My first blue whale
On the eleventh day at sea, Capt. Oliver Krüss loses it. He pumps his fist, jumps in the air and screams. The mask of the casual conversationalist – and even its deep, sun-baked wrinkles and the telling dark circles of one too many midnight shifts on the bridge – vanishes in favor of the joyful face of a little boy on Christmas morning. Between his turtleneck and watch cap his eyes gleam, and the air echoes with his shouts: “Blue whale! Blue whale!”
The passengers revolve in unison and line up shoulder to shoulder at the railing around the veranda-like bridge promenade. They all wield telescopes and telephoto lenses, but they stare at the captain. He in turn points jubilantly over the bulkhead dead ahead where, a few seconds ago, 50 yards ahead, a colossus briefly aired its hump. All at once a tail slashes the air. The mostly hidden beast exhales like a geyser. The wind carries its revolting breath, strongly redolent of rotting fish, to the assembled devotees. Cameras click and whir. A moment later, only a trail of foam follows the animal’s course into the depths and a small, bell-shaped iceberg wobbles in its wake.
The passengers wander off toward the restaurant where they enjoy a five-course gourmet meal every evening. But the captain stays, still trembling. He has been shipping out on the World Discoverer for 13 years, and this was his 57th 4,500-mile round trip to the Antarctic. Until today, he had never seen a blue whale. The largest animal on earth and the rarest of the Antarctic’s eight whale species, 30 yards long, 170 tons, an irreplaceable, highly threatened rarity. “Definitely a blue whale,” he says. “You can tell by the tail.” After a pause he adds in a slightly bitter tone, “There are only six or eight hundred of them left, probably not enough to survive. Before the whalers came, there were hundreds of thousands of them down here.”
One couple remains, leaning on the railing to take in a sunset that blankets the sky with purple and seems to set the tips of the icebergs on fire. When the headwind gets too much for them – the ship is making at full speed for the South Orkney Islands – they flee to the bridge to look over the captain’s shoulder. He stands at a navigation computer whose screen glows emerald green, reconstructing the course that the ship has taken in its last few hours of stalking whales. “Look, we sailed in a circle, then this loop, and then he took off heading east. Probably has a hot date. This time of year, the whales are fat, dumb and happy. They love to play. You know what they eat in a day? Four tons of krill.”
The couple didn’t know. They seem impressed. The captain glances around the darkening room where his first officer and a Filipino steersman are holding the fort, cocks his head and activates his dimples. “They’ll make sure we don’t run into anything,” he explains. “The captain’s role on the bridge is to entertain the passengers.”
And there he is again, the MC who makes the bridge seem like a stage. The charmer with star qualities: mid-40s, tall, slim, just the way you’d want a cruise ship captain to look, a man who can make fun of himself without putting his authority at risk, and who answers questions before they are even asked, many of them surely for the hundredth time. “Do you come from a sailing family?” one of many smitten, motherly passengers wants to know.
“Only when they took rowboats out to fish,” he replies. “But even that made them seasick. My family is more of a postal service dynasty.”
But all of them had an intimate bond with the sea, whether they liked it or not. He was born and raised on Helgoland, little more than an oversized chunk of sandstone protruding from the North Sea 50 miles off the mouth of the Elbe. The last remnant of Atlantis, perhaps. The famous German pirate Störtebeker had his lair on Helgoland.
But beyond pirates, postal workers and lighthouse keepers, the island offers sustenance to other life forms as well. As a boy, Krüss saw – from a small sailboat – the colonies of dolphins, boobies, and seals that dot the sandbanks off Helgoland. Drifting along under the flocks of migrating birds that cloud the sky over the fertile mudflats warmed by the Gulf Stream, he resolved to become an ornithologist or marine biologist. “I decided to go to sea only shortly before completing high school,” he says. “I’ve never regretted it. I like everything that has to do with the sea. Water, wind, ships.”
He especially likes this ship, the World Discoverer, where he reigns supreme over 160 passengers and a crew of 100. Of those, a dozen are scientists who enlighten the guests about the attractions of the Antarctic in slide lectures and onshore excursions. “I admit to being proud I can keep up with them when it comes to identifying bird and whale species,” he says. This landscape, nearly empty of humans but teeming with life, is the setting where his childhood dreams are fulfilled. Beaches where hundreds of thousands of king penguin fight for space. Fur seals fighting over territory and harems. Albatrosses circling over silent, paradisiacal coves that reflect the jagged edges of glaciers. Again and again the bizarrely formed icebergs, crystalline wonderworks as high as cathedrals, glowing sky blue, sometimes with strewn with penguins.
It is a privileged clientele who can afford this dream vacation. People of the luxury class who disdain the industry’s usual tawdry entertainments and pay an astounding amount of money for 18 days on the high seas between the southern tip of Argentina and the Weddell Sea. The captain calls his rich, influential guests “eco-tourists” and “ambassadors for the white continent.” “One day industry is going to go after the mineral wealth of the Antarctic,” he prophesies, “and I hope it will be our passengers who take steps to keep the natural world intact.”
But these days it is the tourism industry that is grasping most urgently for Antarctica’s treasures. Two dozen cruise ships, including human bulk freighters that carry 1,400, make the attempt every summer to give their passengers the sensation of going where no man has gone before – more of them every year. Since they all set the same exact course, captains find it increasingly difficult to avoid crossing paths with other ships, an event that would spoil the feeling of adventure and exclusivity.
Captain Krüss regards the developments with concern. There are even brief moments when, privately, he seems rather tired of catering to others’ hunger for new experiences. He is well paid and awash in sympathy, and he emphasizes that this tiny, insular on-board society gives him the feeling of being at home. But emotional bonds of the kind a villager expects are hard to form, given the constant turnover among the guests. The crew is friendu, but a captain is never entirely free to fraternize. Although he did meet his wife on board when she was managing the hotel services. She now lives on shore. “Near Hamburg, not on Helgoland,” he adds. “She would go crazy living on a tiny island.”
The loneliness of a seaman. When he mentions it, his face darkens along with his cabin. Bad moods drive him to chain-smoke. He spends nine months a year at sea, and for as long as he can remember, the situation has not favored the building of long-term relationships. He hardly knows his two teenage daughters, having been on the outs with the mothers since they were born. “I never used to care about family get-togethers and stuff like that,” he says. “Now I take care never to miss anything.”
Not to mention the stress. Year after year, around-the-clock responsibility for every person and thing on board. His first assignment as captain did not go well, and the Titanic-like trauma still dogs him. It happened three years ago in the South Pacific. Between two small islands in the Solomon Archipelago, a coral reef – one the nautical charts had neglected to mention – ripped a hole in the hull through which 40 tons of water poured per minute. Every captain’s nightmare. He had to abandon ship. “No one was hurt, but after everyone was evacuated I had no choice but to run her aground on a beach to keep from sinking.” The maneuver he hoped would allow the ship to be salvaged did nothing but complicate matters. The bow felled a palm tree – not a serious event in itself – but there was nothing to stop the phalanx of passengers on shore from filming every phase of the rescue operation and telling the world. Armed bandits from the surrounding islands soon swarmed over the ship and looted it down to bare steel. The old World Discoverer was a total loss.
“One adventure after another,” he says as he guides the new World Discoverer through the narrow, treacherous passage into the lava-gray bay of Deception Island. The remains of a wrecked whaling ship are suspended awkwardly on the cliffs off the port bow. The round bay – a volcanic crater – where the captain lets down the anchor is lined with the charred ruins of an old whaling station. Icy winds waft from walls festooned with ice to the valley below. The volcano last erupted 34 years ago, launching fiery rocks weighing tons into the boiling bay and on to the research station on the beach. Now the site is part of every cruise ship’s standard itinerary. Passengers wade knee-deep in 100-degree water in shoveled-out pools on the beach, or sit down and relax in the semi-natural hot tubs heated by geothermal energy from below. An hour later, while they rinse off the lava sand in the showers of their luxury staterooms an hour later, the captain is already steering the ship back through the eye of the needle.
A few days later he informs his passengers of the three phases of seasickness. “First you’re afraid you’re dying. Then you want to die. Then you’re afraid you won’t be able to die.” The reaction is a mildly tortured smile, since word has gotten out that a storm threatens in the Drake Passage to Cape Horn. The mood grows worried when, with his own hands, the captain installs steel plates over the side windows of the bridge. He explains his strategy with what happened to the cruise ship Bremen. A monster wave drowned its electronics, and the ship staggered through heavy seas for days, unable to steer.
The restaurant empties out for several days. Only in the quiet waters of the Strait of Magellan does it fill again. When the captain enters the dining room on the last night of the cruise, the passengers applaud him loudly. He cocks his head and smiles his boyish smile. But his wrinkles seem to have grown deeper.