Frozen Eden

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.

Expedition stops on South Georgia; St. Andrew's Bay is #8 on NE coast. Map from Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris.

Expedition stops on South Georgia; St. Andrew’s Bay is #8 on NE coast. Map from Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris.

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.

King Penguin colony, St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King Penguin colony, St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia; Cook Glacier in background

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.

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy (juvenile King Penguin), St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

Oakum Boy begging for parent to regurgitate krill

Oakum Boy begging for parent to regurgitate krill

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.)

King Penguins in divorce confrontation

King Penguins in divorce confrontation

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.

King Penguins grooming-St Andrew's Bay

King Penguins grooming, St Andrew’s Bay

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.

King Penguin egg swap, St Andrew's Bay, South Georgia

King Penguin egg swap, St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia

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.

King Penguins mating as Oakum Boy watches

King Penguins mating as Oakum Boy watches

Mated King Penguins scolding juvenile observer

Mated King Penguins scolding juvenile observer

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.

Chinstrap Penguin chick trying to cool off

Chinstrap Penguin chick trying to cool off

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.

Juvenile King Penguin with last bits of immature fur

Juvenile King Penguin with last bits of immature down

(Click here to visit my Flickr collection of more Antarctic photos!)


24 responses to “Frozen Eden

  1. Love the curious Oakum Boy. He actually looks like an old man, very cute and human like getting into big trouble. These are beautiful pictures.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Trileigh, this is wonderful!! What an incredible opportunity. I love the phrase and the images that you conjure of “life here at the end of the Earth.” It must have seemed so other-worldly to be there. so glad that you’re creating space in your mind and creativity to honor Antarctica. How special.

  3. Wonderful post! It sounds like an amazing trip, a place I’ll probably never go, but so glad to be able to read your wonderful descriptions. It’s nice to know a place like that exists intact and protected.

  4. Wow, what an exciting story. I feel as if I got to go along because of this wonderful post and its photos!

  5. Wonderful wordsmithing and imagery to entrain us to the end of the Earth! Thank you for taking us to Antarctica.

  6. How wonderful. Thank you for taking us all along with you. I can’t imagine how it must have felt seeing one hundred thousand penguins! I don’t know if I will ever be able to make it there but it will be fun to dream about. Such a wonderful story…plus who knew penguins divorce!

    • Jennifer, I really appreciate your reading and commenting. There’s such a neverending stream of surprising things to learn when we venture out into nature, isn’t there?

  7. PS…LOVED the sound effects!

  8. Such vivid writing, and I loved the YouTube recording. I can hardly believe what you were able to witness. I’m so happy that you had this experience in your life.

  9. Trileigh, I finally lit at home long enough to read this. I was saving it for when I could really soak it in. What a wonderful description – and great pictures! Fun to relive. Thanks!

  10. Amazing, fascinating, perhaps once in a lifetime…thanks so much for compiling this and sharing it here.

  11. Trileigh Thank you for sharing these special journey notes of your bucket list and more. I really appreciate this insight. Bob Lane

    • Thank you so much, Bob! It’s really nice to be back in touch after all these years. I really appreciate your reading and commenting.

      Cheers, Trileigh


  12. Wonderful as always Trileigh. What a privilege to travel to such an amazing place. I love the line from the Antarctica Treaty. We need more international agreements like that to guide us through the global challenges facing us.

  13. I am really late reading this wonderful post. Thanks so much for pointing it out to me!

  14. Pingback: Seeds in Seams | Trileigh Tucker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s