March 16: Kayaks, Penguins and Seal Snot

The frustrations of waiting and sweating vanish as we take to the kayaks with glaciers and mountains on three sides. I share a double kayak with Cim, flying in the face of experience. We have had a couple of semi-disastrous attempts at double canoeing before, in Sweden and France. But what is this trip for if not blowing away old conceptions and forging new paths. Never mind ice climbing or camping out on the ice, believe me, if we can make this work, we can get through anything.

Photos: Kayaks, Penguins and Leopard Seals

Those not kayaking are ice climbing this morning, and we will switch activities after lunch. It’s designed to keep numbers and equipment manageable, but it just makes you feel special to be in a group of 10 or 12. Choosing the morning shift on the glaciers proved a costly move for some, but at the same time, provided an unforgettable moment to which we morning kayakers bore witness only in earshot. This “everthing has its price” theme, once more.

We paddled out towards a Gentoo colony and heard what sounded like thunder. Having been in northern Sweden and the glaciers of Norway, Cim and I recognise the sound of ice falls, and the sky was clear, so it couldn’t be thunder; it must mean a glacier was calving. We strained to see all around the bay looking out for the wave follows the creation of an iceberg. There was a slight swell in the bay, but nothing uncomfortable. However, two bergy bits near us seemed to flex in the water and one just broke, warning us to keep our distance. We paddle on and think nothing more of it until lunch.

Nik then shouts, “Leopard Seals, over hear!” Nik and two other kayaks have a disturb three leopard seals, from their slumber on floating blocks of ice. We are 15 meters away and want to get closer. There’s confusion; someone calls for us to come back, someone else says it’s OK. We don’t know whether to raft up the kayaks or paddle to safety. These seals have a bit of a reputation: Parissa’s talk yesterday told us that leopard seals, although they won’t attack people have been known to “play” with swimmers, dragging them under the surface of the water.

Our curiosity and that of the seals brings us nearer to each other. Nik is in awe of the experience, “I just felt spray on my neck, turned round and there was this huge head looking at me out of the water. I think he just snotted on me!” Nik’s leopard had been no more than a meter or so away from Nik’s, then it was between our two kayaks, at the end of my paddle. I could have swatted it. It dived under us – just touching the hull – and was away. Menacing-looking but really, just playful.

Now that the Leopard seals were bored with us, it left us with full attention on the colony of Gentoo penguins. We were probably interrupting their stalking of elevenses – the Gentoo colony on the beach behind serving as a mobile buffet. The Gentoos, though didn’t seem to be perturbed, looking as though they’d driven down from Orpington on Bank Holiday Monday for a paddle at the seaside, intersperesed with a spot of fishing.

They trooped off the beach and into the sea; the clear water allowed us to follow their underwater flying, and it was great to see their dolphin leaps, 10 or 20 at a time as they headed out through the growlers and ice. This is Antarctica! I could have stayed out there all day. Not a single thought about the sore hand. Although that was probably the Ibuprofen talking – and of course, Jo’s Reike healing.

Couple canoeing problems behind us, we take the zodiacs back to the boat for lunch, turn our tags to show that we’re on board, and swap stories with the morning climbers. That ice fall had been a huge berg breaking in two and imploding not far from the shore where the ice-climbing was. Awestruck, they hadn’t noticed the resulting “tsunami” heading towards them, or rather the shore where they’d left the bags complete with camera equipment and life vests. That is until a few life vests popped open inflated, as the salt water hit. Radio calling the zodiac they were able to rescue the vests, but some people’s cameras were ruined.

The afternoon put us on the ice face, and fresh from our conquering of the double kayaks, Cim and I partnered each other in the climb. I belayed Cim first. It was a top-lead climb, is that what you call it? Peter had already fixed 5 screws up on the faces, dropping the rope to the ground. All we needed to do was hack our way up with support from our partner on the ground. So, not too tricky but it was quite high. A couple of Gentoos came to either admire our attempts or possibly deride them. This time, they were the ones watching us.

I did feel the pressure, Cim had survived a kidney transplant, but would she survive being belayed up an ice face by me? I did not want to let her down. Had I been kidding myself about my injured hand? Would I drop her? Well, I didn’t let the side down, and Cim said she felt no fear of being dropped either.

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