An Intimate Near-Death Experience in Antarctica
A friend, who is a fellow tennis player and a bird watcher, just returned from a cruise to and around Antarctica and had some fascinating stories to tell about the “White Continent” with its spectacular ice, rugged mountais and fjords, aggressive seals and awesome whales, and—of course—the unique birds that inhabit the various islands, including the first Snow Petrel he has ever seen.
Jim—that’s my friend’s name—describes the huge King Penguin colony he and his wife, Linda, saw on Salisbury Plain, on the North coast of South Geogia Island. A colony “which held an estimated 250,000 pairs, not to mention the chicks, adding credibility to the idea that we saw ‘millions’ of penguins on our cruise to the great Southern Ocean.”
After visiting the penguins, Jim and Linda were looking forward to the next day when they were to see the South Georgian Pipit on the South-East side of the island. The Pipit is a bird species that has nearly been decimated by “Rattus norvegicus,” the Brown Rat that infests the island.
Of course Jim had been taking some great photos. Regrettably, we won’t get to see them, and that is part of the story that I will be sharing with you.
But first some caveats.
First, no one’s misfortunes should be taken lightly or made fun of. However, in this instance, we have permission from Jim—the person who had the misfortune—to smile, even laugh, if one should feel the urge.
Second, I have edited Jim’s story just a tiny bit to bring the “rating” down (or up?) from PG-13 to PG.
Finally, and most important, both Jim and I have absolutely no intention of in any way saying or implying anything offensive about the fairer sex . As a matter of fact, Jim respectfully refers to the young lady who may have saved his life, as his “new best friend” and he will be forever thankful to her.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Before I let Jim share his story, let me just set the stage.
After the visit to Salisbury Plane, the ship anchored in Cooper Bay, in preparation for the next morning’s final trip ashore to see the Pipits.
In the morning, Jim and his fellow birdwatchers woke up to “an unusual clear blue sky and calm seas,” and made their way to the rocky shore of Cooper Bay aboard a Zodiac, “a shallow, allegedly unsinkable contraption that held 12 people.”
After about an hour of watching the Pipits and also some nesting Macaroni Penguins “with their attendant Snowy Sheathbills, birds that eat Penguin [poop], if you can believe it,” and Antarctic Fur Seals, the party returned to the Zodiac for a tour of some of the nearby coastline.
I’ll now let Jim tell you what happened next:
During this excursion, some gravity-driven—“katabatic”—winds arrived. We had never heard of these winds before the trip. They arise when cold air over an ice sheet flows downhill; accelerating in the process, before arriving suddenly with great force at the bottom, in our case, the bay. In minutes, the sea was full of 1-2 meter waves, and strong winds. Our bird guide, Steven, suggested to our Russian boatman that we return to the ship.
During the trip back, waves poured over the bow and sides, drenching everyone. Some seawater a few degrees above freezing ran right down the neck of my jacket. I thought about my camera, stowed in what I hoped was a waterproof pack. The pack wasn’t as waterproof as I wished; the camera never worked again. The frigid water even wiped out the memory chip.
We were the third Zodiac in line for a turn to scramble up the gangway and onto the ship. We circled in the bay watching as Andy, a birder in the first Zodiac, got back aboard our ship, Plancius. “Great,” I thought. “If he can do it, so can I.” That’s when the radio crackled out something I thought was Russian, but must have been English, as Linda understood it. Steve repeated the message, “We’re going to return to the shore.”
My first thought was, “There’s nothing on the shore to burn. How are we going to get warm?” I noticed a large waterproof box on the floor of the boat, which I trusted contained survival supplies. Prayer seemed appropriate, until I realized I had no one to pray to, and commented, “At times like this, I regret being an atheist.” That got a couple of laughs.
At that point, it also occurred to me that I might die.
Linda sitting across from me, and just as wet, reflected on a movie we had just seen about the trip of Ernest Shackleton in 1914-1917. All the crew members survived over 700 days in the Antarctic. She comforted herself with the idea that we could certainly survive a couple of hours. She didn’t share her thoughts, but said, “Next time, I choose where we go.”
By the time we got to the shore, I was shivering uncontrollably. The man sitting next to me shouted, “This guy is experiencing first stage hypothermia. Somebody needs to do something.” They passed me on to the ship’s doctor, who started me on a series of calisthenics that didn’t seem to be helping much.
Fortunately, another guide took charge. Shane, who had spent 25 years guiding trips down the Grand Canyon, was familiar with the problem of hypothermia. “We have to get you out of these wet clothes,” he said, removing nearly all my clothes and leaving me with only the bottom of my thermals to preserve my modesty.
“I have some dry socks in my bag,” I suggested, trying to be helpful. “Get into this,” Shane instructed, holding open the top of a large white plastic bag, normally used to store the life preservers. Apparently, this bag was all I was going to have to keep the wind away. I got into the bag without argument.
Then, my new best friend arrived in the person of Anjali, a petite 36-year-old female guide of German-Indian extraction, a PhD in Marine Science, a veteran of 19 months on South Georgia with the British Antarctic Survey, an accomplished performer of traditional South Indian Dance, and easily the cutest member of the staff.
After announcing, “I’m going to get in there with him.” Anjali proceeded to doff her own top layers, leaving only dry thermals, and climbed into the bag, where she immediately seized my legs in a powerful scissor lock, wrapped her arms around my neck, and lay on top of me. My first thought was, “Man. She’s strong.” It turns out that Anjali is also a devotee of extreme sports, including things like ice climbing.
My second thought popped into my head when I rested my hands on what seemed like the obvious place. Without thinking, I blurted out, “You’ve got a nice [derrière].” “Thanks,” she replied, adding, “Why don’t you put your hands under my shirt — and don’t’ get any ideas.” I complied.
I asked if she had a boy friend, and if he was big, strong, and the jealous type. She told me that he was in Seattle, was big and strong, but not jealous. I relaxed a bit.
Anjali and I had time to chat. I mentioned an old song appropriate to our situation with the title “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” the #1 song for a while in 1979. Anjali can be excused for not knowing this country music classic, as she was six at the time.
Someone stuck a cup of hot water and some chocolate into the bag. Apparently, the survival kit did contain something useful. At the same time, Shane thrust an orange plastic thing into the bag and told us to use it as a second layer. He also told me I needed to drink something hot, so I took the water and drank it.
This involved some rearrangement of bodies. Anjali lifted her head out of the way and I managed to slurp the water without spilling too much. I handed the cup back and there we were, inches apart, eyes locked on each other, just Anjali and me. My right brain recognized a scene from hundreds of movies and urged me on. “Kiss! Kiss!” it insisted. Meanwhile, the left brain was waving a flag with a desperate plea, “No! No! Stop! Bad idea! Weren’t you paying attention?”
The rational part of my brain won out. I lay back and Anjali rested her head on my shoulder. Her hot breath on my arm felt great.
“You know people are going to be talking about us for the rest of the trip,” she observed.
“Bring’em on,” I replied.
Gradually, I stopped shivering and warmed up. They put us in the last Zodiac to return to the ship. Someone had rounded up some spare items from other people. I had two shirts, a sweater, two caps, and some great pants. I had to make do with my own boots, which were only slightly damp.
The sea was like glass, the katabatic winds having vanished as quickly as they appeared. Our return to the ship was uneventful. I was the first one off the Zodiac, clambering quickly up the gangway, a great relief to the other passengers, who had feared they might need to carry me.
On board, I accepted a cup of coffee and headed to our cabin. The doctor arrived with instructions, “A warm shower, and then get into bed. You need to stay in bed an hour at least. Make it two hours.”
By the time I had finished the shower and climbed beneath the down comforter, he reappeared with two hot water bottles. Linda disappeared and returned with a bowl of soup and hot tea from lunch. She left me alone to sleep.
After one hour, the PA system announced that the ship was entering the Drygalski Fjord. That was all the incentive I needed to get out of bed, doctors orders or no, dress and head to the upper deck for the view, which was spectacular.
As we moved slowly past the glacier-covered mountains, a Snow Petrel, its pristine white plumage accented by a coal black bill and eye, rose from an ice floe and sailed serenely across the bow of the ship.
Leave it to my friend, the bird watcher, to conclude his story, not with fond memories of his sensual near-death experience, of contemplating his own mortality, but rather with images of his first Snow Petrel sighting “sailing serenely across the bow of the ship.”
Jim (he likes to be called “the other Jim Hargrove”) mentions how his camera was ruined during the ordeal. Fortunately, his wife’s rugged and waterproof point-and-shoot camera survived and—should there be any doubters—took the picture, above, which she casually labeled “The plastic bag with Jim and Anjali inside.”
The photo at the top of this post is of Jim and Linda on Salisbury plain with 250,000 smiling King Penguins posing behind them.