We began to see floating chunks of ice yesterday, but they were few and far between. Lonely pieces of frozen water, bobbing in the sea. Later in the day, we saw sheets of floating ice. As we motored south, the sheets became larger and closer together.
Today, I look out a porthole and see miles and miles of flat white, broken by ridges, bumps, and hills. Large tracks of saltwater run between the slabs, like rivers through an exotic landscape of white. We seem to glide on top of the ice, but I see massive cracks forming in front of us as the ship pushes her way through. The sound we make is like the hoarse whisper of a spatula against a frying pan. Shooosh… slooosh.
When I wake, we’re stopped in the ice for a science operation, and the main engines are shut down. It’s peaceful, and I languish in the bunk for a few minutes before getting up to start my coffee. As I do every morning, I look out each porthole. There, on the ice, I see a huddle of about twenty penguins waddling toward the ship. They’re at about a hundred feet and closing.
Forgetting my coffee, I dress as quickly as I can, grab the camera and barrel down three decks to the cold-weather gear locker. I don an orange Mustang suit along with specially insulated boots, then my fleece gloves and hat, and head out to the gangway. I lift my right foot and have it almost to the metal ramp when Lorenzo, a crewmember, stops me.
“Do you have permission to go out on the ice?”
“No… I need permission?”
“Everyone needs permission to go out.”
“Where do I get permission?” A hint of petulance enters my half of the conversation. My insides are racing while my body is at a dead stop.
“It needs to come from ASA. I think Don’s on now.” The Antarctic Support Associates crew acts as technical support and as liaison between the ship’s crew and the scientific crew. You’d think that, thousands of miles from anywhere, fifty people could communicate. Guess not. The gangway is under the scientific party’s jurisdiction now.
I look toward the door of the ship, and then back to the activity on the ice. The Adelies have come about eight feet from the science party. They’re standing, three feet tall in black and white feathers on the snow-white surface, watching the orange-clad humans bore holes into the ice. I feel like a little kid, watching out the window while the other kids play.
I can see this conversation is going nowhere. I head up two decks and walk forward to the Marine Project Coordinator’s office, but Don’s door is closed, meaning do not disturb. I head for the bridge, three more ladders up, to see if anyone on the bridge can permit me.
By the end of the first ladder, the suit is too warm. A layer of sweat covers my back as I unzip and remove the top half of the one-piece garment and tie the empty sleeves around my waist. I get to the bridge where Mike is on watch.
“Hey Mike, Do I really need ASA permission to go out on the ice?” Petulance has morphed to a whine.
“Yeah” he answers, “We need to follow protocol.”
“Don’s door is closed. Is there anyone else who can give me permission?”
“Alice is next in line, but she’s out on the ice.”
“Well, can you radio her?”
“Not when she’s doing ops. Sorry.”
My work shift is about to begin, so I return to quarters, change clothes and head to the galley, feeling sorry for myself.
When I learn we’ll be stopping again, I catch Don in the galley at dinnertime. He writes a pass, allowing me to go onto the ice.
I’m elated in anticipation of standing on a chunk of frozen water on top of the Southern Ocean. I approach the gangway, permission slip in hand, ignoring the feeling of being an elementary school student with a hall pass for the restroom.
Rhuel is at the top of the ramp this time, and he smiles at me as I flash my paper and pass. I walk down to the ice and take a deep breath of the cold Antarctic air. I move my booted foot off the ramp and sink softly through six inches of snow. I take a few tentative steps, then move away from the trail left by the science crew, making my very own footprints. I turn and look at them. It feels important to step where no one has ever stepped, and likely won’t ever step again.
There are no penguins this time, so I take my black, thickly padded gloves and try to grab a handful of snow. It falls apart, cascading like stardust back down to the ice. I remove my glove and scoop up another handful with my bare flesh. The warmth of my skin allows for a small, barely packed snowball. I dip my head and bring the snow to my face, then take a small bite of it. I had expected it to taste magically different. It doesn’t. It’s just snow. But this snow is floating on top of a chunk of ice that’s drifting in the Antarctic Ocean.