Writing of the Week by Julie Dawson
The Question is AkademiK
I gaze lazily out of the porthole. Deep waves of silence lap through my brain. A seal floats by; its dark fur stark against the pristine white of the iceberg. It gently lifts its head in silent acknowledgement. The iceberg dips and flows, its whiteness disappearing into echoes of turquoise, aquamarine and deep, deep blue.
‘Good morning folks, Good morning. Leopard seal to the port and Minke whales off the bow and it’s time to zodiac! Gangway in half an hour. Be ready to board.’
I leap out of my reverie. Getting ready to zodiac is serious business. I grab great handfuls of clothing. M.S.D. I think (Merino, Synthetic, Down).
First layer: merino thermals. Second: synthetic, thin long sleeved top. A down vest comes next, topped by a woolen jumper, then two pairs of socks, first one merino and then synthetic. ‘Now for the enormous rubber ski pants.’ By now sweat is pouring down my face. The trick is to dress quickly and get down onto the outer deck where the freezing wind will bring cool relief.
‘Dammit!’ I can’t have forgotten. Hurriedly, I peel off the heavy pants. No toilet stop for the next three hours – a pit stop is something I just can’t put off! Back into the waterproofs and with my down jacket and the ship’s huge waterproof jacket swinging from my arm, I make the treacherous journey down the stairs to the mudroom.
The mudroom is full of bulky figures who, like myself, are trying to pull on oversized gum boots and fit yet one more jacket, scarf and tuque under the enormous red waterproof jacket supplied by the ship. With a final effort I struggle into the life jacket, two pairs of gloves, (you’ve got it, first layer merino and second synthetic) and looking like the Michelin man, I tumble out onto deck and with relief, breathe in the icy cold air.
A line of bulky, red jackets and nervous smiles greet me. We are all a little unsure about our clothing – too few layers and you freeze, too many and you get sweaty which can lead to hypothermia. These petty fears make us jittery as we look down at the kayaks and the small black zodiac boat riding the waves.
Memories of last night’s rough crossing of Drake Passage, which prevented our first landing, are too close for many and there is a sense of queasiness in the air. Three at a time we approach the rickety stairs. With a quick tug, the crew member checks my life jacket, smiles and sends me on my way, down into the black, bobbing zodiac, to join the other nine adventurers. Relief floods my face as I make it safely on board. Immediately, we hear the call of ‘Whales ahead!’ I hold on tight, wrap the scarf around my mouth and we are off.
This first zodiac trip opens Antarctica up to me. A different planet emerges. I feel, breathe and know the cold. The icebergs entrance me. In a struggle to describe their unique glow and colour, I invent the term ‘Computer Blue’. The scenery is spectacular but there is nothing like the noise and sight of a whale surfacing a metre away from the zodiac. I sit, awestruck watching a majestic barnacled head gasping for air. I’m mesmerised as its graceful body arcs through the water until finally, its huge fluke bids farewell and disappears into the deep, black water of Antarctica.
I feel insignificant next to this magnificent creature and in awe of the vast expanse of wilderness that stretches in front of me. A wilderness with an iceberg stretching half a kilometre into the distance and only one single penguin, walking from one side to the next.
On board this Russian ship, thank goodness, there are about twenty scientists and explorers from around the world, including John, a great storyteller, who at 22 years old, freshly graduated from Cambridge, wandered by chance into the British Antarctic Survey Office and thereby started a 50 year relationship with Antarctica, that still thrives today. Also David an intrepid Australian writer, photographer and adventurer, who among other things has explored all seven continents by motorbike, and more importantly lives to tell the tales.
Over the next four days as we emerge from our cabins, rattled and shaken by Gale Force 8 winds and tumultuous seas, we look to these fearless explorers for reassurance. Those of us who can rise from our beds stumble down to the Presentation Room to hear their stories of Antarctica past and present.
Eventually, the weather maps turn from violent red to peaceful green and we are able to put the churning waters and howling wind behind us and set off in wobbly zodiacs to actually set foot on Antarctica. A landmark moment for Roger and me as we have now visited all seven continents, together.
Each expedition reveals a world of spouting whales, noisy penguins stealing stones, gliding skuas stealing eggs, lonesome yachts, silent mountains reflected in glassy lakes and overwhelmingly a sense of the thin line between life and death.
It’s impossible to visit Antarctica and not think of our world and its future – the life and death of our planet. However, the scientists we travel with choose their words carefully when they describe the changes that they see. More than one passenger has loudly and openly declared climate change to be ‘a complete load of rubbish’. The scientists may be reticent but the rest of us passengers aren’t and we give Tony Abbott and Donald Trump a real drubbing!
Over eleven days, seventy passengers glimpse another view of our world, a planet of extremes and survival, scarred by political rivalries. The abandoned, rusty cabins adorned with national flags expose the world’s political jealousies and tensions for all to see. Many of us struggle to understand how this can be happening, especially at such a critical time. The final night, however, sheds a little light.
For some extraordinary reason, Roger and I are chosen to sit at the Captain’s table. A mixed honour as neither of us has thought to bring anything ‘dressy’ and we don’t speak a word of Russian. As we are led rather grandly through the dining room, an echo of low rumblings can be heard in our wake. ‘How come the Australians were chosen?’ I find myself smiling. It really doesn’t matter where you are, political jealousies are obviously alive and well.
(We travelled with One Ocean aboard the Russian research ship Akademik Sergy Vavilov, January 2016.)
Photo credits Julie and Roger Dawson.