Sitting atop a bared brown rock on top of a thousand-foot hill looking out over a relatively ice-free harbor – Neko, one of the most beautiful along the Peninsula, though even as I write that I am reminded of how often I say this place or that is “the most beautiful along the Peninsula” – I’m struck by two things: How quiet it is and simultaneously how much ambient sound there is in the air if you just sit … quietly … and listen.
I have long said that one of my favorite things about Antarctica is that it is truly a place that you can get remote. Take a hundred foot walk from the shoreline virtually anywhere along the Peninsula and you can be assured no one has ever walked there before. Climb a short hill, as I’ve just done, and the predominant sound is the beating of your heart. It is a perfectly still, calm day, sunny, 38 degrees F at nine in the morning. By noon it will be in the mid-forties, now-typical for the Peninsula this time of year.
Across the narrow bay, black rocky mountain peaks jut out of deep snow. The opposing hills would be incredible ski runs if you could hike up them without disappearing down one of the dozens of crevasses marked by grey shadows on the snow. A pair of glacial tongues roll down towards the sea each a mile-wide, built up over a many tens of thousands of years. The two hundred foot tall glacier walls drop straight into the cold black sea, which is dotted by small icebergs and bergy bits calved off them.
I have been to this harbor a dozen times before and each time it looks different. Often the currents in front of the sand-and-rock beach are fast, filled with moving ice, threatening landings. Big calvings off the glacies have been known to create eight-foot waves, washing everything – Zodiacs, penguins, humans – off the beach. The sea is blue black, highlighted by icebergs and the rings of aqua blue that rim them, reflections of the ice below the surface. The sky scudded by high clouds. Thirty miles to the north, towards the Lemaire Channel and Anvers Island, the peak of Mt. Francais – the highest peak along the Peninsula – pokes through the clouds, a rare sight. To the south stretches dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks heading for the Didier Channel … followed by many more dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks.
Each season I carry back from Antarctica too many mental images to possibly download. They’re all up there in my head, jumbled, roaming, floating. Thankfully they are permanently lodged and pop up at the oddest times – driving along Manhattan’s West Side highway, climbing in the Catskills, just falling asleep – which I always like.
But often it’s not the visual memories from here that stick with me most powerfully, which strike me at the oddest times. It’s the aural ones, the sounds of Antarctica.
The plop-plop-plopping of porpoising penguins. The blow of humpbacks, often heard before you see them breaching. The squawk of new mother and father penguins as they attempt to imprint their voices on brand-new chicks. The wind under the wings of a soaring pintado petrel as it sweeps just overhead.
But as I sit on this short hill above Neko Harbour, I’m waiting for my favorite Antarctic sound, which the Native Americans in Alaska called “White Thunder.” It’s the thunderous calving of the glaciers that occurs deep inside them. Loud, rumbling, often frightening. Whenever you hear that sound, you jerk your head around. But often there’s nothing to be seen. It’s the sound of glaciers evolving, breaking-up, but deep inside. The sound is not followed by falling ice, just … silence.
This day I wait and wait for that sound, but … nothing. Just after noon, after nearly four hours surveying the landscape from atop this rock, I walk down the hill with my friend Richard White. Just as we step down off the peak … out of sight of the end of the narrow harbor and its ending glacier for the first time in hours … when CRACK! Something’s broken off. This time though, it’s not White Thunder but more like Black Thunder. Real ice ripping off the glacier, falling into the black sea. Rippling waves and small pieces of ice emanating from the end of the harbor suggest it was a big piece of glacier that has fallen into the sea. Despite the beauty of the moment, it is that sound that will stay with me far longer.