Temporarily overheated in four layers and insulated muck boots, juggling my two cameras, I made my way down the gangway to the Zodiac bobbing at the ship’s side. I carefully coordinated my last step with the rocking waves, plopped into the boat, and took a seat on the big rubber tube while disentangling myself from backpack and camera straps. Loaded and launched, we raced toward our planned landing at St. Andrew’s Bay on the northern side of South Georgia Island, the wind whipping salt spray onto my cheeks.
Wading ashore to the cobble beach, I dodged the occasional grumpy, growling Fur Seal and walked by piles of calmly snoozing Elephant Seals. Our ornithological expert, Jim Danzenbaker, who had landed in the early boat along with the rest of our guides, was way ahead of me, heading west to the crest of a moraine. On my right, the massive Cook Glacier was creeping creakily yet somehow gracefully between craggy dark mountain ranges; to my left, the dazzling Antarctic sun glinted off the iceberg-studded bay. Panting with the weight of all my gear as I tried to catch up with Jim, I could hear the muted cacophony becoming louder as I finally made it up the moraine.
The sight took my (remaining) breath and my words away. At least one hundred thousand King Penguins stood and walked and swam and argued and copulated and divorced and raised children in the broad valley below my feet. I was on the fringe of a penguin megalopolis, complete with urban villages and suburbs and traffic and peevish neighbors. Teenagers, known as Oakum Boys, waddled around me, picking at their thick itchy brown coats and occasionally at our bags, chasing their parents around, squeaking persuasively that they needed a krill injection now.
Our month-long expedition to South Georgia, Antarctica, and nearby islands was sponsored by the Geological Society of America and organized by the fantastic Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris (highly recommended), whose ambition was to get us on the ground over as much of the region as possible while keeping us safe and extremely well fed (red velvet cake after your wilderness exploration, anyone?). We’d been out for a week by this time, and I was now used to Zodiac rides, muck boots, and spending my days entangled in multiple camera and backpack straps.
But you don’t get used to 100,000 King Penguins.
As in all communities, private stories become more public the longer you watch. Trumpeting contests broke out here and there in the colony as the occasional late-returning penguin spouse came up from the sea, only to find that in its extended absence its mate had taken up with a new partner. (Penguins are a lot like humans in many ways, the frequency of trumpeting-accompanied divorce being just one example.)
In happier reunions, a freshly washed penguin walked from the shore through a gantlet of pecking neighbors, greeting its nestbound mate—stained with krill and neighbor poop from weeks perched in the same place—as both stretched their necks, swayed in parallel, groomed each other.
A half-hour of keeping my eyes riveted on an affectionately greeting couple paid off when, after presumably 5-6 hours of such rituals, the sitting parent and the incoming parent finally faced each other closely (and, miraculously, perpendicular to my camera) and with the greatest care, ever so gently shifted the precious egg from the black webbed feet of the first parent onto the toes of the second one.
Barely a minute later, five feet away, two penguins mated under the watchful eye of a curious Oakum Boy, who apparently got a followup lecture shortly afterwards.
At the other end of the life-cycle pendulum, I walked by skua-scrubbed penguin skulls, made my way around discarded penguin feet probably left by a leopard seal and the rest of its cleanup crew, studied the anatomy of penguin skeletons still mostly articulated.
It was hot during that few-day stretch, perhaps 35-40°. Several days later, further south at Cape Lookout on Elephant Island, we saw penguins draped over rocks here and there, trying to cool themselves.
Like all life here at the end of the Earth, they’re finely tuned to their home’s temperature and other conditions—unlike we humans, who need basically a moon rocket’s worth of technology and supplies to keep us alive in the Antarctic region. From St. Andrew’s Bay, the nearest permanent human settlement of more than 20 is the town of Stanley on the Falkland Islands, 860 miles away as the albatross flies. To reach a human city of more than 2000, your albatross has to fly all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina, 1200 miles from here. (Fortunately, since albatrosses’ huge wingspans of up to 9 feet allow them to travel 300 or more miles per day, it wouldn’t take him that long. If he wanted to go.) We really don’t belong here, although due to the absence of land-based predators, the penguins don’t seem to mind us too much.
Yet through not-belonging, in the Antarctic region I felt more a part of the Earth than I have in a long time. The profound, primordial Earth, throbbing with squeaking, growling, trumpeting vitality (click for sound effects!) at the edge of habitability. Here I was one species among many, allowed to witness the magnificent hugeness of polar coastline, knowing that there was no significant human presence along its entire 11,000-mile length, that raw nature is spinning out its stories in its own way, on its own scale, rather than sneaking between the cracks of human domination.
But I also experienced another far-too-rare sensation: I was proud of us.
Yes, we’re melting the glaciers and thus threatening the thin line between exuberance and extinction—but we’ve now also managed to stay away from this area, to cease killing its whale and seal and other community members, and not only that, to commit to protecting it forever. “Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes,” states the Antarctic Treaty that’s been signed by nations representing two-thirds of the Earth’s human population.
When was the last time you read a line like that?
I can’t wait to get back there. That may well never happen, so I’m carving a new room in my memory palace, a boisterously loud, exquisitely glacier-sculpted, breathtakingly gorgeous, and slightly chilly chamber called Antarctica. I hope you’ll come take a look.