Jill bullies us into a another 7.30am wakeup call with her trademark “good morning, everyone, good morning” and we are trooping off to the British base station, Port Lockroy. We meet two young women working at the base, and they were apparently travelling with one of the Quark cruise ships just one year ago themselves. After their trip, they looked for a job with the British Antarctic Heritage Trust and got what they wanted: a stint here in Antarctica during the summer. Yes, ladies and gentlemen! Apparently you can quit your life and job and just come hang out with the penguins for a bit!!
But Port Lockroy was overshadowed by what unfolded later at Jougla Point, a little rock outcrop with a cool collection of whale bones. Just as I was hurrying into the last zodiac back to the ship, a Leopard seal rolled up to us. She was a young one, not yet fully aware of the dangers of the world, and had simply wanted to explore this strange rubber boat and those ten very excited figures on it.
Allow me to just say that prior to this encounter I would say seals are nice animals. They’re sweet and plump– what’s not to like? But they are, in person, magnificent. For ten blissful minutes, our Leopard seal cast a spell upon us as she swam around our zodiac, sliding in and out of the water in silence. Someone had once said that Antarctica is “impossible to imagine beforehand, and impossible to remember afterwards”. I cannot think of a more fitting phrase to describe this moment, for I cannot recall how the seal looked but I remember the emotion every time the seal surfaced near us: awe– sheer awe and near disbelief that a creature could, in its 6 foot frame, come to embody the very essence of Purity.
When they said Antarctica is pristine, I had always taken it to be more of a reference to the landscape than to the wildlife. And indeed the sweeping vistas of endless white are pristine, but more so than the calving glaciers, life here is what is truly pristine. Stranded in our hectic schedules amid the mind numbing drone of a crowded city, we have forgotten what it even means to be pure, to be innocent, to betruly content. Gazing at this gentle creature, I realized deep down that in my ambition to achieve more and even in my curiousity to see more of the world, I could never hope to attain that level of contentedness.
But, because there was a boatload of people about me and because it is highly embarrasing to cry with an audience, I tucked that memory away and pressed the camera shutter instead. Later, there will be a time to quietly reminisce and to be finally overwhelmed.