Kayaking off the Antarctic Penninsula

Daniel S. Weld, February 2003

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Fierce headwinds, giant ice cliffs, and a menacing Leopard Seal topped our challenges, but we were compensated by solitude, stunning scenery, and the hypnotic sounds of Humpbacks breaking the glassy sea surface with their soft breathing. Olaf's vision of an unsupported, exploratory kayak expedition along the Antarctic Peninsula had infected us all, but a year's anticipation prepared me for neither the trip's surreal splendor nor its challenges.

On Friday Feb 21, we were all anxious to get started. The previous day's storm had cost us a day, and we were fed full with Enterprise Island's minimal hiking, bored with the shipwreck across the bay, and tired of combing through the aging pile of whale-oil casks. A bit after 10, we fastened our spray shirts tightly, bid farewell to the lone Chinstrap Penguin and the island's two possessive Fur Seals, and pushed off paddling. A stiff tailwind sped us Southward along the Western coast of Nansen Island, but the deepening swells made me uncomfortable with the kayak's unstable pitch.

Luckily, Olaf's experienced eyes led to a diagnosis - somehow the kayak's side flotation bladders had deflated. Once repumped, our boat engendered more confidence. As we rounded Nansen's South end, a headwind stole our easy travel. Olaf scouted a small ice archway and we paddled under its dripping ceiling and continued up Nansen's West Coast. Only now did the slow realization dawn in my head that we hadn't seen a single campsite in the past ten miles of paddling - the coast was everywhere fringed in sheer ice cliffs. I knew Olaf and Bob thought there was a site in Anna's cove, but a seven-mile crossing separated that haven from us. Furthermore, the headwind hadn't eased, my extremities felt frozen, and visibility was down to a hundred meters. The guides explained the plan was to cross via Emma and Louise islands, to break the crossing, but my confidence was later shaken when we arrived at the wrong island, and one said, "My compass was acting funky, but I guess I should have trusted it!" Secretly I craved the security of a GPS reading, but sense that this would be considered cheating.

And of course, we soon did arrive at Emma, but reconnaissance revealed another perfect set of imposing cliffs. As we continued to scout the coast, rain shifted to snow and we entered a lee. Huge flakes glided gently downward through the fog, and our kayaks and life jackets were soon cloaked with Christmas. All sound was muffled as we slid through the polished sea surface, and the situation became increasingly surreal. All around us, the water appeared mottled in the most beautiful way - like a burnished slab of ebony or granite with a delicate filigree of lighter tint. Suddenly, I realized that the ocean was so cold that the snow wasn't melting; instead it formed a spider web of silvery slush, inlayed within the black waters. Everyone stopped talking as if caught in a spell.

"Raft up!" I was shaken awake by the note of alarm in Bob's voice "Leopard Seal!" The creature's reptilian head had none of the charm of a plump Weddell Seal, instead sporting an overly large mouth. David and I fumbled a bit as we struggled close to three other kayaks. Curious and unafraid, the seal ignored our large raft and stalked Bob and Olaf's smaller group. I remembered reading that while attacks on humans were rare, Leopard Seals could easily puncture an inflatable boat with an inquisitive taste-testing bite. Luckily the guides back-paddled quickly and soon the seal lost interest.

Quickly, we continued our crossing, passing through the shelter of inhospitable Louise and finally to Anna's cove. Alas, the long anticipated campsite at Anna's cove was a fantasy. Mammoth ice cliffs formed an impregnable defense. In desperation, we gazed longingly at a lone rock buttress where a single person might escape the tide - but not six tents and kayaks! Regardless of cold and fatigue, there was no alternative to paddling on, so we rounded the cape comforted in the knowledge that there was a guaranteed camp at Cuverville Island, six miles away. But now that we were in the Gerlache Straight proper, the wind hit us full force and our progress was dishearteningly slow. Luckily, Bob spotted a low-banked promontory and he rocketed ahead to scout. It was a go! Although the site was awkward (kayaks had to land, be unloaded, and lifted up the slope in single file) everyone felt relieved once on shore. Even the Fur Seals grudgingly conceded our right to share the terrain. Warm clothes did their trick and several people tended to Hank's injured back. Perhaps sensing that it had failed to break our spirit, the wind calmed, clouds parted, and the distant mountains were bathed in the glorious colors of sunset. And after Olaf cooked a magical warm dinner, the moon blessed our party. That night we slept well, pleased with our accomplishments.

Other memories stick in my head as well. One day we paddled in complete calm across a wide bay, barely rippling the perfect reflections of ebony tusks piercing distant glaciers. The silence was nearly complete, and I closed my eyes listening to the bass rhythm of Humpbacks breathing --- one pair cleared their lungs to our right then dove, and next the pattern repeated with a solitary whale to our left. The stereo sense of being surrounded by these creatures was deep and profound.

Given the landscape's desolate appearance, the bountiful wildlife was Antarctica's biggest surprise. Adolescent Southern Fur Seals snarled and charged each other on narrow beaches, practicing for next year's mating contests. Unconcerned, the dominant male snoozed in a prominent spot, puffing his chest proudly if we walked nearby. From a distance we watched Giant Petrels tending their nests and Wandering Albatross riding winds with seven-foot wings, effortlessly skimming just above the cresting waves. Walking gingerly, I climbed through a Penguin colony to the top of a large hill. The weaker birds only found space at the crest, shuffling awkwardly all the way to water's edge several times each day. Comical on land, the Penguins showed inspirational speed and grace once they met the water. While fishing for krill, an entire flock would porpoise --- each bird arcing smoothly from the water, catching a breath in midair, then diving back to the hunt.

One night we camped on a gravel beach. The prevailing wind had blown brash ice onto our shore, before relaxing into an evening calm. As I drifted sleepward in my down bag, the gentle waves knocked the pieces tinkling into each other with the delicate sound of crystal wind chimes.

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