Once we were officially land bound, we made our way to the site of where Charcot’s Francaise expedition. It is one of the few landing sites on the Antarctic Peninsula where all three species of brush tail penguins life – Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins all nest together. I personally have come to love the chinstrap penguin the most. But let’s be honest – any penguin is a cute penguin! I tried very hard to capture them porpusing in and out of the water. I am afraid I was not that lucky. This hike was much easier. It was a completely different kind of vista atop the summit. The sky had a distinct battleship grey color and the snow swirled all around us dancing like snow fairies across the wind. While we were defiantly climbing higher and higher, the rise in the trek wasn’t nearly as steep as last night. I absolutely prefer this kind of hike! I only became nervous when a naturalist informed us at the summit that we were not to move a step beyond the footstep trail. Apparently, that was the crown of the snow ridge. One step too many and you know exactly where Mr. S. would land!
This morning we had a very early “photo alert” call come across the speakers – We were in the famous Lemaire Channel. The waters were calm and there was a mist of fog across the sky. Snow was falling gently and settling on all of the parts of the vessel. I rolled out of bed and quickly geared up so I could see the spectacle. The ship gently entered the Channel. At first, it didn’t seem much. However, every second brought more clarity to life as we forged ahead through the mist. Pancake shaped ice created an organic mosaic across the water. Glaciers on each side of us framed the majesty of our surroundings. Giant glacial ice sculptures rose out of the water. It was as if we were in a museum – a museum made by Mother Earth herself! The Lemaire Channel is 7 miles long and one mile wide. With icebergs all around us, we passed carefully along the waters. The channel was discovered by a German Expedition under the command of Dallman, 1873, and traversed in December 1898 by Gerlache, who named the channel after Charles Lemaire, Belgian explorer of the Congo. They say this channel is where “icebergs come to die” because they get stuck by the pancake ice and can’t move any further.
We came in from being awestruck and munched on a hearty breakfast of spinach omelets, potatoes, sausages and fresh fruit. We then heard a call overhead that we would be exploring the Penola Strait region, directly south of the Lemaire Channel. We made a landing at Port Charcot on Booth Island. This was a different kind of landing. Our boat wedged up to the coastline where we had to carefully step from the zodiac boat and step on stones to come ashore. Our next move was stepping bridge that was carved into the wall of snow only by the footsteps before us. The footing was not easy! One slip, and into the water you would go!
As I was sitting there taking it in, my serenity came to a screeching halt! Over the announcements, the staff informed the passengers that we would very (very) shortly be partaking in the POLAR PLUNDGE. I knew I had to do it, but each moment took me closer to the inevitable. Frigid icicle coldness would be coming off of my whiskers dripping down as if they took months to slowly drop; however, this time they would congeal in seconds.
Each step seemed a little heavier. I thought my feet were slowly sinking into a sludge hole pulling me to freeze me in place. You start to wonder if this will bring you down to the ocean floor after you jump! Step, step, step. You heart beats faster. You envision the worst outcome. The ship doctor is there along with an army of staff to help if your heart cannot take it. All lenses from National Geographic are pointing at you with the intention of capturing the jump into the frigid waters forever. At least if your heart stops you can rest assure that your last moments are captured forever. Time to smile for the big moment, right?
I had to do it. I know you are watching, reading and talking to me via the web. There was no doubt that this teacher was going to jump! How? I was unsure! How deep? I assumed to my waist. Right.
Inch by inch, I got closer to the main event. Down the stairs and unable to see the people before me, I still did not know what I was in for! I approached the zodiac boat to wait my final turn. Would it be my last? Over a shoulder I saw someone reaching for God as they were completely submerged under water. In Chicago, I just see photos people running out of lake Michigan. This was DIFFERENT. This time, I would be swimming for my life!
It was my turn to take the last move onto the edge of the zodiac. Knowing that I was going into water without a bottom, I hoped I remembered to swim. One. Two. Three!!! I jumped. A million needles were suddenly sticking into every pore on my body. My skin tingled like microscopic popcorn kernels exploding all over my body. In case you were wondering the Antarctic waters taste delicious! Apparently, I forgot how to swim. I needed to hold my breath under water. Floating did not seem as natural in icy abyss. My feet that felt heavy before now had gravity of the world pulling me down, down, down. I looked up to the water surface and prayed that I was pulling myself up. Every swing of my arm brought me closer to air, warmth and my friends! I had done it! I exploded through the surface of the water unknowing which direction I was facing. Quickly, I scurried up the platform landing, hopped over the zodiac boat ant back into the ship where there was a giant, fuzzy, blue towel ready for me. Suddenly the cheers of my friends came blazing through my foggy mind. It was then when I was so happy that I did this and proud to have completed another crazy adventure!
Mr. Szymanski is a 1st grade teacher at Walt Disney Elementary School in Chicago, IL. He is bringing the world to his classroom with the help of National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. Here, he chronicles his adventures to Antarctica and South America in December 2014.