Ice bergs, penguins and killer whales
06.02.2012 - 17.02.2012 0 °C
On Friday morning, I reluctantly waved good-bye to the Polar Pioneer and my Antarctic adventure. A bit of background ...
The Antarctic continent is the southernmost land mass. Summer (November to March) is the main season for visits as the warmer weather has ensured the sea ice, which can extend 30-50 kilometre offshore in the winter, has receeded to the land, releasing endless fields of ice floes (floating platforms), hunks of ice (bobbing ice cubes) and ice bergs. Antarctica can be accessed from New Zealand or Australia with a journey of about 5 days. Alternatively, the trip from Ushuaia, Argentina is much preferred as it takes the eager traveller to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in about 2 days. My little 11-day journey allowed us to visit islands on both sides of the southern-most tip of the Peninsula (a map should be posted in the header - the little green line from Ushuaia to Antarctica exaggerates the territory covered as the software didn't seem to recognize the names of the islands we visited). Looking at the map, and seeing the sheer size of the Antarctic continent is humbling. The ship was constantly moving and we barely covered a thumbnail's worth of territory!
My boat, the Polar Pioneer is an ice-strengthened vessel (one step below an icebreaker) with berths for 55 passengers. It took us 2 days to cross the Drake Passage, and it lived up to its reputation for a rough ride. The continuous rocking of the boat did a number on my head and my stomach. I had to resort to drugs.
As a basic plan, our expedition leaders trip to organize 2-3 outings off of the ship each day. This was always weather-permitting. If the seas were too rough or the pack ice was too thick, planned landings were aborted, and when the weather was nicer, extra landings were added. I was quite astounded how the expedition organizers non-challantly and seemlessly reworked the schedule as the weather mercurially shifted from calm seas and sunshine to 30 nott winds and driving snow. The Polar Pioneer was to big to take us shore, so we would break into groups of 10-15 and load into smaller zodiacs (a kind of motorized rubber raft with a metal bottom). The zodiacs were used for boat cruises closer to shore, or to transport us to a beach for a landing. When the seas were restless, the transfer from boat to zodiac was 'exciting' in all of the wrong ways. The crew did all they could to keep us safe and no one was hurt during this process, but I recall a passeng
er doing the splits (one foot on the zodiac, the other on the gangplank) as a wave suddenly pulled the zodiac away from the boat, another falling to his or her knees inside the zodiac as the sudden jolt of a wave buffeted the boat and someone leaping back onto the gangplank as the nadir of a wave temorarily plunged the zodiac 1-2 meters below the last stair on the gangplank. Fortunately, not all of our landings were so Indiana Jones-esque!
A couple of highlights...
1) Icebergs -- When I say the word, I think of something omnious, foreboding and dangerous (remember the Titanic?). This trip has forged a new definition. The Weddell Sea (the east side of the peninsula) is an iceberg factory. Icebergs form at the toe of a glacier, essentially, a big hunk of accumulated snow and ice breaks off and heads to sea. These hunks of ice can be hundreds of thousands of years old and are sometimes enormous. The newest icebergs are tabular, greyish and imposing, think of 4-storey floating snow bank. Then the summer sun and the sea water go to work, sculpting this raw marble into intriguing shapes and patterns in creamy white, shaded with a beautiful sea blue. The colour is due to the age of the ice, the more pressure it was under, the less air it contains, and bluer the colour. The patterns are fantastic - vertical striations, pebbled surfaces, repeating ovals and of course, the smooth gleam we associate with licked popsicles. Every permutation of size and shape was possible (e.g., pointy, rounded, jagged across the top, an arch in the middle, or a crevice across the top).
The iceberg fields were everywhere! We saw a constant stream them from the deck of ship, but the most impressive collections were in the coves and harbours close to land. We took a number of zodiac cruises through these fields, trolling close enough to touch, and it was always impressive regardless of the weather, or the time of day. In the grey, the blue of the bergs took on a muted ethereal glow and the blue of the berg underneath the water was clearly visible. In the sun, old ice sparkled and flashed (dripping) and the blue became more intense. Sometimes, we stumbled on ice flows occupied by small groups of sea birds, penguins or seals. The close up views were a particular treat. The seals - leopard, krabeaters and fur seals - seemed unperturbed by our presence and would stretch out in the sun, lazily stretching a flipper, or opening an eye to watch us in our hovering zodiac with cameras clicking.
2) Penguins -- We saw 3 types of penguins on this trip: gentoos, adelies and chinstraps. The adults are small, maybe 50 cm high. In the spring the penguins go to shore to lay their eggs and raise their young. By mid-February, the babies are teenagers that are almost ready to head to sea. Penguin colonies are easy to spot as it looks like the black cliffs and beaches next to the water are soaked in salmon pink paint. BTW, it is not paint. Penguins eat a shrimp-like creature called krill, and the pink spray is what comes out the other end. As the zodiac gets closer to shore, and the countless groupings of penguin families come into focus, the ripe stench of fermenting fish smacks the nostrils like cold sea water (yuck and double yuck!!). On shore, if you move slowly and give the penguins a wide berth, they pretty much ignore you, going about their daily business. There was a lot squawking, wing flapping and running in circles. Pudgy baby penguins with with tufts of down sticking out awkwardly waddle after their parents, determined to get a free meal of regurgitated krill (they literally put their heads down their parents throats in this process). The penguins do not feel the need to set up shop close to the water, the nests stretched up and up into the cliffs. It was particularly humorous to watch them skipping, sliding and jumping from rock to rock to climb up or descend to the sea. Some birds seemed to glide like skiiers, while others teetered awkwardly, falling over but quickly rebounding upright like humpty dumpty and continuing on their way. This was a sharp contrast to penguins at sea. They were fast -- leaping out of the water in graceful arcs, moving through the water effortless, changing directions on a dime.
3) Killer Whales -- During the first week of the trip, in the open sea, from the deck of the ship, we could sometimes see signs of whales swimming in the distance (e.g., a vertical spout of water, the flash of a tail). It was nice, but far from exciting. Sometimes, sometimes you get lucky. After our last landing in Antarctica, with the boat towards the Drake Passage to take us back to Ushuaia, something unexpected happened. A pod of 6-7 orca whales in hot pursuit of what we think was a whale passed by the boat. It was unbelievable, for almost an hour, we saw ominous groupings of single, double, triple orcas surface in the water in hunting formations, patterns and sequences circling a submerged prey to the soundtrack of excited sea birds (e.g., petrels and other scavengers). The clouds of birds appeared out of no where hovering, squacking and diving into the hunt site to get their share of the kill. I felt sad for the poor unseen whale ripped to shreads by hungry orcas, but what a show!! There was even a little baby orca!
4) Rugged landscapes -- The beautiful landscapes in during our trip were constantly changing. On the Weddell Sea side (eastern part of the peninsula) the snow had retreated, leaving rocky beaches, mud and barren cliffs, what you would expect at spring. On the west side of the Antarctic peninsula, it was a winter wonderland of domed snow, rugged mountains with snow capped peaks and glaciers right up to the water. I had to laugh. This is summer? The weather was not warm, but at 0 to 5 degrees Celcius it wasn't exactly cold either. The wind was not our friend and things would get very cold, very fast when it blew in.
It was a memorable trip. This description does not do the place and the experience justice, but so is life. See my photo gallery for a few photos.