When the year’s new ice is four inches thin,
their long incisors cut toward air. By spring the walls rise up
six feet, almost their length. Leptonychotes weddellii. Furthest south
of any seal to pup, they use the frozen sea itself
as nursery, chewing holes to move from suckle to hunt.
Put your ear to ice and you’ll hear their improbable,
space-age trilling. Their songs of claim.
How is legacy achieved? Weddell named nothing
after himself, not sea, not the seal which barely registers
in his accounts. The sea, now his, he called George IV.
A spawning ground for polar ice,
it crushed de Gerlache’s Antarctic. Crushed
the famed Endurance. All winter it grinds clockwise,
seizing and milling what’s trapped, releasing
tabular bergs large enough—the size of Rhode Island!—
to make news even here. And why did Weddell venture
there? The profit of seals hauled out
on the rocky Orkneys and Shetlands but also this:
a hazed set of dots seen once in 1762
and never again—the Aurora Islands.
They are still undiscovered. But Weddell
found his strange fame. One hundred years,
he held the title furthest south and held it
without tragedy. Turning back before turning back was faint
hope or escape thrilling and legend.
He died as many of the southbound did:
in the city he launched from, poor and alone.
And the sea keeps cracking, keeps circling
its confines, creating more ephemeral islands
perforated by the breath holes of sleek-headed
seals, which were never worth much and so never
hunted to dramatic loss, and so less known.
We’ve tried to bring them north
for education, for entertainment, but
they chew into the concrete walls that hold them
and die of infected teeth.
Copyright © Persea Books 2010
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of Persea Books.