Leaving Antarctica be

by Guest Blogger

January 23, 2006

Well, the time has come to leave the whaling grounds and head homeward. We left the Nisshin Maru and her hunters a few days ago and headed south into the ice towards Antarctica, the white continent, to take in the wonders of the waters and the seascape there. After all the violence and grey steel we’ve seen, it was nice to have a little time to pay full attention to the marvels of this magical, beautiful, terribly inhospitable place. I have never been at such a loss of words, struck so speechless… words and language seem limited, insufficient for capturing this place, as I suspect the images we took will prove as well, for this is a place that fundamentally defies capture.

The Arctic Sunrise is an icebreaker; the Esperanza is ice class but not an ice breaker, so the Espy stayed just inside the ice field edge, among the flat plates of ice rising and falling softly on the slight swell of the Antarctic ocean, rising and falling as gentle as a person breathes in a peaceful slumber. The presence of the ice breaks any momentum the wind or currents have built on the ocean, so the waters are just this side of stilled and for once it seemed we could begin to exhale. The Sunrise slowly carried on, easing it’s way cautiously but steadily deeper in the field, weaving her way in and among the thousands of iceberg islands scattered in all directions, doing the work she was made to do at the hands of a captain born for this work: Arne is considered one of the best ice captains alive.

The Sunrise worked her way through the drift ice until she reached the fast ice of Antarctica, the apron of ice extending and spilling out onto the sea from the land itself, just above the continental shelf. She nosed into the edge of the apron and came to rest aside a vast, flat, frozen plain rising five feet or so above the sea and extending inward to the continent, flowing around and encircling icebergs between the ship and the shore.

The next morning, under a brilliant sun and clear horizons we ferried over from the Espy and joined the Sunrise crew for some fun on the ice and some cautious exploring, as ice is always something to be wary about, regardless of how solid it may appear. The pilot door of the ship opened onto the vast table of solid white, extending, rising ever so gently up and South, all the way up to the exposed faces of the coastal range of the continent, which rose jagged and sharp and untouchable into the deep blue air. And there it was: Antarctica, in person.

Again, words really fail me here. I suspect it may be years ’til I can figure out how to describe it. It’s just that magnificent.

From the first step onto the first motionless place we’ve been for over two months, the day unfolded with one wonder after another. The penguins arrived, little guys, Adeles, who have a childlike movement and curiosity about them: they stagger around like a toddler who’s just learned to walk, and they will cross the entire ice field to come right up to you, stopping about two or three feet away, then they’ll just stand there and hang out, giving you a thorough eye a for a bit then going about whatever penguin business is, which appears to me to be napping, picking at their down, shaking their heads and funkin’ and groovin’ to some tune in their heads. A little wing flapping here and there, occasionally a squawk or a rotation or two. Sometimes they’d come in crews of a half dozen or so, sometimes just a sole ambassador. As we wandered around, to stretch our legs and just take it all in, usually we’d have an escort or three. They simply didn’t worry about us at all.

The Emperor penguins were more aloof and less curious (or, at least, less willing to show it), choosing to come ashore but just hang on the edge and chill out (or warm up: whatever. like I said, words fail) so we would keep a considerate distance and just sit by them and admire their great size, their powerful feet and beaks, and the beautiful bright yellow plumage on the sides of their necks and the line of their beaks. They, in turn, would mostly ignore us.

For me, however, just finding myself wandering around at the edge of this land was the biggest thrill of all. The land and seascape of this part of the world suggests terms like "moonlike", or "alien" or "otherworldly" but that’s exactly the oddity about it: it’s none of that – it IS of this world, our world, and very much a real and vital part of it. Assigning it to the conceptual realm of Otherness because it’s so unfamiliar to us, so unsupportive of our kind, is to deny it, not respect it, not give it the value we give that which directly nurtures us.

And thus, Antarctica and the sea and the ice that she influences inspire reflection on a greater level of this journey: the value of Antarctica, her waters and the lives of those she nurtures, and the waters that extend from her in all directions upwards. Ultimately, the fate of the true wilderness left: the oceans and the last continent. Our efforts against the whaling fleet mark the beginning of a year long tour to call attention to the health of the world’s oceans in totality, and now that I’ve been here, it makes sense to start here. All of us live north of here, making it seem as if Antarctica is the bottom of the world, yet it strikes me now that perhaps this is where the oceans are born, at least in spirit if not in fact. For here the world is still wild, waters truly clear, the air clean and pure. Words were never designed for this place, and we were not born to live here, yet perhaps we can still learn a vital lesson from here.

The whales are born to come here, and if left in peace, perhaps they can thrive here again. They have existed twice as long as we have on this planet and they didn’t manage to make such a mess of the place. And though they are not the only residents here, they are the grandest, as they are among all creatures anywhere, and they serve as symbols of what the oceans mean to us: they reflect the strength, grace, innocence, gentleness and majesty of the seas in an animal form.

The ocean does not serve us, it sustains us. If we, as a species, do not grasp this lesson soon and do what we can to protect the seas from further harm, reverse current harmful practices and begin practices to heal them, we will suffer the lesson upon us in the worst way as fisheries will continue to collapse, species disappear and great systems change irreversibly.

And so the campaign shifts now: the whalers had the arrogance and determination to continue slaughtering whales right before us, amidst us, and hopefully that will be their own undoing. They showed us the true nature of their work, their bullshit "research": the terror inflicted on these creatures as they exhausted themselves trying to flee the hunters, the terror exploded into their bodies as they surfaced, the terror of a long, bloody, miserable death. Among all we tried to do, I believe the most effective act was the most fundamental to Greenpeace, the most basic of non-violent activism: bearing witness.

People are now aware that whaling is still being practiced on a growing, commercial scale and is indeed a potentially rising industry again; from what folks have posted on the internet sites and have sent to us directly, the passion people have for this issue is clear and governments have been sensing it. When the people lead, their leaders will follow. Now it’s time for those who profit from whaling and those who prop up the whaling industry by feeding their profits into the huge conglomerates to feel this passion and be forced to follow as well, for unlike politicians, they are not elected, they cannot be thrown out of office by their public. That’s the harder task.

The sad thing is that it takes a lot of time and effort to change these things, and meanwhile the whaling still goes on, and we leave knowing the hunt will carry on and now we know exactly what that looks like.

We knew this when we left Cape Town. We knew the limits of our capacities and when we’d have to break off from the fleet, but more importantly we also knew that we wouldn’t end whaling outright by coming here, that it would have to be won far from here. For me, that’s why I’m feeling alright about leaving, because I think we did all we could do and from what we’ve seen happening since, it seems like it is having an effect.

So we’re heading north and looking forward to coming home. We’re expecting to get into Cape Town in a few weeks. We still have the roaring 40’s and the howling 50’s to cross as we’re still deep in the notorious Southern Ocean, down in the 60’s, far below the convergence zone. There is a lot more sea to cross and there is a lot to be done on the ship before we go to port, so no one is expecting it to be an easy cruise home. But today the water is flat and it’s a full day off, so the ship is pretty quiet as folks start turning their attention to returning home and considering their transitions back into their lives.

I sure am looking forward to getting back home. I miss my friends and family and there’s a certain dog back home whose paws I’d like to smell and who’s fat ass needs a good run in the woods. The Maryland woods will hopefully have snow in ’em. I’ll be driving to Kansas a few weeks after I get back and the Great Plains are so mind-blowingly beautiful in the winter, so quiet, so endless and there’s a noticeable lack of big grey ships killing whales there. It’s been just long enough now that I’m thinking of things like the smell of fields, the sounds of babbling creeks, the feel of having strangers around, the smells of the city and the country, and the ability to go for whatever kind of food ya want. A pulled pint of good beer sounds divine and sidewalk cafes sound like paradises. And a big bed. And rocks and dirt.

So I dunno know if there’ll be another update from me or not, as I hope it’ll be fairly routine on the return, but who knows: routine has been a rather rare thing to come by down here.


(photo ©Greenpeace/ADavies)

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