Archive for the ‘Antarctica’ Category

Antarctica’s Power and Glory

Monday, March 17th, 2008

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.

An Amazing Antarctic Day!

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 338 We had one of the best days of our lives on Saturday down here in Antarctica. From start to finish, it was completely unforgettable. I’ll cover the other aspects of our visit to the Antarctica area on my next blog, but will focus here on this astounding Saturday, the day we set foot on our sixth continent.

Antarctic Peninsula 174 Although our trip lasts seventeen days, we spend remarkably little time on the Antarctic Continent. We spend two+ days at sea getting to the Falklands, two days there, two more days at sea to the South Georgia Islands, two days there, two more days at sea to Antarctica, three days there (but two on islands), and then two+ days back to Ushuaia.

On Saturday morning, we were off in the early Zodiac group to the Antarctica Continent. Our boat left at 9:00, and we would have a grand total of about an hour and a half on the Continent itself. The pressure was sky high on Gibson :-) , who has a chance to lose teeth in all seven continents. He had been wiggling his loosest tooth, but it was still not all that close to coming out when we hopped on the Zodiac to head to Antarctica.

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 112 We had a great time on the Continent itself, landing at a place called Paradise Harbour. We ran into a bunch of Gentoo Penguins. We hiked up a hill and were all able to zip down a snow bank in our snow pants. The kids repeated it several times before we were off to our hike around this landing spot. Gibson, by now, was wiggling aggressively, but we were starting to talk about how one of the islands we’d go to later in the trip probably should count.

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 126 We waited it out for the last Zodiac departure, and, with the clock ticking and less than a minute to go, Gibson got a baby incisor out!! We took some quick pictures, celebrated with some congratulatory yells, and were off to a quick boat tour of the harbor before returning to the Explorer II. It was pretty amazing that Gibson could hit this 90 minute window, and he may well be the first person in the history of the world to lose a baby tooth on Antarctica proper. He has another tooth that looks like it could come out in Africa, so Europe may well be his last big challenge!

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 145 Our Zodiac trip brought a second surprise — a close encounter with a Leopard Seal. Leopard Seals are at the top of the South Polar food chain. They are afraid of no other animal, and all other animals fear them, even the Orcas (Killer Whales). One came up to our Zodiac boat and put on quite a show. It circled our boat, popped up out of the water regularly, and at times tried to bite off a chunk of our ZodiacAntarctic Peninsula by Gibson 139 (which it quite possibly could do). It left for a period of time to chase a Gentoo Penguin for its lunch, but the penguin escaped. The penguins evasive action looked a bit like a random piece of grease on a scalding hot griddle, as it popped out of the water furiously, and changed directions frantically. The Leopard Seal returned for another bite at the Zodiac, and eventually turned its attention elsewhere as we returned to the ship.

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 414 After a great barbecue lunch, we cruised through Antarctic waters, Lemaire Channel to be precise, to our next destination, but not without seeing several whales. We didn’t get any good views during our morning outing (the second group out did, though), but we got some great views of Killer Whales, a Minke (left), and some distant Humpbacks. It was just so exciting to see these incredibly creatures, which are a great link to pre-history. At this point, we thought the day had reached its pinnacle.

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 525 We were in the last group out on Saturday to take a Zodiac tour of the waters around Pleneau Island (just south of 65 degrees latitude, our southernmost point of the trip). The area is known as an iceberg graveyard, with many large and spectacular icebergs floating through the area. Our trip was challenged by some frigid winds and snow, and being out on the water on a fast Zodiac only amplified our shivering. We saw some great icebergs, an Adelie Penguin (above right), another Leopard Seal, and we chased (largely futilely) a Minke Whale.

Antarctic Peninsula by Gibson 608We were about to pack it in and head back to the Explorer when we spotted to large, still objects on the horizon. Since we had been last in line, we were on a Zodiac with just the four of us and our great naturalist, Juan. Well, we made a beeline for the objects, hoping that we’d encountered a couple of large whales. And, boy, did we!! We came up to two giant Humpbacks, and spent almostAntarctica Peninsula 002 a half an hour (a very cold half an hour!) in our tiny Zodiac with the whales circling us, popping up for air, and putting on a great show. Being within twenty feet of these Humpbacks (which are some 60 feet in length), hearing them come up for air and blow their spouts, seeing them spyhop, and watching them play together, and dive, well, we were completely mesmerized. Another passenger, Daniela from Germany, kindly providing us with this great photo of the Humpback next to our Zodiac, with Gibson closest to the whale taking the photo above!

As we left our Humpback buddies, I said to my family, “Other than the day I married Elizabeth, and the day each of you were born, this may well be the best day of my life.”

Check out our Antarctica Peninsula photos.

South Georgia Island

Friday, March 7th, 2008

South Georgia Island 616 Each of us probably has that special place that stands out as the most amazing place they’ve ever been. South Georgia Island may be that place for me. Situated about four hundred miles north of Antarctica, and well southeast of South America, South Georgia Island is the home of no people, and millions and millions of penguins, ocean birds, and seals. And the geology of South Georgia Island is truly stunning.

South Georgia Island 845 First, a few words on South Georgia Island. Glaciers cover 60% of the island (much less than even ten years ago, sadly), and with peaks of close to 3,000 meters, South Georgia is a spectacular, mountainous island in the Sub Antarctic. The island is 170 km long and up to 40 km wide. In 1775, the ubiquitous Captain James Cook was the first person to land on the island, claiming it for Great Britain.

South Georgia Island 469 In 1904, the first of six whaling stations was established on South Georgia at Grytviken, by a Norwegian company. Whaling continued from the island through 1965, and a total of 17,000 whales were slaughtered on the island. They have a little museum in Grytviken, with all sorts of background on the history of whaling

South Georgia Island 459 The island played a special role in history. When Shackleton (known down here as “The Boss,” long before Bruce Springsteen) pulled off a miraculous rescue of his crew from Elephant Island in Antarctica, he sailed 800 miles in a tiny lifeboat and landed on the wrong side of South Georgia Island. He and two others then made it across the mountainous island by foot, eventually finding their way to a whaling station, where reinforcements could help rescue his men on the Endurance.

South Georgia Island 319 After two days at sea from the Falklands Island, we made our first landing a Right Whale Bay, South Georgia. We landed on a beach to a welcoming committee of thousands and thousands of King Penguins (including some of the fuzzy brown one year olds, in photo on left), along with many Antarctic Fur Seals and a few baby Elephant Seals. Much like seeing wildlife in the Galapagos, the animals here are not hunted by man, so they are quite comfortable coming right up to you.

South Georgia Island 448 On our second day, we made a morning landing at Grytviken, which means “Pot Cove” in Norwegian (I guess some fur sealers’ pots were discovered there). Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried there, and there are the remains of an old whaling station, part of which was open for touring. We also went for a hike into the hills behind the station. We saw some very large elephant seals here, as well as more penguins.

South Georgia Island 655 That afternoon, we went to St. Andrews Bay, where the Heaney and Cook Glaciers tumble down into the bay. On this and most other landings, the passengers on the ship are divided into two groups, and each gets a couple hours explore time at the location. Our group, quite fortunately, was the early group, where the weather was fabulous, including aSouth Georgia Island 750 spectacular rainbow that lasted for a half hour. Toward the end of our visit, it began to rain heavily, and the second group had to contend with a downpour for its shortened time on the beach. We felt fortunate to explore the Bay under great conditions, since it’s the home of over 100,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins, a sight (and smell) we’ll never forget!

South Georgia Island - Gibson 317 The next morning we went for a sunrise landing at Gold Harbour, our last stop at South Georgia Island. Our time on the beach was fairly short, since we had a long haul that day to work our way down to the Antarctic Peninsula. But it was a stunning place, with the Bertrab Glacier at its head. We saw a variety of penguins, including King, Gentoo, and Chinstrap (left), as well as Antarctic and Elephant Seals. It was so beautiful and peaceful there as the sun came up that I was tempted to hide somewhere and stay there for a few weeks. I suppose one overnight there, even in the Antarctic summer, would have changed my thinking in a hurry!

South Georgia Island 777 The saddest aspect to our visit to South Georgia, really driven home by Gold Harbour, is the impact of global warming on this very special place. People on the crew who have been long time visitors here noted that in just fifty years, the entire harbour has been created, and was nothing but glacier not all that long ago. As the glaciers continue receding, the impact on the wildlife and geology here will be enormous, and not to the good.

South Georgia Island - Gibson 176 We also had fun one morning as the kids tracked down wayward Diving Petrels who had stumbled onto the ship overnight, and needed help “lifting off.” They found both a Common Diving Petrel and a South Georgia Diving Petrel, and gave each a new lease on life.

As we cruised through the Southern Ocean, we also got some great views of spectacular icebergs. They came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but all had the most electric blue color. It made our time on the sea that much more interesting.

South Georgia Island 525

South Georgia Island 527

I struggle to put into words the beauty of South Georgia Island. The word “unique” is usually butchered, but this is a unique place on this planet, and one we loved visiting.

Check out our South Georgia Island photos.

The Falkland Islands

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Falklands 008 I’d certainly heard of the Falklands Islands because of the war between England and Argentina twenty years ago. But I didn’t know much beyond that. It was the land stop on our first leg of our Antarctica Expedition, though, so I was about to learn a lot about these islands, including that they constitute a distinct country with one city (Stanley) and a total population of 2,000.

Ushuaia 193 We boarded our ship on Monday afternoon, heading on a loop to the Falklands, the South Georgia Islands, Antarctica, and then back to Ushuaia through the dreaded Drake Passage. Drake can be exceptionally rough, and we’re bracing ourselves for a challenge. Our ship is the Explorer II, operated by Abercrombie and Kent. It holds about 200 passengers, with a crew of about 150. If the name “Explorer” rings a bell, it’s because their Explorer I was the ship that sank late last year while on an expedition. We’re hoping for better luck this time, that’s for sure, but we definitely paid a bit more attention to the safety briefing than we normally would.

Ushuaia 218As we set off, we got some great looks at the bottom of South America. Our first day was spent at sea, motoring to the Falklands. We were chased most of the way by a set of ocean (or pelagic) birds, including the Black-browed Albatross (right). We’ll be seeing a lot of different albatrosses on this trip, and I could watch them all day long. They almost never flap their enormous wings (the Wandering sets the record with an 11 foot wing span), and move gracefully along the water, riding the air currents that are pushed up by the ocean swells.

Falklands 199 We spent two incredible days exploring the Falklands. On the first day, we made two landings, each accompanied by short hikes. Having been to the Galapagos earlier this year, I note parallels between the two places. The geology is fairly interesting, but the amazing aspects are the unspoiled nature and the exotic and tame wildlife. We were able to go right up to some fascinating birds (penguins, albatrosses, penguins, herons, penguins) and they would just go about their business. We spent Wednesday afternoon on a beach just watching a colony of Magellanic Penguins, who were completely captivating. They would bump into each other, call loudly, and walk purposefully about. Our kids just stared at them for almost two hours, laughing the whole time.

Falklands 187 Late on Wednesday, I had a “Kodak moment.” Or maybe a “Nikon moment.” I bought a high-end Nikon camera (D40X) over Christmas, with detachable lenses. It’s taken quite good pictures (limited by the mediocre photographer), although it’s pretty bulky to carry around. Well, two days into our expedition, I’m on the beach, taking a photo, and — aarrrgggghhhhh! No photos. I get an error message telling me, “Error: press shutter release button again.” I figure, “No problema.” I try pressing every button, but that doesn’t do it. I take out the battery and put it back in, no luck! I use the software reset, confident that will work. Nope.

I get back to the ship, go on-line, and find the user’s manual. After digging for fifteen minutes, I find the dreaded error message, with the straightforward advice — “Take camera to nearest authorized Nikon dealer to get it replaced.” EXCEPT I’M ON A SHIP IN THE SOUTHERN OCEAN HEADING TO ANTARCTICA!!!! So now I figure I’m totally hosed. My only hope is our stop the next day in the booming capital of the Falklands, Stanley.

Falklands 180 The next morning, we head off on a three-mile hike on the main Falklands Island. The scenery was beautiful, and we came across a lonely King Penguin walking along the field. He/she came up to us, welcomed us to the Falklands, and went along his/her way. Later, we saw the Magellanic Snipe, which was a great bird as well.

Falklands 171 The highlight of the trip, though, was observing the interaction between Gibson and our Falklands-based naturalist. At one point, Gibson asks him, “Are those Ruddy-headed Geese?” To which he responds, “No, those are Upland.” Gibson says, “No, I think they’re Ruddy-headed.” As we get closer, the guide announces to the group, “And over here we have some Ruddy-headed Geese.” Later, the guide tells us we’ve just seen Commerson’s Dolphins in the sound. Gibson says, “Are you sure? I think they’re Peale’s Dolphins.” They consult the guide book, and our naturalist tells the group, “And over there are the Peale’s Dolphins.” Anyway, Gibson spends most of his free time now reading field guides about animals and has great retention.

Falklands 190 I have to admit, I felt a bit distracted during this great hike worrying about my camera. We have an extra point-and-click with us, but the pictures have never looked quite so bad as when I had locked in mind my superior — broken — camera. In the afternoon, though, we went to “downtown” Stanley, a lovely little place with about ten stores. Once we were there, I go to all the stores (about ten in all), and — much to my ever-lasting good luck — there’s one that carries about a half dozen cameras, including theFalklands 058 Nikon D40X. They won’t accept my old one back (don’t blame them), but I’m able to buy a replacement before spending 14 days in one of the most beautiful regions of earth. Whew! Now, this wasn’t the cheapest camera you’ll ever find — about 2.5x list price in the U.S. But a bargain at any price. And the old one is now disposable (I suppose I’ll try to get credit for it back in the states, but it’s useless to me on the trip). And if the new one flashes the same error message, you’ll probably hear my yell all the way from Antarctica!!!

So now we’re off to South Georgia Island. We had absolutely gorgeous, clear, and warm (actually a bit hot) weather in the Falklands, but it’s turning quite cold as we head further south. More later!!

Check out our photos of the Falklands.