by Cecilia Worth
There’s something more than wilderness at the bottom of the earth.
Except for the gangway’s frenzied chunk-chunk against the flank of the anchored ship, the Antarctic blizzard furies around us in eerie silence. The captain of our converted ice-breaker has sought shelter in the flooded caldera of Deception Island, an ancient volcano north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Despite this safer anchorage, the Polar Star rolls and heaves in the five-foot swells.
Feeling for the gangway’s ice-skimmed steps with clumsy, insulated boots, I inch my way downward. Below, a zodiac bucks at the end of its frozen tether. Other photographers and naturalists, waiting their turn to go ashore, press against the deck railing above me, faces shielded from the stinging snow by Darth-Vador facemasks.
For a split second the base of the gangway comes level with the zodiac. Gloved hands grip my wrists. One, two…THREE, and I land like a diving sea bird among six other passengers hunched against the gale. The outboard guns us forward. Almost immediately the storm envelops us. We can see nothing but a tight circle of black water inches from our backsides.
Wilderness has always been a magnet for me. It offers something that eludes me in my modern-day life, a fast-paced world given over to anthropocentric power and control. To stand in a place where nature, not man, runs the show, and has since earth’s beginnings, is, to me, a miracle in action.
Antarctica is the largest wilderness on our planet. Yesterday, as the Polar Star cruised past the sheared-off abutments of glaciers creeping towards the sea, we saw layers of pumice and ice centuries old. I look at the beaches and try to stretch my imagination around the slow motion pulverizing of volcanic rock that took eons to form their black sands. Even more amazing is the image of this continent as a once-upon-a-time tropical land whose plants and trees turn up as fossils buried in those black sands, a land from which sections detached and sailed away to become today’s South America, Africa and Australia.
Here in today’s Antarctica our ship skirts icebergs sculpted by wind and water into blue caves hung with stalactites, turrets clear as glass. Seals and penguins hitch rides on their glazed surfaces like commuters on public transport. Whales glide under our zodiacs, large and pale as the bottoms of pools.
On our daily landings we step around skeletons picked clean except for inedible flippers and claws. Our guides gauge every ripple of air as a possible overture to gales that will hold us hostage on shore for hours. To keep my fingers from freezing I learn to press the shutter of my camera without removing my insulated gloves.
Try to play God here, and you’re bones on the beach. In wild places like this, where life evolves at its own pace, according to its own mechanisms, I can slow down, think, regain my balance. The stark reality pushes aside my own nonessentials and zeroes me in on the best in myself.
As our zodiac hurtles across the snow-shrouded sea, I have the sense of a more recent past coming to life. Our invisible destination is a pebbled beach that, along with multiple other Antarctic locations, witnessed an epic slaughter of marine wildlife between the late 1800’s and the mid-1960’s. Here rest the rusting remains of machinery that processed the blubber of thousands of whales and, when the whales ran out, seals, sought in earlier years for their fur. Ultimately, even penguins became victims, feeding the hunger for oil destined to light lamps and lubricate newly invented machinery in far-away countries. The animals were taken in such numbers that many, thick in the water for centuries, reached the point of extinction in less than fifty years.
Straining our eyes, we begin to make out a blurry shoreline. Gauzy scarves of snow stream from figures bent against the wind, passengers and guides who left the ship on earlier zodiacs. The boat crunches onto volcanic rocks that emerge slick and glistening as we swing our booted feet into the surf and stagger onto the beach.
Through the snow flinging itself across the landscape, swaybacked wooden structures and spires of shattered machinery appear and disappear. To my right loom three rusted tanks the size of small buildings against whose shelter we lay our backpacks. Monuments to the butchery, these stored the oil.
The base of the farthest tank reveals a recently chiseled opening and through this all fifty of us make our way, one by one, into the gloom of an enormous interior. Cylindrical walls rise to a ceiling far above our heads, its fluted-umbrella shape pockmarked with points of luminescent snow-light. We fumble across a floor crisscrossed with pipes, at one time filled with steam or hot water to keep the oil from solidifying in the cold. I feel dizzy trying to fathom the number of slaughtered animals whose oil would have filled this one drum alone.
We are gathered in this place for a reason that I find deeply disturbing. A passenger, blessed with an operatic voice who enjoys performing before fellow voyagers when he travels, has suggested that he sing for us within the oil drum. The acoustics are said to be phenomenal. To transform this memorial into a theatrical showcase seems to me to belittle the desecration that occurred here.
Layered in sweaters under a sky-blue windbreaker, the singer mounts a heap of burlap sacks. Wind, amplified within the hollow space, thunders against the drum, shakes and rattles sections of loose metal. We, the audience, ankle-deep in mud and pipes, wait.
The man holds aloft a tiny Walkman, pushes a button. From it issues a sound, dreamlike in this environment, the thin voices of violins barely audible above the storm’s din. Despite my disapproval, goose flesh prickles my neck and spine.
The soloist hits “stop” and begins to sing. Into the huge echoing chamber pours the beauty and tenderness of de Crescenzo’s “Rondine al Nido”. The man’s tenor voice is rich and mellow, a meditation within the storm’s chaos. Next comes Giordano’s “Amor ti Vieta”, its loveliness threading through the howling wind. Softened by the drum’s half-light, the singer’s self-importance fades, revealing dignity and passion. Tears run down my checks.
The concert lasts less than five minutes. Its effect on me is both unexpected and remarkable. With the storm stripping away attitude, the music has emerged as more than entertainment. It is an element that springs from something magnificent and unmarred in humanity, a beauty of spirit that has transcended centuries of ego and aggression.
As the other passengers and I make our way through the blizzard, heading for the zodiacs that will take us back to the Polar Star and, ultimately, to our far-off cities and towns, I carry with me a reminder that within mankind exists a force that is capable of shining a light into all corners of the world, the radiance of the human soul.
Cecilia Worth is a writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. “Antarctica Concerto” won the Gold Award for Cruise Story in theSecond Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.