Saturday, February 23, 2002

South Georgia Island IV

I stand at the door trying to shoot the heaving seas in its fading light, but finally I'm struggling simply to hang on and stay upright. I fight waves of nausea and fear, and I'm soon standing eyes wide, dry-mouthed, sweating and trembling. When Jerome lights up another smoke I edge toward the door for a precious gulp of fresh air, and a quick escape route as the evening's pizza fights its way back upstream.

The cold wind and seawater on my hands gives me something else to focus on, and during a miraculous lull I stumble down below and lurch into my bunk.

I slap on headphones and try very hard to be somewhere else for a while. I doze fitfully as darkness falls, and I wake to the sight of the Southern Cross in the tiny portal above my bunk, the familiar stars pitching wildly past, dancing again but to an altogether different tune.

South Georgia Island III

As we sail from the protected fjord into Cooper Sound, the wind roils the sea's surface into an angry swell, blowing the tops off waves and sending us all staggering for shelter. Schools of Gentoo Penguins don't seem especially worried as they porpoise and surf through the maelstrom. I dash below to grab my biggest telephoto lens and stand in the wheelhouse doorway, dodging walls of spray as the boat pitches wildly in the seas.

Somehow in all the excitement, I notice the lens isn't there any more. I feel it slipping from my hand, slowly and inexorably, and watch it hit the rail, bounce once off the hull and disappear into the emerald green water, sinking like a proverbial stone. A very, very expensive stone.

We round South Georgia's eastern edge and slam into the guts of the storm. While the setting sun turns the sky a lovely salmon, our 20 meter steel yacht catapaults through a sea gone mad. With each wave the bow leaps skyward and at the very peak leaves us weightless for an instant before slamming down with a shuddering groan. Green water floods over the railing and a wall of spray slams the wheelhouse windows.

The crowd quickly dwindles as one by one the passengers retreat to their bunks or the nearest unoccupied sink to reconsider that last slice of pizza.

South Georgia Island II

A solitary Weddell seal, prevalent in the Antarctic but a straggler from the last Ice Age in these latitudes, naps on the rocky beach. I set up a tripod within eight inches of of her fuzzy mug and she is disturbed only so far as to blow a gob of snot at my lens before rolling over and retreating to her dreams of krill. She does not move again until some hours late, and only after the incoming tide has very nearly submerged her head.

In spite of the threatened storm, the sky clears and the afternoon turns balmy, at least by local standards. I strip to long johns, fleece jacket and boots. As is generally the case when in the presence of wildlife that is not fleeing me, I blow through very many rolls of film. It isn't until I exposure the last two frames that no fewer than nine seals gather in the water at my feet. staring up with those wet Bambi eyes, the fjord and circling mountains glowing in afternoon sun, that I sense a malevolent intelligence at work here. I am reduced to sputtering, apoplectic rage.

Back on board and suitably medicated, I join the rest of the crew in tucking into pizza for dinner before we pull anchor and motor out of the fjord. Jerome mentions something about the wind, but we're happy to sit bundled on deck and watch the sun set behind glacial crags.

South Georgia Island I

The stars of the Southern Cross dance slowly across the water. The fjord where we have anchored is utterly still, and at midnight the world appears reflected double, the night sky above and the water below both alive with stars.

But paradise is a temperamental place, and by dawn the barometric pressure is falling like it was dropped off a table. Jerome mutters through the smoke of another hand-rolled cigarette that this does not bode well. But inside the fjord, though the wind send periodic blasts of warm and cold air screaming through, we enjoy the day inside our sheltered idyll.

I motor to shore and devote a few hours to the local fur seal colony. Having evolved on South Georgia Island absent man's presence, they haven't yet developed the knack for fearing us. An early 20th century onslaught of industrial slaughter drove them to the brink of extinction, but this bunch at least seem wiling to overlook that transgression with nothing more than the occasional snarling charge at my shins.