By JON BOWERMASTER
What surprised me most about our days kayaking along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula – more than the tall glaciers lining the skinny, mountain range that stretches out like a thousand Alaska’s piled on top of one another, more than the unusually big, blue skies that shone over us for nearly two weeks as we traveled 500 miles to south of the Antarctic Circle, even more than the incredible wildlife that surrounded every day, from Orcas and leopard seals to albatross and krill – were the sounds.
Every day as we paddled through brash ice, pack ice, up and over fast ice, past icebergs the size of small apartment buildings which occasionally rolled for our benefit as if on cue, I was taken aback by something I heard: The plop, plop, plop of Gentoo and Adelie penguins porpoising all around the kayaks. The drip, drip, drip of small chunks of glacial ice melting in the cold Southern Ocean. The blow of a humpback whale – you always hear the big whales before you see them – as it surfaced. The thunder crack on the inside of glaciers indicating something was breaking off deep inside, unaccompanied by any external visual. The high shriek of mom and pop penguin squawking to their newborn chicks, desperate to imprint the sound of their voices on the youngster since that’s the way he or she will recognize them when they return from fishing nearly a year later.
We left the tip of southern Chile on New Year’s Day by sailboat, picked up our kayaks on King George Island (where I had stashed them several weeks before), and spent five weeks exploring both sides of the skinny Peninsula. We saw every kind of weather Antarctica has to throw at visitors: Big winds, storms, those horizon-bending blue skies, and – surprising for Antarctica – many days of rain. Along the way we pulled our kayaks ashore and visited with a handful of scientists and environmentalists working on the seventh continent. Everyone we met talked about how much, and how fast, the Peninsula is changing due to warming temperatures. (One result? All that rain, some of it torrential, which is new to Antarctica … and extremely harmful to both the ice and wildlife, which was built for cold and dry, not wet.)
This Antarctic expedition was the last in my ten-year-long OCEANS 8 project, which has taken my teams and I around the world one continent at a time by sea kayak. Each adventure has been wildly different – from the Aleutian Islands to Vietnam, French Polynesia to Tasmania and more – but connected by our floating ‘ambassadors,’ the kayaks, which have given us a unique, sea level look at both the health of the world’s oceans and the lives of people who depend on them.
My favorite day in Antarctica, separated from the 30.5 degree (F) Southern Ocean by must millimeters of carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass, might have been paddling through the Lemaire Channel, known among the tourist crowd as Kodak Alley, for its picturesque narrows squeezed between fantastic glaciers and tall snow-capped mountains. Midway through the five-mile channel we paddled past an ice floe carrying a sleeping leopard seal. We pulled alongside the floating ice cautiously; weighing half-a-ton, if he chose to the big seal could easily have chomped a kayak in two. Raising his head, barely, he gave us a once over and went back to sleep. This was his place and he knew it; he wasn’t going to let some passersby interrupt him, knowing we’d be gone the next day and he’d still be here, happily floating.
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