Before I get on to the qualities of Antarctic silence, I just have to run you through my morning. Determined to halt the slow creep of time-difference-adjustment sleeping in, I set my alarm for 7.30, struggled up by 7.45, had breakfast, peeled spuds for an hour or two, and as things were so smooth I headed for the gym. However even a slight motion when you’re on a treadmill feels very weird – I had to run holding on to the bar and I felt a bit whoozy when I got off. Shower, lunch, at the desk by midday – except now I’m stuffed and want to have an afternoon nap.
Anyway – cast your minds off the ship and back to Antarctica itself, out on my field trip. After we’d hung around Caroline Mikkelsen’s cairn, enjoyed the antics of the nesting Adelies and had a picnic by the Hagg, we climbed up Walkabout Rocks to visit the Wilkins cairn (which is where the earlier picture of me with the flag and Stay came from) and then set out again the Hagg to look for seals, bouncing along the sea ice and over the sastrugi, winding our way around azure blue icebergs.
This part of the Vestfold Hills is a known weddell seal pupping area, so it wasn’t long before we came across seals and their pups hauled out on the ice. Now I know most of the pictures you see of these guys look very endearing with their turned up smiley mouths and their big round eyes, but the truth is they spend much of their time lying on their backs asleep looking like giant slugs.
The impression is even stronger if they start moving around, as they glollop along the ground with their blubber rippling and wobbling. Not that I can point the finger at any other creature carrying a little excess condition. But you can stand and watch for ages and if you’re lucky they’ll open one eye, regard you for a moment, decide that you’re irrelevant and go back to sleep. It is very hard to resist the temptation to go up and give them a good poke. But of course as they’re pupping, the distance you have to stay from them is even further than usual.
To pass the time while the seals were sleeping, I was telling Laser Dave about a guy I met at the Antarctica conference in Canberra in June. It was a wild and wonderful conference hosted by the ANU School of Music and many previous Antarctic Arts Fellows were there, including a number from America who’ve gone down on the equivalent US program. Doug Quin was one of those – he works in sound recording and did underwater recordings of weddell seals. In one memorable conference session he turned off all the lights, turned up the sound and played us a quadrophonic soundscape of weddell seals underwater. I tell you – it’s another world down there under the ice. If you thought whale song sounded amazing, you’d love to hear the seals. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that these sounds could come from a mammal. The closest comparison I can give you is that album Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre from sometime last century. These guys are the original Moog synthesisers.
Anyway, as I was telling Dave about this we both paused for a moment and then… up through the ice… very faint… I heard one! Those alien synthesiser noises were coming up from the sea ice beneath my feet. I dropped to the ground and pressed my ear to the sea ice and caught a little more of it. The other three looked at me like I was mad, but I didn’t care. It was fantastic. Thanks Doug – if I hadn’t heard your recordings I doubt I would have noticed that faint sound coming up through the ice. It’s one of those moments that will really stay with me.
Actually I’m being a bit tough on the seals – even asleep they are fascinating. They don’t have any land predators so they flop down and snooze in a manner that’s the epitome of unconcerned relaxation. The pups are much more lively and interested in people – they peer around to look at you, then hide a bit, then look again. If you’re patient and watch for mother and pup interacting, it’s very endearing.
After the seals we headed inland, moving away from the coastal areas where there are lots of icebergs frozen into the sea ice, and into the fjords. You can see why it’s named after a part of Norway – these long fjords twist and snake around, with dozens of little bays. I was mesmerised by the sea ice – the different colours and textures, how translucent and blue it looks at times, the cracks and shapes in it. The sea ice and snow look like sky and clouds. In some places it seems like it’s frozen when the water was choppy and the surface is covered with little wavelets.
At the end of one of the fjords we came to Platcha Hut. I think this was my favourite spot on the field trip – and that was even before I realised it was the picture I’d had on my computer desktop for years. The sea ice was aqua blue, a great wave of snow hung over it from the plateau above, and little white petrels fluttered around the rocky cliffs in the evening light.
I had another moment that I’m storing away in my memory, hopefully forever. After dinner, as it was getting late, I went out by myself and walked onto the sea ice, out into the middle of the fjord. The big Antarctic silence was all around, broken by the soft plink, crack, whisper, hiss of the sea ice itself.
The ocean is down there a metre or two below the surface and the tides are still coming in and out, so the ice is always in motion.
Antarctica is big and sometimes overwhelming and they’re two memories I can easily hold on to. The sound of the weddell seals and the sound of the ice.