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Bite This, Penguins! Antarctica and the Circle of Life

As freeskiing legend Chris Davenport puts it, “The Antarctic Peninsula is the last great ski location on Earth.” That’s why I joined Davenport a couple years ago on a backcountry ski expedition to the peaks gracing the Antarctic Peninsula. The basic plan: Sail a 78-foot boat named Australis from Argentina; sleep on it by night; ride inflatable, outboard-motored Zodiacs to rocky beaches; climb peaks under our own power; then relish descents that likely have never seen skis, moving cautiously due to the scary lack of paramedics and rescue helicopters.

“People have scoured the globe for the next Valdez,” Davenport says. But almost nowhere can match Alaska’s combination of huge peaks, maritime snowfalls, and opportunities for first descents. “The Antarctic Peninsula is like the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to AK. Even though it’s a lot harder to get to.”

Sailing to the Peninsula is an adventure in itself. For one, Ushuia, Argentina—the harbor at the bottom of Tierra del Fuego from which most Antarctic voyages depart—is a cluster. It’s a ramshackle, fast-growing (from 10,000 people to 80,000 in the last few years) port-town-turned-tourist-mecca, selling stuffed penguins, porcelain penguins, penguin T-shirts, and penguin commemorative spoons.

We chug through the Beagle Channel, below snow-capped, arrowhead-shaped peaks. Evening sun glints off Australis’s wake. The glory ends once the protective channel opens to the Drake Passage, however. (Indeed, it’s nicknamed “the Drake Shake.”)  Passengers turn green. Four people puke. I’m queasy unless horizontal in bed, which is not without hazard. After one especially violent wave, our ski guide launches from his upper bunk, rolls across the hall, and bangs into a metal ladder on the other side. This wakes him up.

Antarctic adventurers seeking a human element must go to science stations, the only settlements. The oldest operational station on the Antarctic Peninsula, Vernadskiy was founded by the British on Galindez Island in 1947 and transferred to Ukraine in 1996. It’s situated at 65 degrees 15’ South, 64 degrees 16’ West. Its specialty: measuring ozone depletion.

Today the station hosts five scientists, four mechanics/electricians, a doctor, a cook, and a custodian. All are male, and seem pleased that our attractive female First Mate, Skye, not her Captain/boyfriend, escorts a few of us on a Zodiac jaunt to Vernadskiy one night. Skye is exceptionally pretty for a First Mate, with long raven hair, doe eyes, and a pierced tongue. Scientists fawn over her, though their rough English makes for especially small small-talk.

Almost all the Ukrainians sport mullets, tight jeans, and wretched cigarette breath. They take us on a tour of Vernadskiy. Rooms appear mostly spotless. The ozone-measuring device, an underwhelming assemblage of white metal tubes, sits in a dark attic.

Skye enters the gym and quickly walks back out, because its walls sag with centerfolds and other nude-women pictorials, including a dominatrix or two. Later, an electrician proudly shows off a photo of his 17-year-old daugher in a negligee. When not perving, the Ukrainians play snooker and ping pong.

On the wall of the bar, the main focal point of a Vernadskiy visit, hangs a selection of bras. Who knows how many were stripped off willing women? These are science nerds, after all. One bra seems made solely for the display: Embroidered with English words, it says “Antarctic Men Climb Only the Finest Peaks.”

Vernadskiy boasts the southernmost souvenir shop on Earth; it sells $20 bottles of “low-ozone air.” We don’t buy any. Instead, we eat overcooked beef kabab and drink homemade vodka, a moonshine-tasting blend of “water, Antarctic ice, yeast, and magic!” shouts a Ukrainian wearing a piece of 6ml rope as a headband.

Vernadskiy is famous among cruise-ship social directors for welcoming passengers to its bar. I pound five shots of vodka and talk with a meteorologist named Eugene Lomakin. He bemoans nearby penguins. “They leave very bad smells. Ugh! They’re very funny, but we hate them.” Now in their mating period and laying eggs, penguins get aggressive. “When I go to check meteorological equipment, they bite my calves,” he frowns.

You can’t visit Antarctica without confronting the penguin question: Are they cute or not? I reckon penguins fulfill the old left-handed compliment: good from far, but far from good. Up close, they’re a smelly, loud flightless bird.

Indeed, the predominant variety, the Gentoo penguin, is dominating the local wildlife like Norway rats dominate New York. Since 1950, there’s been a 50 to 60 percent decrease in Adélie penguins, due to melting ice shelves and climate change. Meanwhile, Gentoo penguin populations have increased exponentially.

You know how bodybuilders with overdeveloped lats walk with their arms spread out? Gentoos waddle the same way. They stick out their stubby, flightless wings for balance as they wander beaches looking for small rocks. “They’re called love stones,” says our trip’s videographer, Scott Simper. “The penguins stack them around nests to protect the eggs.”

Penguins find their grace at sea. They swim beautifully, rainbowing in and out like dolphins. They speed to 20 knots when they approach ice shelves. To make the transition to land, they explode out of the sea. They lean back. They land on their webbed feet. The younger ones jump much higher than necessary, as if to shout, “Flightless bird, my ass.”

Gentoos by the hundreds surround us during our longest anchorage: six nights in narrow inlet called Circumcision Bay. The name amuses us: While tying a line on the bay’s shore, skier Stian Hagen’s feet slipped out from under him, and he fell groin-first on sharp-edged rock.

Circumcision Bay is lined on both sides by penguin rookeries. The sheer volume of penguin guano—scummy flotsam ranging in color from red to brown to green—makes it impossible to harvest potable water. The desalinator (the machine that filters saltwater into somewhat potable water) on our boat would be overwhelmed if we tried to use it (the desalinator’s not great to begin with, judging by the icky saltiness of our morning coffee). As a result, we go a full week between showers.

Hunters of all stripes come to scope penguins. Fifteen-person Zodiacs from distant cruise ships often barrel into the inlet, dislodging camera-clicking tourists. One day, a hungry leopard seal materializes near the Australis. A 700-pound predator, the leopard is the only Antarctic seal with a taste for warm-blooded prey. In 2003, a leopard seal killed a human for the first time, munching a scuba-diving British marine biologist.

We happen to be outside, along the shore, when the wildest thing happens: We see the Circumcision leopard surging toward the surface of the water, then snapping its massive jaws on a swimming Gentoo!

Our Captain, Ben, witnesses the first homicidal thrashes. “Leopards perforate the penguins’ spines,” he says, grimly. “That’s how they get in.”

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We sit outside watching the Gentoo’s last earthly moments. The humane parts of us hope the Gentoo dies quickly. But this is not the case.

Indeed, the seal endeavors to humiliate the vanquished penguin. The seal plays with the body for long moments before and after the life leaves it. After the first thrash, the seal heaves the body into the air. The increasingly denuded bird sinks, the seal dives after to catch it, biting off a chunk, and begins heaving again. On the final toss, a skeleton with a beak plunges, never to be seen again, through its own floating bloodstain.

Ah, the circle of life.

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