Ambient air temperature: -20 degrees Celsius/-4 Fahrenheit. Wind chill: -31 degrees Celsius/-24 Fahrenheit. Approximate temperature of sea water: 28 degrees Fahrenheit (the high salinity of McMurdo Sound lowers the water’s freezing point). Me: in just my swimsuit and a pair of cheap shoes I bought on R&R in New Zealand back in January.
The only reason I’m wearing shoes is so my feet don’t freeze to the sea ice I’m walking on.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is MidWinter weekend here on Antarctica, the biggest celebration of the year. Last night we had our big deal, fancy-pants dinner, served in the galley festooned with some amazing decorations. Earlier yesterday, the other couple dozen stations spread across the continent exchanged email greetings with us, and everyone was generally in a festive mood. I took tons of photos and will post about that shortly, but right now I want to share how I gave myself arguably the most ironic injury possible doing the Polar Plunge.
The Polar Plunge is a long-standing MidWinter tradition at Scott Base, the New Zealand station a couple miles south of us. (MidWinter, by the way, celebrates the winter solstice down here and marks the halfway point for winter-overs… it’s celebrated on the weekend that falls nearest the actual solstice.)
Every year, those crazy Kiwis carve out a hole in the sea ice, set up a couple spotlights, a ladder and rope harness, and let anyone who wants to take the plunge, jumping into the lightless water of McMurdo Sound. It is one of the reasons, quite frankly, that I wanted to winter-over.
Because nothing appeals to Aquabear more than the idea of jumping into the coldest water on earth.
It’s traditional to do the plunge au naturel, but, Anthony Weiner’s scandal fresh in my mind, I didn’t want to end up posting nekkid pix of me on the Internets, in case I ever do decide to run for office or take myself seriously.
Rest assured, however, this is the only time I will publicly reveal a photo of me in my swimsuit.
I walked down to the warming hut on the frozen shore below Scott Base proper in my long underwear, windpant overalls, fleece shirt and fleece hoodie, Big Red parka, gloves, hat and neck gaiter, and my big ol’ bunny boots. Once at the warming hut, I stripped down to my swimsuit and changed into my shoes, then wrapped a towel around myself and skid-ran down the hill to the sea ice where the hole waited for me.
I wasn’t scared. Not because I am fearless, but because I truly believe Antarctica will keep me safe. I realize it’s ironic to feel benevolence from the harshest, deadliest continent on the planet, but Antarctica and I have an understanding. The epiphany I recently had about Antarctica and why I love it is the topic for another day’s blog post, so I’ll just say now that I wasn’t scared.
Then I actually saw the hole.
The Kiwi plunge-tender was clearing ice away from its surface. The ice skin forms immediately between plungers. As he cleared away the milky film of ice, below it I saw black water. Black, black water.
Because the water is so ridiculously cold around Antarctica, sea life grows at an extremely slow pace and, for reasons scientists don’t fully understand, tends toward gigantism. There are sponges on the floor of McMurdo Sound as large as an SUV that, in a less extremeenvironment, wouldn’t get much bigger than your head. It is also worth noting that the colossal squid, which is, as the name suggests, mind-blowingly more giant than the giant squid, has only been found in the waters around Antarctica.
Even though the water is only about ten feet deep where they’d made the hole, the thought of being beaked to death by a passing colossal squid did cross my mind.
Handing my towel to one of the tenders, I got hooked into the rope (I’d put the harness on in the warming hut) and then backed down the ladder to the lowest rung above the black water.
I had a moment of “whose idea was this, anyway?” but then took in a deep breath and let half of it out*. I remember saying “okay, now or never” and stepping back off the ladder.
*the most common injuries from the Polar Plunge are abrasions from people scraping various body parts on the ice as they get in or out. But a not uncommon and slightly more serious problem is a torso reflex, or involuntary gasping and hyperventilation that some people experience when they jump into extremely cold water. It is a particular problem in open water swims in triathlons. I learned about it when I was preparing to swim in Lake Wakatipu (54 degrees Fahrenheit) and read that the best way to avoid it is to take a deep breath and let half of it out before jumping in. I share this knowledge with you in case you ever feel the need to go hurling yourself into the black water of Antarctica.
Kudos to Jeff, the paramedic snapping photos for folks, for capturing the actual splash I made.
As for the experience itself, it was one of those things that lasts mere seconds but seems to stretch on forever as time gets rubbery and elastic.
My first sensation was that the water was warmer than the air, and thank the gods there was no wind down here. The water was also super-salty, like cheap potato chip salty. But there are three things I’ll remember most about it.
For starters, due to the salinity, the water was extremely dense. It felt almost like jumping onto a cushion, or into a kids’ bouncy castle. A lot of people said they sank low enough to touch bottom. All the people who said this were very thin. Thanks to, ahem, my natural buoyancy, it felt like once I jumped in and went about seven feet down (I was well over my head), the water immediately shot me straight up into the air like a cannon. I popped out as far as my hips before sinking back down a little.
I will also remember how dark, how utterly lightless the water was. When I went down the observation tube last year, even in dusky light, enough sun filtered through the sea ice to illuminate the world beneath. Perhaps if I could have stayed down for several minutes, my eyes would have adjusted, but as far as I saw, it was black.
The third thing was the sensation I experienced as I climbed out of the water. The second my skin was exposed to the air, it froze. A thin coating of ice spread down my body as I emerged. My hair and swimsuit stiffened immediately. It was a bizarre sensation, and all I could think of was “this must have been how Han Solo felt at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.”
The cold when I got out was the only nasty part of the experience. I believe I may have uttered all of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on radio as I slid-ran back to the warming hut, feeling at once excited, invigorated, proud, in love with Antarctica and cold, so very, very cold.
The warming hut, about eight feet wide and twelve feet long, was nice and toasty thanks to an old-fashioned stove they had cranked in one corner. Janna, the Kiwi helping people in and out of the harness, told me to stand near the stove to take full advantage of the heat. We were chatting about what an incredible experience it was as I toweled off and dressed. Then Jeff the paramedic came in to show me the photos he’d taken. Then our Doc, also on site in case of a mishap, came to check on me. He was taking photos for people down at the hole, too, but I had noticed earlier that he would come to the hut after every plunger and just ask how they felt, were they breathing okay, were they warming up enough.
He was asking me these questions and I was telling him I was fine when a curious thing happened.
I looked down at my hand, which I’d been using to balance myself as I pulled off my wet shoes, and noticed that the surface I had chosen to rest my fingers on was the stove.
I remember pausing a moment thinking “hmm, that’s funny. My fingers are on a hot stove and yet it doesn’t hurt.”
I pulled my hand off. It still didn’t hurt. Why? Because my fingers were numb from the cold. The Doc, Jeff the Paramedic and Janna, who I believe doubles as the Scott Base medic, all looked at me as if to say “wait… was your hand just on the stove?”
If you ever chose to put your fingers on a hot stove and, for whatever reason, leave them there a while, I recommend that you do so in a warming hut where the other people present are a doctor, a medic and a paramedic. They sprang into action, pouring water on it, packing it in snow, smothering it in burn cream and swaddling it in bandages. For better or worse, thanks to the cold and my kitchen calluses, it still didn’t hurt, but I can tell it’s going to feel great when I’m working the grill tomorrow.
You may call me Frodo of the Nine Fingerprints.
And that, dear reader, was the irony of the day. I jumped into the below-freezing, inky black, hyperventilation-and-hypothermia-inducing, squid-infested water of Antarctica in the middle of winter and all I got to show for it was a lousy burn.
Contest bonus for you brave souls who made it to the end of this post: the first person to tell me what the subject line references gets a free sticker and/or patch (your choice). Winners of previous contests on my blog are not eligible, Shannon and Dulcie, unless no one else gets the answer… or reads this far. The winner also must be patient, since we won’t have outgoing mail till late August.