Deception Island is actually the caldera of an ancient volcano that last erupted in 1971. There is a gap in the rim where water has since flooded in and filled the inner part of the volcano. Of all the Antarctic tourists spots I read about, Deception Island was the one spot I wanted to visit most, mainly because tourists are urged to swim there. The thermal energy under the sand warms the waters near the shore enough that sever cold shock will not occur upon contact with human skin as quick as it would, say, outside the volcano.
According to Angela, though, one of their passengers received second and third degree burns last week. Her analogy was that warm waves migrate around the bay like pee in the pool – you may think you are only getting into sub-zero water when a bit of scalding hot water may be moving towards you without any notice. Either way I was prepared to give it a try. To come home and face my friends without swimming in Antarctica was not an option.
We landed and I walked around mentally preparing myself for my Antarctic dip. Already in the water was Naked Japanese Man. He was back in his sumo drape and bright orange Hello Kitty snorkel set. The man was an absolute goofball. If ever anyone deserved an award for buffoonery, it was him, and the Naked Shackeltons decided unanimously that we were the ones to deliver it.
Steve came at us elated as he finally redeemed himself with the Skuas. Two days ago he nearly had his eyes pecked out by one of the Antarctic "seagulls" relentlessly trying to defend it’s nest. If not for Bo the birdman yelling for Steve to swing his camera over his head to shoo the bird away, Steve would have received a serious clawing. But today he was squatting and talking a picture of a penguin when a couple Skuas approached him nicely. He stayed still to see what they’d do. Curiously, they nipped at him. Judging their comfortability, he slowly laid down and the skuas proceeded to hang around him and even nibble at his hair. He shot a whole role of film in under two minutes.
This stop, called Whalers Bay on our ship’s map, used to be a whaling station so all sorts of big, rusty metal contraptions littered the shores. Come to think of it, everything was the color of rust. From the dilapidated machinery on the beach, to the shores, and all the way on up to the lip of the volcano, spanned a bland red hue.
A lone Japanese man was wearing one of the many styles of space-age cold-gear available only in the neon-laden street malls of Japan. His get-up was a helmet shy from being a full-blown space suit. Watching him walk down the dramatically steep, reddish slope of the inner volcano made me think: Mars. I snapped a photo and filed it in my Start A Rumor file. "Man reaches Mars. Atmosphere no match for Japanese designer space suit."
I climbed as high up the rim as I could go, until I realized if I so much as sneezed I risked falling 200 feet into the icy waters below.
I descended back down the inner face and met up with Jaime and Bob. We then met up with a woman named Miyako. According to her, she is a world-famous poet whose poems appear in anthologies and textbooks the world over. If we gave her our addresses she would send each of us an autographed haiku for Christmas, she exclaimed. Her English wasn’t spectacular, so maybe that is why she kept repeating "I am world-famous." Or maybe that’s the only English she wants to know, but after two full minutes of hearing how famous and well-distributed her poetry was, Bob stopped and pointed to a rock on the ground. "Look," he said. "This rock is infinitely more interesting than she is."
Miyako kept walking after we shook her hand good-bye. When she was far enough ahead we pressed forth. On the not-so-long trek back to the swimming zone the sun disappeared and a sudden gale-driven snow beat mercilessly the small portion of exposed skin below my eyes. I reached the few brave swimmers, Steve and Mary, included. They were scurrying out of the water because the weather was turning ugly fast. I lost all my nerve to strip down and swim, and instead zodiac’ed back the ship with my head hung in shame.
Bob was about to alert UNISEF when we passed the three-hours-since-our-last-feeding mark. Luckily, though, yummies were dispersed just as we got onboard. I ate myself sick then headed down to our cabin where the Naked Shackeltons met in secrecy to plot this evening’s surprise presentation.
Late afternoon provided us with one last landing. We originally set course for Hannah Point but the waters were too violent. Typically, one stands on the small platform at the bottom of the gangway, then boards the slightly bobbing zodiac with the help of two able-bodied staff members. But when the gangway is submerged each time the ship rocks portward, then shoots back out of the water with enough pressure to buckle one’s knees, trying to safely load up a zodiac is unreasonable, even for the nimblest.
So we changed destinations and wound up at Half Moon Island. The weather was getting rough, but I was used to it and enjoyed the dramatic changes that us Californians are not so accustomed to. Jaime, Bob and I walked around the small island for a couple hours talking. They felt like they’d seen enough penguins and seals and ice. On the other hand, I didn’t want to go home. The more penguins I saw, the longer it meant till I got home. It was pouring thick, heavy, icy rain that had me soaked within the first ten minutes. The dreary weather, mixed with this being our last stop made for a somber frame of mind. I never, ever thought I’d say this, but not only was I truly enjoying this cold, barren, hostile, relentless, unforgiving, malevolent atmosphere, but I was having as much fun as I’ve ever had. Remember my fear of water? Gone. Remember my aversion to the cold? Gone. Remember my apprehensions about being on a ship with people I had nothing in common with? Gone. Apsley Cherry-Garrard said, "An Antarctic expedition is the worst way to have the best time of your life," and I couldn’t agree more. Sad and soggy, I was still reeling with rapture.
I tried to take a few more photos before my last zodiac ride, but as I looked through the lens I thought, "this is not what people back home are gonna see." They’re going to see some rocks, some dirty ice, and a bunch of dirty black and white footballs with webbed feet. There was no way a two-dimensional piece of film paper was going to be able to capture the essence of standing on land that less than 1% of the world’s population will ever stand on. It would be impossible for the folks back home to look at one of my photos and grasp the cold, wet, fascinating environment that stretched far beyond the borders of the picture.
Bottom line, I didn’t want to go home.
After Half Moon Island, the Naked Shackeltons regrouped in our room, but five of us cooped up in the cabin brainstorming was too stuffy, so we returned to the library for some space and fresh(er) air. Every time someone walked by we hushed up, furthering our reputation as ne’er do wells. We finished shortly before dinner and showered up. On my bunk I found a comfy MEI fleece bundled up in a ribbon. All we needed now was a commemorative bottle of spirits.
We secured our own table in the back (where else would you expect to find us?) and ate in relative silence. Angela, our secret partner in crime, joined our table. I commended her on acquiring the fleece for us.
Unfortunately, the evening’s guest of honor hadn’t shown up and we were getting nervous that he might sit this meal out. During dessert Shane stood before the diners in his usual spot and addressed everyone on the closing day’s events.
Half way through Shane’s speech The Almighty snuck in. It was go. When Shane was done, Angela stepped right into the tail end of his speech so as to retain the people’s attention. She had a fake microphone and spoke in a hokey MC voice. Everybody in the dining room looked confused, Shane especially.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," she began, " I’d like to thank you all for coming out to the Annual Plump Penguin Award Banquet." The passengers looked around at each other curiously, but not peeved. The staff table looked surprised and interested. Until Angela said, "…and here to present the Plump Penguin Award is the Captain of the North American Chapter of Team Naked Shackelton, Craig."
A grand applause filled the room, mixed with Hoo!’s of the loudest order from our table. As I approached Shane’s speaking spot, the blood drained from every face at the staff table. My cohorts back at our table said Shane was half-cocked over the table ready to tackle me down in case I suddenly got out of hand. Just as we had hoped.
"Normally we wait till the end of the expedition to hand out this award, but the judges have determined it is mathematically impossible for any other contestants to win."
The audience was hooked. Clueless, but hooked. I could see a small amount of fear in a couple faces. Fear stemming from known accounts of our juvenile antics. Fear that maybe my table and me might strip naked and set each other on fire. I made sure Kevin was keeping up with the translation for the Japanese. He was the only outside person aware of what was going on. He gave me a nod and I continued.
"Some of the more notable contenders included Team British Columbia, Team Tasmania, Team T’aint, and of course, the favorites coming into this event, Team Naked Shackelton."
We had planned that the Naked Shackeltons would stand at every mention of "Team Naked Shackelton" and scream and motion like they were going to take their pants off until I directed a stern "Not now!" at them. But the rest of the dining room gave the Naked Shackeltons’ hollering a run for their money.
When the dining room settled down I continued. "The Plump Penguin is given to the best Antarctic explorer on each cruise. The best Antarctic explorer is, of course, the one who has the most fun."
People started to see where this was headed.
"As the captain of the North American Chapter of Team Naked Shackelton – NO! Quiet guys! Sit down and keep those pants on! – I am honored, proud, and more importantly, humbled to present this award to Team Japan."
I got bewildered looks from just about everybody, especially the Japanese.
"Although Japan fielded a very strong team, it was through the efforts of one shining individual--" The dining room suddenly erupted into a deafening clamor of hoots, hollers, clapping and laughing, and all eyes turned towards Naked Japanese Man. Five seconds later Kevin’s translation caught up, and then the Japanese joined in the hooping. I sat across Naked Japanese Man’s lap and waited for everyone to settle down.
"—it was through the efforts of one shining individual that his team was able to crush the competition. The judges recognized outstanding achievement in three categories." I listed off some of his shenanigans, all of which had people in stitches. One Japanese man was literally rolling on the floor in tears while a man behind him was on his hands and knees banging a fist into the floor like he was at The Apollo.
"So continuing in a long tradition of Antarctic buffoonery, this century’s first Plump Penguin Award goes to…" I knelt beside Naked Japanese Man and put my arm around his shoulder. "…Yoshida Minaru-san!" I handed him the fleece and a bottle of wine. He got a standing ovation and the ship’s cultural gap shrank ten-fold.
The dining room never settled down until it was empty. Both Minaru-san and the Naked Shackeltons were offered congratulatory hands for the duration of our time in the dining room. Minaru-san gave us all hugs and Origato’s that were so heartfelt I nearly shed a tear.
The rest of the night I wandered from the bar to the library to the upper decks trying to make sure I was soaking up as much as I could, knowing we were now on our way back home. Everywhere I went people knew my name and congratulated me. Even if they knew no English, they knew my name and shook my hand with a bow. We all noticed it – everyone was mixing, most notably all the honkeys and the Japanese. And a lot of the older passengers were no longer afraid of the Naked Shackeltons. I think maybe they thought we were totally out of hand, but after our relatively tasteful presentation they seemed to think, "Oh, that wasn’t so bad." It was wonderful. I went to bed thankful for just about everything in the world.