Twenty three hours of sunup today, 18 minutes more than yesterday. When the sun’s below the horizon it isn’t dark, just less bright. In a couple more days we’ll be in round-the-clock Antarctic sunlight.
Time feels at once endlessly stretching out, and in short supply. It’s hard to recall if something happened this morning, or three days ago.
So I find that it’s a week since I travelled to the emperor penguin colony, on an unforgettable Thursday. Two Hagglunds all-terrain vehicles to carry eight of us over 50 kilometres of dimpled, rippled frozen pale blue sea to reach Auster rookery.
Amy the diesel mechanic drives the Hagg that Jane and I are riding in. On the land side, the blue slopes and cliffs of the Antarctic ice sheet. On the ocean side, scattered icebergs in shapes and sizes and magnificence that make me gasp out loud.
Seeing emperor penguins breeding in the wild is incredibly rare and precious. Am I really here? Hard to believe what’s unfolding around me.
We stop several times to drill into the sea ice to check its thickness. The season for travelling by Hagg on sea ice officially closes on 25 Nov, and is extended on a trip-by-trip basis. The Mawson winterers have been coming out once a month since June and have watched the emperors arrive, court, lay eggs, and hatch their chicks. This is the last visit for the season, before the sea ice is too unstable for vehicles.
We park the Haggs 500m away, strap on our ice spikes, and walk between towering blue ice cliffs to reach the penguins.
And there is one of the most beautiful sights of my life, accompanied by the melodic sound of thousands of twittering chicks, the soft trumpeting of the adults bouncing off the walls of the blue canyon, and a backdrop of deep Antarctic silence.
And also – rotten ice, penguin shit (that I end up lying in), the frozen bodies of dead chicks, and constant flight surveillance by the skuas that live off the colony. Beauty and reality.
The wind dropped to almost nothing, the sun shone. Us visitors kept our distance, sat or lay quietly, took photos, contemplated, marvelled.
To have had this day…