First, an apology: the ship’s internet is so slow and so expensive that I cannot post photos with these blogs until I get back to shore. And that’s too bad because I think I have some pretty good ones. I will try to maybe post one or two if I can get it to work, but in any case, I’ll post everything when I get home. So sorry!
So I set foot on the Antarctic continent yesterday (Wednesday 12/12/18) at the Argentinian research station Brown in Paradise Bay. Yeehaw! It was actually the second landing of the day, as we’d gone to Cuverville Island in the morning, but as far as most of us 7-ers were concerned, it was the ‘official’ arrival on the continent.
That first landing was pretty cool, though. This island was home to a large colony of Gentoo penguins which, based on their later-in-the-season breeding habits, are going to be the winners in global warming. Adelie penguins, for example, breed a bit earlier, but with warmer temperatures, oftentimes after the chicks are born, it rains instead of snowing and their ‘fur’ gets wet/matted. Then when a cold snap happens, they freeze to death. Their numbers, and those of other penguin breeds, are plunging while the Gentoo are skyrocketing. Anyway, they’re fun to observe; I took some videos that I hope to eventually post showing them stealing pebbles from each others’ nests.
On that landing I had my first experience with snowshoes. I always thought of snowshoes like cross-country skiing – a lot of work with not too much to gain. But snowshoeing really feels a whole lot like walking. And I have to apologize to my dentist who’s been trying to get me to do it; the newer-style snowshoes are hinged and spiked and nothing like the tennis-racket types that I had pictured in my mind. We were able to hike up a hill to about 100 feet above the bay and get some great shots of the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and icebergs/ice floes. It was snowing gently and the temperature was just about zero Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) – same conditions for all 4 of the landings I’ve done so far. A bit snowy and breezy but fairly pleasant, given all the cold-weather gear this California boy was wearing. (In fact today, I never even put on my gloves – it was that nice.)
After taking a million photos we moved on to Brown station. This Argentine research station is still in use, but they don’t show up until late December so we had the place to ourselves. One of the expedition staff painted a sign welcoming us to “the 7th continent” that everyone took pictures in front of. Again we wandered around the area observing the penguins and the skua (birds that steal penguin eggs and eat them) and cormorants and then took a Zodiac tour around the bay. Each Zodiac holds 10 of us plus the driver, who was a naturalist guide, so we got up-close views of metamorphic rock formations (the area is volcanic), ice floes and an explanation of why they look like they do, heard some rumbling from the nearby glacier (but nothing calving into the water, darn it!) and a crabeater seal basking on an ice floe. At one point our guide turned off the engine so we could sit quietly and listen to the various sounds around us – the ice heaving and cracking, the penguins and bird sounds, and just the overall silence you get in the wilderness. Pretty cool.
One thing happened that I wasn’t too thrilled about, given the large diversity of cultures and ages in our group of 100 or so passengers. The young lads from the Sydney boarding school decided to strip down to their skivvies (Budgie Smugglers, a brand of underwear – look it up and you’ll understand the name) for some photos and then all the way down for some more photos. At which point the young lady celebrating her 21st birthday (ref a previous blog post) decided to take her top off, handed her bra to her dad, and said “shoot that photo”. I guess it’s a young-person thing to do in the icy Antarctic but as I say, there’s probably a time and place for everything, and I don’t think this was it. The couple of guys acting as adult chaperones seem to be OK with most anything these guys do and even the Oceanwide Expedition staff were kind of looking the other way, so maybe I’m just getting old and crochety.
Anyway this morning we took the Zodiacs to Port Lockroy on Goudier Island. This was originally one of several secret British outposts in Antarctica set up in 1944 by Winston Churchill during WWII; I’m not exactly clear on his goal but perhaps to watch for German subs or something like that. It had been abandoned and is now being restored by a heritage society. It houses the southernmost post office in the world so of course, I had to send a postcard to the grandkids from there. They say it will arrive probably in February. (I think the one I sent them from Ushuaia will get there before I get home, but this one is a bit more remote!) It also has a stamp for your passport that shows you’ve been in Antarctica – of course, not an official stamp (this is British outpost anyway) but another ‘place visited’.
Since only half could land at Port Lockroy at a time, the other half of us eventually went to Jougla Bay on the other side of the island for some more snowshoeing and penguin observation. Honestly I didn’t come down here for the wildlife although it is pretty entertaining (I missed the penguin fight down by the beach), but the afternoon stop at Dorian Bay was the highlight of everyone’s trip so far. This was back on the peninsula (I believe) and there was a course set up for us snowshoers that took us up the summit – about 150 feet or so – and around the back for about a 1-mile loop. Lots of great views and since we were spread out and on our own a bit, everyone felt a little more freedom. I helped the guide set up the track – we had to break new snow and I was the first one behind her – and then I did it a second time for a bit of exercise. Haven’t had much of that this week and it’s driving me nutso. After that we were able to wander around the beach area in the waterproof rubber boots they gave us, and photo some of the small ice formations that were stranded at low tide. Really oddly-shaped, what the wind and the water does to chunks of ice coming off of the glaciers. Some of the ice in the water looks almost black, but it’s not dirt or pollution, it’s very old ice that has had all the air squeezed out of it and so is perfectly clear, reflecting the water it’s floating in.
I’m sure I took a photo of Dorian Bay so of course, it’s the portrait of Dorian Bay. I suppose now I won’t age any more? (Ok, honestly, I don’t know anything about that Dorian Grey story so maybe this is an even worse joke than it appears to be.)
Tomorrow we’re starting head north a little, to Neko Harbour for the morning landing and Danco Island in the afternoon. Of course, dependent on if the weather holds. So far the only thing that has had to be canceled due to weather was the first night of camping – those campers missed out because it was raining in their camp spot that night. The second group of campers – all the kids from the boarding school – just left so it’ll be a little quieter on the boat tonight.
Several of the passengers are really avid photographers and have long lenses and lots of patience, so along with the cruise staff photographer, we’ve been seeing a lot of great animal photos. There’ve been a lot of whales surfacing and breaching and lots of shots of penguins flying over the water as they come up for air during their search for krill. I’m hoping we’ll get an opportunity to download many of the best ones from some sort of file-sharing site.
That’s it for now. On a final point, i DO have email access that seems to work OK, although it’s only text and I can’t attach anything. But if anyone wants to email me over the next few days, firstname.lastname@example.org will be active until we’re in port next Tuesday 12/18. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve posted so far!