Day 4-5 The Seventh Continent
I dipped my hand in freezing sea, holding my GoPro camera as tight as I could, and felt my fingers go numb. When I could no longer endure the biting cold, I pulled my hand out of the water and only then did I realise that I had been holding the camera upside down the entire time. But I had no time to curse my stupidity; just then a playful juvenile humpback whale breached clear out of the water, performed a perfect half-twist against a backdrop of the most incandescent, vivid mountains, and landed back in the water with a thunderous thump.
Earlier that morning, I had awoken to Shane, our expedition leader’s chirpy morning call; “Good morning everyone!” He always put too much emphasis on the m in the morning, as if he was delightfully surprised at the fact that the sun had somehow managed to rise once again. He announced an early morning landing at Paradise Harbour, located on the Antarctica Peninsula! We were going to land on Antarctica, at last!
Paradise Harbour itself did not seem like much as we approached it. But the sense of occasion was clearly affecting everyone on the zodiac; For quote amongst us, Antarctica being the last and seventh continent to set foot on.
The zodiac eventually pulled onto a rocky shore. Immediately behind the shore, the land rose to a considerable height of perhaps a few hundred feet. The sharp smell of guano upon landing was rather unexpected, especially in a setting as white and immaculate as a clean linen sheet. It did not deter me from kneeling down and touching the ground, a feeling of subdued accomplishment running through me.
The climb to the top of the hill was more challenging than I had imagined. My feet kept sinking into the snow, forming deep, crude footprints. But the view over the bay below was as magnificent as any I had ever seen. The grey sea was calm and reflective, dotted with whites of icebergs here and there. Our anchored ship looked small and vulnerable in the distance, giving me a new appreciation of how truly immense everything else was here.
As I approached the rocky outcrop marking the end of the climb, I noticed quite a few people standing around waiting for their turn to make the last bit of the climb. It reminded me of the famous three steps on Everest, where climbers usually face long delays due to crowds of climbers as they wait for their turn to tackle the steps. As I stood there, waiting for some climbers to descend, I once again had that strange feeling of not truly belonging to this ethereal place. Perhaps that’s how Everest climbers feel too, at those altitudes, in a world unlike any other.
And that’s what gives these places their mysterious aura. What added to this sensation was a peculiar, dark cover of cloud which hung quite low over the horizon. It left only a narrow visible gap between the sea and the sky, like a long, thin panorama. It was if someone had forgotten to close the curtains all the way in a grand theatre, leaving a little gap, through which we had been granted a sneak peek on a magnificent act.
It was early afternoon, and the sun cast a dazzling light on Wilhelmina Bay; a dramatic expanse of water, ice and mountains. The great beast was so close I could count the barnacles which had latched themselves onto its forehead. I looked around at the others on the zodiac; somewhere distractedly pointing their cameras in the general direction of the action, while others sat motionless, completely hypnotised by the incredible sight before us.
I felt a sudden tang of nostalgia as if I were witnessing life at its grandest and it’s most fragile. And I already missed it. But then, three other whales joined the spectacle, slapping the water with their flippers, and occasionally blowing out air and water in a fine mist, and my nostalgia turned into hope.
It was this delicate splendour which offered Antarctica its best fighting chances. For every one of us in awe of its indescribable transcendence, it would hopefully have a voice standing up for her when the time came. And that, I thought, was perhaps the reason we were there, after all.