About the Author
Wade Fairley is a cinematographer and photographer specializing in adventure and natural history subjects. Wade has made three trips to Antarctica, two sailing trips to to Commonwealth Bay, and a kayak trip around the Antarctic Peninsula (depicted in this article). Last Antarctic summer Wade spent 6 weeks kayaking around the island of South Georgia. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia.
We were traveling by sea kayak in Antarctica, just North of the Antarctic Circle. The sea into which we rhythmically dipped our paddle blades was below 0_ C, kept liquid during the brief summer by its salinity. With time a kayak grows around you -it becomes an extension of your own body. You are so close to the water that if you were to dangle your arm, your fingers would feel the sting of the sea's icy surface. Our two sleek fiberglass boats swayed steadily with the chop and swell of the sea and the stroke of our paddles. Down at sea level you learn fast. Your surroundings are intensified, amplified. Little can go by unnoticed because your position is so sensitive. Every environmental factor has some bearing upon you, and as a result your senses become sharpened, chiseled. It's this environmental immediacy, the simplicity of the transport and the closeness to the world through which you pass that makes expedition sea kayaking so absorbing.
Our kayaks cut deep in the water.
They were loaded with everything we would need to survive and travel independently for over a month. The time was 2:00 a.m. and dead reckoning told us that ahead, beyond the oily fog, should be the 2500 meter high bulk of Livingston Island, one of the islands in the South Shetland group off the Antarctic Peninsula. We put faith in our compass work and pushed on. So thick was the fog, it was impossible to discern the horizon from water or sky.
The intimidating roar of a bull elephant seal broke the stillness. We stopped paddling and listened. The cacophony and smell of a gentoo penguin rookery wafted out over the still water. Icicles had gathered on our cheeks and eyebrows from the moist sea air. With some more strokes, the fog opened and suddenly apparition-like forms of rock pillars and ice cliffs filled the sky before us. Curious gentoo penguins porpoised alongside, squawking excitedly, their necks craned to check us out. I slid my hand from inside a snug paddling glove and waved it slowly above the water's surface feeling the icy chill. I felt a need to reassure myself that this was for real. The ship that had dropped us was on its way back to Argentina and was now well out of VHF radio range. We'd pushed through the curtain of fog and now felt our utter isolation. We were truly alone. Below our decks was all we needed to travel self-sufficiently and before us was the wild immensity of Antarctica. The majesty of Antarctica, the harmonic simplicity of exploring it by sea kayak and the realization of a long worked for dream combined to make this one of the most profound and powerful moments of my life.
Noisily snorting a gulp of air, the leopard seal surfaced. It rose up out of the water near the rudder of my partner's kayak, so he couldn't see the seal. "What's that behind me?" asked Angus Finney, my 33 year old paddling buddy who is also a raft guide and sometimes lawyer, always keen for any adventure. It was a big seal, appearing about four meters as it craned curiously up out of the water. A powerful animal with the thick strong neck of a race horse, wet fur, sleek and glistening, and neutral black eyes. I had only seen pictures of leopard seals before. Images of them peeling a penguin, flaying the black and white bird by gripping its skin between powerful jaws and whipping it from side to side like a rag doll until it popped out of its skin like a banana. I also remembered reading that they can grow to over 400 kilograms in weight. There was no mistaking this seal. I imagine this is what it must feel like when, while waiting for a bank teller, you recognize the fidgeting guy beside you clasping a large bag as a face you remember from a 'Most Wanted' TV show.
"It's a weddell seal," I yelled, lying to Angus by alluding to a less threatening species. Why trouble him with the knowledge of something over which we had no control! The seal slipped beneath the surface.
Angus and I were both familiar with the story told by polar explorer Roger Mear in his book "In the Footstep's of Scott". It was towards the end of winter, when living is lean in Antarctic waters. A leopard seal burst up through the ice and clamped its powerful jaws onto Mear's partner's boot. It then began dragging its surprised victim back towards its hole in the ice. Mear fought back giving kicks to the seal's head with his cramponed boots. The animal let go for a moment, but then burst up from the water and latched on a second time. Similar yarns abound about these infamous seals. Most are given a short shift by biologists, similar to sharks being denied their carnivorous extravagances by ichthyologists. I had read as much material about them as I could find, but could only conclude that they were solitary and reclusive animals about which really very little was actually known. We did know that they had taken a liking to biting and puncturing zodiacs tied to the wharf at the US station Palmer. But how they were going to react to a kayak, it seemed we were going to be the first to put to the test.
I watched the seal gliding clearly through the cold dark water. It stretched two thirds the length of Angus's five meter kayak and moved with a powerful beauty. It resurfaced directly beside him, rolled over and swam a sort of side stroke, turning to face Angus for a long curious look. If he dared, Angus could have reached out and tapped it on the nose. He swore and glared back at me."Yeah sure, some weddell seal"!
The Gerlache Strait. Thick wet snow congealed and set on the sea's surface like porridge. We could bulldoze through it but it made for slow heavy paddling. For two days, it had been snowing more on than off. The abrupt coastal peaks were plastered with wet unstable snow and in places avalanche debris had turned the sea into a thick soupy slush. We paddled respectfully clear of the base of the mountain faces. It would be too ironic to get wiped out by an avalanche while sea kayaking! The weather showed no signs of easing nor did there appear a break in the continuous ice cliffs flanking the coast. According to the map, Winke Island was across the 12 km wide Gerlache Strait and offered us the best chances of somewhere sheltered to pass the night. We decided to take the punt and regardless of the atrocious weather, attempt to cross.
We paddled blindly out into the white-out, following the compass but unable to see beyond the end of our boats. The map showed several small islands lying across our route, but the boggy weather made them indistinguishable from the ice bergs. As the breeze picked up to about 15 knots, it began gathering up the loose pack ice and herding it together. Our crossing turned into a race to bolt between the flows before they crunched shut. From the sea level height of our kayaks, it became impossible to see beyond the ice walls closing in around us. We found ourselves paddling through a maze. In the tightest passages, our paddles became useless - with the ice pressing in on us, there wasn't enough room to get a sweep up and the plastic blades grated off the hard and slippery sea ice. We found our ice axes more useful for clawing and sledghammering our way through the icy rubble wedged in the . I was worried because our kayaks were getting pretty severely brutalized under the rough treatment. But they were good strong boats ice strengthened with extra fiberglass lay-up in anticipation of this sort of ordeal.
We had been paddling for some hours now out into the Gerlache, and despite being slowed by the ice maze, we figured that we should have been about half way.
"Are we mad to continue?" Angus asked.
"Probably", I replied.
It was a difficult call: to continue or turn about and try our luck again in the pack ice. We knew the ice cliffs we had escaped weren't going to offer much in the way of safe ground. We couldn't be certain we were holding a true course, since we had been weaving in every direction through the ice leads. In our frantic dashes to make for clear water between the flows, there was little time to consider direction, and with the relentless snow it was impossible to keep course without a compass. A fleeting hole in the weather revealed the faint sheen of big ice cliffs on a bearing that was roughly in the right direction for Winkie Island. With confidence gained from this glimpse, we chose to keep pushing on deeper into the pack ice.
Towering ice cliffs materialized beyond the flows. Their height suggested land and not just more bergs, but the mountains were shrouded deep in cloud and there was not enough geographical reference for us to make a confident dead reckoning of our position. In other words, we were lost. We finally landed to rest on a low rocky islet. As we dragged our kayaks clear of the low surf and settled down to gobble wolfishly some chocolate, a pair of Adélie penguins scurried out of the water and up onto the rocks beside us.. The windward paddling had coated one side of Angus's face with a film of sea ice and his eyes were blood shot red from the salty spray. I laughed at his haggardness, finding some comic relief in our immediate seriousness. We had a G.P.S and while standing in the wind, hugging ourselves and jumping up and down to keep warm, we discussed pulling it out and taking a fix. We didn't in the end mess with it-it was simply too cold to concentrate or fumble the buttons with cold fingers and wait for the little wonder to work its celestial magic.
It was now midnight and striking camp seemed an attractive option. The island was just big enough with a little flat ice for a camp. We stomped about briefly, flattening the snow. As we trampled down the snow, we considered the massive ice cliffs towering over the water only a couple hundred meters away. Should the monsters calve on an ice berg, our low island would have been swept over by the wash. The image of being washed into Antarctic water, tangled in our tent and cocooned in sleeping bags was enough to have us scurry back to our boats and slog windward until we found a safer camp site.
The next day the breeze continued steadily, packing together more ice. The leads of clear water grew progressively thinner and more difficult to find. Two minke whales surfaced a few meters away taking breath in a thin strip of clear water. They blew, then dove out of sight and sound; I envied the ease of their escape beneath the ice. By contrast our luck seemed to be running out as fast as the leads. We gazed in disbelief at the dead end in front of us. There wasn't enough room to turn our long kayaks around so we tried backing up, but a flow slotted into place across our escape route and commenced to crunch against our rudders, squeezing and threatening to crush our fragile boats. Not only were we stuck, but if we didn't move fast we would have two smashed boats as well!
Angus took a cautious step out onto the floating ice. The edge fell away under his weight and he sprang clear to a more solid flow. I tentatively followed, comforted by the knowledge that our Gore-tex dry suits would keep us relatively safe and dry should we break through into the water. The flows were more stable than they appeared and we quickly become bolder, leaping from flow to flow with our kayaks in tow sledging them over the sea ice. The lead of clear water through which we had entered was only meters away, but just as we reached it, the taunting lead shut tight.
We felt beaten. The soft blue twilight suggested it was about two am. I felt exhausted, stranded and very concerned. The possibility of being stuck here waiting weeks for the ice to clear and subsequently failing to make our rendezvous with the ship that was to take us back to South America left me with a stab of panic. The options were making a precarious camp out on the floating ice or clawing our way up the ice cliffs to land. We were relatively lucky in this last respect since not far away the shore offered a steep snow slope rather than the usual teetering ice cliffs. So we set off, jumping from flow to flow towards this.
Every day, when unpacking and reloading my heavily loaded boat, I cursed our crampons, ice screws and climbing rope as dead weight. Now they were worth their weight in gold. A dangerous three meter step of vertical ice led up from the water to the snow slope. I front pointed up and cut a trail of steps leading to a rocky outcrop where I began digging out a tent platform using a paddle as a snow shovel. At last, at about four am - numbed by the bitter cold and exhausted - we climbed into our sleeping bags and went to sleep.
Crisp warm sunlight cast a more benevolent atmosphere on our predicament when we arose later that day. I realized we had landed in fog as I unzipped the tent to a brand new world. Winkie Island's peaks towered majestically over us and when we climbed above our camp to the top of the slope, there was more good news: the passage widened and the ice flows seemed to ease enough for us to pass in our narrow kayaks. Crabeater seals and our old friends, the leopards, basked on the floating ice. As we watched them drift by, we realized there was a current, at least a knot and heading our way. Taking advantage of the twenty four hour sunlight, we put back onto the water that evening. Provided the current didn't shift with the turn in the tide, it alone would take us slowly but steadily in the right direction.
At last a day later, we paddled out into clear water again. My panic about missing our boat dissolved immediately. The relief of escaping from the clutches of the ice was immense but oddly enough, I couldn't help but miss the intensity and commitment of the past days. We had been totally absorbed by our situation and had found a rare clarity and focus. Our rendezvous was still two weeks of unknown paddling away, but regardless of what unfolded between now and then, I had found what I had come for. I felt completely at ease and fulfilled by those few exciting, uncertain days.
Kayaking in South Georgia
(Available through VICTORY Adventure Travel)