My radio interview on my Antarctica trip on Women’s radio, can be accessed via this link: Antarctica wonder
“Why are the penguins in the Antarctic but not in the Arctic?”
“Because they are unable to cross the Drake Passage.”
I had heard of the dreaded Drake Passage – the passage between the Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. But when we were consistently tossed by up to 10 meters (33 feet) over a day and a half, all I could do was lay flat on my bed on an empty stomach. I was convinced that there was no way the penguins could have ever gotten past the waves – that had to be the reason they weren’t in the Arctic. And I began to wonder if it was a wise decision to go on an expedition cruise to Antarctica. After all, even Sir Francis Drake had been unable to make it past the Drake Passage.
But once we got past it, onto the ice continent, a different world unfolded before my eyes. It was like we had crossed the space time continuum and landed on a planet far, far from the Sun, where wildlife ruled and human civilization was yet to start.
The South Shetland Archipelago is the first entry into Antarctica after you cross the Drake Passage into the Southern Ocean. Our first stop was the Aitcho Island. This housed a colony of both Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. Some of the penguins were still breeding, but they were not at all awed by our presence – partly because we maintained a safe distance of about 5 ft from them and partly because they seemed very comfortable in their surroundings – almost aware that a bunch of harmless tourists were hanging around them.
Around Aitcho Island, we also came across a few elephant seals. The males were lying away from the females – the females seemed to be pouting since their fur was coming off (due to natural causes). Apparently the male seals have a major fight amongst themselves over mating with the females and only 2 or 3 survive. I wondered if that led to fights among the females as well.
At Half Moon Island – a crescent shaped piece of land on the Livingstone Island, we spotted a lone Macaroni Penguin in a colony of Chinstrap penguins. Our expedition guides were convinced that the Macaroni needed counseling since he had lost his identity, but I felt he was just a liberal trying to rise about the boundaries of color and ethnicity.
Antarctic Terns seemed to love this island – there were several Terns in the vicinity. The walk along the crescent through the bright and snow-white carpet was breath-taking. An entire colony of seals lay on the carpet along the ocean.
At the nearby Yankee Harbor, we were in the company of a few Weddell seals and lots of Gentoo penguins. The high point was watching a proposal live between 2 penguins – the male got spurned and he didn’t take it too well.
At Torgersen Island, with lots of sea ice around us, we witnessed the Adelie penguin colony in the region. The US based Palmer station nearby was studying the impact of tourism on wildlife in the island – so there were some restrictions on what areas could be accessed. On the west side of the island we saw a huge colony of crabeater seals – all resting on icebergs.
When we left the island for a cruise across the sea ice capped waters, little did we realize that a massive treat awaited our eyes. All of a sudden, about 6 to 8 humpback whales emerged around us and started breaching as close as 4 to 5 ft from us. Whales breach after a satisfactory meal or sometimes just to show off. In our case it could have been a satisfactory meal since the area boasted of a lot of Krill.
Port Lockroy on Goudier Island was around a Gentoo penguin colony and there were lots of Snowy Sheathbills in the vicinity.
The assembled skeleton of a whale was supposed to be the attraction at the nearby Jougla Point, but I was more enamored by the Blue eyed Shag. There was a colony of nesting Blue eyed Shags around a colony of Gentoos. The penguins didn’t seem to mind them.
Towards the end of the expedition, one evening as we were reminiscing on our trip, we seemed unanimous that if only we could’ve seen Orcas as well, the trip could be considered complete. Lo! And Behold! An announcement went out – Orcas spotted on starboard side. Like a swarm of bees we left the dining room en masse and headed to the deck. What unfolded before us for the next half hour would have made any cameraman from BBC World or National Geographic green with envy. 6 pairs of Orca – the young ones in tutelage of the veterans seemed to be on a hunt. It was amazing to see them hunt in a team and move in perfect harmony and co-ordination to corner their prey – it was spell binding and a fitting finale to a memorable trip. After watching the spectacle of the hunt, I wondered how we could box the free hunting Orcas in a small pool in Sea World when they were wired to rule the vast expanse of oceans – perhaps more of us need to see them in their natural habitat to gain perspective.
As opposed to the Arctic – which is land surrounding the ocean, the Antarctic is land surrounded by the ocean – and this results in the phenomenon of the Antarctic Convergence. The warmer waters from the sub-antarctic region meet the frigid waters of the Antarctic. This results in the warmer waters rising to the top which becomes a breeding ground for Algae, which in turn becomes a feeding ground for Krill. The food equation in Antarctica is:
Algae —-> Krill —-> Seals/Humpback Whales
Mikkelsen Harbor had a few Weddell seals and a Gentoo Penguin colony. It was quite a hike up the trail which was completely immersed in snow and down into a rocky set of mini islands. Sitting atop on a rock on one of the small islands, the view that lay before me could have made even Adam envious – a few pristine snow covered islands all around engulfed in a cloud cover and separated by the ocean. It was very quiet and all I could hear were the sounds of nature. I wondered if this is what earth may have looked like at the dawn of creation. This would be an ideal spot to go into meditation and maybe even set up an ashram.
Spert Island was introduced to us as one of the unexplored areas of Antarctica which boasted of some caves, arches and a few large grounded icebergs – a few? It was really Iceberg City! Surrounded by breath taking formations of Igneous rocks, were several huge icebergs looking magnificent with the deep blue reflection in the surrounding water. Right off the bat, it looked like a scene from a sci-fi movie. The sun was a little generous upon us that afternoon and the resulting reflections could only be admired by the naked eye.
But in less than twelve hours, an overcast sky and winds upto 30 knots (35 miles per hour) reminded us that we were in Antarctica. Under these conditions, a 200 meter steep hike (70⁰ gradient) beckoned us at Orne Harbor. With the 30 knots winds, we had to exercise caution in maintaining balance as we climbed up. Once we reached the top, a beautiful view of the ocean with sheets and sheets of snow all around, lay before us. While coming down, the 30 knot gusts of wind were an exercise in trying to maintain a clear vision and keeping the center of gravity of the body in check.
At Neko Harbor and another hike beckoned. The hill wasn’t as steep but the hike was longer and the wind velocity was at 40 knots. This was a Gentoo penguin colony with a few Kelp Gulls and Skaws giving them company. The view from the top was breath taking and the sound of caving icebergs kept us in awe at the top.
Touching the Antarctic Circle was a call for celebration. The weather was overcast and the surrounding icebergs gave us a reason to cheer. By now we had started getting a good feel of the Antarctic weather.
The sea was choppy when dropped anchor around Deception Island. It was foggy and the wind velocity was around 50 knots. Landing was doubtful, but we ended up landing on Whaler’s Bay at 9:00 AM and it was clear that we were in rough weather conditions. Even getting off of the raft was difficult.
Once we landed, it appeared like a scene from any Antarctic expedition movie – snow shooting into your shades at 50 knots, winds blowing like they could make you fly and visibility of only a few yards.
The soil looked different – it was volcanic ash. Whaler’s Bay had witnessed a volcanic eruption before when the British base on the island had to be evacuated.
The island had the last vestige from whaling activity which included storage tanks, digesters, canoes and barrels.
We hiked up one of the hills which had recently erupted. While coming down, I had no worries since the strong wind was pushing my body back and preventing it from falling forward. Despite the cold and winds, we saw several skuaws, a few chinstraps and a leopard seal.
Antarctica has come a long way since the late 18th century when sealers and whalers frequented the continent to an extent that seals had reached near extinction. And by early 20th century, penguin processing was a brisk business as penguins were loaded in hordes into digesters to produce heating oil.
However in December 1959, 12 countries came forward to sign the Antarctic Treaty to promote scientific research in the ice continent and designate it as a natural reserve. So any economic activity including mineral exploitation is prohibited in the continent.
However, even after the treaty, the peninsula has been witness to a few environmental disasters. In 1989 the Argentine vessel Bahia Paraiso ran aground and sank, spilling about 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean (NY Times: Antarctic Oil Spill). However, since the Exxon Valdez spill happened around the same time, this did not receive as much media coverage. We were able to see the wreckage of the vessel around Torgersen Island.
Territorial claims still exist as can be seen from the map below and Port Lockroy on Goudier Island only proves that point. To make the ultimate claim on the continent, the British set up a post office in their survey hut, in the middle of nowhere. It also houses a museum and a gift shop. Technically though, the Port Lockroy post office is just a proxy for the London based post office where the mail is delivered by the supplies ship.
The gift shop had lots of items – from t-shirts to first day stamp covers. I posted a few postcards including one to myself and received it in 4 weeks’ time.