Excerpts from the strange and wonderful story of the greatest penguin that has ever lived.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How it begins...


This is the strange story of Haole, the most important and amazing penguin that has ever lived.
Think of the last time you were in the snow. Was it cold? Really cold? Did you feel like your nose was going to freeze? That is nothing compared to Antarctica. The Antarctic is the coldest place on earth. The coldest day in your home town is like a warm summer day in the Antarctic, down at the bottom of the world. So it seems insane, to say the least, that penguins, as a group, choose to spend their time pretty much evenly split between standing on the ice sheet in the freezing wind, and, of all things, swimming! Talk about cold! Talk about crazy! Birds like this must be prone to do wild and crazy things.
But, you see, that’s just it: they are not crazy at all. In fact, they are a little boring (not Haole, of course, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Penguins, like adult people, tend to concentrate on just one thing with a kind of dull single-mindedness. What is that one thing? Fish.

“Fish,” said Haole under his breath as he waddled his way back from the water just a few days before our story takes place. He was shaking his head and trying not to listen to the mindless penguin banter coming from the other penguins walking with him.
“What was that, Haole?” said the nearest older penguin, “did you say something about fish?”
Haole winced. “No,” he said quickly, “I didn’t say anything.”
The older penguin acted as if he hadn’t heard him. “I was just telling Kami here about the silverfish today.”
“Hi, Haole.” Kami leaned his head around the older penguin and gave Haole a cheerful grin. “How’s fishing?”
“I was telling Kami,” continued the older penguin, “that there must have been a million silverfish out there today.”
“Two million,” corrected Kami with that same silly grin on his face.
“And mackerel,” added the older penguin.
“Mackerel are so delicious,” Kami was really trying to engage Haole in a conversation.
Haole winced again and slowed down to try and get the older penguin between them as he had been before.
The older penguin saw Haole’s expression as he did this. “Is there something wrong, Haole?” he asked.
Haole looked frustrated. “It’s just that all you ever talk about is fish,” Haole blurted out.
The older penguin cleared his throat as if he was going to argue with young Haole, but then he caught himself (after all, it was true). “And what’s wrong with that?” he asked.
“It’s just that it’s boring,” Haole offered.
“Boring?” They seemed shocked.
“It’s just that it’s the same thing every time. You chase the fish. You catch the fish. You eat the fish,” complained Haole.
Both of the other penguins stopped in their tracks. You see, just as people tend to get caught up and myopic about work and money, penguins do the same thing about fishing and fish. Boring, you say? Well, I agree with you. Haole agrees with you.
As soon as Haole had voiced his opinion both of the other penguins turned towards him and gave him an incredulous look of pity that was normally reserved for small penguins that had recently lost their mothers to killer whales.
“Haole, fish make the world go ‘round,” the older one stated in an emphatic, matter of fact voice.

Haole hated that, even if it was true. No, it couldn’t be true. Fishing was boring. But, fish were also all there was to eat when you lived on an ice sheet. To be more exact, the penguins lived on a floating piece of ice almost one hundred miles wide, floating just off, but connected to, the north-western edge of Victoria Land in Greater Antarctica, in the freezing waters of the Antarctic’s Ross Sea.
The ice sheet that Haole lived on was a flat expanse that was continually pummeled by the sea at one end where there was a sloped hill of ice leading down to a small inlet. Penguins would slide down the ice into the waves to fish and climb out when they were done. The yearlings (those are the younger penguins under a year old) would sometimes spend hours just sliding down the ice over and over again, playing. Haole could remember endless hours playing with the other yearlings when he was small.
The flat ice continued the other direction until far, far off in the distance there could be seen the low hills of the Borchgrevink Coast of the Antarctic mainland with Mount Minto in the hazy distance beyond. Along the edge of the ice heading west, away from the inlet, there was a shallow rock reef that stretched for a mile or so. Down at the far end of the reef the land came up out of the water in some crumbly rocky outcroppings that the penguins liked to call cliffs. This was where the only other residents of the area lived – a group of fur seals that kept mostly on their side of the ice and only stayed for half the year before migrating to an offshore island. So the penguins had this vast and freezing place mostly to themselves.
This was the penguin’s entire universe. No penguin ever ventured outside of this landscape and the few miles of ocean that surround it. On several occasions Haole had asked his mother about this very thing. One time it was while they had stood together, watching as a storm approached over the cliffs to the west.
“What’s past those cliffs?” Haole asked innocently.
“Just more ice,” his mother had responded automatically. She used to seem so big to Haole, towering above him, but since he had his growth spurt this year, she didn’t seem so huge. She was just a little taller than him now.
The answer didn’t satisfy him. “Well, what’s beyond that?” he persisted innocently.
“Even more ice,” she said firmly, and then added, “and more cliffs.”
There was a long pause as Haole doubted for a second that his mom knew everything. “Mom?”
“What is it, Haole?” She looked at him sweetly.
“Well, what’s beyond that?” He was going to repeat the question until he got an answer other than ‘ice.’
His mother’s feathers ruffled. “Why don’t you spend your time thinking about more important things?” she gently scolded him.
“Like what?” he asked, although he already knew the answer.
“Like fishing,” she said predictably. “Haole, one of these days very soon you are going to have to stop all of your dreaming and start keeping your mind on practical matters. You are growing up.”
See what I mean, Dear reader?

Now, if eating raw fish all day, every day, doesn’t sound boring, then I don’t know what does. But, if that’s all there is to eat (and you’ve got to eat), well, the penguins figure the only way for it is to throw themselves into the task with all they’ve got and do their best to try to survive. And they do a remarkable job. In the winter it gets down under 50 degrees below zero. You or I would surely die of hypothermia (that’s freezing to death, as I’m sure you know) in under a few minutes, so it’s amazing that they survive at all. “How do they do it?” you ask. Well, they eat a lot of fish first of all – over three pounds a day per penguin. Can you even imagine eating that much raw fish? It makes me lose my appetite just thinking about it. The other thing they do is cuddle. They all stand around on the ice and cuddle each other to keep each other warm. “Cute!” some of you say. “Gross!” say others. Well, no matter what you think of it, they survive the winter this way in a place that even scientists can’t go without thousands of pounds of equipment. This big group of penguins all standing around cuddling is called a ‘huddle.’ To Haole, the huddle was where he was from – like some of you are from one town or another. Now, as they all stand there for hours and hours, in the freezing, icy wind, what do they do? They gossip, of course. They talk about other penguins. They make fun of penguins who are not behaving just exactly like the rest of the penguins. They poke fun at anyone who dares to do anything different. Lately, they had been talking a lot about Haole.
Haole is a good-looking penguin, don’t get me wrong. And he’s smart. And he’s one of the best swimmers in the whole ice sheet. The only thing is, he acts different. Haole doesn’t like to fish. And to penguins that’s like not having a job. What do we call people who don’t like to work? Bums, usually. Good-for-nothings sometimes; and, occasionally, useless. We’re pretty mean, huh? Haole was anything but useless – and certainly not a good-for-nothing bum. Haole was, in fact, an excellent fisher, maybe the best on the whole ice sheet. He was so good, in fact, that he could catch enough fish to eat in a very short amount of time. This left him with a large amount of his day with nothing to do. Most penguins, when they were done fishing, would go back up on the ice sheet and cuddle with the other penguins and gossip. Haole thought this was boring. I agree – but what do I know, I’m not a penguin. I think that you’d agree. Haole had found something else, something else that he liked to do in his free time. The other penguins thought this was absurd. What else was there except fish, fishing, and staying warm - except staying away from the killer whales and leopard seals?
Well, Haole had happened on this other thing quite by accident as he was coming back to the ice sheet from fishing one day. I’ll tell you all about it.

There had been a storm raging for several days at the time, and all the other penguins in the huddle, back on the ice, had been particularly miserable and gossipy. It made them happier, when they didn’t feel good, to make fun of other penguins – sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, Haole was tired of it. The sky was a dark mass of swirling clouds and rain, and the ocean was a frothy mess of wind-whipped waves and chunks of ice as he made his way through the water. The wind had picked up to a harsh gale while he had been out and he could see in the distance that back on the ice the penguins looked small and miserable. The beautiful thing about the ocean, thought Haole, is how calm and peaceful it stays just beneath the surface. Even though the wind was blowing a mean storm above the water, underneath it was a perfect, seemingly endless, clear translucent blue. Why would he want to go back, he thought. Haole soared gracefully through the water. He dipped and turned. He swooped as whitecaps crashed almost silently above him and burst into clouds of white foam on the surface. The light coming through the water above him diffracted into long columns of light blue, glowing down into the depths. Haole’s mind wandered as he swam. His mother had been on at him again about responsibility and about how he continually let her down by not wanting to join in the conversation about how terrible the albatross were. Albatross were big white and gray birds that flew over the ice sheet this time of year. A big group of them had flown over just before the storm kicked up. “What’s so terrible about them?” he had said back to her.
“You always say the silliest things, Haole. You know what they do is so insulting,” she had retorted back at him.
“No, really, what is so insulting?” he was only half listening, as he watched the yearlings playing near the edge of the sheet, sliding off a chunk of ice into the water with a splash.
“Don’t play dumb with me, young man.” She was taking this way too seriously, her feathers beginning to ruffle on the back of her neck. “They fly right over us.” She waited for him to agree. “They’re making fun of us!”
“Mom!” Penguins were almost insufferably stupid sometimes, thought Haole. They were so insecure about not being able to fly that any bird that happened to be migrating overhead was suddenly making some statement. “Mom, they’re just flying.” Haole leveled a stare at her, “the same way we swim.”
She huffed and turned her back on him to keep complaining with the other mothers gathered and huddled together on the ice.

In the ocean now, the endless blue glided past beneath him. That conversation had been yesterday, but his mind still wrestled with it a little as he soared around the undulating subsurface of an iceberg. And soar he did. Have you ever seen penguins swim underwater? They swim with the effortless ease of a flying bird. Well, they are birds. They’re flightless birds, to be exact. They soar and dive, flap their wings, and bank in tight little arcs at tremendous speeds underwater. The first time I ever saw a penguin underwater, do you know what I thought? I thought that penguins could teach the fish how to swim better. They could.
Haole was thinking about this very thing as he swam. The other day he and his best friend Keiki had been talking. “Why should we be bitter toward the albatross?” he said to her. “They fly in the air and we swim in the water.”
She looked at him like he had fish scales stuck in his beak. “The albatross eat our eggs!” she said in disgust.
“Good point,” he mused. “Have you ever actually seen them do it?”
“Actually I have seen them do it,” she shot back. “Then they fly around in circles way up in the air making fun of us.”
Haole shook his head. “Penguins are so isolated that we think that everyone is making fun of us. We eat the fish. They must think that we’re constantly making fun of them.”
“That’s totally different,” Keiki argued. “It’s lucky that the others can’t hear you say ridiculous things like that.”
“I bet that the albatross are jealous of how easily we swim and catch fish,” he had said.
“Haole!” She had playfully reprimanded him.

He banked hard and dove deeper to avoid a piece of the iceberg that jutted out at an angle downward. The huge storm waves on the surface were causing the ice to tip slightly with each swell as they crashed against its side. The light slanting through the water beneath him fell away to an unseen depth. Haole was so caught up in just the pure feeling of soaring down into the dim depths, banking left and right as he went down, thinking about the silly conversation with Keiki and the gossip he was happily missing back on the ice, that he almost didn’t see it in time.
Something raced out of the shadows at a tremendous speed, heading right for him! For a second he was unsure what it was; then all the alarm bells went off inside his head! A million years of evolution tripped a wire in his brain and, as his eyes almost bulged out of his sockets, one name filled his mind with screaming dread -Killer Whale!
Its mouth was already wide open, ready to eat him in one terrible bite. Haole banked a hard left as the huge jaws snapped shut just a few inches behind his back flippers. He banked hard again and headed for the iceberg above him. He flapped and kicked with everything he had, pushing for the safety of the iceberg’s crevices. The killer whale was so close behind that Haole could smell it’s stinky breath, putrid with the stench of other penguins he’d killed and eaten in the last few days. Haole gave one last desperate push, and banked right just at the ice. The killer whale, just on Haole’s fins, couldn’t stop or turn so quickly, and bashed into the ice with a tremendous thud as shattered ice crashed into the water all around him.
Haole didn’t look back, but scratched for the surface with all his might, dodging pieces of falling iceberg, and cursing himself for daydreaming out in the open ocean. The ice shelf was only a few hundred yards away. If he could only reach it he’d be safe.
A sudden huge SNAP shattered any illusions that he had lost the k-whale. The frighteningly huge teeth gnashed together just behind Haole’s fins, propelling him forward with a rush of water and sheer terror. Haole banked sharply upward toward the surface. He knew that he couldn’t out-run the whale in a straight line, but he could turn harder than him, and if he zig-zagged back and forth, the whale would lose a lot of speed trying to change directions with its huge body. The whale was still right on his fins though. Desperately he banked left, but the whale stayed with him. He veered right, but gained only a couple inches. He banked upward again. Above him, only a few feet above his head now, was the exploding foam of the storm raging on the open water.
Haole glanced back only to see the k-whale’s gaping mouth wide open, right on him, about to snap down again. There was only one place he could go - only one last card he could play. He banked toward the rolling foam above him and launched himself into the air:
It was like thunder! The relative silence of the water gave way to the crashing of towering waves. The storm on the water’s surface was blowing a blinding fury of frothy foam and chunks of ice. Haole launched out of the water’s surface at full speed and flew, twisting with the momentum, in a long arc. Behind him, the k-whale broke the surface too and his massive body lurched upward after Haole, jaws snapping. He crashed down awkwardly in a huge splash just behind Haole, who flew further than the whale, twisting as the wind pushed his small body. As he splashed down, his face turned skyward from the effort and he saw it - coming straight at them! A huge storm wave was racing toward them like a beast from beneath the water! It dwarfed the whale, and it was equally as terrifying, but it was his only chance. Haole made a quick decision, and on entering the water again, he flipped his wings hard and made for the wave.
The k-whale was still right on his heels as they entered the trough in front of the sloping surface of the wave. Haole could feel the tremendous power of the wave already beginning to pull him upward, as it began to get steeper. He stroked hard for the center of the body of the wave. This k-whale must be really hungry, he thought. A whale would have to be crazy to follow me into this. He pushed forward and up into the slope.
The whole world lurched suddenly! Without warning the force of the water moving upward became too strong to swim against. He was caught in it now. It dawned on him that he was crazy for swimming into this. At least he had a chance of getting away from the whale, but there was no escaping this monster of a wave.
Haole risked a glance back at the k-whale, still right on his heels as the wave began to suck. For a brief second, his eyes met those of the k-whale. Steel black eyes that no penguin ever saw, but that were followed by certain death. The cold eyes of a killer. And he saw fear!
The face of the wave went concave and suddenly they were both weightless, being carried helplessly upwards as the thick lip of the wave began to throw itself outward. The violent surface of the water (now to their side, not above them, as they had been pulled up into the body of the wave) suddenly was pulled and brushed smooth, and from the inside it took on a magical shimmering quality. It was like a wall of glass next to them. Like a mirror, but on the other side was air. There was a pause. The energy of the wave had reached the top and paused for a second before it began to crash down. Somewhere behind and below them was a thundering explosive crash as the lip began to break against the ocean. Then they were being pulled out – forward into the lip – into that explosion.
Haole freaked. He was way beyond scared. The killer whale, behind him, began to be flung outward, helplessly. He watched as it was pulled over and down towards the exploding white water. Then it was gone. He never saw it again. He was next!
For some reason, and Haole still does not know why (I think it was destiny. Sometimes the hand of destiny reaches out and makes us do great things – even sometimes against our will.) Haole veered left! He veered left toward that translucent shimmering wall. The force of the wave tugged at him, but he was just strong enough. The wave was trying to take him over with the lip and down into that explosion, but Haole kicked one more time, stretched his wings out, and punched through the surface!
What happened next happened fast. He broke through into the air and flew for just a few feet, reconnected with the surface, and began to slide. He didn’t punch back through – couldn’t – he was going way too fast! He slid down the face of the wave, gaining speed, struggling to slow himself down. The arcing explosion of the lip was deafening below him as he slid right towards it. Panicking, he shoved his wing into the wall of water and dug his heels in as hard as he could. This slowed him a bit, and he began to slide sideways with the motion of the wave. He faltered in his balance for a second, struggled to stay upright as he dug his wing in a little deeper, then leaned forward. He was shocked to realize that he was in control. He was shooting along the face of the crushing beast of a wave. He turned a little, digging the sides of his feet into the surface and leaning into the turn. He was racing through the air! The lip was exploding behind him as he bolted across the curving face. He held on for just another second – he didn’t know how long it was because time seemed to stand still – and the wave collapsed behind him, imploding into a mass of foam. He glided on the surface for fifty feet or so with the extra momentum and then sank back into the water as his speed dissipated.
Haole looked around to see if anyone had seen, but there was just empty water and the cliffs of the Elsworth ice sheet rising in front of him. He looked behind him, remembering with a sudden flash of panic the k-whale, but it was gone. The monster was nowhere to be seen. Looking backwards, he suddenly realized where he was. He was on the other side of the reef. Just then another huge wave reared up on the reef and broke, peeling with violent precision, as Haole watched. He had just ridden that? His mother had always told him to stay away from the reef during storms. Now he knew why. The only problem was that now he also knew that he was hooked. He had a feeling inside him that he had never felt before – a feeling that somehow this experience was going to change his life. He looked around again to make sure the k-whale was gone, and then hurried back to the ice sheet.

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