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Getting onto islands so barricaded by wave surges and sharp walls is a jaw-clenching prospect. But Poncet eyes each coastline for a way to shore, and usually finds it. Piling crew and gear into an inflatable Zodiac, “Jérôme would time it so we'd ride the swell in," says Stenzel. “Then he'd gun the engine and pin the bow against the cliff face as we leaped to land before the wave, and the boat, fell from under us."

On Zavodovski, chinstraps let Stenzel walk their worn paths and sit among the growing colony. Each morning they filed past her tent to the sea like rush-hour commuters, then again on their return—battle-weary soldiers, dirty or bloodied from surfing waves into rocks or from near misses with predators. Knock-down 60-knot winds and squalls replaced bright sun in minutes, and it once rained for 24 hours, turning dry gullies into rushing streams. Sudden rivers and waterfalls whisked penguin eggs out of shallow, pebble-lined nests. “They're so vulnerable," says Stenzel, “always on the edge of disaster."

Next landing: Visokoi, more than 3,000 feet tall, where sun-warmed cliff faces sloughed boulders, sending everyone diving for cover. Candlemas Island was black with volcanic slag and alive with nesting southern giant petrels—birds now closely monitored throughout their range. With a six-foot wingspan, they spend most of their lives far out at sea and are being killed off as bycatch from longline fishing. “They whooshed over us like cars passing too close to a pedes¬trian," says Stenzel. “It was exhilarating."

Recently flowing lava had hardened into a new slice of land on Montagu, where Golden Fleece waited out a storm. Off Bellingshausen, penguins blocked by brash ice evoked pool balls colliding as they tried vainly to escape the jaws of leopard seals. Thule Island houses a rare sign of humans: a wrecked Argentine base from the Falkland Islands war. Nature's mark is snow algae streaking glacial ice with exquisite reds and greens. A hike on Cook Island revealed black lightning bolts of magma that had oozed through cracks in boulders, and gull-like fulmars nesting so profusely on the cliff tops that they resembled snow. "Everything," says crewman Oren Tal, "is alive."

In their remoteness, the shape-shifting islands hold their stories close, and the few souls who have felt the pulse of the South Sandwich Islands' volcanic energy and abounding wildlife consider it a privilege. "Living in deep communication with this place, you feel changes in yourself," says Poncet. "Every trip brings something new."

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