Antarctica #2 -- Penguins and Passages
Trip Start Jan 14, 2008
3Trip End Feb 10, 2008
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When you hear about a trip to Antarctica, it's generally an expedition following this same route or very nearby. These place are the main attraction of any Antarctica trip and they did not disappoint.
If you've been fortunate to have visited Antarctica then you know that the words and images in our newsletters cannot begin to describe the incredible beauty, immense vastness and remote desolation of this continent. It is a grandiose wilderness made up of ice packs, ice fields, volcanoes, mountains and glaciers that seem to go on forever. It is the coldest, windiest and driest continent in the world. A little known fact is that Antarctica is the largest desert in the world with an overall average of just 4 inches of precipitation a year. This makes the Sahara Desert look like a rain forest! Since there is no evaporation, snow just keeps stacking up over years and millenniums, turning Antarctica into the tallest continent in the world with ice stacked up to 10,000 feet in some places. Near the shores and in the seas are wildlife not found anywhere else in the world. It is incredible and magical.
We were scheduled to reach the Antarctica Peninsula on the third day of the expedition, but because of the weather and heavy seas we didn't make it until the next morning. After three days of rocking and rolling we were ready to put our feet on firm ground! This was a gentle reminder of what to expect on an Antarctic expedition. This is not a cruise. Everything is subject to weather and conditions and the schedule can change at a moment's notice. And it did, almost every day!
Paulet Island was our first landing. It's actually a small extinct volcano just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship anchored at 6:00 a.m. and four motorized zodiac rafts were used to ferry everyone to shore. This is pretty much the same procedure used for all landings on an Antarctic expedition and it can be a challenge in rough seas.
The island is surrounded by small icebergs with penguins swimming all over the place and jumping on them. We anchored about a quarter mile offshore and the zodiacs had to navigate around the ice to get to the shore. That was fun! Take a look at the picture below to see what we drove through. It was incredible. As we approached the shore in the crisp and colorful morning, the snow-covered volcanic beach stood majestically in the background. It is hard to believe we are finally here.
Paulet Island is home to the largest colony of Adelie penguins in the world -- about 250,000 adults and chicks. There are birds everywhere... on the shore, in the water, on the slopes. There are tens of thousands of chicks running around and crying for food!
We are required to maintain a 15 foot distance between ourselves and the wildlife but there are so many penguins it is just not possible. At times the penguins would come and start pecking at our clothing. These guys are so tame that we could pet them if we wanted to.
If an adult and a chick get separated they both start squawking, an even with hundreds of thousands of adults and chicks running around and squawking, they still find each other. The noise is deafening.
On the Mainland
Our next landing was at Brown Bluff, our first stop on the Antarctica mainland. We are here! It was exciting to step off the zodiac and say that we were finally standing on Antarctica!
Brown Bluff was filled with gentoo penguins and its landscape was made up of black volcanic rock covered with white snow. It made for some great photography! We stayed in each location anywhere from two to four hours and it was never enough time to really explore the area. We could have stayed in this one place all day!
After leaving Brown Bluff we sailed through the Bransfield Strait again on the way to next day's destinations. The scenery along the Strait was stunning and incredible. Each day is more beautiful and spectacular than imagined. On overcast days (of which we had many) the sky flows into the mountains while the clouds and fog blend together as one. Most of the time you cannot tell where the sky ends and the sea begins. It is mind boggling. As much as we love photography you just cannot record through words and pictures what this continent looks like and is all about.
Neko and Cuverville
The next day we landed at Neko Harbor and Cuverville Island. We have now lost all sense of time and society. We had to ask to find out what day and date it was. The ship distributes no world news and there are no public channels on the television. On any other trip there is always some type of news or communication from the world. But not when you are in Antarctica. It is silence. It feels good, but we do miss knowing what's going on. With the ship charging $1.00 per minute for internet access, we used it very sparingly.
From the top of the glacier we watched huge walls of ice calving from the Antarctic ice shelf and exploding into the bay. Neko Harbor is a half moon bay with a sand beach and you'd think that you're in the Caribbean if it wasn't for the penguins, ice and small bergs on the beach! The Andrea was anchored in the middle of the bay between the beach, the glacier and the ice shelf. Astonishing and incredible! Almost like a postcard.
Doris was on the beach during one of the calvings. The expedition staff chased everyone off the beach because the calving can cause a tidal surge of up to 3 or 4 feet. This one though, was minimal.
Ever since we left Ushuaia we've been running behind schedule and today was no different. It feels like we left time two steps behind us. It just doesn't catch up! Because of rough seas we lost a few hours so we ended up making our second landing, at Cuverville Island, after dinner. Wildlife activity was stranger here than other places. The penguins were busy nesting and breeding and courting and the atmosphere felt almost business-like.
At other landings the penguins were socializing and playing, but here they were spending all their time building nests, raising chicks and courting. We almost felt like we were intruding on them, except that they still checked us out like at all other places. We're never sure who is more curious about the other, us or them. When a penguin is crossing in front of you, you've got to be careful or else it'll just walk right over your boots or stop and look up at you.
The next day was an early wake-up. We were sailing through the Lemaire Channel around 4:30 a.m. and the expedition staff wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to see the narrowest channel and some of the most astounding scenery on the Peninsula. Lemaire Channel is about seven miles long and less than a mile wide so the mountains and glaciers seemed like they were right on top of us. The weather was cold, windy, wet, snowy and foggy but made for some great photography!
The channel generally has a lot of ice and icebergs and is not always navigable. There was a lot of ice on this day but we were able to navigate through, although very slowly. It looks easy but navigating in Antarctica waters takes special talent and a lot of experience. We had an Ice Captain aboard and he was always in the bridge and in charge when we were near ice. Most of the waters in Antarctica are not charted so even the large cruise ships have to do a lot of navigating by sight.
Glaciers and Gift Shops
After passing through Lemaire Channel, we got ready for our landings at Peterman Island and Port Lockroy. Peterman Island is a small island with thousands of Gentoo penguins, a small glacier and a hut owned by Argentina. The hut is abandoned now but in good shape. A lot of locations in Antarctica have huts, buildings or bases of which some are in use and some are abandoned. It's a strange mix out here.
It was on this island that three men got stranded in 1982 and stayed in the hut, but lost electricity for lights and communication, and went insane. They disappeared and their bodies were never found, but it is suspected that they tried to walk across the frozen bay when the ice was not strong enough. They had eaten penguins and left penguin skins tacked to the walls even though there was still plenty of food in the hut. The ironic part is that if they had stayed in the hut they would have been ok -- rescuers reached the island only three days after the men left.
Port Lockroy is the most visited place in Antarctica and is also the world's most southern and remote gift shop/post office. It's owned by the U.K. with a few buildings and of course, thousands of penguins. It was originally a whaling station and then became a secret location for the British during World War II to detect German submarines, but none made it that far south. Three Brits live there during the summer and they take care of the station and the gift shop. They said that one or two ships land there daily during the summer. Like almost everyplace else in Antarctica, the base closes down for the winter. After 8 days of total blackout from civilization it really felt strange to be inside a store again. But we went, we saw, and we bought the T-Shirts!
Cruising for Chicks
The next day would be our last on the Antarctica Peninsula. And as you'll see, it was a great ending to these four days! As we found out, the trip only gets better every day. Hannah Point was our first landing and is located in the South Shetland Islands, just off the coast of Antarctica. It's a half-moon bay that slopes upward about 500 feet from the sand beach. There are all kinds of penguins and birds nesting on the Point along with elephant seals. Amazingly, there is no snow and in fact the landscape was covered with green grass. That was something I never expected - grass in Antarctica. It's called "Antarctic Hairgrass" and is the only grass that grows in Antarctica. Along with mosses and lichen growing on the ground and rocks on Hannah Point, it felt like we were in the sub-tropics.
What makes Hannah Point so special is the penguin rookery in the middle of the Point along with the elephant seals. There were the usual thousands of penguins nesting and caring for chicks, but flying among the penguins were Skuas and Giant Petrels that were more aggressive than we've seen before. These guys were cruising and swooping all over the place looking for unprotected chicks.
In the middle of the action were about 25 elephant seals who live at the penguin rookery. A full grown elephant seal can weigh as much as 8,000 lbs while a full grown gentoo penguin weighs about 15 lbs. And yet the penguins were bossing the seals around! It was a riot. As you can see from the pictures, it was molting season for the elephant seals. They shed their skin once a year.
The show at the rookery was amazing, and worth it. I had seen Skuas and Petrels working at other rookeries to grab chicks but the action at Hannah Point was a highlight of the entire trip. This was "cruising for chicks" at its best. We watched Skuas swoop down to nests and try to pull chicks from under the parent. Some were successful and others were not. This was so intriguing that we're including only a few shots here and we'll cover the full action in a separate newsletter.
Skuas are the enemy. Skuas are predator birds that kill penguin chicks for food to feed to their own chicks. So if a penguin chick is not being watched closely by its parent it could end up as a Skua meal. This is the food chain at work, and it is amazing to watch!
I have to tell you, I had an experience that was really disgusting but hilarious! First off, the smell of penguin guano is bad. But we didn't know that we would find something even worse. It's the smell coming from a colony of four-ton elephant seals belching and expelling flatus (I can't say "fart" here). The smell is excruciating! Even the seals complained about their own smell every once in a while! These seals made the movie "Blazing Saddles" look like amateur hour. They were belching and expelling flatus so loud and strong that there was steam coming from ... their bodies! (maybe that's the cause of Global Warming?) And they were lying right next to the one great spot to photograph the bird action from. I had to keep moving to stay upwind of the seals. Even the noise was disgusting! Whenever the wind changed I had to move fast or hold my breath or start gagging. It was awful, but fun! I got some great shots of the rookery.
We hated to leave after about 4 hours on Hannah Point but it was time head back to the ship and have lunch. Once on board I got out of the boots and waterproofs and changed to jeans and a t-shirt. Whheeww - the smell of guano on my waterproofs and boots and parka is enough to kill a full grown person! Doris on the other hand stays in her waterproofs because it is too much of an effort to change before the next landing. Whheewww!
Swimming in Antarctica
That afternoon we sailed through rough seas on our way to Deception Island in another part of South Shetland Islands. Almost every day we were rocking and rolling and pitching. Today was no different. It was almost impossible to walk without holding onto something. Walking seems simple but it's not easy when the ship is being tossed and turned and pummeled by the sea. Lunch and breakfast are on the buffet basis, and watching people attempt to put food on their plate and then walk to a table is always fun! Most of the time they make it but once in a while someone's food ends up on the floor. It's a dance that takes time to master. Every so often we'll hear loud crashes coming from the kitchen. That's a load of dishes and glasses smashing to the floor. I'm wondering, if they use plastic instead of glass, how much less would the trip cost us?
It may be rough sailing but we made it to Deception Island. It's actually the caldera of a still-active volcano that last erupted in the 1980's, destroying several bases on the island. Over the course of thousands of years the volcano has blown itself to sea level creating the caldera that's about five miles across. It was heavily used for whaling operations since the area is enclosed with calm waters most of the time.
Our first landing was at Pendulum Cove, a 'hot spot' with steam rising from the water and the beach. The ground is heated by the volcano making the water under the beach a toasty 90°-100°F while the air temperature was 35°. The expedition staff dug a trench so that whoever wanted to could take a quick dip in the freezing Antarctic water and then jump into the trench to warm up. About 35 people actually did this in their bathing suits. They were almost all British. I knew the Brits are crazy, but....
We then headed over to an old whaling station on the other side of the island. Most countries terminated their whaling operations in the late 1960's and only Japan and Norway still hunt whales commercially today. The whaling station we visited is owned by the British and has not been touched or maintained since it was abandoned 40 years ago. Lumber, tools, canned food, furniture and trash are strewn around and it feels like it was just abandoned last year. I found an unopened can of beans on the ground -- Too bad I didn't have a can opener! It's remarkable how the cold weather helps keep a lot of artifacts well preserved through the years.
After Deception Island, we were ready to take a break. We'll be sailing for the next two days to South Georgia Island, about 800 miles northeast. So far the trip has been astounding and extraordinary, and if it was already time to head back to Ushuaia we'd have enough memories and stories to keep us happy for a long time! But we're only half done - we've been on the ship 10 days and still have 10 more to go!
As always, have great travels, enjoy the outdoors and keep shooting!
Cliff and Doris Kolber
*** Explore the outdoors and enjoy our natural lands. When you visit, remember to "pack it in and pack it out" -- don't litter and don't damage anything. Leave the area as it was when you arrived and our natural lands will remain a memorable and rewarding experience for everyone.***
All contents copyright Clifford Kolber and Doris Kolber.
Unauthorized reproduction or use is strictly forbidden.