PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Antarctica Journey, Day 5

I woke up early in the morning and looked outside and immediately thought of the end of the movie “Fifty First Dates,” when Drew Barrymore comes out from the ship and sees herself surrounded by icebergs. Although I was more prepared for it than the character in the movie, it was nonetheless just as shockingly stunning. Completely surrounded by such vast and wild beauty boggles the mind.

Today was the day when we first got out and to explore the continent. Our first stop was Hovgaard Island, which is near the Lemaire Channel.

I wasn’t sure if we would be able to get out today. We were told that there is never bad weather in Antarctica, but there is good weather, better weather and best weather. Yesterday, we were told to expect good weather, which meant it would be windy and snowy. The cruise is dedicated first and foremost to safety and conservation, so I wasn’t sure if we would have to go to Plan B, C, D or E.

As luck would have it, however, the weather was excellent this morning, about 32 degrees Fahrenheit with winds between 5 and 10 miles an hour in the channel. For summer in Antarctica, that is excellent.

Even so, the cold here feels colder than the same temperature at home. Way colder. Therefore, we bundled up with layers of wool socks and the usual gear one would wear to go out in the cold that has been so much a part of my life. Organizers provided us with wind jackets and the boots, but I packed the rest with me.

This morning, we took our first spins in the zodiac with a cruise, but no plans to land. They divided us by animal groupings with specific subtypes and species. As I said before, I was a leopard seal, and our group was the second scheduled to go out. They stagger things to preserve the area.

We safely got on the zodiac, with about 10 people, a pilot and a guide in our boat and were instantly enthralled by the power and the might of the surrounding mountains as we went through the fjords and saw our first penguins. Well, I guess I saw some swimming during breakfast, but these were closer.

There are about 1,600 penguins on the island, and I think we saw most of them. As anyone who knows me can imagine I was beside myself with glee. They are Gentoo penguins, and we saw the little roads that they make to travel back-and-forth, their powerful swimming or porpoising; saw them jumping and climb out of the water. We also saw elephant and Weddle seals lying among the colony, but no leopard seals were lurking other than us on the boat. And I had no intention of telling any of these penguins that I am a leopard seal.

Looking at the different formations of glaciers and icebergs was also also an incredible part of the experience.

After we returned, I attended a lecture on penguins. Had I known I could major in penguin in college, my life might’ve gone in an entirely different trajectory.

We learned penguins are not only cute but resilient and strong. Evolutionarily, they developed as birds that wanted to be fish. And over time, they did not become fish, per se, but became birds that cannot fly, but who are far away the best swimmers in the avian world, able to travel thousands of miles. We learned about the 22 types of feathers that keep them warm, how the colonies can close one another in a hug to bring the center of the group hug up to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and that being heavier as a penguin is a good thing because it means you can dive deeper. I knew there was a reason I always felt a kinship with penguins.

Unfortunately, the warming temperatures are impacting some of the communities, causing massive infant mortality, warmer temperatures and lack of ice. However, this area has not been as impacted and, in fact, the two penguins that we will see the most often are growing because the warming temperatures increase the area where they have habitat, which is not necessarily a good thing for the other penguins.

After lunch, we bundled up again to make our first journey to touch the continent. To say that I was excited would be the biggest understatement of the year. When I took my trip around the world at the age of 24, I had five continents, and I added South America when Ian and I went to the Rio games in 2016. To make it on land on Antarctica a month before my 60th birthday is a dream come true.

I don’t travel simply to accumulate more stories, or say I’ve been a lot of places. One of the reasons I do these blogs is because I have been very fortunate and able to see the world and I want to share it with other people. I travel because of my curiosity and desire to understand people and places and the intricacies of creation. It is a deeply spiritual thing for me, as I believe it helps me both in my profession as a pastor and in my vocation as a human being.

I would be lying if I didn’t say it is also a goal. And to be able to do this after such a painful tumultuous year and accomplish what was taken away from me when I lost my sabbatical was a way for me to prove my resiliency in the face of a challenge. Not to let others to define my life, but rather let my faith in a God, who continues to provide opportunities, lift me up.

The time on the continent I can only document in photos., with a few videos thrown in.  The penguins are everything I ever hoped they would be. I think the most enjoyable part was getting stuck in a penguin jam. We have to keep a distance of 15 feet from the penguins. And when they stood in the middle of our pathway, we just had to wait to let them pass, since we are visiting them and need to be good guests.

I will add that it was significantly colder this afternoon, and I was actually delighted that it was cold and windy and really felt like Antarctica. I was properly prepared, so I wasn’t overly cold, except when I took off my mittens or where my face was exposed. But with the wind gusting up to 40 miles an hour and snow blowing in my face, it did feel like an adventure, especially as we had to walk up and down rather steep glaciers.

After we returned, I attended another lecture on whales. One of the things I learned was that whales are the center of the ecosystem in our world. It is all linked to the cooling of the planet. We need to know what they are doing since they are vital for fertilizing the ocean, which is the base of the food chain. If whales disappear, our ecosystem falls apart. We need to know how to care for them because if we save the whales, we save ourselves.

After dinner — this time we were joined by another German woman, so I continue to extend my translation ability (which I assure you will not be a second career) — we went out on deck to watch as the ship navigated the Lemaire Channel from Port Charcot to our next destination, Port Lockroy.

The channel is a very narrow area where the ship needs to maneuver around icebergs, and the views were nothing short of spectacular. After watching on deck and taking many many pictures, I moved to the hot tub to watch, sitting outside, and then to the sauna, which had full-glass windows, which warmed me up so I could sleep well after a full day.

Truly a day I will never forget, as I cherish this rare opportunity to see a part of the world so many people don’t have. I don’t take this for granted, and I’m glad to be able to share some of what I experienced with others. Thank you for joining me on this journey and apologies for any typos, etc., but doing these blogs on an iPhone has its limitations! 

Good night!!!

Leave a Reply