Sunday, November 25, 2007

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


Nina Grice said...

Audrey. I am FASCINATED by your adventure! When Len & I heard about the ship sinking in Antartica, I was so afraid it was your ship! I am relieved it is not, & that the passengers are all safe & sound. Please come back all in one piece so we can hear more at breakfast!
Nina Grice

murph said...

Mom, still following your blog! I looked at the Nat'l Geographic link on the blog and that was really something--to see what you're writing about. And that map was helpful too. It's finally turning winter here although I'm sure it's nothing like your summer temps! Meg and I went to the movies today--! Love you! MM

Aubergine's Dream said...

Glad your time is interesting. Smuggle me a penguin - one with manners please, and not fish breath. I was anxious all day Friday when I heard about the ship. I told everyone at work I was concerned it could be you in peril. Glad to hear you were safe, and always proud you were able to offer comfort to others who were in need.

As always, I love your writing and description of what you see. Be safe, enjoy the ride, and live it. La vita loca??? quieres tu, con mucho gusto. cypriania!

Anonymous said...

hey nana!! well sounds like you are having a great time!!! well we miss you back in the u.s.!!! i love you!!! ohh yeah the grizzlies won the other night which was good and fun to watch!! but we miss you and hope that you are having a great time!!!!

Anonymous said...

ooh sorry nana last comment was from cam!!!! miss ya and love ya!!