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A Whale of a Good Time in Antarctica

In December of 1993, my wife Carol and I spent our children's college fund to take the family to Antarctica. We wanted an adventure, and we picked Antarctica because we couldn't get tickets to the moon. We left our home in Anchorage, Alaska, and flew to Tierra del Fuego. On Christmas Day, we were aboard the Russian polar research vessel Professor Molchanov with 29 other passengers in the waters off the west coast of the Antarctic peninsula. We were preparing for a zodiac launch in a scenic cove named Paradise Bay.

Just getting dressed to go ashore was a struggle. Typical layering included:

Polypropylene underwear tops and bottoms
Fleece pants and top
Optional fleece vest or sweater
Gore-tex pants
Gore-tex windbreaker
Polypropylene socks
Wool socks
Rubber boots
Horse collar life vest
Camera gear
Hat and gloves

When we were finally aboard the zodiac with our guide and about six other passengers, we spotted a crabeater seal on an iceberg in the middle of the bay and went for a closer look. Suddenly, someone shouted "whale" and we all fell silent as we scanned the water. Then it blew behind us, not 25 feet away. It was a Minke whale, about 30 feet in length. Carol snapped a picture as it dove, and we figured we would not see it again. But this whale's curiosity was as great as our own. A moment later it surfaced again.

First it circled us, breaking the water to blow on one side of us, then the other. Coming closer, it edged right up to our tiny rubber boat and then turned away, blowing again with a loud snort of vapor. Then the whale circled back, heading directly toward our starboard pontoon.

The sea was calm and clear and the light perfect to follow every movement. This time the whale did not turn. There was no question in my mind that we were all going to be thrown from the boat. We had life jackets, and the other passengers and crew were watching us from the ship. Presumably the ship's doctor knew something about hypothermia. My only concern was how to keep from losing my camera. Without it, who would believe me?

Slowly, slowly, slowly, the whale crossed under the boat inches below our pontoons. I could have touched it. I wanted to, but I was paralyzed with fear and reverence. The whale inched forward, turning slowly and starting back again, this time toward our port pontoon. For the next few minutes -- it felt like hours -- this whale made repeated passes under our boat, each time almost breaking the surface as it approached and diving as it reached us.

It was staring straight at it when it emerged from under the boat and rolled in such a way to look right at us -- a bunch of frightened, ecstatic men, women and children in this improbable rubber boat in water so cold snow did not melt when it landed on it.

But the whale now knew what we were and simply lost interest. It straightened out, its back breaking the water a few feet away. It blew a single breath, and gradually the small dorsal fin disappeared before our eyes, leaving only a small vortex of water spiraling clockwise just out of our reach as we stood in dumbstruck silence.

Though none of us will forget the Christmas we looked the whale in the eye, it is what happened back aboard the ship that is the most enduring holiday memory. When we first began discussing this trip, the kids had a million excuses why it would be inconvenient to go, including missing Christmas at home. We went anyway, but the Christmas part of it kept nagging at me. It would really be a shame to be so far from home without some semblance of a holiday. An old friend in the wholesale business said he thought he could solve the problem.

At 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Day, with all the passengers gathered for afternoon coffee, still talking non-stop about the whale, our children marched in, arms loaded with long sleeve Alaska T-shirts with pictures of moose, caribou and polar bears. John, our 8-year-old, said "We are all a long way from home on Christmas, but we brought you some presents. Merry Christmas from our family to you."

I felt a little awkward. Some people may have taken this trip to avoid Christmas. A few people cried as the two older children gave a shirt to every passenger and crew member. It seemed strange to have so much attention focused on our family. At least maybe now they knew why we had so much luggage. I asked Carol if we had done the wrong thing. "Don't be silly," she said as she always does.

The real answer came at dinner, when every single person on board, even the captain, showed up wearing their new Christmas T-shirt. After dinner, they all sang "For they're a Jolly Good Family."

Which nobody can deny.




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