January 30-31, February 1, 2012 – Cruising the Antarctic
I wasn’t exactly sure what these three days involved when I examined the itinerary. I have always heard that rounding Cape Horn is a significant event, but should it take three days? Actually, after leaving the Falkland Islands, we went due south, passing between Elephant Island and Purcell Island, considered the unofficial “entry” to the Antarctic Region, on the second day. If the intent had been to round the Horn, we would have turned west, instead of continuing south. Our first sight of a snow covered Antarctic peak was very impressive.
Our destination is the Antarctic Peninsula which extends some 1000 miles up from Antarctica toward South America. The peninsula is actually the spine of a mountain range which is more or less contiguous with the tail end of the Andes, though most of it between the peninsula and South America is underwater, and curves around in a large loop toward southern Africa. The part of it which is above water, is a large mountain range extending off of the Antarctic shelf reaching out toward South America, and the area is rife with bays, channels, islands, fjords, and coves. I have learned, from one of the lecturers that the definition of a fjord is “a body of water, extending off of the sea which was formed by the movement of a glacier – usually with a U shaped bottom, as opposed to a V shaped bottom as might be formed by a stream or river”. Even in the summer (now) the land is covered with ice and snow, with only patches of rock exposed. During Antarctic winter, the ocean actually freezes, extending the ice shelf far beyond the continental land mass.
The peninsula is home to most of the base camps operated by various countries, all of whom are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty which governs all activity in this area, preventing domination or possession by any single nation and prohibiting exploitation of wildlife or resources (no mining or drilling). These base camps are usually a collection of brightly painted buildings, sitting on a shelf, near the water, from which deeper explorations into Antarctica are made. There are limited locations suitable for these base camps and the criteria for a base camp seems to be the same as the criteria for a penguin colony, as they all are near penguin colonies. So, in addition to tolerating the cold, and isolation, they must tolerate the smell of penguin poop, which defies description within the bounds of good taste. (Yes, we got close enough to sample it.)
As we cruise through this area we are passing among icebergs large and small (the small ones called grinders) which creates a sort of “other worldly” feeling. The ship moves slowly (about 8 or 9 knots) and silently as though we are gliding. It is smooth and without waves of any consequence. I expect when we leave this area and cross the Drake Passage to the area of Terra del Fuego, we will see plenty of waves.
Wildlife along in this area includes, several varieties of penguins and seals, several types of whales, and a huge number of flying birds, including the Wandering Albatross, with a wing span of 11 feet. The foundational food of this area, is the Krill, which is like a small (1 to 1 ½ inches) shrimp. They are the main food of most of the whales, except the carnivorous Orca, the penguins and most of the seals, except the Leopard seal, which is carnivorous, feeding mostly on penguins. Most of this wildlife can be easily spotted from the ship, though we have yet to personally spot any of the whales that our fellow passengers seem frequently spot. Due to the pinkish color of the Krill, which are the main food of the penguins, penguin colonies are easy to spot, due their size (tens of thousands in each colony) and the pinkish hue of the penguin poop against the white snow. Our lecturer, in response to a question, said there are two kinds of penguins – black & white. The black ones are walking away from you and the white ones are walking toward you. A little Antarctic explorer humor. Many times you can see seals floating on the small iceberg.
The weather is quite changeable hour by hour, going from foggy to bright and clear to overcast and back to foggy. Sunrise is about 4:30 and sunset about 9:30. Winds have been quite light – but we have been told that is not always the case. As we entered the peninsula area yesterday, we experienced winds in the 50 knot range, making it very difficult to get on deck and take pictures. Temperatures have remained right around 0 Centigrade, or 32 Fahrenheit – which reminds me that last year sometime I happen to download an app called GlobeConvert on to my iPhone. I don’t remember why I got it, but it has turned out to be very handy. Since most of the rest of the world is on metrics, and since on this trip we will deal with 20 or so different currencies, this little converter has been terrific!
This morning, prior to leaving this area and heading north to Ushuaia, Argentina in Terra del Fuego, a team from Palmer, one of the three the US base camps in Antarctica boarded the ship. A treat for us, and probably for them since breakfast on the Lido deck with its fresh fruits is likely a welcome change from the fare in their galley at the camp. There were eight members of the team representing divers, scientists, and administrators. They spoke in the theater on the operations of the base camp, the National Science Foundation which controls the station, the various grant programs underway, various facts concerning the South Pole, and life at the station in general. This was quite an unexpected treat for Sally & me, as it had not appeared on any announcements or agendas. I am sure it is a mutually beneficial arrangement, providing information and attraction for us and positive PR for the US Antarctic Program.
As we are leaving this area, the Captain has announced that a storm is moving into the Drake Passage and we can anticipate some rough seas. He advised to be careful when moving about the ship and to be careful in stowing fragile items in our cabins. I suppose this is the modern cruisers version of “batten down the hatches”!