Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Life and Death on Cuverville Island

I slept fitfully as the blustery gray dawn half-heartedly attempted to chase away the gloomy dusk of early morning.  I had no conscious wish to come to a fuller understanding of life.  Or of death.  Not on Cuverville Island.  And certainly, not today. By the end of day, though, I would have a new and heightened awareness of both.

Coffee finished - check.
Breakfast finished - check.  Just a "few crumbs", though.  Life is tough in the Antarctic. Only the hardiest survive.  I hoped that I would gain enough sustenance to be able to crawl back into the zodiac to return alive, one more time, to the ship for supper.  (It was prime rib night!  Mmmmm.)
Nervous pee before layering up - check.
Uh oh.  brb...
(Another nervous pee before boarding the zodiac - double, triple, and dribble check.)

And off through the bergy-bits we sped, zigging and zagging, towards an appointment with 5000 pairs of Gentoo penguins.  And just perhaps, an appointment with a better understanding of life?  Of death?

A wet landing on Cuverville's beach is a rocky affair, and I found it unsuitable for complacent ambulation in gum-boots, parka, and my chic rubber pants.  We were buffeted by the wind, shoved by the sea, and safety, if not survival, was on everyone's minds as we scrabbled across the rocks to the safety of the flat snow.

We humans involved in today's landing expedition, all bundled and layered, were cozy and toasty.  Comfy even.  Although this wet landing on Cuverville elicited memories of many of the Antarctic weather cliches that I had heard or imagined, in reality it was only a mildly chilly -3 degrees, but with noisy, gusty winds quartering off Errera Channel.  The expression "occasionally chilly-miserable, mixed with intermittent-to-greater tolerable" comes to mind.  (Yeah.  I composed that weather terminology later that evening.  At the bar.  The "open" bar.)

The penguins.  "Carefree" comes to mind.  While some huddled on the rocky beach, others, more independent souls, decisively marched along snowy trails with self-assurance, if not downright boldness.  Going somewhere.  Anywhere.  Unaware. Blissfully unaware...
... as they marched along through the gusting winds with great determination and purpose, if not poise.

 It's easier to traverse snow and rocks, if you have specialized feet like these...
  ... with muscle and sinew, and claws gracing webbed toes for traction.  Oh, and a brushy little tail for balance to make the bird's compact design even more efficient. These avians have genetically evolved for a perfect accommodation with their environment.  They swim at a rate just short of the speed of light, and can scale near vertical snowy or rocky slopes in search of adequate nesting areas.

With their "traction masters" engaged, these birds toddle along the rocky beach with ease...

... and climb the trails up their snowy slopes to home sweet home.
Movin' on up... to the top.. to that deluxe penguin apartment in the sky.

The slight shift in wind direction was blessed with the potential to change my entire perspective of Cuverville in scant seconds.  My mindset snapped...
The aroma of pink penguin poo swiftly permeated the air as the winds shifted.  It made my eyes water... my nose ran... I forced myself to breathe the cold damp air through my mouth.  It didn't work.  I silently took back every disparaging remark that I ever made about "mouth breathers".  And if you've ever walked through Wal-Mart with a cold, I swear to god I wasn't talking about you.

Like any competent pilot, I made a 360 and got the hell outta there.

Life back on the beach seemed once again, pristine.  I was upwind. Exhilarating beauty abounded.  The gentoos had their nests.  The glaciers groaned and popped, inevitably exploding with a tremendous reverberation that I could feel in my chest, calving bergs into the bay.  Working birds rested on the bergy bits after gorging on krill.  The smell of the ocean was once again sweet as it lapped the rocky shore.

I watched the birds as they aimlessly wandered the beach or jumped into the frigid waters to swim out to feed.  In a quiet, personal moment, I pondered their existence here.  Working birds.  Nesting birds.

I also contemplated my existence here.  Humans, I surmised, are like that.  I laughed at myself as I thought of the "Good kid gone bad" sticker that I had once applied to one of my motorcycle helmets.  It was fun to think back to that tongue in cheek moment so many years before.  As I thought about my life, I found myself astonished that, while some people from my old home town had rarely even crossed county lines, I had ended up at the other end of the world, sitting on a rock that didn't have too much shit on it, pondering the meaning of life.

Humans, unlike penguins, have an awareness of death that's both a blessing and a curse.  While the penguins seemed blissfully unaware of the limited nature of their existence, I was becoming aware of the signs of death all around.

Whale vertebrae
These two birds just cruised right along, oblivious to the cetacean carnage that had occurred in a century past.

 There were whale bones everywhere I looked.

The more closely I observed, the more abundantly clear it became that there was evidence everywhere of both the abundance of life, and of the cessation of life.. whale bones, penguin cadavers, seal skulls...

Stand tall.  A bluff sometimes works.
The skua gull has the reputation of being one of the more vicious opportunists of predation.  It'll eat eggs, chicks, carrion (dead anything), and stuff I'd rather not think about.  The penguin above stands as tall as it can, hoping to bluff the skua into looking for an easier mark.  It worked this time... for this penguin... just as it has occasionally worked for other animals.  Primates come to mind.  Have you ever bluffed your way out of a serious situation?

Here, a skua threatens a penguin on it's rocky nest.  The gull advances.  The penguin trilles.  The gull threatenes again and hops closer.  The penguin stand ever taller. Finally the stand-off is over and the gull walks by, obviously looking at the nest with great longing...  This time, another penguin wins.

The skua looks for easier pickings...

Dead penguin guts.  It's what's for supper.  Mmmmmm.
... and finds them.  It doesn't make any difference if the death is from predation, old age, injury, sickness, or starvation.  The end result is the same.  We all eventually join the food chain at some point.  Sitting on that shitty rock, I decide that I have both the resolve and the courage to accept whatever fate befalls me.  And that if I perish tomorrow... it's been a damned good life all the way.

I will also attempt to see, with new vision, everything that I can possibly see from that moment on.  To feel the gravel beneath my boots.  To smell the ocean, the snow in the air, and even the birds.  I listen to the trilling of the gentoos, to the happy voices of my fellow travelers... some with exotic languages... all communicating and living in this moment.  I listen for the sounds of the glaciers and the water.  I am reminded of a lesson attributed to Ghandi: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever."

There will never be sufficient time in a day to see the family and friends that I want to see, to feel the emotions that I want to feel, to say what I'd like to say, to write the things that I need to write, to love like I've never hurt or been hurt, to walk in the cathedral of my woods as often as I want...

I will be not fretful for the past, nor anxious for the future, but will live in, and appreciate, the moment.


1 comment:

  1. Comments always welcome. How can I make this better?
    Also, if you want any of the pics "suitable for framing", just let me know which ones at
    "", without the quotation marks.
    thanks, tim