PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Antarctica Journey, Day 9

Today was the day that I had been thinking about and debating over since I first decided to take this cruise to Antarctica: the day of the polar plunge.

When thinking about jumping into the water, I knew I could not do it, not out of fear but out of solid sense of safety. The form of asthma I have is usually exercise-induced, or caused because of extremes, and my fear was that a sudden shock like that far away from medical professional help would be very unwise. And although I am an adventurer at heart, I also exhibit common sense. Or have since I became a parent. When I was younger, I did some phenomenally stupid things.

But before we went to the polar plunge, we had to travel to Deception  Island. According to my friends at Wikipedia, “Deception Island is in the South Shetland Islands close to the Antarctic Peninsula with a large and usually “safe” natural harbor, which is occasionally affected by the underlying active volcano. This  island is the caldera, or large depression, of an active volcano. The island previously held a whaling station. Two research stations are operated by Argentina and Spain during the summer season.

En route there were some different sessions to attend, including an interesting one on the history of climate change politics. Beginning with St. Francis, the ship, a historian talked about the industrial revolution, the role of “Silent Spring” and Rachel Carson in addressing the danger of DDT, Earth Day (which began in response to an oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969) and then the various attempts by the United Nations to address sustainable development  goals across the globe.

The most disturbing statistic was that since 1990, when emission goals were established, rather than decreasing, they have increased by 149.5%. In other words, if we don’t take this seriously, the entire globe is screwed.

Even though not everyone on the ship would agree with it politically, I was impressed that they did not pull any punches and named the real problems we are facing. This is not a political issue. It really is an issue of life and death.

We continued along that theme after lunch when we took part in the science boat project. In addition to seeing colonies of Imperial Cormorants and Snowy Sheathbill (the birds who eat penguin poop, which may seem disgusting but is a vital part of the circle of life), our goal was  to learn about how important microbiology is in the ecosystem and the preservation of our world. We helped take water samples and filter water, which will be used and analyzed by one of the ship scientists looking for microbiological material. She plans to use the data in her PhD dissertation.

I learned that the survival of the entire planet is dependent upon phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants, but they play a huge role in the marine food web. Like plants on land, phytoplankton perform photosynthesis to convert the sun’s rays into energy to support themselves, and they take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Without going into more scientific detail, which I am quite certain I would botch completely, the long and the short of it is phytoplankton are the bottom layers of the pyramid of life. If they disappear, the entire house of cards that is our ecosystem collapses. Every creature builds off of the success of phytoplankton. so small things do matter. Incredibly. And we need to be aware of that.

After returning, I took a nap to prepare for the polar plunge. By the time we got to our landing on Deception Island the weather was clear. When we had entered the Whaler’s Bay through Neptunes Bellows at noon, it had been overcast and sleeting. But even with that the beauty was outstanding.

Whaler’s Bay has dark sand made of volcanic ash, and when we arrived, we took a long hike up a steep precipice to look out on the other side of the bay. In addition to being a great chance to have some photo ops with some very willing Chinstrap penguins, it was also a good chance to work up a sweat for the polar plunge.

By the time we got back to the beach, I was already drenched and looked like I’ve been swimming. The weather was a balmy 32 to 33 degrees and no wind. The water temp they said was -2 Celsius to -3 Celsius, which makes no sense to me because I thought it froze at zero. However, this is why I am a pastor and not a scientist.

We were in the last group of boats and saw the number of polar plungers had dwindled. Two of my friends with whom I have been hanging out were also going to take the plunge, so we all stripped down to our swimsuits we had worn under our clothes. I had planned to wear my water shoes in, because I thought the sand looked very harsh, but organizers told me I was cheating. And if you know me, I always want to do things above board, so I took those off, too.   

Being younger, Erin and Doreen dashed in quicker than me, and I suspect having feet that are less sensitive. If you’ve ever tried to swim in Lake Superior or somewhere like that, I think you know what that cold feels like. This felt colder. I love the cold pool when I do hydrotherapy, but this was that on steroids.

I ran in, trying not to notice the intense pain of the stabbing cold, dipped into up to my neck, knowing going under would not be wise with my asthma, and waddled out. I think waddled is the right word. Perhaps my kinship with penguins has transformed me.

Once we got out, we were given towels and got dressed again. To be honest, the weather was balmy, and the lack of wind made this part far, far easier than I ever imagined. I had been less concerned about the actual dip and more concerned about warming up afterward and then getting in a zodiac to travel to the ship. But other than my feet, which are always an issue, I was fine. And I accomplished another of my bizarre collection of travel minutia. Since I’ve taken a dip in the Hudson Bay, which is considered a bay of the Arctic Ocean, I can say I have taken a dip in all five oceans of the world. I’m not sure what that means, other than the fact that I like a challenge.

We got back quite late and had dinner, and then Janel joined me in the hot tub for the first time. She had not done the polar plunge, but I think she appreciated how lovely the hot tub is. I have found it truly a spectacular part of the voyage.

I stayed in the sauna considerably longer and ended up being there and engaging in a conversation with Peter, who is the kayak guide.  As you can imagine, we swapped stories of various trips, and I tried to convince him to go on the Nahanni and Little Nahanni.

He also confirmed what I thought, which was that this cruise was incredibly fortunate. He said he could not recall more perfect weather, or better viewing opportunities, for all of the ecosystems and wildlife. In addition, this was a clear night and he said they had maybe two or three of these a season. So not only was this or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I ended up on a once-in-a-lifetime cruise.

After talking to Peter, I decided that I needed to take advantage of this incredible opportunity and stay up as late as I could to see if I could see the stars. It usually gets dark from midnight to 2 a.m., and this was a rare chance to see the sky. So I found a daybed in the aft of the 10th floor lounge and stayed up doing crosswords and praying.  About 1:20 a.m., I went outside, one more time, and although I could not see the stars, I felt the joy of the heavens surround me. What a perfect day.


One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Antarctica Journey, Day 9”

  • Randall Schlecht January 15, 2024 at 7:16 pm

    Dear Paula,
    Thank you for your writing and photos. Wonderful devotions each day!
    Pr Randall Schlecht, retired
    Valley City, ND


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