Antarctica: Huge, bleak, yet starkly impressive
January 28, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
This land has trounced our expectations. We expected to put up with the cold to see beautiful things; we left marveling at the crispness. We expected glaciers to stun us with size; icebergs rocked us with beauty. And the penguins – they are beyond adorable; these little men are characters whose daily lives are Lucille-Ball-fascinating and mesmerizing.
And the sounds. The thunderous cracks and crunches of glaciers splitting, calving, and settling. The constant snap, crackly, and pop of air pockets escaping from sea ice. The flat-footed flapping sound of penguins padding their way along the shores, water, ice, and snow. The pictures barely do it justice, but it is just as magnificent with your eyes closed.
Since there is just so much to share and write, we adapted our travel journal for this blog entry. Here are our experiences from the 12-day Antarctic Explorer cruise with Quark Expeditions. We were really lucky in going on the Sea Spirit boat — in addition to being generally beautiful and comfortable, it caps at 112 passengers. Apparently boats with more than 180 (or so) passengers typically only send half their passengers ashore at any one time, which limits them to one stop each day (whereas our boat typically made two stops each day). And boats with more than 500 passengers are not allowed to dock, so they are limited to seeing Antarctica from the decks of the boat, without the phenomenal experiences that going ashore or on zodiac cruises afford.
We hope you enjoy it even a fraction as much as we did. We have scattered a few photos throughout, but have a full collection at the end for your viewing pleasure.
Sun 5 Jan
By 3pm on the date of embarkation, we were back at the hotel in Ushuaia and ready to go. Quark’s system runs very smoothly, and we were all on the boat by 4pm and found our luggage in our cabins without a hitch.
The boat, the Sea Spirit, is beautiful and the cabins are gorgeous – far beyond expectations! The hotel crew (which runs the cabins, dining, etc.) seems super on top of everything, and the expedition team (which runs the education and expedition programs) seems fantastically knowledgeable and enthusiastic. (Afternote: the expedition team was phenomenal. Not only were they knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but rode the perfect balance of being professional and fun.)
This afternoon’s itinerary on board: welcome chat, safety briefing, dinner, get parka and boots, then wandering around (we saw two species of dolphins! Dusky & Peale’s), then chilling out before an early night. The Beagle Channel has the reputation of being super gentle, but Drake’s Passage is apparently “the dreaded Drake” for a reason!
Mon 6 Jan
It’s 11pm, we are in bed in our cabin, and it is still light out as the boat is rocking its way through Drake’s Passage. Today, as promised, was all about “E&E: Eating & Education”, with lectures on flying seabirds, sea mammals (dolphins, whales, and seals in this region), and history of the region, interrupted by plentiful meals and excursions out onto the decks of the boat to experience the snow, sleet, hail, rain, and winds and start the watch for seabirds.
The passage this morning and early afternoon was “mellow” with swells of 2 – 3 meters. I started to feel a bit sick during the afternoon history lecture and spent much of the afternoon resting in bed; the later afternoon and evening heaves and swells have picked up and we were told to expect 4 – 5 meters, which is apparently relatively calm for here. The boat has stabilizers, so despite the rocking, we are apparently experiencing very little intensity.
I feel stable when laying down, and am giving thanks for Dramamine as we watch BBC Frozen Planet, that the ship has playing in the cabin TVs.
Tues 7 Jan
Last night the water was fairly choppy, getting up as high as 6 or 7 meter swells according to Cheli, our incredible expedition leader on this trip (truly, she is just phenomenal). It’s relatively stable for Drake’s Passage, all things considered. But, despite our “good luck” with a relatively calm sea, the water still felt a bit rough this morning as far as we’re concerned.
We had two lectures today – on penguins and geology – and were interrupted for spottings of Killer whales and a Fin whale (the second largest creature on the planet after the blue). This afternoon, we had a slight program change to assist with the transport of Bulgarian researchers from one base to another. While they were on board, they talked to us about their research, life on the base, and the reality of serious snow this season, which has interrupted a lot of their expected work.
It was exciting to see our first islands and icebergs in the distance earlier, and when we reached the South Shetland Islands, we were excited to really see land, along with blue skies (a rarity here) and calm waters. Through the binoculars, we were able to see a few Chinstrap penguins and a Leopard seal chillin’ on a beach. Apparently tomorrow we will have two landings – at Half Moon Island and Deception Island, both in the South Shetland area.
Weds 8 Jan
This morning, we had our first outing! After a long night of sleep (apparently my reaction to the gentle rocking of the ship and confusion of constant sunlight is to render me constantly exhausted), we went to Half Moon Island for a walk and disembarkation.
Over our two hours there, we saw tons of Chinstrap penguins, including some with gray fluffball chicks, as well as an Antarctic fur seal and a Weddell seal, both snoozing on their own little beaches. For the most part, they look like dead logs, but the face of the Weddell is tots adorbs, and every once in a while the fur seal (the only eared seal here) would reposition its head in some adorable sleeping-cat-like way.
The Chinstrap penguins are super adorable – their little legs look like meaty chicken thighs, and they waddle up and down little penguin highways, occasionally falling over or tripping or sliding or hopping and are just incomprehensibly adorable. While they have their turn to sit on the nest (male and female penguins take equal turns in the egg-protecting and chick-raising), they often get caught in projectile-penguin-poop-crossfire and get covered in penguin poop. When they are wandering around the colonies, the poop-covered penguins are the ones that are heading back toward the ocean for their turn swimming and feeding, and the clean ones are coming toward the colony for their turn on the nest. The whole area is super noisy as penguins are talking and skycalling (an adorable greeting practice) constantly. We also saw a bunch of other birds – Skua, Antarctic terns, and Blue-eyed shags, which I particularly enjoyed.
The afternoon, we went to Whaler’s Bay at Deception Island, the caldera of a volcano that is still active but has not had a big explosion for a few decades. It’s a narrow channel to enter the caldera, and the area was used extensively by whalers throughout the first half of the 1900s to pull apart whale carcasses, prepare the blubber into oil, etc. The beach is scattered with steampunk-looking industrial vestiges, shreds of old buildings, and whale bones.
There have also been a few scientific stations on the island, and apparently during the last big explosion (1967-ish), the Chileans held up corrugated tin roofing to protect themselves from the onslaught of rock spew from the volcano.
The whaling remnants were pretty fascinating, from things in which to dock boats to the oil renderers, to remains of water boats, which they used to pull fresh water from the glaciers to the ships on which they lived, and on which they stood when pulling apart whale carcasses in the water. Apparently at one point the rules changed so whalers had to use all parts of the whale, after which they started to find uses for the bones and other parts.
In the meanwhile, on Deception Island we also saw Chinstrap penguins plus a few random Gentoos. We also saw an Elephant seal (either a female or a young male, as it was relatively small and didn’t have its giant proboscis) that was toward the beginning of its 1 ½ week long catastrophic moult, during which the seals lay miserably itchy and worm-like while they totally moult their fur. It was pretty adorable because it would occasionally stretch or use its digits in its flipper to scratch itself. We also saw Skuas, Terns, Gulls, and an adorable gull chick that came out from the industrial ruins to say hello to us!
To note, while we were at Whaler’s Bay, we also saw Salp, a weird jelly-like organism that is prey of nothing and thrives here and around the world, and is apparently a quickly growing population. It is / they are, in a word, bizarre. They have little organism chains that wash up on shore, where you can see a glistening thread of a spinal column and an orange-red nerve bundle that is as close to a brain as these guys get.
Thurs 9 Jan
Last night we went to bed around midnight, still totally light out. I woke up to pee around 3:30am, still totally light out, then woke up for good around 6:30am, still totally light out! As I was getting ready, I looked out the cabin window and saw 2 blows and a giant arching out of the water, and then a ginormous tail of a humpback whale.
This morning, starting around 7am, we went on a zodiac cruise around Spert, which is a crazy beautiful amalgamation of islands, rocks, ice, icebergs, bergie bits (the actual name of mini icebergs), caves, islands, sea ice, etc. We saw one lone Gentoo penguin (“Hey guys! Why are you interrupting my sunbath?”), a few giant petrels and pintados (or cape petrels). Kevin, who was driving our zodiac, pointed out that some of these little islands have never experienced human feet – amazing!
It was really wild to experience these landscapes. They are huge, bleak, and starkly impressive. They are so unsuited for human scale and existence that our entry into them seems almost comical. The creatures that do thrive here – the tiny Antarctic terns, the little penguin-men, the huge whales, the snail-like Limpets clinging to rock, seem like they, too, must be uncomfortable and elicit empathy. But they survive and thrive in these environments, and, adapted as they are, are likely uncomfortable with the current heat as it hovers around or above freezing.
After breakfast, we had just a little downtime before our next disembarkation at Mikkelsen Harbour, most notably to see Gentoo penguins. Cheli described Gentoos as “the brown rats of the Antarctic” because they are everywhere, and Jim, the resident ornithologist, reports that they are the fastest penguins.
It was pretty amazing. The Gentoo colonies were adorable, as per usual with penguins. They had worn penguin highways down to the sea that were up to 1 ½ times the height of the penguins. Their shit stinks to high heaven, but they are so freaking cute. The Gentoos are currently nesting and many of them have chicks that are just a couple of days old.
We watched a few fierce battles with Skuas, predatory birds that work in pairs to distract nesting penguins and steal baby chicks. It’s pretty disturbing to watch, and we ended up standing by and watching the battles while cheering on the penguins. We tried to remember that the skuas have adorable fluffy babies of their own to feed, but we still cheered on the penguins.
Amy actually got to see a penguin chick hatch… which Mitch and I missed because we were entranced watching a nest change out. The one that was leaving (ie: the poop-covered one) decided that he needed to do some nest maintenance, so spent a good long time collecting rocks and bringing them over to the nest.
Today we made a third stop to do a zodiac tour of Cierva Cove, which is actually at the Peninsula. We saw sea ice floes and some fantastic icebergs that were floating and cracking. Some had turned, some had color variations, some had broken off baby icebergs – it was all fascinating. Bonus, we saw a small Minke whale, a Crabeater seal, and a Leopard seal, as well as several Gentoo penguins swimming around or jumping up out of the water like little flying fish. To note, our zodiac driver at Cierva Cove was Damien, the ship historian. He is a lovely and mild-mannered Brit when talking history, but a total cowboy at sea!
Afterwards, we went into the hot tub on the boat deck, which was freaking amazing – must repeat. And, after dinner, we saw Humpback whales and Killer whales (with a baby!) off the ship deck!
Fri 10 Jan
This morning after breakfast, we had an expedition to Cuverville Island, which is one of the largest breeding Gentoo colonies in the region. It’s pretty crazy. For how clumsy these guys are on land (sometimes belly-flopping or face-planting, even quite literally getting their beaks stuck in the snow), they are remarkably beautiful and graceful in the water. We spent a good amount of time watching them going in and out of the water on the rocky beachline, swimming, diving, “flying” by underwater (in some areas, the water was shallow and was so calm we could see below the surface), as well as jumping, which has to be one of the most spectacular things to witness.
We also watched a seal in the water, and penguins walking up and down a huge mountain to their nests, caring for eggs, practicing making babies (yep, that’s what the adolescents of many species do!), and all the usual. And, while yesterday there were perfect snow crystals gently landing on us, today it was downright balmy (36 Farenheit), windless, and absolutely gorgeous out.
In the afternoon, we did an expedition around Paradise Bay with a 1 ¼ hour zodiac cruise around a bunch of wicked glaciers, as well as cliffs with nesting Blue eyed shags and Cape petrels, plus saw a few Gentoo penguins and Weddell seals on sea ice.
After that, we landed at Almirante Brown Station in Paradise Bay, for our signature first steps onto the actual Antarctic continent (ie: not an island off the continent). We walked up a little hill to a rocky outcrop, took some photos with an Antarctic flag, let out some whoop whoops, and saw some people who were legit non-koosh mountaineering. I walked back down, Mitch and many others tobogganed on their tooshes, and we headed back to the boat.
Tonight, we will have an early dinner, then, weather-permitting, head out to spend a night camping out in bivy sacks (literally a waterproof worm-like bag for a sleeping bag) on the ice. More on that lovely (eep!) experience in the morning.
Sat 11 Jan
So the conditions last night were too brutal for camping, with a serious temperature plunge and high winds, so, despite a gorgeous prospective camping spot (a lovely little snow-covered island surrounded by tall glaciers), they called it off and we will try again tonight.
In the meanwhile, we finally connected with our peer group with a “raging dance party” in the club lounge deck of the ship. We left a bit after 1am, but people were still going strong at that point. We did discover that the sunset starts around 9pm and continues until after 1am, and switches to sunrise sometime after that.
Meanwhile, at around 7:45am, the ship began to go through Lemaire Channel, which is several miles long and flanked by high mountains and glaciers, and is super narrow at one end, but also super deep (each person seemed to provide a different number, none of which match what is on Wikipedia). The end of the passage was blocked off with ice, so instead of going through the channel in the ship and having a disembarkation somewhere on the other side, we did a zodiac cruise in the channel itself, which was pretty awesome.
Lemaire Channel, also called Kodak Way because it is so well-photographed, is incredibly stunning. The rock and ice walls are daunting and the zodiacs looked tiny next to them. We saw one sizable piece of ice/snow fall, which was pretty sweet, but we are still hoping for a big one. We have heard a few of the big thunderous cracks and crunches of the glaciers and icebergs splitting and calving. When you are on the water and turn off the engine, there is such a constant snap, crackle, and pop that it sounds almost like a rippling stream – but it is actually little air pockets popping their way through little and big chunks of ice in the water. Those pieces of ice can be tens of thousands of years old, and there are studies to measure the composition of air in their air pockets – pretty neat!
There are lines in the glaciers from the snow fall and you can measure out years in them, much like tree rings. Among the sea ice, the darker ice is older – sometimes it gets so crystal clear that it looks black. And, of course, the bluer the ice is, the older it is from the molecules compacting so much that they start absorbing only the redder spectrum of light waves. Sea ice is saline when it forms, and then the salt begins to drop out – so the ice that is a few years old (even the little pieces floating in the water) is fresh water, consequently the ocean here has a higher saline content.
In the afternoon, we went to Fort Lockroy, an old British exploratory / military / scientific base. It was discovered around 1904 and then used by explorers and whalers for its safe anchoring and plentiful fresh water supply. And in the mid 1940s, the British Operation Tabarin was a secret mission by which they established permanent presences in a few different places to claim control of the region. Apparently not even the guys being stationed here knew where they were going, and there was some speculation that they may be going to tropics as they were issued sunglasses. The poor 4 – 9 military men here at any one time served 2 ½ year Antarctic terms with 2 winters (usually split between two bases) with resupplies happening only a few times each summer.
Now, it’s a historical tourism spot, where 4 people live through the summer to restore some of the original elements of the base, which are now a fascinating museum, gift shop and post office. (Thanks to one of the many iterations of international treaties governing Antarctica, buildings either need to be taken down and waste removed, or restored as historical.)
Possibly most fascinating, there is a Gentoo penguin colony right outside of the main building. While everywhere else in Antarctica you are only allowed to go within 5 meters (15 feet) of wildlife as part of tourism protocols, here, you can be just a couple of feet away from the penguin nesting site! They are actually studying this as compared to a nesting colony nearby to see if the proximity of people interrupts penguin reproductivity.
In addition to the penguins, we had an interesting up-close and personal look at Snowy sheathbills, which look something like chickens, eat a variety of things (including fresh, warm penguin poop), and do a weird bobbing cackling courtship dance. But, they were nowhere near as exciting as the penguins… we saw Gentoo chicks super close-up, and we saw a penguin egg hatch! Amazing!
With the announcement that the weather has caused camping to be cancelled on this expedition (I’m not sure if that’s a boo or a yay moment), the polar plunge got moved up to this afternoon! Mitch, of course, was game. I decided that if you only live once, and I may or may not be here again, I should plunge. It was pretty awesome – a koosh experience the way it’s done on this boat, but totally worthwhile nonetheless. In total, 53 (out of 107) guests on the boat did it, which is quite high (they usually get approx 30 people).
You put on your bathing suit, robe, and sandals and get in line. On a sad note for us, our bathing suits and robes were wet from an earlier hot tub dip, so standing in line was miserably cold even though I was sweating like hell from nervousness. When it’s your turn, the staff puts a tether on you, and then counts you down to jump in off the edge of a zodiac that they string a ladder from for easy re-entry to the boat. While that’s happening, they have three staff positioned with cameras to capture the moment, so it lives on forever.
Mitch and I jumped together, and I think I was more afraid of the jump and the water than of the cold (for those who don’t know, my swimming ability is nil). Everyone else said it felt like a thousand needles at once; I kind of thought it felt like a highly saline version of the ice pool at the Russian bathhouse in NYC. What shocked me was how strong the current was. I had warned Luke, the staff geologist and lucky fellow who was holding onto the end of my tether, that I didn’t know how to swim. As soon as I came up for air, I distinctly remember yelling at him to “pull!,” but I think that may have only been in my brain. I doggie paddled like hell, scrambled back up, and then Mitch and I ran to the hot tub, where a collection of 26 people (as a single high capacity) proceeded to pile into the 8-person hot tub, overreaching the previous high capacity (so we were told) of 17 people.
Mitch, in all his wisdom, decided he needed a second plunge in the Antarctic (did we mention there were ice floes all around plus it was snowing?), and went down to try to talk his way in a second time. Meanwhile, Amy had mustered her courage and prepared for a plunge – so Mitch had a mom-and-son jump too! When they got up to the hot tub, Mitch’s face was positively purple, and we were so proud of Amy!
Meanwhile, apparently the weather forecasts have gotten pretty bad and they are predicting strong swells back across the Drake Passage (or, as Cheli expressed it “the forecast is, in a word, shit”), so tomorrow we are doing our two excursions pretty early so that we can get a few hour lead-time on the storm for our passage back.
It will be our last day of landings here in Antarctica. It has flown by, but we have gotten to see and do a whole bunch of stuff, and it seems like a truly spectacular place. As much as I expected to hate the cold, I marvel at this vastly cold and desolate yet geographically spectacular land. It makes me want to learn more about historical geology and glaciology, and begin to learn how to snowshoe and camp in the cold. I never expected to love the snow and ice this much – but with the realization that gear actually does make a difference and that the landscapes really are just outrageously gorgeous, I have to admit I am interested in more!
Sun 12 Jan
This morning we woke up early and went for a “hike” on Danco Island, which meant a short walk up a slippery icy snowy hill past a couple of Gentoo penguin colonies and penguin highways, and then had plenty of time to observe and hang out with the penguins. There were no chicks and just a few eggs, but lots of juveniles practicing courtship – bringing each other little stones, bowing to each other (so cute!) and literally staring each other down. On the way down, we also saw two penguins playing – literally, playing! – with a feather. They would pick it up in their beaks, let it catch in the wind, then go fetch it again. To get back down, we ended up sliding / tobogganing down the hill, which was super fun! You just tuck in your jacket, lift up your feet, and away you go!
After “Sunday brunch” on the boat, we did an expedition at Orne Harbour. There was a choice between a hike and a zodiac ride. Since the views from the hike were totally clouded in, we decided to zodiac – plus, we were excited for a bit of speed. Val was our driver, and she was an endless stream of energy and information – from information about the birds to the pinkish cold-weather-algae that grows on the snow!
We saw kelp gulls and chicks, blue-eyed shags (with big chicks that were the same size as the adults but still had their dark downy fur), Antarctic terns, Cape petrels (the pintados), Skuas, and Sheath bills – which are now part of my regular terminology! We saw a few small colonies of Chinstrap penguins, the mountaineers of the penguins which nest up the highest (actually using their stiff tail feathers as props to climb). They actively search out spots where the snow melts first, so higher is often better. They go up some impressive climbs with such little legs!
Plus, we saw some beautiful ice, showing the bright blue hues that come as older ice becomes more dense, and the giant vertical lines that come from air bubbles escaping. Talking sea ice, pieces smaller than 1 meter are called “brash ice,” the chunks in the 1 – 5 meter range are called “bergie bits” (no, really), and the 5+ meter chunks are called icebergs. The icebergs are in the sea, and the glaciers are snow/ice areas connected to land that don’t melt in the summer.
From our zodiac, we heard on the radio that another zodiac spotted a Humpback whale, and we raced over. They typically cycle to the surface every 4-6 minutes, and often in a different spot from where they dove (to note: sperm whales surface exactly where they dove down, 40 minutes later). We followed the humpback for several cycles until we had to come back in, and loved seeing its blow, its dorsal and beautiful humps arching up out of the water, and its tail just before each dive. It was pretty impressive to be flat at water level and so close to it (at most, 100 meters away).
That was our last excursion out before we hit the Drake Passage early to beat out this storm! It has been amazing! I had no idea how much I would love it here, nor how okay I would be dealing with the cold to see beautiful things!
Tues Jan 14
The past few days have been back to the full schedule of “E & E,” or “eating and education,” with a bunch of really fantastic lectures and pages and pages of notes in my book. Between yesterday and today, we had lectures on geology of ice, history (who owns Antarctica), Humpback and Minke whales, and the geological history of Gondwana (the prehistorical southern-hemisphere super-continent).
On our last night out at sea, the waves got up near 10 meters (30 feet), and the boat rocked quite a bit. A few people fell out of bed, but by this morning things had settled down and we got into the Beagle Channel for our last day on board. Apparently it could have felt worse than it did – our captain and crew did a magnificent job maneuvering the boat so that the waves would hit in the least uncomfortable way possible.
Weds Jan 15
The last few days on deck were, despite the waves, really lovely. Yesterday evening, there was a sweet slideshow with all of our photos (passengers were invited to share photos that the staff compiled onto a DVD for you to take home). For our last while together, a whole mess load of dolphins came out to play. There were some adorable hourglass dolphins earlier in the day, but after dinner there must have been 2 dozen Dusky dolphins jumping, flipping, playing, and bidding us adieu! They were just magnificent to watch!
Then, of course, we had a dance party! It was a fantastically good time with lots of pop music, old and new, dancing, drinking, and otherwise cavorting. We got to sleep around 2am and woke up early to finish packing and have breakfast before our 8am disembarkation.
Sadly, my one major complaint about the cruise is that they kind of cheat days. Of our “12 day trip”, the day with an 8am disembarkation counts as a day, as did the day of embarkation when we got on board at like 4pm, as did the day before we even got on the boat. I don’t know if that is an issue specific to Quark or more universal, but it is a bummer nonetheless. Apparently they used to dock for 24 hours, giving the staff a day of rest between voyages, but now the 8am disembarkation is followed by the next group getting on board at 4pm, which I assume is just so they don’t have to pay for the time at the dock. Either way, it is a shame.
Now, we are sitting in a coffee shop in Ushuaia before we head to the airport for Buenos Aires. We were warned about post-polar depression – and I think I can already feel the swelling of a longing for the ice!
For those who can’t get enough pictures, here is a larger selection posted in chronological order: