What I Know About...Antarctica
by Jackie Orsulak
: Exploring the Antarctic Peninsula
Day 5: Nearing the Antarctic Peninsula
35 degrees/9 miles per hour/3-foot waves. The Drake Passage was behind us. We were finally in sight of the beautiful Antarctica Peninsula. It was awesome, with vast snow-capped mountains and valleys with glaciers that reached to the sea. Unfortunately the sky was overcast, sometimes rainy and foggy. The pictures we took will never fully describe the beauty we saw.
Our first anchorage was in Paradise Bay. In this protected harbor we saw the Argentine Research Base called Admirante Brown. This summer there are seven people staying in this little bit of civilization. They are doing primarily maintenance work to keep this base available for future scientific research. As with most workers on the Continent, they will only be there for the summer. Less than a thousand people stay on the continent in the winter. The weather is way too extreme and evacuation in case of an emergency is impossible.
Our first excursion was a zodiac cruise around Paradise Bay. We saw lots of Antarctic cormorants. The glimpse of the Gentoo penguins from the zodiac was a preview of our adventures to come.
Our quick trip from Paradise Bay to Neko Harbor for our afternoon adventure was spectacular. The mountain peaks rose above the clouds on this amazing barren land. We saw an iceberg full of resting crab eater seals. While we were ashore, zodiacs were used to push away an iceberg that was threatening the ship.
Gentoo penguins are not seen in vast colonies like those of Emperor penguins or King penguins. They are medium-sized penguins. It was so interesting to observe their natural behaviors as the many red-coated tourists walked carefully among them. They did not seem the least disturbed by our presence. It is late summer and they are molting (shedding) their summer feathers to get ready for the cold. When they molt they are miserable. They cannot go to sea to find food to eat, so they just stand around and wait for the old feathers to come out and the new ones to grow in. The babies are big and fluffy. They stand around waiting for their mothers to come back from the sea with their food. The mother catches and swallows the food. When she finds her baby, it begs by pecking at her mouth. She then opens it and regurgitates (throws–up) the food into the baby penguin’s mouth. That sounds like a strange way to eat but, it is a bird thing!
Sometimes the baby wants food when the mother has no more, or it tries to get food from a bird that is not its mother. To quench their thirst, they eat snow or drink from little pools of melted ice or rain. The sea water is too salty for them to drink.
Day 6: Cuverville Island
35 degrees/14 mph winds/3-foot waves. This morning we anchored near Cuverville Island to visit the largest colony of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica (there are over 5000 breeding pairs). With so many more penguins near us, Antarctica awakened another sense—the sense of smell. Our leaders said that, on a really sunny day, the smell is much worse. So we have exchanged good photographic light for less smell. I guess we can’t expect to have everything.
We saw several beautiful Antarctic fur seals on the island. They do not bother the penguins. With their beautiful rich brown coats, it is easy to understand how they were almost hunted to extinction in the 1800s. With conservation and knowledge, humans are finally learning to respect and preserve the many other species on his planet. Luckily, with this animal, protection came in time to prevent extinction.
Back on board, we cruised down the Neumayer Channel between spectacular mountain ranges to Goudier Island. Our afternoon excursion was at the British station of Port Lockroy. This station was established by Britain during World War II to report enemy submarine activity and weather conditions. It is now a museum and a little gift shop with four volunteers maintaining it for the summer (which runs from November to mid-March). Here we saw the scavenger Snowy Sheathbill bird try to steal food from the mother penguin as she was feeding her baby. Also there were larger Brown Skuas, birds that eat penguin eggs and dive at the babies. The dive kills the babies, and then the birds eat them.
Life is not easy for baby penguins. Soon they will shed their furry down feathers and learn to swim and feed themselves in the cold water. In the water they are hunted by sea lions, elephant seals and whales.
After returning to the ship, we prepared for an outdoor barbeque on the top deck. As usual, the food was more than superb. What a beautiful place to have a picnic—in the shadow of a snow-clad mountain.
Day 7: Lemaire Channel
32 degrees/winds gusting to 45 mph. We woke up to the mountain peaks of Cape Renard, with mountain ranges on both sides of the ship as we navigated the narrow, iceberg-laden Lemaire Channel. This was our morning to cruise around the icebergs in Pleneau Bay in our zodiacs.
There are four groups on the ship. Only the first group got to take the wild and wooly ride. This was our first experience in understanding how the weather and winds can change in a heartbeat in Antarctica. There was freezing rain, 45 mph winds and splashing waves. We all got soaked and had a taste of the salty Southern Ocean. We were called back to the ship.
The trip itinerary had included a visit to Petermann Island in the afternoon. As we all knew before we began this incredible journey, all plans were subject to change due to weather conditions. In the Lemaire Channel, currents and winds can close the narrow channel with sea ice and icebergs within a few hours, making the channel impassable. The ship could be frozen or grounded like the many icebergs grounded here in the “iceberg graveyard.” The captain turned the ship around and headed north. Our alternative visit was a cruise of the calm Wilhelmina Bay. This was a special treat after our scary ride in the cold, bouncing zodiacs. Here we watched humpback whales again. This time we were blessed with a mother whale and her baby. Gentoo penguins swam by the ship porpoising. There were even some seals swimming in the bay.
: Deception Island, and Back to the Drake
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