Antarctica’s Power and Glory

If you are looking for the hand of God on Earth, you will find it in Antarctica.

South Georgia Island 617 Our time here has been marked by the power and beauty of the open ocean, towering ice-clad peaks looming over unspoiled sounds, icebergs of the most stunning colors and shapes, powerful glaciers ripping through valleys and rearranging the landscape, hundreds of thousands of penguins in rookeries, and great views of breath-taking species of whales and seals. Our time here has been stunning.

Life in the Southern Ocean

Antarctica II 043 We spent about half our trip on the wide-open Southern Ocean. It is a rather remarkable ocean, one of the five on earth (Arctic and Southern, as well as the obvious three). Cold water from the south converges with the warmer oceans to form the Antarctic Convergence. And winds rip around these latitudes with no land masses blocking them. Sea traffic is minimal, and ocean wildlife relatively abundant.

Antarctica II 246 First the bad news about life on a ship in the Southern Ocean. We’ve had generally mild sea conditions, and the Explorer II is a very seaworthy vessel. Our worst night so far was in transit from South Georgia to Antarctica. We tossed pretty violently, and sleep was prevented by furniture falling over in the room and things sliding off off desks and shelves onto the floor. We haven’t gotten seasick yet (knock on wood!), but wouldn’t welcome more turbulent seas on a less seaworthy ship. Now, though, we’re crossing the Drake Channel and things are rocking and rolling again. You know it’s rough when they put air sickness bags on all the hand-rails in the halls!

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 608 Without a doubt, highlights of life on the open ocean have been the whales and albatrosses. We’ve seen Humpback, Sei, Right, Fin, Minke, Killer and Blue Whales so far (and aren’t like to add to this list as we head north to Ushuaia). The Blue Whale is 110 feet long, and the largest animal ever to be on the earth (bigger than any dinosaur!). Seeing these whales, often close up, is just breath-taking. Yesterday Antarctica Peninsula 002afternoon, we went through an area where, in about an hour, we must have seen thirty whales, including five Killer Whales chasing a seal (against the odds, the seal won!), Humpbacks (breaching!), Fin, and Sei whales. It was better than watching fireworks at the Fourth of July, and almost everyone on the ship was deckside taking it in.

South Georgia Island 046 Our ship has generally been accompanied by giant albatross. The Wandering has a wingspan of eleven feet, the longest of any bird. But we’ve also seen Gray-headed, Black-browed, and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, and they are incredibly graceful. They can go hundreds of kilometers in a day, and just ride the wind currents, not exerting a whole lot of energy.

The Penguins

South Georgia Island 240 We saw lots, and lots, of penguins down here, and never tired of them. We saw several different species, including Magellanic, Rockhopper, King, Gentoo, Adelie, and Macaroni. They are so easy to project human characteristics onto. They walk purposefully, seem to chest bump like NBA basketball players, bellow their calls incessantly, and show no fear or concern about nearby humans. When you see one hundred thousand penguins in one place (in the photo above left, ever little dot on the land is a penguin, over 100,000 in all!), you can’t help but think about what a gift they are to the world.

South Georgia Island 400 We came in late February, so all of the young chicks had already been born and were reaching survival size. Unless they can fend for themselves by late March, they won’t survive the Antarctic winter. If you visit earlier in the summer, you’ll see newly-born penguin chicks, which we hear is quite a sight.

Geology

Antarctica II 046 Most of our guides on this cruise were superb. The one exception was our resident geologist. I’m hoping to get DVD’s of his lectures, so I can play them on any night when I’m tossing and turning, unable to get to sleep. He was the dullest public speaker I’ve heard in ages, and turned a fascinating topic into something we all yawned our way through.

South Georgia Island 518 But the geology here is exceptional, and we didn’t even get into the heart of the Antarctic Continent. Glaciers are everywhere, although receding at alarming rates. As they calve off, you find the most astonishing icebergs imaginable. All shapes and sizes, some quite vast, many quite dramatic, and most of them with a sharp steel blue color.

Antarctica, Neumayer Channel 517 The mountains here show how active the geology is in Antarctica. We got a great morning through the Neumayer Channel, with a crystal clear, sunny day that happens here only a couple of times a summer. We could see these peaks of almost 10,000 feet, with snow, ice, glaciers, and icebergs in the water. The majesty and beauty of the area can’t be captured here, but surpasses anything I’ve seen before.

Climate

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 096 We were very fortunate with our weather. Daytime temperatures were between 35 and 55 Fahrenheit, generally with little wind (quite unusual). We had a few periods of rain, light snow, or fog, but most of our landings were in nice weather. And the seas weren’t all that bad by Southern Ocean standards. We even managed to get in a swim (above), although it was a bit chillier than Rhode Island in August. We came late in the summer, and I’m sure there’s a large amount of variability around the weather. Also, when we were out on Zodiacs on the cold ocean, even a decent day could seem awfully cold.

Life on the Explorer II

The Explorer II holds 198 passengers and has a crew of about 160. Daily life depends on whether it’s an “at sea” day, or a day with landings.

Antarctic Peninsula 034 The “at sea” days generally included two to three lectures on a range of topics. We were fortunate to have an outstanding historian, David Wilseon, on ship, whose Great Uncle perished with Robert Scott in their ill-fated attempt to be the first explorers to the South Pole (they got there second to a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen, but didn’t survive the return). David’s lectures were not to be missed. We also had other very knowledgeable naturalists who would lecture on birds or marine mammals (see Gibson and Sterling’s blog on the two main naturalists, whom they interviewed). Apart from lectures, our days at sea were filled with homework, eating, and time on the deck looking for interesting birds or cetaceans.

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 159 On nine of the days of the trip, we had either one or two landings. They divided the passenger group in half, and organized two sets of landings. We’d go down, wait in line to get on a Zodiac, and take a short, safe trip to a landing spot, generally on a beach, where we’d hop out. On land, we’d generally take short hikes (max of three miles, generally much shorter), and take in the wildlife or the occasional historic site (Stanley, the only city here, and some abandoned whaling stations).

Antarctica II 088 The make-up of the passenger list surprised us. Almost half the passengers were from the U.K. (87), with the U.S. second with 64 passengers. Australia was third, with smatterings after that among a dozen other countries. Our kids were the only two people on the ship younger than 25 years old or so. It was a big enough group that you didn’t have to worry about anyone getting on your nerves (can be an issue on some of these trips, especially one of 17 days in length), and we found several people we really liked. That said, it was a pretty old crowd, and many of the people from the U.S. seemed remarkably dull for this type of trip.

Antarctica, Neumayer Channel 475 The staff on the Explorer II were fabulous, and really went out of their way to make everyone’s stay terrific. We got to know the Captain well (Giovanni Biasutti), and he couldn’t have been more capable or nicer. He took particular interest in our kids, and shared stories for hours with them about the ship, sailing in the Southern Ocean, and the early days of Antarctic expeditions. We learned a lot from him, and it added to our trip immeasurably.

Antarctica II 069 One point our Captain made is that many of the ships now coming to Antarctica are mega-ships, carrying 2,000 people or more. Our captain had spent five years on the Explorer I, which sunk a few months ago. He wasn’t a part of the rescue operation, but explained how the 250 at-risk people got picked up by other ships in the area. His concern about the mega-ships sure made sense to me. If a large ship were to run into problems here (and many do), there would be no ready way to rescue thousands of people. A ship the size of the Explorer II could probably add a couple of hundred passengers without endangering the lives of its passengers. So beware of booking a trip here on too large a ship!

History

South Georgia Island 459 During the trip, we learned quite a bit about many of the early explorers of the area, including Lord Ernest Shackleton. And I read one of the many books on the race to the South Pole, which took place in in Antarctica’s summer of 1911-12. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, led a small team of people who generally were excellent cross country skiers, and brought with them a team of sled dogs who performed remarkably. Robert Falcon Scott led a British expedition, much larger than the Norwegian group, and one whose trip strategy largely centered on the use of horses (bad idea). Amundsen made it to the South Pole first, and returned without any serious mishaps. Scott made it to the South Pole a month later, but ran out of supplies on his return, and the group from his expedition who raced to the South Pole all lost their lives.

South Georgia Island 508 Interestingly, for years, the world has largely accorded Scott’s failing expedition with glory, and Amundsen’s team was something of an afterthought, viewed as the team that snuck off with the “trophy.” The amount of worldwide attention to South Pole exploration was comparable to the world’s focus on the race to the moon, and provided lots of drama, excitement, and tragedy as early twentieth century explorers took on the world’s last unexplored frontier.

In Sum

Antarctica II 008 We’re going to lots of great places on this trip, but Antarctica to date is in a class by itself. We wanted to see this continent before it gets changed indelibly by global warming. I’m not sure Elizabeth and I will return (at least not soon), but I expect that this visit will have a profound impact on all of us.

Check out our Antarctica photos.

6 Responses to “Antarctica’s Power and Glory”

  1. bev seinsheimer Says:

    Ted and family–what an amazing experience-thank you for sharing. the photos are beautiful. Safe travels as you enjoy Africa. Bev and Wally

  2. Pat Tuff Says:

    What a fantastic description of Antarctica…and what a great experience for all!!I love reading all your blogs!! We just got back from Cambodia and Vietnam and I looked up all you descriptions of it before we went..thanks for the help. Best to all the family, Pat

  3. Rob & Peggy Says:

    Sounds fantastic…we are hoping to go there soon. Let’s discuss sometime this summer,

    You will love Egypt. Don’t miss the tiny roast lamb chops !!

    Glad you are all having a great time.

  4. Meg Says:

    Ted, Thanks for sharing the tales of your adventure. Your photos are amazing! Wishing you safe travels on your next leg! Best to your family – Meg

  5. Swap Says:

    Ted,

    Great pictures and what a great experience. My father was in Antarctica (for 2 weeks, landed 7 times) and shared some amazing videos and stills. He was on the Nordnorge, which picked up many of the folks when Explorer I sank.

    Good luck and safe travels.

    Swap

  6. Simon Says:

    Hi ! I’m a french student in physical oceanography. May I ask you for your picture of the southern ocean with the icebergs? I would like to use it for the cover of my master’s thesis. There won’t be any commercial use of it. This is just because it looks beautiful to me, and that was perfectly the kind of picture I was looking for.
    Thank you.
    See you

    Simon

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