Distance is relative. Spending a day – or three – at sea to reach a remote island in the Southern Ocean has become my normal commute over the past month spent exploring the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia. These far-flung ancient rock formations jut up a few hundred meters from the shallow surrounding continental shelf, often perched right on an abyssal precipice.
A couple of the larger, higher islands like Auckland and Campbell Island were covered in glacial ice during the last ice age, and so are graced with gently sloping U-shaped valleys and rounded hilltops. Nestled down in the fog, and in the moss and lichen-soft greens and muted golden browns of both these substantial islands, are paper-white nesting albatrosses like origami cranes perched in a sea salt-pruned bonsai landscape. Friendly pipits hop and flit around your feet with insect laden beaks, and sweeping views peppered with blooming red rata flowers reward the committed hiker.
But, nothing compares to Macquarie Island. It is the only place on the planet where the sea floor rises above sea level. By some incongruous feat of tectonic geology, two oceanic plates collided and rose upwards together instead of subducting one below the other, as is the usual decorum of molten seabed rock. Massive fields of pillow lava that once bubbled up from the red-hot Earth’s mantle under miles of water, lie like overlapping and inflated fish scales on terra firma. But the beaches…the beaches are thick with busy penguins commuting back and forth from the dunes to the salty shores, or stand precariously balancing behemoth eggs on their webbed feet.
Mammoth, lazy elephant seals seem to melt into the sand on the beach thanks to the sheer weight of their hulking bodies. Some are grumpy and irritated as they clearly suffer painfully through a catastrophic molting event and it’s wise to stay clear of them and the shreds of fur peeling slowly off of their hulking bodies. Others are young and curious, and will shuffle up towards you while you kneel in the sand meters away, and then watch you intently with their moon-pie black eyes, trying to figure out if you are friend or foe, or simply a speed bump on their way back to the ocean.
In other places, penguins stand shoulder-to-shoulder in massive colonies struggling in the mud to find their chicks and feed them a hot, regurgitated seafood slaw. The penguins rocking back and forth on their heels, or scurrying along the outskirts of the colony in a straight line, look a bit like the hippies at Woodstock on day three – dazed and confused, exhausted and hungry, covered in sticky, smelly brown mud, and hustling along to get to the next good thing. The bedlam is mesmerizing, smelly, and astounding.
Now the ship heads south to Antarctica and distance becomes even more relative. We have been at sea for 5 days already, and will probably be out for a couple more until we reach the sea ice and then the continent at long last. I saw my first real iceberg today and felt born again – christened by its shades of blue and gray – and by the spires of ice and the age and the size and the flurry of birds all around. There are no words. I will try to write again when we are closer to the great southern continent.