Sunday, February 04, 2007

Logbook: Antarctica I

Antarcticai1After a very gentle crossing of the Drake Passage, I got up Thursday morning and had coffee to the sight of the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station on a shore of King George Island. One’s first impression of Antarctica is that it looks just like it does in the books: Cold, dark, desolate and inhospitable. There is practically no natural color at all, mostly black -- or very dark grey -- and white. The only color you really see is the mustard yellow paint scheme of the Station’s buildings -- very basic structures that seem hopelessly out of place. Weather conditions were cold and a bit windy, but good enough for the captain to let us make a landing.

Here is the going ashore process which we repeated for all our landings: First of all, the ship’s deck crew lower six Zodiac inflated boats into the water. These boats, under the command of a team of specialists we picked up in Chile, handle all transportation between ship and shore. Second, a couple of dozen crew members go ashore to establish and attend a landing site, to create a perimeter using orange cones that designates the area that can be explored, to supervise interaction between humans and wildlife and to assist any passengers who might need help walking on uneven terrain. Then come the passengers. In order to make a reasonably organized -- and fairly “low impact” -- landing on rugged but ecologically fragile sites in Antarctica, the 600 passengers were split up into six groups of 100 each. These groups were further divided into sub-groups of 10 -- the capacity of a Zodiac -- to be ferried ashore. Upon landing, the clock is checked and a “return time” is announced for one hour later. When your hour is up, you return to the landing site, have your boots cleaned -- to reduce the amount of nasty, smelly penguin guano that is carried back to the ship -- and make the return the Zodiac ride. When all the passengers have been ashore -- along with a lucky few crew members who have been able to grab empty seats on a Zodiac here or there -- the crew all return to the ship, the boats are hoisted aboard and the ship steams on. The process which begins at about six in the morning is completed by two or three in the afternoon, a total of about eight or nine hours.

Now, back to our first landing on King George Island: The pebble beach verged into a rocky path along an isthmus of sorts between what amounts to large boulder piles. Elsewhere in the world you might think it was all pretty ugly, but in the context of Antarctica it was stunning, almost beautiful. Although there was not a lot of wildlife in terms of numbers of animals, there was a pretty good variety. All in one place -- and almost side by side -- we were able to see a few Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie penguins plus a small group of seals. My alloted hour on shore was plenty of time to walk the area, take some great video and photos -- which really tell the story -- and be ready to leave when my hour was up. We spent the rest of the day and all of Friday cruising around, enjoying the amazing sights of the rugged coastal mountains and immense glaciers plus icebergs of all sizes and the occasional whale sighting.

Antarcticai2Yesterday morning was calm and temperate so we made a landing at Paradise Harbour where we had our first exposure to the almost overpowering smell of a real penguin rookery. Trust me, thousands of Gentoos really make a mess and the smell is intense! Paradise is the home of a fairly large and well developed Chilean Naval Station, including a little shop where -- in addition to post cards, trinkets, etc. -- you can buy Antarctic certificates officially stamped and notarized. Because the rookery and the station are situated together, you get to enjoy the experience of wandering around among the penguins. You actually have to watch where you walk -- especially when looking through your camera -- because you could easily step on one of them. The weather was so nice -- almost warm -- that our time on shore was very pleasant and our cruising later in the day provided excellent views of icebergs and the amazing terrain. This morning we arrived at Half Moon Island and made a landing to visit the rookery of a very large number of Chinstrap Penguins. For the rest of today and all of tomorrow we will be sailing north, back across the Drake Passage and up to Ushuaia where I will disembark.

In closing, I have to comment that it is very, very difficult to describe Antarctica. The vast size and nature of the terrain, the immense significance of the weather and the astonishing wildlife are beyond my ability to put into words. If you have any interest in Antarctica, you really have to see it for yourself. This cruise has proven that anybody who wants to can visit and get a taste of the White Continent. If these people can do it, so can you.

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