THE BLOG

Staring Down Penguins on South Georgia Island

02/24/2012 11:25 EST | Updated 04/25/2012 05:12 EDT

In the coming month, the Huffington Post will run weekly blogs from a diarist launched on a most extraordinary journey. A crew of 24 people, including scientists, artists, and humanitarians, are aboard the "Hanse Explorer," a motor yacht, venturing to the most remote southern islands, on an itinerary that has never been done by any ship before. You can read more here.

2012-02-24-SouthGeorgia.jpgWe're three days away from our last stop in South Georgia, and three days from Bouvet Island. The sea is so incredibly beautiful, I can't manage to do it justice through my lens. There is absolutely no one out here for hundred of miles around. No ships, no islands, nothing but the albatross still faithfully surrounding our ship. We've come across three icebergs however, bringing everyone out on deck. It's quite a sight, but mostly because of what can not be seen. We can tell through the radar that we are only seeing about a 10th of their total size. Captain Jens keeps a reasonable distance though we do get as close as 50 feet away.

2012-02-24-iceberg.jpgAs we cross an iceberg, it looks as if it were changing shape before our eyes. The sun and shadows give off completely different patterns all around them, and what may look like an old ship from one side, will appear like two facing towers on the other. They are sculptures, really, shaped by the water, the wind, and time, mostly time.

We left from Cape Horn a week ago today. I'd lost track, to be honest. The nights are so short, only five hours of darkness. I'm spending most of my nights up editing, until I notice that the sun is up and that I better get a couple of hours of sleep before the next set of events. Events on board the Hanse Explorer consist of meals, playing guitar, and listening to lectures by on-board geographical historian Robert Headland, or wildlife expert Akos Hivekovics. As we're all getting more comfortable with each other, the other guests and crew are also taking turns telling what they know about this part of the world, or our time in history.

All of this knowledge is coming together, as if creating a framework for the visions of the future we are still receiving for the time capsule. As we're now approaching Bouvet, we're consolidating all of these ideas about 2062, organizing them into a truly collective idea of where the world is heading. It is utterly bizarre to receive paintings, letters, essays, and videos from all over the world, and from people of all ages and backgrounds. I am more physically disconnected from humanity than I have ever been and may ever be, yet I have never felt more connected mentally.

South Georgia - Hike Across the Island - Beyond Humanity from The NOMADS on Vimeo.

With the constant rocking of the ship, the waves that are getting taller each day, the weather that's changing from snow to sunny and back within minutes, I know that I couldn't be in a better place than on board this ship, traversing these rough seas. The ship itself is the time capsule, and I am becoming part of the ship. More than a father and a husband, I am a messenger traveling to deliver something 50 years in the future. That said, it's Alix, my second daughter, due in May, that I'm thinking of the most when I think of the future, of who might retrieve the capsule. I am creating a world for her to find.

Had I not known that Cape Horn is the end of the world, I might not have had such a profound experience there. The tough seas that surround it make it a very desolate place. There is a lighthouse where a couple live, ready to welcome the next ship that manages to reach the shore so they may stamp these new "Horners'" passports. They have two sons, both doing internet schooling. Apparently the end of the world is online. Who would have thought?

There's a board walk that leads you to the lighthouse, and another to a viewpoint where I could see the very tip of the cape with the ocean reaching beyond it. A monument depicting an albatross stands erect at this viewpoint, a sculpture with multiple layers letting the wind flow through it.

More than the rocky cliffs or dry greenery, it is the wind that marked my Cape Horn moment. It has a very particular smell and sound, almost supernatural, honestly. It's not like I could hear murmurs in it, nor see ghosts flow through the grass, but the aspirations of mankind seem to be in that wind.

To reach Cape Horn we had to have a pilot from Tierra del Fuego on board the ship to ensure our safety across these hostile seas. How many hundreds of ships sank attempting to go around the Cape? That lighthouse was a sort of last hope for the mariners who dared attempt the crossing, before there were radars and satellites to show us the way.

As I write this, the light outside my cabin has completely changed from a sunny, homy atmosphere, to a dark grey, ominous view. It's snowing again, only the snow is flowing straight toward the bow. The winds are so strong but at least they are pushing us ahead in the right direction, meaning less waves, and less fuel consumption.

If anything were to happen to us in these dreadful waters, it would take at least a week for any ship to reach us. Now that I can barely see 50 ft ahead, I am reminded of how I felt on top of the great mountains I've climbed. Never are we more human than in these moments, vulnerable, in a place where our species doesn't belong yet secure and privileged to be standing on the shoulders of those who made the way before us.

This ship, as small as it may seem out here, inspires great confidence. It is an exploration yacht, one of a kind, a luxurious ice-breaker with amenities as good as any five-star hotel. Without having to worry about our survival, the mind is left to wonder far beyond the confines of this nomadic abode. My dreams are evermore vivid.

Our first anchor after Cape Horn was South Georgia. There are only 24 people on the entire island, which happens to be the same amount of people we have on board the Hanse Explorer. South Georgia is a chain of mountains that is home to the most wildlife in the world. As soon as we could barely make out the island, flocks of penguins swam along the ship.They looked like a bank of fish skipping over the water.

2012-02-24-penguins.jpgThere was also the odd seal that would pop his head out of the water, but not enough to prepare us for the shore. We anchored in a bay that used to be a whale refinery but that is now only rusty ruins. Our zodiac landed on the beach and we were surrounded by dozens of seals. These were cute at first, but soon we realized that their behaviour was closer to that of wild dogs than cute penguins. They would bark, clumsily coming towards us as if to bite our ankles. It was a bit scary, frankly, but the only way to keep them at bay would be to bark back, and go towards them showing our superior size.

The worst thing we could have done would have been to run away apparently, so there I went, clapping my hands together, kicking sand in their faces, and making my arms wide. We found refuge in the cemetery where Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried. We had a toast in honour of this great leader who, with his faithful crew, explored these coasts and that of Antarctica standing in the face of incredible difficulties.

South Georgia - Penguin Sunset - We Are The Aliens from The NOMADS on Vimeo.

Walking back along the shore toward the refinery's ruins, I was struck by the beauty of the nature that had taken over the island over the last 50 years. It was the seal's turf now, penguins too, and so I carefully walked back onto the zodiac toward our ship. It was like walking away from a post-apocalyptic world. We were not welcomed on South Georgia anymore. We'd done enough of ridding it of the hundreds of whales that swam in this bay.

The sun is setting here too, in this grandest of seas, and the weather has cleared again. I am baffled by the splendor of the horizon behind us. The sun sets in the west, and we will soon be crossing the meridian, east of eden.