Cape Crozier sits at the base of Mt. Terror on the northeastern shore of Ross Island, Antarctica. Hundreds of thousands of Adelie penguins gather here every Austral summer to nest and forage for their chicks. The colony is stark and windswept — its monochrome hues of bare rock, snow, and ice against a startling backdrop of every shade of blue, from the brilliant, nightless sky to the dark, frothy sea, to the turquoise pools and ice formations of wandering icebergs. The sounds, too, are few and very specific: the colony is drowned by a deafening cacophony of penguins and skuas engaged in various acts of life, sustenance, and death. But away from the colony the only things that make any noise are the wind and the ice. There are no insects, land animals, songbirds, humans, airplanes, cars, or plants. Nothing rumbles, stomps, hums, chirps, buzzes, or rustles in the breeze. But the wind can whip up from a light breeze into something fierce in the span of a few hours, rattling our huts and tents and howling across the icy landscape like a feral beast. The ice rarely makes any noise, save for the occasional loud pop underfoot as the glacier shifts ever so slightly in its rocky bed.
A Distant Encounter
I wrote this story for a friend in 2015, but recall the events of that day like it was yesterday.
Our hut is at the edge of a small glacier about a mile up the hill from the colony. Because of the distance and the way the wind blows (mostly from the south) we rarely ever hear the penguins down below. We sleep outside in Scott tents, which look like teepees with double walls made of heavy yellow canvas. The tents are anchored with thick nylon ropes that are tied to rocks, which are then piled with more rocks to form a sort of cairn. The view from the hut is stark and spectacular: a glacier, snowfields, and rocky hills give way to a vast expanse of water, partially covered by ice, that is a primary feeding ground for Adelie penguins, emperor penguins, south polar skuas, leopard seals, Weddell seals, minke whales, and orcas.
One January morning I woke up on an unusually windless day. The previous day had been stormy, and during the night I could hear the wind whistling through and flapping the tent’s walls and guy-lines. I had used earplugs to drown out the incessant noise, but by morning they were rendered obsolete by an eerie calm. The wind was completely gone, and the sun shone so brightly I was beginning to sweat inside my tent despite the sub-freezing temperatures outside. The silence was deep, vast, and humbling. A dull pop from the glacier below vanished into the vastness all around, barely able to fill all of that quiet space. I stepped outside the tent to cool off, took in the view, and then reached back in to retrieve my stuff. As I was tightening the tent door I heard a large, soft mammalian sound at my back, the deepest breath I had ever heard. I turned around half expecting to see a large creature nearby — maybe a Weddell seal had crawled up the glacier to molt? Nothing. I scanned the glacier and the guano-stained rocks nearby where the skuas perched. Nothing that could make a sound like that. I fixed my gaze towards the ocean and finally saw them: a pod of minke whales, about five miles away. They were breaking the mirror-like surface of the sea, breathing, and spouting before disappearing underwater once again. The sound was unmistakable: a large mammalian breath, perfectly matched with the appearance of each whale, just like the one I had heard right behind me minutes before.
Silence had compressed the space between me and the whales. I stood watching them until they disappeared behind an iceberg, feeling as if their breathing was practically inside my own body. That sound, amplified by complete silence, echoed inside me for the rest of the day as I wandered though the penguin colony looking for flipper bands. I looked for the whales that afternoon but they didn’t come back. When I saw them again, a few days later, I couldn’t hear them in the same way. There was a gentle breeze, just enough to put the distance back between us.