The zodiac boat pushed through thick slush and ice chunks as we made our way through the Antarctic Ocean. The air was crisp and silent except for the ice crackling and snapping against the rubber boat as we got closer to the shore. The landscape was covered in white with gray rocks peeking out from under the innocent blanket of snow. The only footprints seen were the “penguin highways.” These were trails penguins made from walking them so much. They essentially create their own highways to totter in single file lines on.
The black tuxedos of the Gentoo penguins stood out against the white snowy backdrop. Some penguins appeared dead; they were draped across the snow on their bellies unmoving. They were actually molting, and during that time, they fast and conserve all their energy. Some groomed themselves with their bills in the shallow waters and on the shore. Others were slowly meandering about with their flippers pulled back behind them and their chests puffed out. The quickest moving penguins were in the water looking like miniature porpoises as they dove under water and broke the surface in rhythmic arches.
I sat on the edge of the boat barely blinking. The cold air made my eyes water making it seem even more dream-like and mystical. When we arrived to shore, the handful of people I rode on the zodiac with decided to hike to the highest peak on land. I stayed behind wanting to experience the penguins by myself. I didn’t want to intrude, so I found a comfy rock at a safe distance away from the colony of penguins. I was close enough to see the water shimmering off their feathers, but far enough away to not let my presence impact them.
I watched this penguin playground for almost 20 minutes when one penguin walked over to me and stopped five feet away. I froze paralyzed with joy. My mouth fell open slightly like an ajar door, as a smile cracked through on my lips. The only other time I caught a glimpse of a penguin was when I was kayaking in New Zealand, and the Korora penguin zipped through the Marlborough Sound waters past my boat. Now, I was face to face with a wild penguin as I sat on the shores of Antarctica. I took in every detail of this Gentoo as he invited me into his world.
I always imagined penguins to be smooth like black onyx, but I was wrong. This Gentoo was fluffy. I watched him run his bright orange bill, outlined in black, all across the damp feathers on his body. He stood just over two feet tall balanced on two orange webbed feet with black claws. His ankles were wrinkled liked sagged, aging skin. The white feathers above his eyes looked like a maniacal unibrow, and he had a tuft of longer black feathers sprouting out for a tail.
I took a few pictures and made a quick video, and then I sat with the penguin one on one. I wanted to be fully present in this moment with nothing between us but a few feet of distance and air. I became absorbed in the moment. I felt the air surrounding me like a cool cocoon; my arm hair rose with excitement; a smile etched on my face. I felt a surge of gratitude hit like a rogue wave. I couldn’t believe I was being allowed to have this experience. My eyes reacted to this rush of emotion, and I felt tears dripping like salt water off the penguin’s back.
Every second was a revelation, and in that moment I felt what mattered.