Adventures in Antarctica
by Cheryl Gerber, Woodinville
People have asked my husband and me "Why on Earth would you want to go to Antarctica?" A few months ago, I was asking myself the same question - why go to a place as lifeless and cold as Antarctica? Never assume anything.
My husband, Sam Patton, and I were aboard an ice-hardened ship called the M/V Clipper Adventurer with 105 other passengers from Dec. 1 - 11, the beginning of the Austral summer. The expedition staff consisted of biologists, ornithologists, geologists, a lawyer specializing in Antarctic treaties, and zodiac drivers. One gentleman, Dave Burkitt, had been traveling to Antarctica for over 30 years - first with the Royal Navy, then with the British Antarctic Survey. He and his team had actually mapped a lot of the area, and named some of the mountains.
I think I understand why the expedition staff chooses to explore the Antarctic Peninsula - there's an addictive quality about the beauty of the place and its animals.
Less than 200,000 people worldwide have ever visited Antarctica, and there are laws in place to protect it. No one is allowed to bring in any food or other items, and no one is allowed to remove even the smallest penguin feather. All of the items brought in for the manned stations are removed when the stations close for the winter. Visitors are firmly instructed not to disrupt the wildlife in any way - no whistling to draw their attention for a photo, no helping or hindering of any kind, and a 15-foot distance is to be kept from nesting sites and wildlife whenever possible.
Following is a diary of our adventure:
Dec. 1: Board ship and depart Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, for the Beagle Channel and Drake Passage.
Dec. 2: Drake Passage. Let's just say that the crew wasn't kidding when they placed barf bags every two feet in the ship...
Dec. 3: Woke up starving - yea! The first stop was Elephant Island, originally called Elephant Seal Island for the elephant seals always found basking on its beaches. I accidentally came way too close to an elephant seal who was sleeping between some gentoo and chinstrap penguin nests. I was so busy carefully picking my way around the penguins, I just didn't see him. Fortunately, he continued to snore as I backed away. With binoculars, I saw a macaroni penguin up on a rocky outcrop. Snowy sheathbills were running around scavenging anything they could get their little beaks onto.
On my way back to the zodiacs, there was a blue-eyed shag (a type of sea bird) no more than five feet from the path. He didn't seem to mind as I moved past him. I'm told normally they're very shy.
Dec. 4: We woke up to snow and a stiff wind. Our next stop was supposed to have been Kinnes Cove on Joinville Island or a stop at Astrolabe Island, but both islands had a great shelf of ice running along the shores. We continued on to Deception Island (an active volcanic caldera or depression) with the barometer bottoming out at 979 millibars. We came in to Whaler's Bay and attempted to anchor, but the gale force winds prevented our staying.
While I was up on the bridge watching the attempted anchoring, I noticed that the snowflakes on my shirt looked just like confetti - they were perfectly flat six-pointed stars 1/8" across and about 1/2 a millimeter thick. It was as if someone had punched them out of white cardboard.
Dec. 5: Bright blue skies and calm seas greeted us this morning. We made two successful landings in the Errera Channel, one at Cuverville Island, and one at Neko Harbor. Gentoo penguins everywhere. I think I'm in love with Cuverville Island. I was standing just above some Gentoo penguin rookeries, looking out over the iceberg-filled bay to some very blue glaciers, when I suddenly found tears spilling down my cheeks. The sheer beauty of the place caught me off guard. While we only heard some icebergs breaking off of the glaciers at Cuverville, we got to see some at Neko - some small avalanches also.
Dec. 6: After a landing at Port Lockroy, Captain Alexander Golubev and his excellent crew deftly wended us through large and small icebergs to get us into the recordbreakingly clear Lemaire Channel. Seven miles long and averaging one mile wide, Lemaire reminded me of the fjords of Norway. The mountains and glaciers on each side made all of us feel very small. At the southern end of Lemaire, we passed two islands, Pleneau and Hovgaard, finally disembarking at Petermann Island. This was as far south as we were going to be.
There was an unmanned Ukrainian station here, and a lot more gentoo penguins and our first Adelie penguins. This evening, our return through the Lemaire Channel was even more beautiful, the "setting" sun aligned with the passage, illuminating the spectacular cliffs and hanging glaciers.
Dec. 7: Paradise Harbor has a manned Chilean station (I should mention that none of the stations are any bigger than 1000 sq. ft.), Gonzalez Videla, at Waterboat Point. Of the stations we've seen, this one was practically a mansion - it had real floors and a couch!
One of the biologists, Rick Price, found a tunicate on the beach. "Tunicates" are a colonial organism (like coral) that build themselves into ropes about11/2" thick and six feet long. They're slippery, like sea cucumbers. We continued a short distance to the unmanned Argentine base of Almirante-Brown. Sam and several other passengers enjoyed some sledding, while I attempted to nap away a head cold.
On our way out of the harbor and into Paradise Bay, our Chief Mate, Rory Warner, spotted a humpback whale. Soon after, a pod of at least a dozen orcas were sighted. orcas hunt other whales by tiring them out.
They harass their prey and don't allow the whale to catch its breath after a dive. Once the whale is too exhausted to put up a fight, the orcas move in and begin to feed. Rick Price told us what we were watching was very rarely seen. There's only been one documented case of Orcas attacking other whales, in that case, a pod of sperm whales. He said it was known previously from scarring on living whales that orcas did this.
We were fortunate enough to see the hunting behavior without the bloody end.We all felt very grateful when the orcas just decided the humpback was too big - although, we liked to think it was the presence of our ship that did it. Shortly after the orcas left, the humpback rolled onto its side and began to slap its long white pectoral fin against the water, then rolled onto its back and waved both flippers and fluke in the air as if to say, "Gee, I'm glad to be alive. Thanks." We could see its throat pleats from the deck of the ship!
Dec. 8: This time, Deception Island was ready for us to visit - the water was almost as smooth as glass and there was hardly a breeze.
Quite a change from the 40+knots on the 4th. Neptune's Bellows is the break in the crater wall through which ships gain access to Whaler's Bay.
The Bellows are majestic and foreboding. The caldera is approximately seven miles in diameter and was formed during a massive prehistoric eruption.
Several historic eruptions have been recorded, including five in the 1800s and four in the 1900s.
The most recent eruptions occurred in 1967, 1969 and 1970, with the 1967 eruption destroying the Chilean whaling station at Pendulum Cove, and the 1969 eruption destroying local Chilean and British bases, the whaling station, and forcing the rapid evacuation of five British personnel.
The beaches are black, and steam with water hot enough to boil krill [shrimp like crustaceans]. Expedition leader Tom Soper, and Dave Burkitt helped to regulate the overly hot water using paddles to stir the cold water into the hot - with help from the wake of a passing zodiac. Why? What better place to take a hot bath than in Antarctica!
Our next destination, Hannah Point, is located on the south side of Livingston Island.
Within yards of our landing beach were nesting gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni penguins, snowy sheathbills, kelp gulls, blue-eyed shags, and a pile of molting elephant seals. Just above the beach were nesting giant petrels [seabirds].
I didn't see it myself, but someone caught on video the dismemberment of a very young penguin chick by several gulls, demonstrating the harsh realities of this natural system.
From Hannah Point, we headed up the coast of Livingston and Greenwich Islands through the Bransfield Strait, and then headed northwest through the English Narrows to the Aitcho Islands. Whale vertebrae as big around as a man's middle littered the beach with gentoo penguins making their nests in amongst the shelter of the bones. A Weddell seal napped on the beach near the penguins the entire time we were there. I think if I were lucky enough to find an itchy spot, he would have let me scratch him!
There was a fur seal sunning itself up one of the snowy slopes from the beach. It was the first and last sighting of an eared seal, all the others were true seals whose ears do not protrude from their head.
The call of the gentoo penguin will echo in my memories for the rest of my life. Would I do it again? In less than a heart beat!
I would highly recommend Sir Richard Attenborough's "Life in the Freezer." And keep an eye out for CNN's "Travel Now" on Saturday, Feb. 17. There should be a show on Antarctica filmed during our trip.