CHAPTER 15: Accident or Incident?
THE NEXT DAY, March 22, at six o'clock in the morning, preparations for
departure began. The last gleams of twilight were melting into night.
The cold was brisk. The constellations were glittering with
startling intensity. The wonderful Southern Cross, polar star
of the Antarctic regions, twinkled at its zenith.
The thermometer marked -12 degrees centigrade, and a fresh breeze
left a sharp nip in the air. Ice floes were increasing over
the open water. The sea was starting to congeal everywhere.
Numerous blackish patches were spreading over its surface,
announcing the imminent formation of fresh ice. Obviously this
southernmost basin froze over during its six-month winter and became
utterly inaccessible. What happened to the whales during this period?
No doubt they went beneath the Ice Bank to find more feasible seas.
As for seals and walruses, they were accustomed to living
in the harshest climates and stayed on in these icy waterways.
These animals know by instinct how to gouge holes in the ice fields
and keep them continually open; they go to these holes to breathe.
Once the birds have migrated northward to escape the cold,
these marine mammals remain as sole lords of the polar continent.
Meanwhile the ballast tanks filled with water and the Nautilus
sank slowly. At a depth of 1,000 feet, it stopped. Its propeller churned
the waves and it headed due north at a speed of fifteen miles per hour.
Near the afternoon it was already cruising under the immense frozen
carapace of the Ice Bank.
As a precaution, the panels in the lounge stayed closed,
because the Nautilus's hull could run afoul of some submerged block
of ice. So I spent the day putting my notes into final form.
My mind was completely wrapped up in my memories of the pole.
We had reached that inaccessible spot without facing exhaustion
or danger, as if our seagoing passenger carriage had glided there on
railroad tracks. And now we had actually started our return journey.
Did it still have comparable surprises in store for me? I felt sure
it did, so inexhaustible is this series of underwater wonders!
As it was, in the five and a half months since fate had brought us
on board, we had cleared 14,000 leagues, and over this track longer
than the earth's equator, so many fascinating or frightening incidents
had beguiled our voyage: that hunting trip in the Crespo forests,
our running aground in the Torres Strait, the coral cemetery,
the pearl fisheries of Ceylon, the Arabic tunnel, the fires of Santorini,
those millions in the Bay of Vigo, Atlantis, the South Pole! During the
night all these memories crossed over from one dream to the next,
not giving my brain a moment's rest.