Friday, November 30, 2007

Warrior Explorers

Wonder why the Drake’s Passage, named for the infamous Sir Francis Drake, puts fear and trepidation in the spirits of the most experienced seamen and explorers? Too many ships have sunken here and too many stomachs have been disrupted by the heaving waves and swells. Even author Apsley Garrard titled the book about his trip to Antarctica as "The Worst Journey in the World." At the south pole, James Cook, who circumnavigated Antarctica in 1775 without even seeing land, is a hero, Drake is not. Magellan for whom a species of penguins is named was idolized by being the first to circumnavigate the earth in 1517 and to describe what was then called Terra Australis Incognito, as a land of fires - not knowing that fire was an Indian god. The indigenous Indians of Tierre del Fuego put fires in their canoes, transporting it wherever they moved to keep the fire from burning out. Woe be that day.

Francis Drake, however, was a buccaneer, a scoundrel, a con man who buttered up Queen Elizabeth I in the days of exploration until she knighted him, a non-gentleman who is still reviled in South America even though he was the first to see and describe the meeting of the Atlantic and the Pacific, the path over which we now travel. He had the curiosity to notice that the colors of the two oceans were different and so could tell where they merged. I can see why, though, this unruly passage was named for him. It pirates your enthusiasm to go to Antarctica by the seas.

Why the rough waters? I’m summarizing from the morning report: The ocean area from 40 degrees South latitude to near the Antarctic Circle has the strongest sustained westerly winds anywhere on earth. These southern latitudes, known as the "roaring forties", "furious fifties" and "screaming sixties", encompass westerly winds that sweep uninhibited around the earth causing massive amounts of water to move east to west, more than 35 million gallons of water per second which is four times the rate of the Gulf Stream. The highest frequency of gales is reported between Longitude 20 degrees and 60 degrees East, just north of the Ross and Weddell Seas (where we kayaked ) and the approaches to Drake Passage. Interaction between the frigid air coming off Antarctica and the relatively warm and moist air from the lower latitude ocean areas creates cyclonic storms around the periphery of Antarctica. Hence, the rough passage.

It’s our final run. Our last lean into the birthplace of the winds. The last warm muffin - a different kind each day - for the early birds who climb up to the library to see the seas at 6 a.m. The last morning position and weather update to wake us up through the PA system (No phones in the rooms.) Today we will pass another milestone, Cape Horn, and we will see our first tree in ten days. It’s actually warm outside, the sun has yawned and the seas celebrate our Endeavor.

As we make the final lunges over the waves while various styles of albatross and petrols swarm around us like bridesmaids at a wedding, I realize finally, that all those names and dates I learned sixty years ago in primary school, the tales of the men who explored earth, are now real. We’ve covered some of their paths. We have learned about their pain and hardships. We’ve felt some of their fears. These were men of spirit and courage like the Sherpas who take climbers up Mt. Everest today or the adventurer Jon Bowermaster, a National Geographic naturalist on this trip, who is the first to kayak the seven seas. His purpose, he said, is to look at the health of the seas and the lives of the people who depend upon them.

If you want a definition of extreme courage, read about the men who sought the Arctic Grail: Norwegian Amundsen who in 1912 was the first to make it to the South Pole (slaughtering his 90 sled dogs en route) and Englishman Robert Falcon Scott who raced Amundson but came in second, then his entire party died in the cold return only 11 miles from safety (he too slaughtered his dogs, 223 of them, and the pack ponies he brought from England - both men felt the animals were too much responsibility on their pursuits); and even Dick Bass who was the first to summit the highest peaks on all seven continents; in Antarctica it is Mt. Vincent Massif at 16,073 feet.

These exploring warriors, forever embedded in the annals of history, give us an invitation to show courage, take a risk, to trust what God has put in the spirits of men and women. It’s the Moses in each of us. These are the measurements of a soul, whether we cannot do it, fail in our efforts, or are the champions. It’s the doing that counts. Having the dream. Sharing that dream with those who can only dream. Taking that first step in faith and breathing the pure air of a miracle.

Blow Wind Blow - It's Drake Passage

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Polar Plunge

Well, the bold - or maybe the barmy - did it. And I was first to leap into the Antarctic waters lapping up on the black volcanic sands of Deception Island. Yes. Our first effort a week ago had to be aborted, but we had a second chance on the return.

Me, pulling the ship in through two feet of ice. Hard work, yes, but somebody had to do it. The captain was too busy steering.

Yesterday at dinner time the weather was ideal - calm winds, sun shining, and some of us were starve to get off the ship. Our captain loves to please - and to laugh.

The captain had eased us across risky Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance into the caldera of the volcano of Whaler’s Bay, and offered us a couple of diversions. A sheet of sea ice covered half of Whaler’s Bay. But the Captain plunged the ship’s bow through the ice (about two feet thick) and parked the Endeavor there, inviting us to come down the gangplank and take a walk on sea ice. (Different from pond ice we used for ice skating.) We’ve spent many an hour walking on hard glacial ice these six days on the peninsula and continent of Antarctica - there were no other options.

Grateful, the captain gives me a big hug.

But everyone donned red jackets and boots and red wool caps and descended the plank for photo opportunities - like tugging the thick blue rope normally used to secure the Endeavor at port. It gave the illusion, when photographed, we were one by one pulling the ship through ice. Then beer and hot dogs were served by the kitchen crew and others built snow penguins or made snow angels. We were in an active volcano - that happened to be filled with freezing cold water and ice - and so we could act any way we wished.

I was most anxious for the chance to swim in the Antarctic seas. Quickly, of course, but I have a certificate signed by the captains saying I did it, as did quite a few others. First, we had to protect ourselves for the Zodiac ride to shore by covering our bathing suits with water-proof pants, our all-weather red jackets, orange life jackets and the famous Muck boots. In my hands I carried special water shoes as we were warned the boiling thermal water could blister our toes. The naturalists and scientists and geologists guffawed as they helped us out of the Zodiacs in this amazing black and white environment where ice and volcanic rock have melted so the mountains gave a zebra effect.

Alright, I'm standing in the freezing Antarctic Seas at Deception Point. Am I crazy or what? Don't answer that.

They collected our life jackets and handed out towels when those of us who copied the penguins and dove in, came running back out. No one warned us that the warm water was only in tiny indentations along the shore while the bay inviting us was below freezing. So after I ran courageously (stupidly?) in, I ran similarly out - and yelled, "Where’s the hot springs?" "Oh," a staff member guffawed. "Reach down on the shore's edge. Feel that tiny area of water?" I did. It was hot, so I dug a small gully, sat down on the infinitesimal segment coin, well, the size of a doily maybe, where thermal water seeped out. There were various patches along the shore which others sat on scaulding our butts until a languid icy wave broke in and cooled us off. Polar swimmer I had become, I ran back into the frigid sea once more, and, after a total of ten minutes, said enough, wrapped in a blue towel and started redressing for the frosty Zodiac return to the ship.

Now don’t think this visit to the volcanic shores was penguin free. A few feet beyond our dipping hole about a dozen Gentoo penguins stood on the black sand in the black and white setting with their beaks open, surely confused by these odd mammals in outrageous bathing suits and hats, exposing unattractive white bodies and screaming and roaring (the men, of course) as they jumped into the water, coming up, alas, with no fish. Seriously, there was so much krill in these waters that the krill were trackable on a fancy X-ray machine (I don’t know what it’s called) on the bridge.

"What do these silly, nekkid humans think they're doing?" An audience of penguins, gawking at us from shore. (Note the sand, volcanic rock, and snow.

Antarctica, Antarctica. What a fond farewell. When we began we couldn’t do the leg swings to exit the Zodiacs and carried sticks so we wouldn’t slip on unfamiliar ice and snow, stayed well away from the animals even when we didn’t have exotic lenses for our camera, and how we have changed. We are no longer intimidated by the blizzards, and waves, and giant elephant seals, and masses of stinky penguins nor the challenges of getting in and out of Zodiacs when waves pull it back from the landing site. We have learned to be tougher than our age allows. We have lived through distress calls and dramatic rescues, kayaking adventures (we were allowed to kayak three times, rather than the usual one time) and spending hours in horribly cold winds and snow on the bow of the ship trying to photograph humpback whales and Orcas. It takes stamina.

Photo: We left our footprints in the ice at Deception Island.

Now if we can survive the two day crossing back through Drake's Passage onto Argentine soil, we will carry with us that awareness of Antarctica’s footprint on us, not ours on Antarctica. I believe each one of us has cleaned out his soul, tossed his stress into the sea, and has become an advocate to stop global warming , the world -wide slaughter of seals and whales, have learned the value of krill and to speak out for an untarnished, unpolitical, unexploited Antarctica.

A Different Kind of Rescue

When one day is the most spectacular of your life, you don’t expect another to show up right next to it. But it did. This is sort of a double dip day. We are back in fairly open seas in the South Shetland Islands as our destination this morning was a wet landing at Snow Island. Its Gothic-style rocks and peaks fringed with snow welcomed us with new things I thought we had missed: plant life. (see right foto) These balsite rocks were rich in lichens, mosses, tiny Antarctica hair grass in short chunks hanging on edges of cliffs and the Antarctica pearl wort which grows in tight cushions. Even at our landing, the tiny gravel shore was full of seaweed of varying colors including pink and a few sponges.

A huge elephant seal.

What a treat, but not nearly as exciting as a stroll on Snow Island packed with comical and enormous elephant seals and many Weddell seals and cubs. Elephant seals look like grounded torpedoes, huge ones from submarine days. In one zone a dozen males were lined side by side much like football linebackers, but bigger. It made you laugh when they raised their fat necks or opened huge mouths to emit gurgling, burping and gaseous sounds.

"Say what?" (Weddell seal.)

Since most of them had probably not encountered often vertical mammals in red jackets and red hats with cameras for eyes, they were curious but were not going to be bothered sufficiently to move somewhere else. These guys were belly to belly, so to speak, in order to keep warm in the shore winds and also it helped wrap up their fur molting which was in its final stages.

We stay 15 feet away from them in an effort to not interrupt their daily routines but there were so many, 15 feet from one was close to the next outlying one. When they traveled, dragging their enormous poundage, it looked painful. Only the younger seals moved with any speed or energy.

The impossible itch.

As I was photographing a huge elephant seal lumped on the snow, a chin-strap penguin appeared (this was not penguin territory) and walked right up to about three feet in front of me (as I stood stone still) and began flapping his wings, pecking his tail to get the oil he spreads on his waterproof body, and generally cleaning himself. Miracle Island, this.

After trapsing along the ice-packed island shores among the hundreds of scattered seals on snow, a couple of us stumbled across a deep hole in the snow field, about 16 inches wide, and inside was a young Weddell seal, obviously trapped. We had no solution, only wondered if she was in there by choice or by accident. What could we do? But then I walked further on and came upon an even larger hole in the ice in which had fallen two seal pups. One tiny who we’ll call Tinkerbell and the other Megita.

"Get me outta here, please.

Megita had dreamy big black eyes which looked right at me with pain and desperation. I took a few photographs (I was right on top of her) and asked the naturalist Stefan what could we do. I insisted we had to dig her out or she and the pup would die. "Look how she pleads to me with her big eyes!" On the one hand, one doesn’t want to bother the natural course of things, but on the other hand, who could sleep knowing they had passed this opportunity to rescue young seals who had a future as producers.

I asked if anyone on the Zodiacs had a shovel, and one was found. Meanwhile Stefan started trying to widen the hole by kicking with his boot, and a couple others helped until the shovel arrived. I chronicled the rescue with my camera and trying to reassure Megita she could lift herself out, we'd help, as if she really understood what I was saying. Maybe she did. As they opened up a sort of snow ramp up which she might pull herself, she showed great force and eagerness to get up and out. I stood right in front of her and kept talking her out of the hole.

Stefan jumps in to help push.

Stefan finally had the snow slide where it might be useful to her, and then jumped in undaunted by any thought of danger - they only nip at this age, not take bites, he assured us - and tried to shove hundreds of pounds of pure blubber up the little snow exit. It was a herculean task, like birthing a baby, but with help from the seal herself, I know she was trying, we got her out. She came straight for my boot. I moved back a bit. She followed me. And again and again she moved and put her nose on my boot. I wanted so much to reach down and touch her head but I knew if I did that I wouldn’t be able to leave that island again. There was something special in her eyes.

"We're free! We're free!"

Meanwhile three of the men lifted Tinkerbell out of the hole and the two seals barked and talked and kissed each other and seemed as if they knew their lives had been saved. Amazing.

As the three men finished filling the hole with ice, I grabbed the shovel and we all went to look for the other hole with the more desperate seal locked in it. This was a serious situation because it was a mature seal, we’ll call her Maria, and her large fat body was frozen into the ice of parts of the hole. Her flipper was damaged as well. When we began knocking in the snow and trying to widen the hole to make an exit, she began nipping at Stefan and yelling at us out of fear. But Stefan and crew persevered and more and more of the red-coated photographers gathered around to be sure they had it on their digitals. Few actually got down and dirty as did Stefan and Scott, the travel writer. The ice they dug into with shovel and hand was yellowed with urine and poop. She had been there a while and could have stayed a long time with all the fat on her dying a slow death.

Her spirit wasn’t half as hopeful as Megitas so this task was harder. We had to dig out a huge amount of the snow and release her flippers that were frozen under her belly. So finally she was turned toward the escape hatch and Stephan again, with two more men, jumped in and gave Maria numerous shoves and lifts until she finally was set free. She barked and grumbled and just lay there. Not sure what we were and the photographers were more interested in getting their pictures than opening a path for Maria to move on to where she felt at home. She was probably still in some sort of shock.

Whether we have done any good this morning on Snow Island in Antarctica, I don’t know. But Stefan and I and the others involved with the rescue certainly will be able to sleep better tonight knowing three young seals had futures. This expedition has been an adventure in rescues and working with heroes, like Stefan. I knew something special happened to me today and I could only think of my dear friend Louise who has been communing with bears, elk, geese and any other animal that comes through her yard in Wyoming for nine years. Lou, this one was for you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ice Has a Heartbeat Too

As we return to the South Shetland Islands as fully fledged explorers and after another peaceful afternoon kayaking, this time alone in my kayak in the cleanest, calmest sea we’ve been in, all of us wear a new confidence, and maybe some a new faith. We still have the dreaded Drake Passage re-crossing ahead of us, but we trust our captain will get us back to land, even though many of us are hesitant to leave this relatively undisturbed place of beauty and drama.

Next to weather and penguins, I’ve learned so much about ice. It’s what you see daily when you look out the porthole and you photograph it like it was your grandchild - with delight and longing. Remember, it is never the same. You could pass by the same islands a week from now and the formations would be relatively different, the glaciers would have crumbled and wrinkled even more, and the seas would possibly be chocked full of new iceberg wedges and sea ice.

They say that once Antarctica was a temperate green area. The warm waters from what is now Brazil warmed it so that even beech trees grew here, about 25 million years ago. Fossils have been found that imply certain warm - climate animals lived here. It’s a huge continent - bigger than the USA and Mexico combined and just as varied, but most of us think of it as a giant blob of ice holding up the south pole. Scientists and naturalists refer to it as "The Big Ice." The winds may be ferocious but the silences are heavenly. (There are no airplanes flying overhead. There are no boom boxes polluting the sound waves. Only the thunder of crashing glaciers moves the air.) And ice forms, rearrange, drop, rise and float according to the seas, temperature and wind.

The shape of Antarctica's continent resembles a brain with a tail, which is the peninsula we have been exploring. It was last to break away from mainland South America. On the opposite side of the continent from our excursion is the access to McMurdo Station, operated by the USA, and directly south from New Zealand. Here is where the Today Show centered its program.

Ninety per cent of all ice on the planet is in Antarctica, so much ice that the bottom of the earth is flattened by its density. There is nothing green now, except in mid summer when algae form under the ice’s surface from plankton and other single cell organisms that temporarily feed the animals. Ninety-six per cent of Antarctica is covered in thick ice - the four per cent left would be the exposed rock of the mountains and volcanoes. Because of the inaccessibility, nothing much is known about the geology of Antarctica - although there are suppositions that all sorts of minerals and precious metals are underground. There exists a zone on the continent not far from the actual South Pole called No Man's Land because no man can reach it. Then there is the issue of real and imaginary south poles - the historical one and the geomanetic a number of miles to the east.

Ice begets ice. Ice of the interior becomes ice of the seas, our geologist explained. Ice is a crystal. And snowflakes, tiny as they are, are its seeds. Actually Antarctica is the largest desert on earth. The continent proper probably receives only two and a half inches of new snow a year although it is constantly snowing. But it stays and one and a half feet of snow produces one inch of ice. Air pockets and density pack ice tight. It takes 10-15 meters of snow to form glacial ice and 50 meters of ice for the flow to begin. In East Antarctica, the ice sheet is 4-5000 meters thick. And, unlike the Northern hemisphere, it is not melting.

What makes one's mouth drop are the incredible colors of blue and turquoise that seem to paint the glaciers in their progress down to the seas to meet the magnificent plateau icebergs already there. The blue depends on the density of the ice which reflects the light. White normally reflects all colors but in this case the blue stays with the white ice because of air pockets. Some of it looks like taffy, others like divinity candy we used to make at Christmas.

There is ice lingo, too. Fast ice, pack ice, icebergs, ice islands, ice cliffs, sea ice (a skin of sea ice surrounds the continent separating the sea from the glaciers. There are about 7.8 million square miles of sea ice in Antarctica. One expert said it chills the hemisphere by reflecting sunlight back to the sun which would otherwise warm the sea.) Fast ice grows out from the land or forms continuous ice sheets, and pack ice is made up of ice floes or broken remnants of ice sheets. We spend long hours nosing through ice floes, even when paddling kayaks. It’s easy to get the rudder stuck on a hard ice floe although most of it breaks off in time.
Pancake ice is part of the second stage of sea ice formation and forms irregular discs that look like pancakes because as ice rubs together it forms little raised edges in a circle. Polynyas is when the wind and currents part the ice and make stretches of open water with ice fields. These continually open and close so a channel we might be able to move through with ease today, tomorrow will be chocked up tight and prohibitive. But what awes are city-sized glaciers moving down rock mountains, and from which we must stay away because when they crash, it’s like the demolition of the Baptist Hospital or a skyscraper. It’s called calving. As they hit the waters, giant waves wash up to whatever shore is in view.

The same with icebergs. To me icebergs are God’s floating sculptures. You want to photograph each one because, in reality, it changes every hour as the summer sun begins to melt them. I'm reminded of the British artist William Goldsworthy's environmental pieces. There are tabular ice bergs which break off from the glaciers or mainland ice - like blocks in a puzzle or like giant sections of the Grand Canyon separating from cliffs. They will continue to float for years and are named by scientific observers. One called B-15 is 75 miles long. It was caught up in the counter clock wise flow of the sea and has now floated around the entire continent and is lodged near Elephant Island. These tabular bergs can stand for decades because the sea water is so cold. There also exist lesser bergs, bergy bits, growlers and brash ice, which are irregular in shapes and molded by the sun breaking from glacier streams moving down the mountains. There is anchor ice which is attached to the bottom of the bay or sea; Firn, which is old snow recrystallized into a dense material; frazil ice - fine spicules or plates of ice suspended in water; grease ice - a soupy layer giving the sea a matt appearance hummock and bummock (look that up in the dictionary); ice blink; moraine or rocks transported in ice; nilas or thin crust of floating ice easily bent by swells and waves; old ice, which is more than two years old and up to 10 feet thick; rotten ice which is honeycombed and in an advanced stage of disintegration -- well I could go on forever.

In the waters where we kayaked, I noticed broken ice itself has three appearances - clear ice like we drink in our ice tea or if you are like me, eat continually in hot summer hours; white ice which is full of snow and is opaque, and black ice which is the hardest ice and the most dangerous. It looks like coal. You don’t want to tackle a chunk of black ice in a kayak. Believe you me.

It is fascinating, this world of ice, and I cannot stop taking pictures. Now this continent doesn’t seem so cold because it has heart. I’ve been able to embrace the ice, slip on it, fall on it, eat a bit of it (very salty) and throw snow balls of it and survive., It’s amazing what a tiny snowflake can become. Does that give you any faith?

Please note: this is not Hollywood, not Disney, not even Evian. But Antarctica, all of it, is the most pristine and rich frontier that’s left on the earth which has still not been destroyed by man. We must support the efforts to keep man’s boot prints and heavy hand at bay. Yesterday, after passing colonies of stinky, noisy, precious penguins, and a couple of lethargic obese seals on the snow, many of us climbed a 500 foot hill for a view. A few decided it would be fun to slide back down on their rears or spread eagle. They screamed and shouted and yelled. My heart twisted and I thought, something is wrong here. Do the animals understand us? We don’t fit in this place. We are invaders and guests. This land belongs to the patrons of ice, the penguins, seals, birds, sea whales of Antarctica. I’ve been blessed with the privilege of passing through here, but I must keep on going, as we all must. And I pray that those who have the authority and power over Antarctica will keep it simple, limit the boot prints, study it, preserve it, but in no way attempt to conquer it. It’s God’s berg and He is here.

Seals and Things

The glaciers near our landing site at Neko Harbor in a glorious fjord of Andvord Bay are "calfing" like cows in springtime. Huge chunks of the blue striped ice roars like thunder as it peels off the mother glacier and falls into the bay. It’s a beautiful day, 30 degrees, no wind, and actually a good portion of sunshine bringing the range of mountains surrounding us alive like a whipped cream tarantella. All I can say is it’s beyond beautiful.

Photo: "Hey, buddy, have a wing?" Penguins at Neko Harbor.

We certainly left our big prints on the small mountains of Neko harbor. The hard task for many of us was to turn our backs on the two seals sleeping within our reach and the hundreds of penguins sliding down slopes to the sea in order for the physically challenged to climb the steep ice/snow mountain in our Muck boots and with our third-leg sticks. I fussed at myself the entire way saying I was going to stop here, huff, huff, no I’ll go further, huff, huff, and finally there I was at the top doing the "Rocky" dance. Actually I reached the summit quite fast and was one of the first coming back down - except for a couple of guys (my cabin neighbors) who slid down on their bums. Oh! It felt GOOD to get to the top because underneath the layers of clothing and long underwear, I was enjoying a good cleansing sweat for the first time since I left the Memphis tennis court and gym.

Photo: "I'm gonna climb that mountain at my back in the snow!"

Yesterday morning we were allowed to kayak again at Petermann Island where Adelie and Gentoo penguins nest on the rocks and porpoise (a verb here, meaning jumping out of the water like a porpoise) through the cold clear waters. My kayak partner this time was a travel writer filming the fun with one hand and trying to paddle with the other. I sat in the back and was in control of the turns and basic paddling. We had lots of laughs when we weren’t snapping the incredible scenery. Then we discovered our ship’s bartender was on a Zodiac with two helpers and a bar - either hot chocolate or good whiskey. Of course you had to be able to paddle up to the Zodiac correctly if you wanted to toss one down. We stayed out on the water about two hours. It’s hard to get me to come in.

Photo: At the summit!

In the afternoon, we were scheduled to visit the Argentine Islands station where Ukrainian scientists collect meteoric and ionospheric data used in ozone research (we are under a major ozone hole here in Antarctica.) But best, for drinkers on board, was the promise of homemade vodka! (Made in Antarctica?) However, the ice was still too thick for the Endeavor to break through. So the captain turned the prow south to see how far we could get through the ice toward the Antarctic Circle. It was a frightening adventure for those of us who had memories of the wrecked Explorer and visions that all the ice floes and icebergs we were slowly pushing through and were quickly closing behind us might keep us here forever, frozen in Antarctica. Trust me, our captain is "cool" and he knew this ice was softer sea ice. He wanted to make up for the disappointment in not visiting the Ukrainian station by hunting for seals on ice. And we saw seals. Many seals - mostly alone floating on huge ice pieces.

Photo: This is called Belly Down.

Seals are the southernmost mammal after man. They will saw through ice with their teeth (which gives them toothaches) to make a hole so they can fish for their food. Their lives last only as long as their teeth. There are about 50 million seals in the Antarctica even though Orca whales eat them for dinner when they can brush them off an iceberg. We have seen three kinds of seals in Antarctica - the Weddell seals with tiny heads and cat like faces with big baleful eyes who spend most of their time in the water or on ice. They are big, fat, often alone, live 18 years, live mostly on land, eat fish, squid and other seals, but not krill. Crabeater seals are missed named. They have nothing to do with crabs because there aren’t any shellfish in Antarctica. But a "namer" saw red stuff dripping out of the Crabeater’s mouth - which was krill - and was miss-read as crab juice. These seals with dog-like faces eat mostly krill and live 29 years. Their conical teeth have evolved into cuspids that hold in the krill. They are mostly found on the floating ice. The Leopard seal, has a spotted coat and a snake-like head, eats mostly krill, penguins and seal pups, a little fish and squid and lives to be 26 years old. In this species the female is about 300 pounds heavier than the male. They have a dinosaur looking head with wide nose holes and can eat a Gentoo penguin in a second with its wide mouth.

Seals don’t move much. They sleep, loll, raise a flipper, open those big sad eyes, maybe yawn to expose a red mouth and amazing teeth, then sleep more. Must be tough being so fat, and yet the fat is a life vest to ward off the cold icy waters in which they are so buoyant. One which our ship got very near allowing us to observe for a long time was a leopard seal mom with a nursing pup. That was a first.

Photo: Both moms and dads sit on the egg in the nest. Look closely, and you'll see the egg under the penguin in the foreground.

Meanwhile the captain nosed the ship as far south as 65 latitude 34 degrees, which is the farthest south any expedition ship has reached this spring. (Fifty nautical miles from the Antarctic Circle.) We had to turn around for the ice and sailed back through the tight Lemaire Channel into the calm seas of the Penola Straight once more. During dinner, we passed a large ice berg where a whole family of taupe-colored crabeater seals had set up home. Amazing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Audrey's Route Maps

Click image to enlarge in same window.

Updated (v6). Click image to enlarge in same window.

Updated (v3). Click image to enlarge in the same window.

Enhanced satellite imagery of the entire continent. Source: USGS TerraWeb.

Editor's note: I've put together the route maps, from Google and various mapping sources, showing places she's mentioned in her blog. The yellow route line in the detail map is my best guess of her ship's path and is subject to revision.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kayaks and Penguins

What could be better than kayaking in the pristine waters of the Antarctic, the earths most exquisite setting of snow thickened mountains and peaks that formed the Andes tail ,with ice bergs as disturbingly shaped as Richard Sierra sculptures, glaciers patterned like wadded paper, calfing (breaking off) as they move slowly forward and my kayak partner and I getting up close to nature in a yellow rubber floater with only a blue paddle to keep us from harm? (We wore alarms around our necks in case we got stuck somewhere. We were warned not to push the button for hot chocolate.) It's been the best thing I've done since paragliding.

Photo: My first time in the saddle, all kayak, no paddle.

As we glided on a reflective sea, the heavy silence of Antarctica was pierced only now and then by complaints of penguins fussing to find a place to jump into the sea (they are really picky), the cracks and bangs of ice falling as the day warmed to 40 degrees, and my laugh of complete awe and delight that God had allowed me this moment in my life - on a Sunday to boot.

Photo: "What's she doing? We better get outta here."

Penguins, battalions of them, plied their trade of amusing us as they lined up along edges of short snowy cliffs banding the shore of this tremendous and calm Herrera Channel [Link: map] trying to find a place to jump in or jump out, about three feet high. They thrust out their flippers for wings but jumped hard, not at all like the graceful torpedoes they become when swimming underwater around our kayak. A singular Weddell seal with long eye lashes lolled in the sun, at times lifting its fin over its eyes as if it was all too much for him, too. And a pair of white Snowy Sheathbills mated on the edge of the beach until a penguin policeman waddled over and pecked one on the back to break up the affair. He really did. Watching penguins at mating season surely beats America’s soaps.

Photo: Various kinds of bergs.

This channel must be as close to paradise as anyone could get. Picture post card perfect, coffee table book perfect, a photographers heaven, a naturalists meringue, an adventurers impossible dream. I had never set foot in a kayak and didn’t know if I’d end up at the bottom of the icy bay or not but I liked the idea of doing something on my own again, not in a group of people in red jackets and caps. Each kayak pair received a good briefing on safety and dangers, travel boundaries and a reminder survival in these freezing waters is about five minutes. But our kayaks are made especially for the Endeavor’s trips here and in the Arctic. They are built so that no one can make them roll over. The two-seaters are comfortable and uncomplicated. The steerer presses petals in the back to go left or right, whereas the front runner spies scouts potential wrecks.

Photo: "Who's going up? I'm going down!" Penguins following the flow.

If we ran aground, (often as we floated closer to the shore to photograph the penguins) one of us stepped out of the kayak in our super duper waterproof Antarctica boots on to the small rocky shore and pushed away. The water was so clear I felt I could see to China, and at least the penguins porpoising for fish, swam by our kayak to see what was up. If there is a given in Antarctica, it’s penguins. They are everywhere - in colonies, tobogganing down the snow-covered mountains leaving trails like snow boarders, then climbing back up again to build rock nest, getting started on egg sitting that must come at this time to be successful. A gaggle of penguins had chosen to sunbathe, I guess, and were near the shore, deep in the snow, just lying fat on their stomachs. I thought they might be sitting on their nests, but they were merely loitering and taking advantage of the spring sun. It was a funny sight.

After two and a half hours on the water taking photographs and floating peacefully up to indescribable artistic ice bergs (anything higher than our paddles length we were to stay away from because bergs are constantly falling apart as spring warms the continent), it was time to come back to the ship. I was paddling with a serious photographer. She was in charge of the direction of our turns, I was in charge of maneuvering the kayak and pushing us off the rocks and icebergs. A special docking station had been set up in the middle of the kayaking area. It was like a swimmer’s floating dock. On two sides Zodiacs were attached to a metal deck. When you reached it from the ship in another Zodiac, you slid from one Zodiac to the other and then to the stabilized dock as you slipped down into the kayak - and thereby escaped getting too wet. An amazing system. Most of those kayaking were couples willing to cooperate with each other and fall in love again as they might on a Sunday outing at Pickwick Dam.

Photo: After two and a half hours, now a cool and accomplished kayaker.

The day was not without its drama. On arrival in the channel, our captain had been able to put the Endeavor bow onto the rocky shore in order to secure it and cast anchor. (It’s called "riding the anchor.") As the morning waned, alas, so the tide went out and was an hour late returning to a floatable level. Well, when it was time to leave, the Endeavor was unable to push back and we all had dreams of spending a day here waiting for the tide to roll in. Some of the passengers went in Zodiacs for a short tours of the channel. Others of us were so exhausted from the morning outing we slept.

Finally sufficient water ebbed back (as did a snow storm) so the ship floated backwards and motors started once again. We breathed a sigh of relief, ate a huge home-made sticky bun offered for tea, and resumed our anticipation of visiting the British based Port Lockroy Base A.

Photo: Some of the residents of Fort Lockroy, Base A.

There, after dining with the three brave people who live in the quaint Fort Lockroy Base quarters all summer (surrounded by penguins and the odor that comes with them) doing research, we followed them to Zodiac landings in a snowstorm and visited the tiny souvenir shop, museum and post office, where sales keep this experimental station alive. It is the only shop in all of Antarctica, which is bigger than the United States and Mexico combined. Can you imagine? But they had no chocolate bars.

[Picture of Audrey and kayak-mate Scott Goez linked here.]

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Editor's note

Due to poor Internet access, Audrey won't be including photos again until about December 1. In the meantime, you might want to visit the useful links in the sidebar. The Antarctic Penisula Map link appears to be the Web site of a person who took a journey similar to Audrey's and took photos.

Whales and Wails

An Orca Family

Being on a expedition ship in Antarctica is being in a prison of sort. The weather is your warden. You have no control of what you do when. And when there is little or no communication with the outside world, you begin to understand what it is to be locked up in a cell with one phone call per week at $35 for 5 minutes, like here. There’s no place to buy Oreos or a bag of chips, or the latest People magazine, no chocolate on your pillow at night. I never thought I’d miss exercise, sushi with my kids and grand kids and letting the dog out at 5:30 a.m. each day. It's about being able to eat when you want, what you want and not having to wait for the invitational gong to the dining room. Bar snacks do help beginning at five.

A lot here depends on one’s camera batteries - are they properly charged so you can get the umteenth picture of a penguin or maybe the family of Orca whales which had everyone on deck this morning with giant lenses pointed to 10 o’clock off the bow? Do you have enough gigabits to cover 500 photos in a morning watch? You don’t know if you should waste film when the whales are but a dot on the horizon of your lesser camera, just in case they don’t get closer, or take a chance the captain will steer the ship closer and you’ll have something to write home about.

There are 80,000 Orcas in the Southern Seas. These have a much bigger eye patch than those up the California coast. Orcas are the kings of the jungles, the masters of all. They feed on squid and krill and even know how to grab a giant seal off a floating slice of ice - by splashing him with so much water then jumping on the edge of the ice cube til it tilts, so the seal victim slides off the ice and is at their mercy. Although there was a very new-born calf in the lot we saw this morning (you can tell because the white areas of the Orca markings are yellowish in a newborn) the entire tribe headed straight for our ship - giving photographers great glee - and then swam under the ship and exited the other side. I asked one of the staff why they’d do such a risky thing with a new calf - and he reminded me that the Orcas have no one bigger or better than they are, and ships are no exception. They rule the Southern seas. So we were just another monster to inspect. We, the paparazzi, oogle them like rock stars, maybe they are.

Yesterday afternoon after the rescue of the Explorer passengers, we plowed speedily through blizzards and ice bergs and wind like I have never experienced in my life to make up for the alteration in our schedule. Finally we made it back to an unusual place called Deception Island. It has the form of a volcano because it is a live volcano even under all that ice and water. American and British sealers discovered it and said it had a deceiving donut shape. There is a very narrow entrance to the caldera called Neptune’s Bellows, but that wasn’t daunting to our captain. We went through it anyway in the blinding blizzard of snow and wind. The amazing lava rocks that have dried into giant hills and cliffs were scooped with snow and ice sundae.

Rusty Whaler's Bay
On the interior shore at Whaler’s Bay, remnants of a whaling station still stand. Huge rust brown oil tanks, odd shaped pipes and containers where whales were killed and their bones and oil extracted for World War II explosives, soap and margarine, and even an air hanger stand like forgotten metal scraps after so many severe winters without care. For years this station functioned as a profitable whaling enterprise but then whale oil became so accessible that there was no more competition and this station folded. Sad to say, 50,000 whales were slaughtered here between 1911 and 1913. Makes you swear off margarine and soap.

Detail of Deception Island. (Click to enlarge in a new window.)
Source: Deception Island Management Group

Primarily the "landing" in Deception Island was to dip our toes in Antarctic’s frozen water - there is an underground thermal stream of water from the volcano’s geothermal activity. The stream is so narrow, I'm told, my body would cover its width. We had been told to put on our bathing suits and wear unimportant shoes to protect toes for the water can blister. One never knows how hot it could be in your puddle choice. Swimmers still had to wear the usual layers of fuzz and wool and our red Lindblad jackets and water proof pants etc. etc. out of which we were to strip for a second so we could take the toe dip and leap back into our gear. However, as we entered the volcano the winds were of extreme force, and a blinding blizzard surrounded us so the Captain and staff said "no" to the adventure. The landscape was eerie like something out of a black and white Lord of the Rings or maybe an undiscovered frozen planet.

Night was once again a constant rolling affair on rough seas as we left the Shetland Islands for Gerlach Straight and the Danco Coast [Graham Land] arriving in time for lunch. (Today we dined on Swedish herring and gavelox and anchovies, even hard-boiled eggs with caviar.) These islands are covered in snow and ice but there is more exposed rock. In the seas, I was awed by icebergs bearing sapphire blue or turquoise stripes and reflections because white reflects all colors and the only colors here are sky blue and sea blue. These bergs have fallen off bigger icebergs to float throughout the sea presenting obstacles to ships such as ours. But our captain showed us a Times Square size berg up close as he steered the Endeavor right through the middle of it

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Penguin Factor

When you’re walking through deep ice and snow in a penguin colony, you watch where you tread in giant knee-high all weather boots that have non-slip soles. I’m not talking about a field of two or three penguins here and there. I’m talking about a scoop of rock and land inhabited by more penguins than there are people on Fifth Avenue. And that means a lot of poop on ice.
One thing scientists study is penguin poop - it lets you know what they are eating - if the poop is white, they are eating fish. If it is red, they are eating krill. If it is green, the penguin is starving. (I saw one chinstrap penguin lift his wings, lean over a bit and let fly a pile of green poop. Whoever was in the way, tough.) This starvation happens in periods when a male penguin cannot leave the egg he has been sitting on between his short little legs - the female goes back and forth to seek food and maintains the nest. But he sits and waits like a good daddy. Sometimes he is required to sit for up to six weeks without eating. It’s a penguin’s life.

As courtship begins, a male penguin wins his female because he has brought sufficient rocks (in his beak, one at a time) to build the nest for the egg. The gentoo, or fatter penguin, produces only one egg. The gentoo is the most faithful spieces and stays close to shore. It tends to be a stay at homer, rather than swimming away at sea for the winter only to return at this time to their very same nest (how one knows, I have no idea) to wait for the very same lady penguin he mates with every year. This is true. Penguins are faithful to mates and location. Now if a male returns first and gets restless and begins to worry if his female is not going to return (she may have been killed at sea) he might go ahead and take on a new mate. If the original female does happen to return late, then there is a horrible fight between the girls. It’s not the males who fight, just the girls.

Learning about penguin culture is fascinating. The best way to do this is just sit on the snow and watch.

Keeping the Nest No Matter What

Yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, about 10 in the morning, accompanied by soaring and diving birds such as southern giant petrals, Blue Eyed shags, skuas (the garbage men of Antartica) and storm-petrals, we had gotten well south of the 60th parallel and saw our first iceberg - a huge monster bigger than the FedEx Forum but flat on top like a huge plateau. These didn’t look any different than the icebergs of Greenland with the same sapphire blue color at the water’s edge. As we passed this first one on the starboard side, we quickly ran to the port side and saw many more gigantic bergs and amazing snow-covered rock formations of the islands. In an ice floe cracking a part, the captain spotted a sleeping seal, a giant one, and we, the huge ship crept up to it without disturbing its sleep and took a thousand pictures of a dot as we got closer. The seal lifted its head once but decided to stay where he was. We were no threat in his waters.

We then approached the South Shetland Islands, our first sight of Antarctic land. (Cheers! It meant we were in a protected area and the rough seas would be left behind. We had arrived at our playing field.) William Smith had first discovered this archipelago (known as the Antartica peninsula) in 1819. But thousands of American and British sealing vessels heard about the wealth of fur seals breeding there. Within two years, they had completely eliminated them all so women and men could wear sealskin coats. Isn’t that typical?

Our landing (in Zodiacs) was to be at [Barrientos] Island on the Aitcho Islands. But first, we had a mandatory Antarctic Landing briefing about how to dress (long underwear, waterproof pants and jacket, layers of shirts and sweaters, heavy wool cap or hood, gloves in gloves, and a backpack for cameras kept in plastic bags, for extra batteries recharged and for extra digital cards because, we were told, we could easily take 500 photos of penguins and not know it.) and how to enter a Zodiac (waterproof boots essential - you will have to step into water) and how to behave when a penguin crosses our path. Go slow. Watch the periphery. Penguins have right of way. The rules are strict in order to preserve the regularity of the penguins environment, not to disturb them, or disrupt their routine. We were not to leave any sort of footprint in the land. (If it had been exposed bogs or the time of year when there is moss, grass or ground cover, we were to walk on exposed rock, not the growing plant material.) By the time the staff rep was finished, I was scared to death I’d do something wrong or not even make it back to the Zodiac. Mind you it was well below zero in winds that must have added twenty-five degrees to the minus sign. East guest must flip a switch by her room number when leaving the ship and then again when re-boarding. Since we wear life jackets in the Zodiac, we deposit them in a box by the landing site. If any remain when we returned to the ship, then the staff knew someone was still wandering.)

We hiked up and down ridges in the snow and most of us were puffing like a badly stoked fire. Funnily, Penguins, as they are want to do, started following us in our big red jackets and wool caps and black boots and cameras with long lenses. Imagine 100 people trudging in the snow and oogling. It’s like we are afternoon entertainment for them. We were warned not to let a Kleenex or a rubber band or a lens cap or a glove be left behind. Be pristine and thoughtful or we could harm an innocent penguin's routine for survival. And they are innocent and beautiful. My favorite penguine habit was when one waddling along at a pace falls flat on his chests/stomachs and then sort of propels themself along with his feet. Many penguines climb to the top of the highest rocks and cliffs to belly flop down it like we do on sleds. Or one stretches his necks tall as a swan and then doubles down with his heads to peck at their upper chest. Penguins cannot bend their bodies. They are stuck with a trunk and yet they seem graceful and can get just about anywhere they wish with more grace than the average Joe.

The landing site was not huge but every inch was packed with penguins - and there was one fat, lolling, lethargic, happy hairy elephant seal right in the middle of one of the rookeries on the beach at a lake. The gentoo and chinstrap penguins (they have a black strip under their chins that looks like a helmet strap) are busy staking claims to their piece of ground. They set up nests within pecking distance of each other. There are three penguine species on Antarctica - today we were introduced to two, with the Adelie penguins yet to come. We have penguin experts on board and two American girls from the non-profit Oceanites who are counting nests and eggs.

Two things about visiting penguin environments - 1) they stink and 2) they’re noisy. Although a group might number a hundred or so, every now and then a male will stretch up high, put his beak in the air and shake his shiny neck as he makes loud duck and bird sounds. He is saying, this is MY HOUSE. Don’t come close. Then everyone choruses a opinion. Yet, there is no animosity between species or within species - except, as I pointed out, between the females. Of course, in penguins, you can’t tell which is which - and both sexes incubate the eggs between their legs. All penguins go through a traumatic time each year when they molt feathers - called a catastrophic molt - the penguin stands in one place for three weeks as he loses his feathers and new ones come in. The arch enemy of penguins are the brown scuar who will steal an egg faster than a pickpocket. We saw one do such a trick, break it open, and feast. What can you say? It’s nature at work.
Gotcha Ya, said the Scaur
We will see more penguins as the week goes on and if the weather calms down so we can get ashore. Right now it’s snowing thickly and rumors are a storm is coming. Batten down the hatch.