One of my mother’s golden rules of travel is to always pack a swim suit because you never know where the opportunity may arise where you would need one. Naturally I am loathe to break any time honoured traditions especially one dictated to me by my mother (a woman who I’ve come to understand after a period frivolous opposition, is always right). So along with my Merimo base layer, my snow jacket, ski socks and a ridiculously fluffy winter hat lies a black string bikini, disproportionately tiny and feeble in comparison. It turns out that remembering to pack the bikini was the easiest part, wearing it on board the Vulkana for a day out in the Arctic Ocean, however, was a different thing altogether.
I was beyond excited to board the Vulkana, an old fishing boat turned spa that sets sail from Tromso. The voyage had two very distinct attractions for me, the whales and the old wooden salt water hot tub on deck. The idea of being out on the Arctic Ocean and perhaps catching a glimpse of Orca and Humpback whales filled me with a overwhelming sense of wonder and excitement, so much so that I almost forgot about the weather (well as much as a South African in the Arctic can forget about the weather at least) and began to convince myself that there was sanity in my actions. Once on board we peeled off layer after layer, replacing the warmth of wool and fleece with the sheer madness of towelling gowns, thin black flip flops and of course our swimming costumes. Before long we were in the Turkish inspired sauna, I want to say that our primary purpose for entering the steam filled room with glass doors was to relax and de-stress but I am not entirely convinced that our motives were not driven from a desire to warm ourselves adequately before braving the hot tub. I also want to tell you that we emerged from the steam room as a mirage floating on plumes of steam; glistening bronzed skin, long, powerfully athletic legs rhythmically striding, firm yet supple bodies latent with promise. But in if I am being honest, I emerged with a bird’s nest of frizzy, tangled hair and I almost toppled over as I ran towards my towelling gown, uncharacteristically aware of my body in the small space below deck.
The beautiful blue light that characterises the day during polar night in Tromso was not enough of a distraction to the sharp, pervading chill of the Arctic wind and as we walked, gowns flapping wildly, the Vulkana swayed drunkenly and we tried unsuccessfully to preserve our modesty and our balance. Having successfully, and not without difficulty, arrived at the hot tub, I can say that it seemed as though insanity itself would be the only thing that could persuade me to disrobe and enter the caldron of steaming water. The couple already stewing in the tub offered words of encouragement and support while I tugged fiercely on my beanie and hugged my gown to myself. I had the feeling that my movements needed to be swift that any hesitation would result in an inertia so strong I would not be able to overcome it. A quick picture as my husband (people keep telling me has a name but I can’t be bothered to remember it) hops on the spot, teeth clamped together to prevent them from clattering. Then, with starting speed, our gowns are recklessly tossed to the floor, flip flops flung wildly into the air as we make our break for the warmth of the salty water. As we sink into the tender embrace of the warm water, I think to myself that there is no possible way that I will be able to leave, the water feels like solace, the stillness of the snow-capped Fjords that taper to the ocean, the blue haze over the water, although unfamiliar, all feels like home to me. We are lucky enough to spot a family of three Ocra, two long dorsal fins crest and break the water followed by a much smaller fin before they are gone, out of sight, while we twist our bodies, necks craning to see if they will reappear. It is a good thirty minutes of choppy water, as if our hot tub caldron is stirred by an overzealous, sloppy cook oblivious to spills and splashes, before Husband decides that he can take no more, and more out of desire to remove myself from the proximity of the other couple in the hot tub than to be a good wife, I follow him hurriedly out of the tub and into the bristling Arctic breeze.
It is a few hours later when a larger group of Killer Whales as well as a Humpback come into sight. In a mad rush to the deck, I slip and slide in my poorly suited flip flops and try to steady myself by clinging to a white painted railing. A few things tell me that I am clearly out of my mind:
1. I am the only person on deck
2. When the skipper approaches me, he looks comically overdressed in his windproof, waterproof jacket and matching pants and warm hat, as if my attire – a disobediant towelling robe that barely stays shut – is adequate protection from the elements
3. The slate. The wind is almost bareable until the tiny chips of ice begin to fall. Vicious bites of ices that sting my face as I am thrown this way and the next by the movement of the ocean
In the most bizarre manner, I am invigorated by the swells, by the way my body is flung around carelessly, by the mercurial direction of the wind and by the sight of the whales breaching the surface so close by. It is almost as if the ocean itself has a hold on me and I am transfixed, unwilling to succumb to the elements. I wedge my body into a curve in the railing and try without even a whisper of success to take pictures of the whales, it’s as if the wind reaches down to my camera, stealing my pictures before they even have a chance. And in that moment, I am reminded of the volatility of the Arctic. The moments of absolute stillness which may serve to continue or if you’re lucky, unpredictable, fleeting moments of overwhelming splendour. The moments where no camera is good enough, where the best pictures are the ones you take with all of our senses. The moments where memories are made and dreams are realised.