larry, sits perched on a whale vertebra like a stool. He has assembled an impromptu museum. “Look at this. Baleen!” He holds a piece of frayed amber baleen out to my son. These fringed plates, with which whales in the Mysticeti family filter food from seawater, were once known as whalebone. Both flexible and strong, baleen was used in everything from women’s corsets to umbrellas. My son takes the whiskery length politely and turns it over in his hands.

“Wow, cool,” he says, not wanting to hurt Larry’s feelings. In fact, his grandmother has a piece just like this back home on Long Island; as a baby, he practically teethed on it. As well as the baleen, Larry has found a penguin skeleton. He shows us the indentation for the salt glands above the eye sockets, the velvetlike density of the feathers on the flippers.

Up at Neptune’s Window, the rock drops vertiginously below our feet. The sea foams against the cliff base, blue and distant, and flocks of Cape petrels fly past beneath us. To the left rises Baily Head, landmark for a landing site on the island’s outer rim. The season I worked here, I remember standing on the beach with the ship’s historian when a call came over the radio: “HBWs sighted off the stern! HBWs!” We stared at each other for a long moment. Then the penny dropped: humpback whales! We hurried to the beach to catch a Zodiac out to see them.

Turning to face the other direction, what I see now are the remains of the massive steamers and processors, rusty red against the dark sand. The protected harbor of Deception Island was popular with whalers. Long before it became a cruise ship destination, the cove known as Whaler’s Bay held six or seven factory ships at once. Men flensed the whales in the water alongside the ship and then hauled the blubber and meat ashore for processing. Abandoned carcasses—called skrotts—floated rotting around the harbor, as many as three thousand at a time. The stench must have been unbearable.

A worldwide glut of whale oil closed the processing plant on Deception in 1931. Later, sovereignty of the island was disputed by Britain, Chile, and Argentina. All three countries set up research stations to bolster their claims; the way I heard it, political control of the island was unofficially determined each year by a soccer match. In 1968 the bases were abandoned, after a volcanic eruption sent chunks of rock raining down like bombs and sloshed the water in Port Foster against the caldera sides.

In the silence and the stark beauty, I try to picture the station in its heyday, the stench, the figures in oilskins, the bones—so austerely weathered now—bloody and hung with flesh. Surrounded by the indifferent wilderness, subject to weather and age, this outpost of human enterprise and greed seems poignant in its dwindling. I think of Shelley’s Ozymandias: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Black Zodiacs zigzag between the shoreline and the ship, etching brief white lines across the surface of the bay. A vast cetacean absence hovers, specterlike, over the water.

Larry gets a call on the radio: it’s time to head back. The beach is empty of red jackets, and we are the last ones still on shore. It’s quiet except for the calls of the petrels and the lapping waves. A lone chinstrap penguin is striding purposefully home, past the bones that show up white against the sand.

an image of a small boat sailing through icy Atlantic Ocean water

On our last day on the continent, I overhear a passenger complain to one of the expedition team about the time we wasted at Grytviken and Deception Island. “I came here for natural beauty,” she says, not unreasonably. “I didn’t need to see all that rusted junk.”

I realize it was Grytviken and Deception that made the deepest impressions on me, this time around. In my youth, I fell in love with the polar grandeur and beauty, mistaking the landscape for pristine. For years I carried Antarctica, immutable, in my mind. But in fact it is neither untouched nor unscathed. The glaciers shrinking here date from the last ice age. They will never reform. Like the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon rainforest, the Seychelle Islands, the Greenland ice sheet, Antarctica’s days are numbered. Now what moves me are its blemishes and scars. In these rare glimpses of ugliness, I see where humans have left their mark. I think of the hardships and losses endured here, the untold stories, and of resilience, too, both human and natural.

***

At the start of our trip, back on South Georgia, my son spent a frustrating half hour trying to photograph a king penguin using its beak to push itself upright off the ground, something the brush-tailed penguins of the Peninsula don’t do. He’d failed to capture this before we had to go. I expected him to be disappointed. Instead he told me philosophically, “It’s okay. I can get it the next time I’m here.”

Once, my future, too, felt like an uncharted continent, a landscape of extravagant possibility. Now its borders show more clearly. There are dreams I’ve let go, and working in Antarctica again is one of them. Middle-aged, I don’t have the luxury of my son’s blithe assumption that he’ll be back, even if he has to wait until he’s as old as, say, twenty. The lifespan of a brittle star is about five years. A blue whale’s, eighty or ninety. We are variations of the same biotic ephemera.

The ice melts. The rock moves. The penguins build nests and steal each other’s pebbles. People exploit and explore. The sealers and whalers are gone from Antarctica. Now it’s the tourist industry that thrives. Every year the ship traffic increases. Alone on the planet, Antarctica is unowned, governed by the Consultative Nations of the Antarctic Treaty and reserved, almost entirely, for science. There are stringent rules all tour operators here are required to follow, and they are working to mitigate damage to landscape and wildlife. I believe the more exposure people have to this part of the world, the more passionately they’ll fight to conserve it. But tourism in Antarctica carries risks to the ecosystem. And the very act of traveling here from our faraway homes contributes to the climate change that imperils it.

Yet I hope there will still be red jackets at Neko Harbor decades from now, the way I hope there will be penguins and seals. I like to picture my son someday among them again, with his camera.

 

Soon we’ll head north toward the Drake Passage and Tierra del Fuego, leaving Antarctica behind.

We’ll dock in Ushuaia, and fly from there to Buenos Aires, landing in a burst of spontaneous applause. We’ll step off the plane into the noise of car horns and the smell of exhaust from the shuttle bus waiting to drive us across tarmac blotched with rainbows of spilled fuel. It will feel like waking from a dream. Among the relentless noise and movement, the barrage of smells and sounds, I’ll watch a flock of green parrots wing past the telephone wires and disappear into the leafy branches of a tree. We’ll re-enter the messy bustle of the rest of the world, the time of people and civilization.

 

But now it’s after dinner and the captain’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. Dear passeng-hers, come quickly to the deck. We have whales!

We dash outside. The long polar twilight lends a surreal tinge to the clumped islands in the distance. The sky glows yellow in some places, in others turquoise blue. In the water all around us are the blows of whales.

Two humpbacks surface just off the port bow. My son points his camera as a dark, glistening back appears, followed by an enormous flipper, white and black, extended with an easy grace. “I got it!” he cries. Right at midships, a third whale releases an oceanic sigh.

Another group of whales is spotted to starboard. Boots clatter on the deck as people race to the other side. Camera shutters click. I run to our cabin and lean out over the balcony just as two whales slide into view directly below me. Viewed through the water, the white on their flukes looks pale green. Their giant flippers move like gliding wings. For a giddy moment, I imagine jumping in and swimming with them, a tiny, awkward land-dweller among marine giants.

Look, look! She is fee-ding! cries the captain over the loudspeaker in a paroxysm of excitement. I rush back to the bridge. The whale moves so close to the hull we have to lean over the railing to see it. Look, look! The bouche! As I watch, the huge distended mouth opens like a vast and pleated balloon.

On the bridge wing my mother and I grasp each other’s arms, wide-eyed. “Is this real?” we need to know. “Are we really seeing this?” Now a whale pokes a long, gleaming head up out of the water, spy-hopping. Of the gasps and cries around me, the loudest comes from the captain: Incroyable! Even God cannot believe the whales.

We drift among the feeding humpbacks for nearly two hours. With a small cluster of diehards, I’m still on the bridge when the Captain at last gives the order to the officer at the wheel. It’s almost midnight, and there has been no diminution in the number of whales. Look in any direction and, after a moment, a back or a fluke or one of the giant winglike flippers will appear.

Slowly, and then more rapidly, the ship moves forward. The whales, unconcerned, continue to surface and feed. I stand in the stern, gazing behind us, until all I can make out are the wisps of their exhalations between the glossy water and the darkening sky.

 

Carin Clevidence is the author of a novel, The House on Salt Hay Road. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Washington Post, Off Assignment, OZY, O Magazine, and elsewhere, and she has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Yaddo, MacDowell, The Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and other organizations. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

[Purchase Issue 22 here.]

Photos courtesy of the author.

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