If there’s one thing people know about the White Continent, it’s that it’s cold. If they know two things, it’s that it’s cold and there are a lot of animals. A few of my friends asked if I was excited about seeing the polar bears. You’re no doubt smarter than those friends. But, just in case they’re reading, let me clear that up: Antarctica has seals, whales, penguins, and other birds. And plenty of krill (tiny crustaceans that everything eats). But there are no bears. That’s the Arctic. Honestly, that was the extent of my knowledge of the Antarctic animal kingdom.
Did you know, for example, that penguins porpoise just like dolphins when they’re traveling through the sea? I had no idea! Whenever I looked out the window, there were penguins jumping in and out of the water. But, of course, they’re not the only animals just below the surface.
For example we were sailing through the Bransfield Strait one evening when scores upon scores of humpback whales appeared. We couldn’t look out a window without seeing a handful of flippers, spouts, and tails. It was truly incredible.
In order to prepare for the trip, I’d done a bit of reading of course. The only thing that really stuck out to me about wildlife was that the smell would be bad — especially at the penguin rookeries. But nothing could prepare me for it.
One author said, “Noses are roused by guano fumes wafting through the air, sometimes many miles from penguin colonies. It can be a truly emotional experience.”
Emotional, it was. I kept telling myself I should “enjoy” it because it’s not something I’ll smell again for a long time. But it was bad. Like really bad. I spent most of the time on land holding my nose.
In the evenings, the staff would present lectures on various topics. They were usually pretty interesting and I didn’t want to forget anything so I brought a little notebook. My buddies would make fun of me for taking notes so I began writing under the table so they didn’t notice. That meant I missed some of the key points, which doesn’t sound like that big a deal, right? Wrong.
For some reason, several of my fellow travelers earnestly believed I was a member of the staff. Maybe it was the beard? Or else I just look smart? Anyway, they kept asking me questions. It all started when a woman asked me about the average weight of a Gentoo Penguin. I, of course, didn’t know because I hadn’t written it down at the previous evening’s lecture, which was titled “All You Want to Know About Antarctic Animals with Feathers.”
She was furious that I couldn’t answer. In retrospect, her response seemed a bit out of kilter to the situation.
She huffed, “Don’t you think you should know that?”
“Sorry, ma’am. Perhaps you can ask that staff member over there,” as I pointed at one of the naturalists.
Because I know it’s a burning question for you, a male Gentoo can weigh up to 19 pounds.
When I told a few of the staff members that I expected to share in the tip pool since people thought I worked there, they were worried I’d impact their evaluations.
“Wait, really? You? On our staff?! Ha!!”
I chose not to take that personally. So, rather than correct the other passengers, the staff gave me a crash course in Antarctic trivia so I’d do better next time. Despite my rapid-fire education, the confusion continued for the rest of the journey as passengers asked me about everything from vegetarian meals to wake-up times and even clothing recommendations. I rolled with it. Unfortunately, despite my plea, I did not share in the tip pool.
For the final expedition on our last day, we were taken to Half Moon Island. Named, like many places in Antarctica, for its shape. The island is filled with Penguin Rookeries. It’s easy to get excited about the idea of visiting an island so filled with penguins. Until one arrives and realizes the visit is spent sliding around the island because of the volume of penguin poo. These creatures not only create large volumes of excrement, they do it with force. The sound is as hard to forget as the smell.
As I slid down yet another hill on Half Moon Island (penguin poo doesn’t offer much grip), I began to curse those stupid flightless birds. I approached my friend Donny who was just wrapping up a conversation with another passenger.
“These stupid birds sure do sh*t a lot. I’d like to see one of those skua birds grab one of the chicks, rip it up, and eat it. That would be great! Plus it’d mean a little less dung.”
Donny and his pal responded with looks of horror. The other guy shook his head and walked away. Apparently he’d just spent a few minutes explaining how important it was to be silent, connect with these majestic creatures, and meditate on the beauty of these wonderful birds. He came for the wildlife.
Let’s just say my interpretation of the wildlife here in Antarctica is slightly different than the connection felt by my cohorts.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I took my share of pictures of penguins. It got to the point that I simply couldn’t stop. I got caught up. Every time a penguin was anywhere nearby, I’d get on the ground (in the penguin poo) and start taking pictures. As we were leaving Half Moon Island, I told Donny I’d do my best never to take another picture of a penguin again the rest of my life. That evening, I deleted 64 unnecessary pictures of penguins. Here are a few that survived the cull: