Antarctica, Part 1

We’re about two-thirds through our trip to the Antarctic Peninsula now, not including crossing Drake’s Passage.  We had thought we might get through the whole thing without connecting to the Internet — we don’t need it for checking for global catastrophe because an 8-small-page version of the New York Times is strewn around the lounge every day, including the Sunday crossword puzzle. But Ray’s cousin needed it for five minutes, and he’s sharing his 30-minute minimum purchase.

The weather has been mostly very good, and the seas have been mostly very smooth.  Much caution was given about Drake’s Passage being rough, and one of the staff members seemed quite disappointed that it wasn’t.  Hopefully he’ll remain disappointed on the return.  Today it was a little stormy, with some rain and some swells while we were out in a Zodiac photographing icebergs, and a leopard seal who was lounging on one.  The temperatures are somewhat higher than most places in America at this time, typically in the 30s.  The sky is always cloudy, though occasionally the sun finds a hole through them to shine on something for an interesting picture.

Since arriving at the peninsula, things have gotten quite busy.  A typical day starts at 3:30 am when the sun comes up.  We make sure the blinds are closed and continue sleeping.  At 7 the friendly voice of the expedition director comes on the speakers everywhere and tells us what is happening in the morning.  A buffet breakfast starts about then, but sometimes there is something interesting happening, like scenery or a whale, to get bundled up to come out on deck to see.  Shortly after breakfast there is usually a shore excursion, usually walking around to see penguins or up to a more distant view spot.  For this we put on the uninflated life vests which are stored in our room, and also waterproof boots and pants, since the landing is usually in a few inches of water.  We get in a Zodiac for the short shuttle to shore, put the vest in a bin, and walk around.  We’ve walked on sand, gravel, dirt, rocks, and snow — each place is different.  We come back, have a buffet lunch, and then there is another shore excursion in the afternoon.  When we return from that there is happy hour in the lounge, a recap of the day’s events with little presentations from the staff, and dinner, which is usually picking one of two or three appetizers and main courses.   Sometimes we hang out in the lounge after dinner, but usually we’re pretty tired and go to sleep when the sun sets around 11:30 P.M. It doesn’t really get dark — last night we identified a cape petrel flying by the porthole at 1 AM in the middle of the night.

The staff includes:

  • Bud, the expedition leader, who decides what we are doing next.  He has a pretty good idea of everything we’re doing for the entire six days, but weather and ice conditions can vary widely, so he never announces anything more than a day at a time, and never promises anything.  He and the ship’s captain often stop or slow down when whales are spotted, and we go up on deck and watch them.  Some humpbacks have been the most photogenic, occasionally lifting their flukes out of the water for a deep dive.  No whales have entirely breached the surface, but they’re fun to watch anyway.  We’ve seen fin whales and orcas as well.
  • Karen, the chief naturalist, who tells us what birds and animals we’re seeing, and how we can tell them apart.
  • Jason, the geologist, who has given a great presentation about tectonic plates, and has promised to give one about ice.
  • Bob, the photographic expert, who along with taking lots of pictures helps people figure out how to use their cameras and gives advice about shooting in this environment.
  • Boyd Matson, host of Wild Chronicles on PBS, a production of the National Geographic Channel.  He’s here with his son, who is so tall that he has to stoop almost everywhere he goes on the ship.
  • Stefan, a Swede who has been coming to Antarctica for a long time and seems unique on the entire ship in his preference for film over digital — he has taken awesome pictures and will autograph his book of pictures for sale in the gift shop.  He has lots of interesting stories.  For example, if you would like to see what our ship looks like, set your TiVo to record a Discovery Channel program called “Freak Waves”.  About 8 or 10 years ago, a wave blew out most of the windows in the ship, and everyone aboard (including a Discovery Channel camera crew) thought they were goners.  Fortunately that didn’t happen.
  • Lisa, an undersea specialist, who dives into the icy waters with a video camera and shows us what she’s found.
  • Steve and Melissa, who work for the Oceanites project, who count penguins to track their populations.  Both Steve and my brother-in-law are population biologists living in Bozeman, but Steve hasn’t heard of him.  There must be lots of them.

We’ve seen some large colonies of the three types of penguins on the peninsula:  Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap.  It’s not likely we’ll see any others, except if an individual is lost for some reason.  Most of the emperor penguins Antarctica is famous for live much further south (and west) along the Ross Sea.  Wherever there are penguins, there are skuas which prey on their young and their eggs.  We haven’t been buzzed by skuas here like we were in Puerto Deseado, perhaps because we’re far away from their own nests.

The last day and a half has been dominated by a visit to the Palmer Station, a US research station.  Normally there are only twelve visits a year from cruise ships, but because two of the staff had parents onboard our ship, we were invited for an “extra” visit.  There doesn’t seem to be much happening there right now — there are eight scientists (including a visual artist and a composer) and about 23 supporting staff; usually there are a few more scientists.  The staff work for seven months at a time, overlapping slightly with their replacement for the other half of the year.  They’re all employed by Raytheon, the Antarctic equivalent of Blackwater.  They have a nice Internet connection, phones which are local to Denver, and a hot tub (officially for “hydrotherapy for divers”).  Like our visit to Pitcairn, we walked around the station for an hour, mostly at their gift shop and lounge — we weren’t invited to see any labs.  And they were all invited to spend today with us on the ship, getting a day off and a free ride to the islands we visited today.  The composer is three weeks into her six-week visit, and is recording penguin sounds and other natural sounds to use in a composition she’ll further develop when she gets back.  I played her a few of the rough recordings of things I’ve made since I’ve been on the trip.

This part of the trip has not been without its own technical difficulties.  This afternoon instead of going on shore we, like most people, went on a Zodiac cruise around some icebergs.  It was a little stormy, and between the rain and the splashes into the boat from the rough seas, our waterproof gear was challenged.  The waterproof pants I rented turned out to have a split seam in the rear end, and the cheap waterproof gloves we bought before leaving turned out to be more cheap than waterproof.  But the parkas which were issued as part of the trip have done a great job keeping us warm and dry, and I’m looking forward to removing their warm linings and using them as raincoats in California and England and other rainy places.  My new small camera was in the pocket of the waterproof pants — they got a little moist and stopped working.  After a night of drying out, it seems to be operational again — we’ll see how good the pictures are.  And I’ll be much more careful.

Ray went to the bridge after we all got back to the ship and reports that the wind speed when we got out of the Lemaire Channel was around 45 knots, blowing horizontal snow.  It’s died down since then and the ride is smooth as we navigate through the Gerlache Strait.

There’s quite a variety of guests on board, including an 8-year-old.  Most everyone is American, but there are a couple Japanese guys who booked a week ago, some folks from Vancouver, and a few from Germany and Ecuador.  We’ve met several of them at mealtime — we were talking to some at dinner and Ray realized that one woman was on the Fairsea in 1977 when he went to see his first eclipse.  Small world.  Another gentleman was talking about his job as a Six-Sigma consultant, about process quality, etc., and Ray and I both independently realized he could have simply said “I’m Dogbert”.  This guy has taken the best photo I’ve seen on the ship, a penguin mid-jump.

This is an awesomely beautiful place, and we’ve been keeping warm and well, learning a lot, and having a wildlife experience similar to that of the Galapagos (except that there is much less wildlife here to experience).  We have two more days of hard expeditioning, two days of relaxed returning, and then we’ll be back in Argentina to resume our road trip.  And then we’ll have time to check our e-mail.