Antarctica - known as the Great White Continent - is the most isolated, windiest, and by far the coldest place on the planet. Mean summer temperatures on Antarctica's most remote point is -30°C. Winter brings 6 months of almost complete darkness and an average mean temperature of -60°C. The lowest temperature on earth, -89.2°C, was recorded at the Russian South Pole research station in 1983. A wind speed of 320km/h was recorded in 1972.
Despite the extreme cold, Antarctica is classified as a desert - by definition a place that has less than 254mm (10") of annual precipitation. The interior of the continent averages annual precipitation of around 50mm (2"). Along the coast it increases to 200mm (8"). Unlike other deserts though, there's little evaporation from Antarctica, so the relatively little snow that does fall doesn't go away but instead builds up over hundreds and thousands of years into enormously thick ice sheets.
The total surface of Antarctica is 14.2 million sq km in the summer; in winter its size doubles due to the sea ice that forms around the coasts. 99% of Antarctica is covered by ice; 90% of all the ice on the planet is found here. If the thick ice sheets melted, the world oceans would rise by 60-65 meters. The thick ice cover makes it the highest of all continents but, because of the weight of the ice, most of the rocky surface of Antarctica is depressed below sea level.
Antarctica has no trees or bushes; vegetation is limited to lichens, moss and algae and is more commonly found on the warmer Antarctica Peninsula. There are no land-based vertebrate animals here; any who visit are dependent on the sea for feeding or are migratory and leave Antarctica when winter arrives. The oceans surrounding Antarctica are teeming with great quantities of life. A large number of whales, seals and penguins feed on its rich marine life, most commonly "krill", a small shrimp-like creature found here in unbelievable abundance. It's estimated that in one feeding season in Antarctica, one adult blue whale eats approximately 4 million krill per day.
29 Dec 2005, Morning
Brown Bluff, Antarctica Sound
Touchdown on Antarctica! Much cheering and photo taking took place to acknowledge this historic event! We arrived in a beautiful calm bay that's filled with icebergs of every size and shape, and has a huge Adélie penguin colony right on the beach. These birds have black faces and white rings around their eyes, and are yet another penguin of the southern hemisphere that I didn't know existed. Their routine to enter the water is fascinating to watch. Those penguins wanting to enter will queue up along the shore, staying there for a long time deciding if the water is safe to enter. Often a leopard seal, their biggest predator, will be waiting below. When they decide the coast is clear, a group finally takes the plunge ... and another group queues up along the beach and the process is repeated. Witnessing this ritual made me feel like I'm actually living in a National Geographic documentary. Adélie penguins have a comical side as well. They build their nests out of stones, continually building them up with new stones to keep their eggs or chicks protected from any ground moisture. Stealing stones from a neighbor seems a favorite pastime and much squawking is involved when a theft is attempted or achieved. There are lots of fluffy grey chicks in the colony, some tiny and others appearing half grown. Spent tons of time on shore watching the penguin antics and enjoying our first walk on Antarctic soil. Back on board, some crazy passengers (of which I was NOT one) took the "Polar Plunge" off the gangway into the freezing Antarctic water. It's not as cold here as I expected - both air and water temps are 0°C today, our coldest day so far - but you couldn't pay me enough to jump in! Then, to commemorate our Antarctica landing, the chef served up a fantastic barbecue lunch prepared and served out on the back deck of the ship. We set off later, heading south through Antarctica Sound, sometimes pushing pack ice or baby icebergs out of the way, sometimes even leaving a little red paint on the side of an iceberg as we forced our way through. Our "Little Red Ship" is small but mighty; she was the first ever built-from-scratch expedition ship, and has an ice-strengthened double hull designed specifically for exploratory polar travel. That doesn't mean the Captain doesn't tread lightly amongst these icebergs though. As he told us, "it takes a bit of getting used to, pushing through pack ice and icebergs, because normally captains spend their whole careers trying NOT to hit things!" The ice has broken up enough for us to enter the Weddell Sea, and by doing so we've become the first ship of this season to make it through the ice. Ice is now everywhere around us, and the baby icebergs have definitely grown up into some "big mama" bergs!
29 Dec 2005, Afternoon
Arrived at 6pm, thinking there's not enough time to do a shore landing, but of course it never really gets dark down here, so off we went. There's an Adélie penguin colony here as well, but first we did a hike to the top of the island's peak. Was a tough steep hike, especially when bundled up in multiple layers of clothing, but the view of the picturesque bay below and the endless white Weddell Sea was worth the effort. Oh my god, I'm in love with the Adélie penguins. Most of them have two chicks, little balls of dark grey fluff which flop all over each other. I can't stop taking photos of them! Ship's dinner was another celebration to commemorate our Antarctica Continent touchdown. The evening was spent watching our little ship boldly push through icebergs. Sunset was at 22:16pm but at midnight there's still full light. Sunrise will be at 02:30am. Down here we go through the normal cycles ... sunset, dusk, dawn, sunrise ... only we're completely missing the "dark night" part in the middle!
30 Dec 2005
Iceberg dead ahead! We traveled as far in the Weddell Sea as possible last night, but eventually reached a part where there was more ice than we could push through so had to turn around. Heard from the Captain that the ice literally closed up again after we went through, so we're still the first and only ship to enter the Weddell Sea this season, apparently an accomplishment ranking big kudos amongst expedition companies. Also heard that a squall blew in last night when we were all blissfully sleeping that forced us out of Antarctica Sound into calmer waters down the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. Took us away from where we originally planned to be, but that's all part of the fun of being on an expedition ... so now we're headed to explore someplace new! The scenery outside is surreal ... we're absolutely surrounded by ice floes and icebergs ... seals and penguins are everywhere in the water around the ship. I've become obsessed with icebergs, now can't stop snapping shots of them! Arrived in Cierva Bay late afternoon. It's filled with huge icebergs and the land is covered with glaciers pushing into the sea. Captain Paul took us on a cruise through the bay, then we dropped anchor and zodiacs took small groups ashore to visit the Argentine "Base Primavera" research station. Researchers live here during the summer months only to study birds, weather, mammals and vegetation. How strange to see bright green moss peaking through the snow; there's more vegetation here than I expected. After the station tour we went on a zodiac cruise around the bay; saw a crabeater seal and leopard seal, both soundly sleeping on ice floes. Back under way, sometime after dinner (and you never really know what time it is because it NEVER gets dark down here!) we came across three humpback whales. Wow, did they ever put on a show for us. They were practically on the bow of the ship, they were that close! They came to the surface to "blow". They arched out of the water and showed us "some tail". Most amazing though was watching them "bubble feed", where they circle around quickly to gather their prey (krill) in a concentrated area, then simultaneously open their mouths and lunge into the area to collect as much prey as possible. Then they close their mouth and somehow push the water out while keeping the prey inside. They'd swim around a bit, then repeat the process again. There must've been a ton of krill in the area because they stayed, as did we, for around 45 minutes. This definitely tops the list of "magical ship moments". According to our marine biologist, bubble feeding is an extremely rare performance to witness. Every time I think this trip can't get any better ... it inevitably does.
31 Dec 2005, Morning
Inside this calm protected bay is the Argentine "Almirante Brown" research station which was abandoned after most of the buildings were destroyed in a fire lit by the station doctor in 1984. Apparently he didn't want to spend another winter in Antarctica and thought this was his only way out! Our day started early, first zodiacs landed ashore at 7am. Everyone climbed a very steep snowy hill for beautiful views of the bay. Then we went tobogganing, sliding down the hill on our backsides. Only one problem - the snow was quite wet and sticky and sliding wasn't easy. Belinda and I decided to double up, thinking the weight of 2 people would make us go faster. Nope. Then Lynne came behind us, trying to act like a battering ram, but mostly just squashing me in the middle! Our laughter rang out across the peaceful bay. Continuing with the snow spirit, Belinda and I made snow angels before returning to the ship. Happy New Years Eve!!
31 Dec 2005, Morning
It's amazing how easy the zodiac process has become; with all our shore visits, getting on/off the ship and in/out of the zodiac now feels like second nature. We're off on another shore visit, this time to see a large Chinstrap penguin colony. This colony is at the top of another steep hill, must take them hours to reach their nest when returning from feeding. Up we climbed again, steeper and longer than earlier this morning. With black heads, white faces, and black strap markings under their chin, Chinstrap penguins look like they're wearing funky little motorcycle helmets! They also build their nests out of stones and we witnessed the same stone-stealing antics as those of the Adélie penguins. Some of the birds have new baby chicks, and we even saw one egg that was just hatching. We took the easy way down the hill again, tobogganing down the crisp white (and dry and very slippery!) snow on our backsides.
31 Dec 2005, Afternoon
Captain took us through a place called "whale alley", a popular feeding spot where you're almost guaranteed to see some of the big guys. We did see 2 humpback whales, but they didn't put on as good a show as the whales from last night. We also saw the mother of all icebergs; it was 1.2 km long and took us over 5 minutes to cruise past. Unbelievable. By the way, one of the biggest icebergs ever recorded broke free from the Ross Sea ice sheet in Antarctica in 2000. It measured 295km long and 37km wide above water, and would be around 10 times bigger below!
31 Dec 2005, Evening
Lots of passengers, especially those prone to seasickness, are getting very nervous as we approach the dreaded Drake Passage, known for having the roughest stretch of water in the world. And on New Years Eve of all nights! The Fab 4 girls were invited to dine with the Chief Engineer. He entertained us with one story after another about some of the crazy things former passengers have done. We laughed so hard that we had tears streaming down our faces. Dinner was followed by a "Cabaret" where passengers and staff provided entertainment in an amateur talent show fashion. By 11:30pm we had champagne glasses in hand and were summoned out onto the bow of the ship by the Captain for a special seaman's New Years tradition. After saying a few poignant words, Captain asked the oldest person on the ship to ring the ship's bell 8 times ... to ring out the old year. Then the youngest person was asked to ring the ship's bell 8 times ... to ring in the new year. This was followed by a long loud blast of the ship's horn that practically scared the living daylights out of everyone! Champagne was sipped, and good cheers, hugs and kisses were fully exchanged by one and all. What a truly special moment and memorable way to bring in the New Year ... drinking champagne on the bow of the Little Red Ship as we crossed the Drake Passage. Don't know what I can do next year to top this. When the party ended upstairs, some of the passengers (myself included) were invited to a party below deck in the Crew's Mess. Was surprised to see none other than Captain Paul spinning techno tunes as we danced the night away. The crew are phenomenal dancers; they can plant their feet and just move their bodies. The passengers were more inclined to flail wildly each time the ship moved! Belinda and I have proud claim to being the last passengers to leave the party at around 4am ... what a fantastic day from start to finish.
01 Jan 2006
Hello 2006! No need to rush out of bed as a late brunch was served today. Had a very lazy day, didn't attend any lectures, and even had an afternoon siesta. After dinner we watched a film about a 1929 trip around Cape Horn on a British 3-mast sail ship. The narrator was a sailor on the original trip but, judging from his voice, he did the narration as an elderly man. The footage itself was quite daunting - seas were extremely rough, 2 crew washed overboard - but the narrator had a great way of telling the story, making the film hugely entertaining. Hope they're not setting us up for something ... we'll be passing around the Horn tomorrow morning. By the way, we've decided to rename the Drake Passage to "Drake Lake" as it was thankfully calm as can be for our crossing.