The seas continued to recede all night, and most of us were able to get some sleep. We awaken to a majestic view of the southeastern tip of New Zealand off the port bow. The outside world immediately strikes, and cell phones start ringing. A sound that was completely foreign yesterday now immediately becomes the expected, and we feel ourselves slipping back into civilization even before we dock. As the Evohe turns into Dunedin Harbor and out of the reach of the wild southern ocean, the Auckland Islands seem almost dreamlike, far away and nearly inaccessible. We tied up around 10:30 a.m., greeted by friends and family, and happy to be home again.
In these days of cell phones, computers, instant messaging, and video adventure games, real-life expeditions seem like an anachronism from a bygone era. One can easily imagine people spending their entire lives within the confines of work, tv, games, and fast food restaurants. Who needs expeditions when we can be safe in the comfort of our homes? But expeditions like this one have meaning far beyond the photographs and scientific data collected over the last three weeks. Expeditions are necessary for the spirit of discovery - they remind us of the origins of civilization, of settlers expanding out in many directions from their homes, of the value of curiosity, and of the drive for people to seek new places and knowledge. Modern expeditions like this one are usually justified on the basis of science, and frequently yield exciting new findings. It does us well to remember that outside of the domain of humanity, a great deal about our world remains unknown, and opportunities abound for new discoveries.
The other important thing about expeditions, is that they call up in each of us a primal memory of another time, not so long ago, when humanity did not control everything so thoroughly. There remain places in the world where humans are prey, and not the predator. There are places where the lack of water eliminates any possibility of life as we know it, and yet things live there. At the bottom of the ocean, some of the most peculiar forms of life survive and yet little is known about them, because to get there, we must withstand thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. And in the Auckland Islands, (and indeed in most polar and sub-polar regions), weather makes the world inhospitable to humans without an expensive and remote infrastructure of support. In other words, these are places we have the privilege of going to visit but not to live. And the animals that live there truly do have dominion over those places, in ways we never can. Whenever I begin to feel cocky about the world we humans have created for ourselves, I think of these remote islands of wilderness – for in those places, where non-human life rules, it seems that many lessons await us.
We are back in the bosom of our fellow humans, with cars, traffic, lights, plenty of electricity and heat, and a lovely hotel room and the promise of a fancy restaurant nearby.
I look forward to returning to my tomato patch, my front porch swing, and the lazy waning days of a New England summer. And I already miss the giant petrels, fairy prions, yellow-eyed penguins, the curious and amusing sea lions, and those fat and happy right whales.
Till the next expedition!