Everyone loves penguins, but after visiting Antarctica I now have an altered perception of the half fish, half fowl creatures. When wearing black and white, penguins are in their most adorable form. Even after many repeated encounters, both explorers and tourists find it impossible to refrain from snapping obscene quantities of photos of penguins. One early 20th century explorer commented on hearing the continuous clicking of the camera shutter against the backdrop of Antarctic silence every time their expedition encountered a new colony of penguins. I can understand why this is possible as during my three short weeks in the Antarctic region—I managed a ridiculous 1500 pictures of penguins. Somehow, they were so enthralling as they waddled about on the ice and snow in their natural habitat and I pitifully tried to capture those moments on film. It seemed that every new penguin met was immensely cuter than the last and click went the shutter again. But the truth is that these seemingly innocent penguins have a dark side.
Contrary to the representations of media and the film industry, penguins are not adorable bundles of black and white. Penguins are pink. Making their nests in a fester of fetid pinkish-red guano-- excrement benefiting from the richness of a seafood diet and the scourge of the penguin colonies. Guano, or saltpetre, used widely in food preservation, is a resource over which a number of wars have been fought. You read it right—penguin poop is a valuable economic resource as it is teeming with fertilizing nutrients. And there is a chance that you have eaten it. Many people worry about the nations of the world wanting to drill for oil or mine for other resources in the Antarctic—and the continent is probably brimming with economic opportunities buried underneath all that ice. However, when the Madrid Protocol came into force, prohibiting activity on mineral resources, the most accessible resource given up in the Antarctic was penguin excrement. It is difficult to imagine headlines announcing the ruin of the Antarctic for the pursuit of guano harvesting, so hopefully the pink stained icy penguin habitat is safe from economic exploitation for just a while longer.
Yet despite wearing these noxious pink stained suits, penguins are still interesting creatures and it sometimes easy to forget that they are really birds rather than some other flippered aquatic species. Possibly the only time that penguins are truly black and white is when they are in the water, hunting and playing. The next biggest surprise of meeting real penguins and discovering that they are pink--is the first encounter with the synchronised swimming of a muster of penguins in their natural habitat something that is never observed in their cramped conditions in zoos. I have watched endless video hours of penguins sliding on snow, swimming near shore and stealing rocks from other penguins—but I had never seen them swim in unison like a pod of porpoises until I visited the Antarctic. Evolution hasn’t permitted for penguins to fly, but they sure can swim—which is a handy talent for (hopefully) escaping from predatory leopard seals. Unfortunately, while on land, their usual pink masquerade doesn’t assist in defending the colony from the predatory activities of the menacing skuas lurking overhead, stealthily looking for opportunities to steal a tasty egg or a fluffy penguin baby.
In addition to being dirty pink birdies, although living in the purest and most untouched landscape on the planet—penguins are exceedingly filthy. In my short encounter with the Antarctic, I observed more incidents of penguin sex than I can count, and therefore also have a substantial quantity of penguin porn in my hundreds of penguin photos. It is almost impossible to distinguish the male from female penguins and so the joke circulates that you can identify females by the presence of pink muddy footprints on their backs as doggy-style is the preferred penguin position. However, even this identification system comes with a caveat. Penguins love their sexual activities so much—they’ll basically do it with anything, dead or alive. In fact, penguin sexual behaviour is so depraved that the Victorian polar explorers themselves turned various shades of pink and red when watching penguin sex and thus published their findings on penguin reproduction in Greek so that only learned gentleman would be able to read the reports. These reports weren’t published for the public until 2012, when of course no one but the Greeks can read Greek, but fortunately, penguin encounters are now accessible more than just the exceedingly privileged.
The truth about penguins might indeed be that they are pink, valuable and filthy. But a second truth is that I love them even more for having experienced their reality and hope someday for another face-to-face encounter with these adorable avian peculiarities.
The Drake Passage, a 600 mile expanse spanning the Southern Ocean between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, is watery highway that has carried many explorers, scientists and tourists to the icy continent at the southernmost latitudes of the globe. Making way through this oceanic version of Hades, it is difficult to imagine what pushed the early explorers to prove the existence a place that once only existed in theory. My voyage was made in relative luxury compared to those who crossed in ancient wooden ships, without maps or GPS, in sea swells that towered over their trembling masts. While I wouldn’t trade ships with them, even if I could, I still envy their experience of uninhibited adventures, experiences that for the rest of us have been stripped by the conveniences of modernity. Like me, perhaps they suffer infection by the incurable affliction described as wanderlust. Yet despite the changing technology, for anyone who wishes to make acquaintance with the frozen continent, the Drake is still a rite of passage.
Antarctica, labelled as Terra Australis Incognita or the unknown southern land on maps during the Age of Discovery in various imaginative forms, only became known to those who dared venture to sail through the Drake, some by accident and some with intent throughout the 19th century. Crossing the Drake in a modern vessel requires 2-4 days in the open high seas but for the explorers of auld lang syne, it required weeks of cold and miserable hardship in a vessel assailed by the mighty force of the Drake’s waters. Sailing due south today, Antarctica is clearly delineated on a map, making navigation to landing sites a relatively straightforward task. The original explorers set sail across the dread Drake, not even knowing land existed, sailing on expeditions fuelled by dreams and on the energy of the hope of discovery of new territory and resources.
The Drake is a fearsome thing. Experiencing a Beaufort 11 force storm, with waves cresting higher than my vantage point on the top floor of the Ocean Nova, I was awed by the power of the sea as it tossed our polar class ship from side to side, our able captain holding bow to the waves. Although never experiencing the storms of the Drake himself, Coleridge described it as tyrannous and strong. The poetic lines, while lyrically descriptive of the essence of the Drake, are insufficient to capture the experience of the passage. During this storm, I vacillated between comfort in knowing the sea around us was virtually empty as demonstrated by AIS data available onboard--and thus we were unlikely to be in an unwitting collision with another vessel, and also knowing that if an incident occurred, any help was too far away to be certain of salvation.
Accompanying this to-ing and fro-ing of Drake storms is the near indescribable malaise experienced throughout the passage. Even if one does not succumb to the fullness of seasickness, the Drake drains all energy from the core of your being, leaving victims with black and hollow eyes. Many follow the practice of ‘dry Drake’, abstaining from alcohol to limit the effects of this strange sea-malady. It provided some consolation to learn one heroic explorer observed that the more intelligent a being, the more likely they were to succumb to the effects of the Drake --and I was exceedingly ill. Even many of those who boasted of many previous sea voyages without effect were influenced by its spell.
A benefit of exploration in modernity is the availability of drugs, substances intended to induce healing or to prevent suffering and never ever to be misused. There are some drugs that are better than others, and most have a drug of choice, including options such as caffeine and alcohol. But on the Drake, the drug of choice is merely anything that will help one to avoid seasickness—the harder the better. The first trip, I tried the softer antidotes for motion sickness, with the disastrous result of losing my breakfast during the delivery of a lecture on Antarctic history. The second voyage, I was prescribed the hard stuff by the ship’s doctor, resulting in the peaceful passage of the Drake in a near continuous bout of slumber. In the case of the Drake, drugs are always the answer.
Passing through the Drake, with drugs or without them, gives the experience of two types of dreams. The first is of an exceeding malicious nature and is an embodiment of the essence of the Drake: the Drake introduces nightmares to one’s consciousness throughout the voyage. Mine included the horrors of the mass slaughter of orcas by bounty hunters, the black of their bodies prostrated against the sparkle of the Antarctic ice, stained with red from blood—a nightmare of the worse kind. The better dream that the Drake delivers is the realisation of a region so pristine and pure--a wilderness that envelops your being with enchantment and wonder. The Drake is certainly something to be survived, but when one does, the rewards are beyond any suffering experienced throughout its passage. And when one has finished the arduous journey, it is easy to see why some are compelled to repeat it again and again.
*Thank you to Dr Sergio Pesutic for the comedic speech given before one passage of the Drake, introducing the conceptual combination of Drake+Drugs=Dreams. He was not wrong.
Corine loves a good adventure. She's partial to wilderness, UNESCO World Heritage sites and wine. Based in the United Kingdom, she has roamed the trails and streets of six continents. This is a chronicle of her experiences, seasoned liberally with philosophical musings.