There is nothing more wondrous and more cleansing for the soul than the inky black and strange caress of 28 degrees Fahrenheit seawater.
Yes, I did the Polar Plunge again.
Jumping into McMurdo Sound last year was probably the highlight of my first winter season, though the night I spent stretched out in the snow watching auroras fill the entire sky was a close second. As I rambled on and on in a previous post on the experience, the Polar Plunge is a Midwinter tradition at Scott Base, our Kiwi neighbors just over the ridge. They drill a hole in the sea ice, erect a ladder, find a harness and give anyone crazy enough to try it the opportunity to jump into the coldest water on earth (the high salinity of the water around McMurdo allows it to stay liquid at 28F).
Last year my life-changing experience was marred by having to run up an icy hill to the warming hut and then deciding to put my hand on the hut’s stove to balance while pulling my boots back on. Ouch.
This year, however, was a fantastic experience all around, largely for a reason that I could not have foreseen.
Last year I hopped on a shuttle van alone and got dropped off alone and did the Plunge alone save for the Kiwis tending the hole (which would otherwise freeze over again in mere moments) and the medical crew on standby in case someone had a heart attack, started hyperventiliating or had the grand notion to stick her hand on the stove in the warming hut.
This year, however, due to a scheduling issue too complicated to explain, the galley crew went over together. As it happened, I was the only one who’d done the plunge before, and I had been talking it up for weeks. I had also casually let slip what one scientist told me last year after I plunged: they don’t put lights in the water because it attracts the colossal squid known to ply these waters. Bwahahaha.
As I’ve mentioned before, I think we have a particularly fun crew in the galley this season, and it was a hoot to be around all the plunge virgins and feeding off their nervous but excited energy.
That totally makes me sound like some weird remora. But I digress.
We gathered in the lounge at Scott Base for a briefing and then plungers went down in pairs to the warming hut. A few of us walked down to watch and take pictures, including honorary galley members Jason and Tori, who weren’t even plunging but brought their cameras. All the photos you’ll see on this post were taken by them, except for the one above and this one, which I took upon arrival before my cheap camera’s battery froze (the ambient temperature was in the minus 30s Fahrenheit).
Mercifully, an early morning wind had died down by the time we arrived, and conditions were about as good as you can get for standing around in a swimsuit, or butt nekkid, as some folks did, in winter in Antarctica.
As we waited for the first plunger among us to leave the warming hut and get hooked into the safety line, I saw a cluster of bubbles in one corner of the hole. Someone said “is it a seal?” and one of the Kiwis brusquely said certainly not, it was bubbles from the ice shifting, that’s all.
Okay. Sounds reasonable. Perfectly reasonable.
Last year I was all gung-ho and full of “the minerals” until I saw the actual hole and how black the water in it was. To be honest, the only way I could go through with it in 2011 was to climb down the ladder with my back to the water and take a step backward without looking.
Not this year.
This year I told myself I was not only going to jump in facing forward, I was going to get as much of a running start and arrow myself so I could go as deep as possible.
And I did.
Okay, it wasn’t a running start. Due to constant splashing, the ice around the hole was, well, icy, slick and not very run-friendly, particularly for someone like myself who sprains her ankle just thinking about walking.
But I gave myself a considerable heave-ho and shouted “ready or not, squid, here I come!” before leaping into the water. Yes, facing forward, toes pointed and body as arrow-straight as one can make a roughly Weddell seal-shaped form.
And I went down. And down. And down.
My favorite thing about this series of photos, taken by Tori with her fancy camera in “sports mode,” I believe, was the way the Kiwis start moving closer to the hole, as if concerned that the crazy squid-antagonizing American hasn’t surfaced yet.
It was just a few seconds underwater, of course, but in the strange way of the Polar Plunge, this year as last it felt like eternity unwinding around me. To say the water was cold is like saying sticking your hand in an open flame is uncomfortable. But, at the same time, it is an otherworldly cold. It doesn’t just feel cold on your skin…you feel the chill in your organs, your brain, your soul.
Yes, fellow geeks, it is Han Solo in carbonite cold. It is White Walkers beyond the Wall cold. It is Mr. Freeze cold.
And thanks to the high salinity of the water, it has a cushiony feel to it. It doesn’t just cover you, it caresses and even cradles you. I imagine it’s as close as you can get to the feel of being in the womb. A very, very, very cold womb.
It is, of course, black. I couldn’t really open my eyes underwater because of the salt, but in the second before my head went under, all I saw was black beneath me, with the pale, eerie green walls (think Minas Morgul*), the submerged edges of the ice hole, sinking into shadow.
[*Surely you did not think I’d go more than a week without a LoTR reference…]
Chit-chatting with one of the Kiwis while waiting to plunge, I learned that the hole was refreezing faster than they’d anticipated. Here in Antarctica, sea ice grows from the bottom up, so the hole was getting increasingly narrower at its base
So that’s what my foot hit. The ice. Yeah. The ice.
I know it wasn’t the bottom, because the Kiwis also said it was about 25 feet deep where we were plunging and, while I went a good ways under, it was nowhere near 25 feet.
But at the deepest point of my plunge, my right foot hit and skidded off something smooth. I wasn’t scared. In fact, I remember thinking oh, the irony of taunting the local resident colossal squids only to end up getting beaked to death. But yeah. My foot definitely hit something.
I didn’t panic, because I was seriously high on the bliss of being several feet underwater in arguably the most alien environment on earth.
I was thinking how I needed to go back to doing kung fu and studying tai chi, how I should quit civilization and wander off into the mountains of Norway. Or South Africa. Or my beloved Iceland.
I was thinking how incredible, how amazing this moment was, how I wanted it to last forever and how unbelievably fortunate I was to be doing this, to be alive, to be alive and aware and several feet under the sea ice in Ant-freakin’-arctica in the dead of winter.
I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t use the word “awesome” as much as I do, because that cheapens it and, after all, this was a far more awesome moment than, say, finding out we were having onion rings at lunch.
I was thinking yes, this is Tao, now I understand, this is enlightenment, this is that moment of reaching out and touching oblivion without fear or sorrow, and understanding your place in the cosmos, and wow, I always read how I’m supposed to “be like water” to gain that transcendent awareness of a thing, a spirit, an energy greater than myself and yes, yes, I am being like water! This is crossing that threshhold of knowledge and realization of oneness and–
Hey, what the hell just bumped my foot?
I was so far under I had to give a couple good kicks and sort of breaststroke to the surface, and to be honest, I didn’t really want to. I wanted to stay there in that moment, at least the moment before something bumped into my foot, the moment where I honestly felt I had achieved some kind of greater understanding of Life, the Universe and Everything.
But, as soon as my foot bumped against the ice edge of the hole (okay, because that’s what it was, okay? It was the side of the hole. Never mind that everyone else who hit the ice at some point in their plunge got scraped but the bottom of my foot was unscathed and I remember the tactile feel of what I hit as smooth and almost silky. It was the ice!), that utter bliss started leaking out of me like air out of a tire with a nail in it.
I started to wonder what the southern extreme of a Great White shark’s territory was, whether the leopard seal I saw back in April had headed north for the winter as leopard seals are supposed to do, if my, ahem, pleasingly plump form might be mistaken by a male Weddell seal as that of a bootylicious female of his species, whether having that second helping of onion rings really was the best lunch decision I could have made an hour earlier…
Then my head broke the surface and the ladder was a few strokes away and I was climbing out and it was over.
This year, in addition to the warming hut being thisclose to the hole (thank you, Kiwis!), the captain of our Fire Department was on hand with a warm blanket for every plunger. The moment I was out of the water, he was wrapping me up the way you see benevolent fire captains do to survivors at the end of disaster movies.
The Kiwi line-tender with the pretty blue eyes (uhm, that was all that I could see between the hat and the beard and the gaiter) unhooked my harness and I was hustled the few meters to the warming hut, where, thankfully, this time I remembered hot stoves are not an appropriate item to lean on when getting dressed.
I felt cold, inside and out (I do believe my spleen was shivering, and clinging to my liver for warmth), but was not uncomfortable. I felt the residual
afterglow afterchillthrill of having gone to whatever place I went to when I jumped into the void.
And I felt sad. So sad it was over, done, finished. And worried, too, that I might have kicked some poor Weddell seal in the head (the next day, when non-galley folks did the plunge, seal surfacing bubbles were spotted several times and one person swore he did kick a seal). I hope not and that, if I did, he wasn’t injured. Poor guy was probably just curious and maybe hoping to meet a new cow to take home to his breathing hole.*
[*In case you’re wondering, if it was a seal I smacked, it was definitely a Weddell seal, not a decidedly less friendly leopard seal like the one I saw in April. By the time the sea ice forms in McMurdo Sound, the few leopards around are long gone. Unlike Weddell seals, which have special front teeth that point outward to bite ice and maintain open breathing holes year-round, leopard seals have teeth made expressly for mashing and gnashing, munching and crunching their prey. Also…remember those “ice shifting” bubbles spotted a few minutes before I plunged? Back in the lounge, when I mentioned to the chatty Kiwi that my foot hit something, he casually said “well, there’s been a seal around all day.” He added that the bubbles were indeed from the seal, but the Kiwis had used the old “ice shifting” line because they knew a couple of the newbies were terrified of plunging.]
I probably would have been super bummed for the rest of the day, in fact, had I not seen the reactions of my galleymates, especially my fellow AM cook Rachel, who had expressed some trepidation about the whole thing.
She plunged a couple people after me and came racing into the hut as I was dressing and murmuring to myself “don’t put your hand on the stove, don’t put your hand on the stove.”
Her eyes and smile were enormous.
“It was fantastic! I want to go again!” she squealed.
Yeah. Me too.