Journal from the White Continent
A day-by-day account of my December 13th-22nd trip to the Antarctic Peninsula
I’m updating this now with the posts I wrote in Antarctica, one day at a time. Some were only partly formed, so I’m fleshing them out now that I’ve returned, so not all of this was written in real time.
Tuesday, December 13th
Last night we gathered at the Emperador Hotel in Buenos Aires to ensure an earlier take off to the airport as a group. There looked to be a couple hundred of us on the charter plane to Ushuia. At a point deep into the flight, I noticed something unusual. I could see sunlight through the cockpit of the plane. And I could see the pilot. The door to the cockpit was open and one of the pilots even emerged to wave at those nearby. Not since 9/11 had I seen an open cockpit while the jet I was a passenger on maintained cruising altitude.
We got into Ushuaia about 1pm, which gave us until almost 4 to explore the town on our own. Ushuaia is the southernmost settlement in Argentina. In South America. Turns out the world. So although I grew up in Australia and have traveled as far south as Albany in my home state, this was already much further “down under” than I had ever been. Ushuaia’s remote and small, for sure, about 2000 people but it’s surprisingly accessible. The main strip of Avenida San Martin is rich with restaurants and outdoors stores and souvenir stores — all set against the stunning backdrop of the freshly snowcapped Patagonian mountains. Rather than being the rough-hewn outpost, I imagined it, it reminded me more of a small coastal town like Astoria, Oregon or maybe even some place like Vail, Colorado, given the sweeping snowcapped mountains surrounding the town.
We met back at the charter buses at 4pm to be taken to the nearby ship, The Ocean Endeavor.
I’ve never been on a ship of this scale, a robust ocean-going vessel. I remember my overnight from Pusan, Korea to Chejudo, which the Korean’s refer to as their Hawaii. That ship was more a glorified ferry. The Endeavor is more like a floating city. After an hour-long introductory presentation, we practiced a lifeboat drill, acquired our expedition jackets, borrowed boots and a locker in the mud room. Then dinner and a bit of a wait as a couple of stragglers made their way to the ship.
Now we’re headed out to sea. A pilot boards the ship specifically to navigate these straits between Argentina and Peru and we’re told that when he’s relived in the wee hours of the morning, he climbs down a ladder to another ship. This arrangement is required for vessels in the area. I’ve never heard of the practice. It sounds both rather odd, but ultimately comforting.
At 9pm it was still light. Even closer to 10:45, I was still able to take photos outside. Yes, we’re told the days will be longer down here. As we enter the Antarctic territory, sun set will be about 11:30 pm. Sunrise? About 2:30 am. But it really won’t get completely dark.
It’s soothing to watch the wake churned out behind the Endeavor. Earlier in the evening, you could watch the sea birds set upon the foamy wake as the ships engines churned up nutrients for them to devour. Later at night, the birds are not to be seen, but the wake glows an eerie blue in the remaining light. You could stand there and watch it foam away forever.
Wednesday, December 14th
Today, I attended Antarctic bird, history, photography and geology presentations. As well as a presentation on maritime customs and law and information sessions on kayaking, mountaineering and stand-up paddle boarding. That’s quite a full day. I don’t do well with being idle, but between those activities as well as plenty of time to explore the ship and take photos of the changing seascape, I wasn’t bored for a moment. And three square meals to boot. Dinner had proven a great way to meet people. The staff are very good about leading you to a table where you can meet someone new.
It’s getting colder. On the other hand, they told us it might not get much colder than about 35 degrees Fahrenheit where we’re going. A smidge over 0 Celsius then. I figured it’d be well below zero. But, hell, that’s a balmy day sometimes in a New York City winter. Summer in Antarctica. On the other hand, the weather can change very quickly here, so I guess we’ll see.
During the daily recap session early this evening, one of the crew, Fabrice (the bird guy!) mentioned that the water had gone from 6 degrees Celsius to 1 today. This is the place where you have the most sudden change in sea temperature in the world.
So far, little or no mention of global climate change by presenters so far. Until the geology session where the presenter Luke kinda skated over it gracefully. He also explained that beneath all that sheet ice, Antarctica is actually multiple continental blocks fused together. Both U.S. and Australia can fit within Antarctica. Add the winter sea ice and Antarctica becomes twice the size of either country.
Some other observations, both mundane and morbid:
- Showering inside a ship that’s heaving from side to side is quite a compelling exercise.
- If you want your undies (men’s briefs, one pair) washed on board, they’ll do that for $2.50 (confirm), so that’s $7.50 for three pairs. Prices on other items go up from there for more extravagant items of clothing. The lovely lady around the corner from my apartment in Palermo did a small bag of laundry for about $5.85.
- It occurs to me if you’re by yourself at the stern of the boat (which is quite possible) and you lost your balance and fell overboard somehow, no one would hear your yelling. No one would likely see you after a few seconds. And you’d be gone forever.
- When you look around you from the top of the ship’s deck. There’s just water and the horizon. I imagine that would drive some people mad. On the other hand, one lady suggested it reminded her of the Truman Show. That horizon could just be a painted wall and a door could open in it at any moment. We might catch someone peering in from above when their face got too close to the glass of our fish bowl.
When we awaken, there may be icebergs.
Thursday, December 15th
“It’s not a cruise. It’s an expedition.” That’s the mantra we hear repeatedly. The point is we’re not really following a set agenda and the crew decides on a daily basis, depending on the weather and other factors where we’ll go next.
This morning we had a Zodiac briefing and then discussed the importance of sanitizing ourselves for stepping onto Antarctic land. All clothing brought on board has to be examined for organic matter, e.g. non-indigenous seeds. Vacuuming stations were made available throughout to clean our clothing. Additionally, we will step into a Virkon solution getting off and on the ship to kill any microbes coming or going.
Similarly, we are constantly exhorted to wash or sanitize hands everywhere. This to prevent sickness via so many people coming from different parts of the world suddenly finding themselves in a smallish, enclosed place. Signs exhort you to open the bathroom doors with a paper towel.
So we did start spotting icebergs and even a slimmest black sliver of land as we pass between islands. So slim out beyond a straight line of breakers, you might conclude you were imagining it.
It’s incredibly foggy right now. Why? It’s 9 degrees Celsius right now, Fabrice says. It’s actually colder in Paris. … And it got foggier as the day went on.
Discovery: Somehow Google maps knows where I’m at! I opened my phone — no Wi-Fi, no phone service — and Google pinpointed my position on the Arctic Peninsula. (Maybe via ship’s Wi-Fi?)
I also attended excellent presentations on the specific type of seals and penguins we’re likely to encounter, as well as a Book Club, where four of the ship’s crew each shared a couple their favorite books about Antarctic history and wildlife.
We were at dinner when we started to see a few random penguins swimming in the water. A few people got up to look through our window. Then the fog suddenly cleared and revealed an unimaginably large shelf iceberg. Now people crowded the window beside us and people began scrambling from their tables outside to take photographs. From then on, the evening grew into a string of astounding sites.
I took a break to watch a 50-minute documentary about Shackleton’s infamous Endurance expedition. When I left the viewing room for the starboard side of the ship again, I found we were passing a large chunk of sea ice covered in penguins and that we were now surrounded by a series of huge tabular shelf icebergs as well as mountains. So … land.
Tomorrow morning we rise at 5:45 to prepare for our first landing in Antarctica.
Friday, December 16th
This morning we all seemed to be walking around with goofy grins on our face, knowing that we’re soon to set foot on the Antarctic land mass, specifically Brown Bluff.
We headed to the mud room after an early breakfast and the Zodiacs headed out to Brown Bluff on a crisp, clear morning. There we saw some 40,000 Adelie penguins (20,000 couples) and their chicks — as well as some Gentoo penguins. They paraded by us in the dozens, the hundreds even, shrugging off our presence if not oblivious to us. I have never, of course, seen so many penguins in one place in my life. One of our guides lay still on the ground for several minutes and the penguins marched in a stream around her. She had a worm’s eye view of their gently convex bellies.
Imagine then that that experience would soon by over-shadowed mightily by our second Zodiac trip to Paulet Island, where we encountered some 200,000 Adelie penguins plus their chicks, as well as the hut where two of Shackleton’s men lived while they awaited rescue.
It started snowing huge flakes of snow while we were headed into Paulet Island. I asked if the island was unusually bare — lacking snow and ice. Apparently, no. The penguins produce some much poop (“guano” is how the guides all refer to it), that it catches the sun’s rays and accelerates the ice and snow melt wherever they have colonies. Our Zodiac pilot asked us if we knew what a group of penguins in the water is called: “a raft” (on land a rookery).
Imagine seeing all that — the Gentoo and Adelie penguins in huge numbers, as well as their chicks. And also seeing leopard seals, and three types of whales (Orca, Minke and Humpback) in a single day.
So how was today? It was one of the most incredible days of my entire life. I can hardly explain the profound feeling of awe that lingered with me for most of the day. True awe. Something heavy but also mind tingling, which reminds you of both your insignificance n the scheme of things but also the wonder of it all. Here everything back in the United States (or one’s own home country), every petty political nattering, every social media spat, every celebrity squabble is obliterated by the overwhelming whiteness, the drab but impressive gray skies and the countless life forms, which know nothing of those matters.
There other feeling I experienced in spades? Profound gratitude. Gratitude at the privilege of being there to witness this expansive manifestation of relatively untouched nature. Gratitude tinged with embarrassment that I could even afford to be there, when so many cannot and never will. It was an extraordinarily humbling and wondrous experience, which I again can hardly put into word. A day like none else. The few images I’ve posted here can hardly convey what I experience.
Some other observations:
- There a many retired couples or retirement age individuals on the expedition. I’m impressed by the their sense of adventure.
- Quite a few kids, too, surprisingly (though a small percentage of the overall number)
- For quite a few people (myself included) this is their seventh continent
- It’s really not that cold. We are on the northern-most tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, basically, and it’s summer. It’s cold. And when it’s windy on the deck or the Zodiac, it’s really cold. But it’s not that cold. It’s not even New-York-windy-in-the-teens cold. We actually ate burgers on the deck for lunch after our first Zodiac trip. Dining al fresco in Antarctica
- My photos are turning out amazing. Wish there was some way to share them already.
What’s it like attempting to communicate with the outside world from down here? Well, I posted the first few days of this journal to Medium using the ship’s Wi-Fi, which I paid $20 for 20 MB of data. I also sent a text to my wife Amy. Within about 2 minutes or so my access was depleted and I’m not sure my text to Amy even went through. I also initiated the following Facebook message with my Medium entry attached, which I don’t believe even went through:
“Hi all, this is coming to you from Antarctica! WiFi is insanely expensive, so I’m just quickly posting this then getting offline. I can’t even look at Facebook or it’ll use all my Wi-Fi in like 1 minute. Photos therefore will come when I’m back in the United States and Argentina. In the meantime, miss y’all and having an incredible time!”
In that time I looked at no other sites. In fact, I closed out every other browser tab to ensure I wasn’t inadvertently downloading JPGs in the background or anything. Still, I whipped through my data package. So that’s how it worked for me, I understand how puzzled other folks who don’t understand as well how the technology works would be puzzled when their access seemed to expire within moments. At that point I decided using the ship’s Wi-Fi was cost prohibitive and I probably wouldn’t be using it again.
You can buy phone service to make calls, so maybe I’ll try that, too. I understand it’s less expensive because they can transmit a low quality version of your voice and there aren’t any huge images involved or large page-load times as there are with Internet browsing. I suspect in my case with the Wi-Fi, there was probably a lot of background activity going on with my computer and every push notifications, etcetera I’ve set up over many months suddenly tried to work at once after not having access to the Internet for days.
Saturday, December 17th
“Make sure you get up this morning and feel the Antarctic on your face.”
That’s the advice Solan Jensen gave us this morning and it’s a variation on the advice he’s given us before each Zodiac expedition. Basically, make sure you know how cold you’re going to feel before you get on a Zodiac headed to a barren island, slathered with penguin guano, where it maybe sunny or windy or snowing or some combination of the above.
We couldn’t make our first planned Zodiac cruise of the day at Mikkelson Harbour I believe due to the weather. This afternoon though we spent a lot of time exploring Cierva Cove. The landscape changed from yesterday with many more icebergs on display as well as sea ice and glacial landscapes. We also learned there are many types of ice: pancake ice, brash ice, frazil ice, grease ice, slush, icebergs, ice floes, shelf ice, etc. I wouldn’t claim to be able to keep them all separate tho.
Our guide David — one of the three “Daves” and also the onboard photographer — took us by the Argentinian research station Primavera, where we passed a handful of quaint red buildings. We saw three researchers from the distance. I hoped they might invite us up for mate but no dice.
We then proceeded deeper into the cove, where the sea ice grew much thicker and the Zodiac had to break it up to move forward. That provided us with the opportunity to photograph several of the icebergs up close. We also passed a couple of penguin colonies (in addition to numerous stray penguins here and there), one of which looked quite idyllic as a melt-water stream ran down to its base and the penguins frolicked in it. Almost like a little penguin day spa. The other colony looked more typical and we were welcomed to it with the stench of guano over the water from quite some distance away.
Finally, as we were returning, a team member spotted a seal hanging out by himself on a large chunk of ice floe. We paid him a visit. He turned out to be lovely, old crabeater seal. (They’re called crabeaters not because they eat crab. They eat krill. But the Norwegian word for “krill” sounds like crab, so … cross-cultural confusion arose years ago when Norwegian explorers described them, I guess.) Anyway he posed for us a little bit but generally acted very bored with our appearance. I love the seals though, maybe more than the penguins. They always look like they’re grinning. Even if the red krill stains around their mouths also leave them looking rather disturbingly blood-streaked.
Half an hour after returning from that little jaunt, many of us lined up to take the plunge: The Polar Bear Plunge. Now, anyone who knows me well knows how much I despise the cold, so I was on the fence about the whole affair and imagined feeling chilled to the bone for hours after punishing myself in the barely above freezing Antarctic water. If I’m honest, two things contributed to my joining in: I looked out our cabin window and saw two retirees doing the plunge at the same time — easily in their 70s, one of them probably in her early 80s. Then I went to the mud room and saw the long line there and thought, “If all these folks are doing it, it can’t be that bad.”
So I did the plunge as one of a total of 96 people and damned if it didn’t feel great. You’re only in the 0.5 degree water for a few seconds and when I got out instead of feeling chilled, I felt hot and tingly all over. I’d do it again. Some folks, however, did complain about getting serious brainfreeze kind of headaches, I’m grateful I avoided.
Just before 10pm we encountered humpback whales and many of us stood in the sort of permanent twilight taking photos of their magnificent leaps and dives from a distance. It proved very difficult to tear ourselves away and head to bed.
- ABC: Always Be Charging. You don’t want a battery to run out in your camera, your second camera, you GoPro or your iPhone, right when a Leopard seal pops up beside the Zodiac. Yes, I have a lot of cameras. I had another one, too, which got stolen in Lima, Peru.) So far, I’ve managed to avoid this.
- A corollary to the above would be Always Have Extra Memory, too. On this afternoon’s jaunt, I ran out of memory on a card and thought I didn’t have anymore on me, effectively rending one camera useless. That would be a heavy waste of space in my bag. Thankfully, I remembered I had another memory card in my bag.
- Poop before you go. There are no toilets anywhere we’re landing. Using the bathroom once you’ve left the ship isn’t really a possibility. Unless you bring a bottle with you to pee in. Otherwise, not only are there no facilities, but you also won’t be allowed to. Gross, but it’s a fact. No trash or human waste can be left behind.
Sunday, December 18th
Up close. Turns out this day was all about seeing things up close.
This morning, my group was called for standup paddle boarding. While we spent out time quite close to the water, the rest of the explorers would head to the Zodiacs and go for a cruise around Wilhelmina Bay.
I have kayaked many times but never used a standup paddle board, so it took me a while to get my sea legs and to trust the board could support me. I knelt on the board for a while, then got to my feet, my legs shaking like a newborn deer’s for the first several minutes. By the second half of our tour, however, I felt pretty relaxed and was enjoying being so close to the water. We wore dry suits and having completed the Polar Bear Plunge the previous day, I wasn’t too worried about getting wet. It was more that split second when I was falling in I wanted to avoid.
Being that close to the water was a treat, tho, as that’s a good part of why I had hoped to join the kayak group. Turns out, standup paddle boarding was quite a bit less cheaper and you could certain get as close to the water as you liked. So close, in fact, that bringing an SLR camera would prove both unwieldy and unwise: You wouldn’t want the weight of it on you and it might well end up in the drink. Instead, I did have my GoPro attached to a chest harness, so I could take some video and relatively decent photos with that. I also bought a waterproof pocket for my iPhone, which you wear slung about your neck. This made for awkward but not impossible photography with some pleasing results.
So what could we see up close: Well, the water for one. At a couple of points we even lay down on our boards so we could gaze into it. I also encountered salps (a form of tunicate) for the first time, which I thought were jellyfish at the time. Penguins jumped teasingly in the water around us. They swam around and under our boards. And we could navigate through small amounts of ice and feel what it’s like to come into almost direct contact with it. Most of the time, the water was eerily calm, which did make for perfect conditions for paddle boarding.
My only disappointment? We did see more whales in the distance, but those who joined the Zodiacs that day spotted them and got to see them up much closer than I would on the rest of the trip.
At the end of excursion, our guide Meghan asked us all to lie down on our boards and be silent, just allow ourselves to experience the water, the air, the environs. It was exquisite.
That afternoon, we took another Zodiac tour with Jim, a marine biologist, who scooped a huge chunk of glacier ice from the chilly water, then chipped off pieces for us to suck on.
We also encountered many gorgeous ice formations, another crab eater seal and some salps again, which he explained aren’t jelly fish and told us that — despite their simple watery existence — they have more in common DNA-wise with humans than jellies. These creatures are composed mainly of water, so they don’t provide much nutritional help to humans. But smaller creatures do feed upon them. They are typically found in somewhat warmer water, too, so their presence may be a symptom of global warming.
Then Jim dropped us off at Danco Island and we hiked up through a Gentoo penguin colony to top of the land mass. We were all very hot by the time we got there. So hot that one explorer made the trudge halfway down the snowy hill through the thick snow only to discover he’d left his jacket up there and he had to return for it.
The views from the top though were astonishing. The dark water spread out before us. The ship lingering in the background. In the foreground, penguins lazily asserting their territory by shrugging off the gorgeous scene we stood gazing out over.
That night they filled the ship’s pool with salty, pungent seawater for the first time, which they heated. A few us jumped into the steamy water and stayed in while it grew hotter and hotter. We swam in this green Antarctic soup while the dark chill waters of the continent stirred only meters away. I had a hard time getting out.
Some fun stuff we learned in the recap that night:
- Whales contribute to ecology through their defecation alone
- For example, fish and krill diminish in number as whales are killed
- Because whales release “fecal plumes” vast amounts of fecal material or “poonamis” which generate more phytoplankton, which the krill feed upon
- The more whales there are, the more plankton there is; the more plankton there is, the more C02 is drawn out of the air
- Therefore, the presence of whales has the power change the climate
- Great story on this Power of Whale Poop on NPR
More journal entries and images to come …