Petermann Island and Port Lockroy, Antarctica

From Hovgaard, we made our way toward Petermann Island to visit a mixed colony of Adelie and Gentoo penguins. This would be our first glimpse of the Adelie penguin, who shared the cliffs with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Gentoos. It was an icy trek up the hillside, and it was important to tread carefully, because … penguin poop. Lots of it. I had become renowned for my lack of grace over the course of the trip, but this was terrific incentive to remain vertical.

Petermann Island was the southernmost point of our trip, and my melancholy grew as we watched the antics of the goofy population of tuxedo-clad, flightless seabirds. We had one more colony to visit, but after that, would I have the opportunity to again stand in their midst? It was fascinating to be able to spend time studying their behavior. Stealing stones was universal across the species we observed. One penguin would work stealthily, slowly moving one stone at a time from their neighbor’s nest to their own. All the while, another penguin was stealing from them. In the distance, two Gentoos worked together to herd chicks away from marauding skuas. One would distract the skua while a second would herd the chicks in to a protected area. I tried to memorize the way they fed, the way they waddled, and the calls they made. I don’t ever want to forget these extraordinary days. As we headed down toward the zodiac, I looked off to a small inlet south of the colony. Varying sizes of vibrant blue icebergs rose and fell with the ebb and flow of the tide. A seal, scarred with the bite of a foiled orca attack, rested on the shore. Extraordinary days, indeed.

Once we were back onboard, we headed toward Port Lockroy, where we would spend the night. Port Lockroy was home to whalers and scientists for over a century. In 1944 “Base A” was built, and it was the first permanent British base established on the peninsula. Today, it is a living museum, and holds the memories, stories, and equipment of several lifetimes of explorers. When they were refurbishing the building, they discovered painted-over artwork in the bedroom quarters. Nude likenesses of bygone stars lined the walls … Elizabeth Taylor, Jayne Mansfield … inventive young men, those early explorers. The kitchen counter held a regional cookbook, and the page was turned to “Seal Brain Omelette”. Necessity is the mother of invention, so break out the eggs, boys … breakfast is served! Base A also provided postal services, so we filled out postcards, which we’ll eagerly await once we’re back in the states.

Port Lockroy is home to a team of four over the summer months. The team hosts guests, collects data, observes wildlife, and other important work during their tenure. While we were there, they were working on archiving artifacts. I thought it would be lonely work until I discovered that thousands of visitors pass through the base each season. They would likely welcome a day of solitude!

We’ll overnight here just off of Goudier Island. Tomorrow, we’ll make our way northward, after we have one last visit with the comical Gentoos. I feel a tightening in my gut, and a sense of anticipation slowly grows. The Drake is coming.

Hovgaard, Antarctica

A wild night, indeed. Steady winds of 50 mph rocked our boat, dragging us 250 meters, or 800 feet, from our original position. For us, the melody of the wind and brash ice against the hull were a lullaby. But for the captain, it was a very long night.

The winds calmed down overnight, but they were still heavy, and we experienced our first significant rain. We spent our morning editing photos, writing, and visiting around the table until the seas calmed. Once they had, we set out for a walkabout on a nearby island.

Anyone who thinks that Antarctica is limited to black and white has never seen Antarctica. In addition to the limitless shades of blue, there are oranges and greens and pinks, both in the varied geology and the prolific algae that covers the snow. Antarctica is an extension of the Andes mountain range, and the topography is widely varied. Detritus left behind by the birds and seals littered the small island with hollowed mollusks, feathers, and bones.

After lunch, we boarded the zodiac to visit a Gentoo penguin colony. The rookery sat high above the iceberg graveyard, offering a spectacular perspective of the bay. The enormity of the accumulated icebergs was remarkable; from the stable, solid, geometric slabs of ice, to fragile arches, and fluid curves. The dark, stormy skies provided a dramatic backdrop to the sunlit ice, as the penguins played, stole rocks for their nests, and fed their chicks. An egg- and chick-thieving skua yielded to an angry mama, as a wandering penguin fell victim to a well-aimed shit rocket to the face. Not for the first time, it occurs to me that I am glad I’m not a penguin.

What it has meant to me to visit this magnificent continent is evolving; the gravity of this place is stirring in my bones. The end of our journey now feels closer than the beginning.  I’ve seen and experienced things that are now an integral part of me; a part of my mind, my heart, and my being. The journey has been less of a fun trip than an important one. A ferocity to protect this vast wildness has been born, and I have a new sense of responsibility for her guardianship. Antarctica is a living, breathing presence in our world … Mother Earth … Gaia.

She’s worth fighting for.

 

From Paradise to Hovgaard, Antarctica

Pitching our tents last night was a fabulous adventure. First, we created flat areas using a snow shovel and compressed the snow with our boots. We laid out a waterproof insulated sheet, then went to work assembling the tents and rain fly. The weather changes fast in Antarctica, and the warmth of the afternoon faded as clouds rolled in. Pitching a tent on a warm summer day is easy. Pitching a tent with slow-moving, cold fingers is not. In the summer, you need stakes in the soft earth. In the snow, you need ice anchors. As we finished our setup, a pair of Weddell seals serenaded us. If you’ve never heard a seal sing, seek it out. It is a lovely, haunting call, and is a sound I will never forget.

We boarded the zodiac and went back to the ship for a quick dinner before heading back to camp. Once back, we toasted our night on the continent of Antarctica. Champagne never tasted so sweet. The night was cold and damp, but the view and the experience was worth the price of admission.

That said, it is highly likely I will stick with summer camping.

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After breakfast, we left Paradise and crossed the Lemaire Channel to Hovgaard, where we’ll stay for the next two nights. Just after the channel, we entered an area called the Iceberg Graveyard. Several channels feed in to a bay. Wind and tides push the icebergs into the bay, where small islands and outcroppings of rock trap them.

The Iceberg Graveyard is nature’s answer to contemporary museums of abstract sculpture; slabs of white and blue ice, of endless shapes and sizes towered above us. Arches and ridges of ice filled the bay; some worn smooth by the tides, others sharp and uneven. Chunks of ice or round snowballs the size of large boulders lay atop flat sheets of ice. Brilliant turquoise surrounded each iceberg, extending deep into the sea.

We’re expecting high winds tonight, so time to buckle up … it may be a wild ride!

 

Another day in Paradise … Antarctica!

We woke up in the morning to crystal blue skies, the mountains surrounding us reflected in the glassy smooth water. The only sounds disturbing the silence were the chirps of terns and the roar of calving glaciers. Two penguins porpoised playfully as tsunamis created gentle waves in the bay. I’ve never felt such peaceful solitude. It is a wild and breathtakingly beautiful place.

After breakfast, we set out on a four-hour kayak around the bay. The glaciers surrounding us shone bright white in the sun and every imaginable shade of blue. We kayaked through the brash ice … at one point, grounding ourselves on a small iceberg. Calving glaciers sounded like gunfire, followed by a roar that echoed through the sheltered bay. We came up on another leopard seal resting on an iceberg, and nearly witnessed the circle of life as an unsuspecting Gentoo leapt up next to him. She backtracked quickly as she realized her near-fatal mistake. Fortunately for the penguin, the leopard seal must have not been ready for a meal. We watched the seal until another minke grabbed our attention, and we paddled after her for while until it was time to return to the ship.

Back on board, we gathered on the deck for pizza. I had heard of days like this … shirtsleeve weather, under bluebird skies. The sun warmed our bodies, and the wine warmed our bellies.

After lunch, the fog rolled in, and we headed out to prepare camp. Tonight, we’ll camp on the ice. This will be my first foray into the world of cold-weather camping, where we’ll fall asleep to a lullaby of shifting icebergs and the gentle slap of the tide on the shore.

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Paradise, Antarctica

These are among the best days of my life. I started the day zigzagging through immense, textured icebergs of unimaginable shapes and size. Skeletons of ships, long since abandoned. Birds and seals and whales and penguins.

I ended the day dancing with a minke whale.

In between, there was every shade of blue. There were nesting chinstrap penguins and porpoising Gentoos. There were glaciers and mountains. Brash ice and the cold, blue sea.

Sitting on a rock watching chinstrap penguins waddle and snuggle with their chicks, overlooking whale spouts in the distance, I didn’t think the day could get any better. Then came the minke. We saw her in the distance, as we made our way through a narrow channel. “They’re a little shy”, our expedition leader said. Until they’re not. We idled, hoping for a distant glance. Suddenly, she slid through the water right next to our boat. For twenty minutes, she circled and surfaced. She blew bubbles, and rose up and crashed down. She was close enough to see the baleen of her beautiful mouth.

It is fitting we end this day in a place called Paradise. We’ll spend two nights in Paradise Bay, camping tomorrow night. It is a protected bay, and we are surrounded by majestic mountains and glaciers. Paradise, indeed.

 

Enterprise Anchorage, Antarctica

We woke up this morning to blowing snow, or “fökk og rökk”, pronounced “fukaduk”. Our chef, Kari, taught us this funny Norwegian expression that we all took great pleasure in repeating. It roughly translates to “blowing snow and seaspray mayhem”. What a fantastic phrase to retain.

Simon, our first mate, went to work chipping the ice and snow off the boat before we headed out for Enterprise Anchorage. A neon blue iceberg shone brightly in the distance, and we headed over to take a look. As we got closer, a large dark object became visible directly next to it. It turned out to be a nearly black iceberg. The contrast of the black against the brilliant blue was striking.

We saw two humpback whales on our way to study the icebergs, and they put on a playful show with their barnacled fins and bowed, soaring backs, before bidding us farewell with a cascade of water running over their tails.

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Our journey took us through Grahams Passage, which we crossed on our way into Gerlache Strait. The passage is too narrow for larger boats to pass, so we had the area to ourselves. A light snow was falling, and the fog was heavy and low, muffling the sound of the boat. It was haunting, and eerily quiet. Immense, sculptured, dimpled icebergs stood sentinel over the bay.

The sea soon opened up, and we saw several more humpback whales in the distance. As we got closer, we slowed down to an idle. The whales came closer and closer, passing just under our boat, the white of their dorsal fin visible just under the water. I have never been close enough to see the shape of a humpback’s jaw, which is lumpy and curvy and graceful, all at once. We were close enough to smell the fishy scent of their breath. Being around these mystical creatures is a spiritual experience, and I’ve never been to a church service that made me feel more alive.

We arrived at the Enterprise Anchorage and prepared the Zodiac. We were on a mission. Actually, we had two. First, our captain, Ben, bet us the price of our trips on a guarantee of seeing our first Crabeater seal. And, we needed to retrieve some ice for the scotch we had back on board.

We first made a stop at a small island with a high population of fur seals. Highly territorial fur seals, as it turned out. I got one quick shot of one that was making his way toward me as briskly as a seal can, which was fortunately a relatively slow pace. This gave me an opportunity to hastily retreat while our expedition leader intervened. As it turns out, the sound of a stick on a rock accompanied by a steely stare works brilliantly, and balance was restored. The fur seals sort of freaked me out after that, no matter how cute they are.

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Back on the zodiac, we resumed our hunt for the Crabeater and the best possible chunk of ice. There were grand, textured, colorful icebergs throughout the bay, and we came across a cave with a pale shade of blue that indicated a recent calving. As we headed to investigate, we passed a Weddell with the most beautiful face. She was mesmerizing, and while we watched her, John spotted a lone Crabeater across the bay. Sigh … looks like the trip is on us.

Both missions accomplished, we headed back to the boat for scotch over some (really old) ice. Cheers!

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Trinity Island, Antarctica

A bank of fog lingered far off in the distance, leaving us with sunshine and blue skies on our first full day in Antarctica. The rough seas of the night before slowed our progress to Trinity Island, so we arrived a little later in the morning than we originally planned. The moment we dropped anchor, we were fitted to our kayaks to set out for our first paddle.

As the kayaks were being untied and prepared, our Captain, Ben, strung out some fishing line. Looks like the skipper is fishin’ for dinner! Later, over lunch, we learned that the S/V Australis is used for much, much more than eco travel. Much of the year, the ship has scientists on board, collecting information about climate change and other necessary research. Rather than finding dinner, Ben was collecting samples for study. These samples, including fish, kelp, and isopods, have provided extensive data to researchers. Because there is so much territory to cover, gathering the information as we travel is invaluable. Ben records the location, depth, and ocean floor conditions of the sample collected. One sample, when set on deck, had seventeen organisms climb off of it, which were also collected. These organisms may have been parasitic, symbiotic, or in a relationship of “commensalism” which will also be studied. (This was a new word for me, meaning that they coexist without harm or benefit to the other.) This is only one example of the types of information studied … it could be new data, or analysis of how things are changing over time. I found it fascinating. And it made me wish I had stuck with my biology classes. To be a marine biologist was a dream of my twenty-something self.

Documentaries have been made on this ship, and it also transports athletes, who ice climb, dive, ski, and snowboard in some of the most remote and extreme conditions in the world. I love imagining the history of this vessel … if only it could talk.

Once the kayaks were ready, we set off. We paddled through brash ice, or “bergie bits” as our expedition leader liked to call it. I saw my first porpoising penguin, a Gentoo, and at some point on the trip, I hope to capture a video. If I’m ever having a bad day, I can refer to it. You cannot be unhappy while watching a porpoising penguin. As we paddled, I heard the roar of a calving glacier, followed closely by a tsunami. Fortunately, it was contained within a sheltered bay, but it was fascinating to witness.

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Our expedition leader spotted a leopard seal lounging on an iceberg, and we made our way over to take a look. A terrifying creature, the leopard seal. Torpedo-shaped with a head resembling a snake, a female can weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Its jaws can open 120 degrees, exposing its frightening teeth as it yawned. We saw her do this several times, but as luck would have it, my GoPro was out of batteries. We went back later, and I was able to get some great shots of her funny resting face, but that terrifying yawn will live on only in my memories (and my nightmares). It was a good day for seal watching, and we saw three species that day … the Leopard, the Weddell, and one lone Elephant seal. We paddled for close to three miles, and I will never forget that first glimpse into Antarctica’s raw, wild beauty.

After lunch, we took the zodiac out to hike around a Gentoo penguin colony, full of happy feet! The penguins were nesting, so we saw stone stealing, feeding, and a steady stream of what I can only refer to as mighty shit rockets. Those guys can project. You don’t want to be in the line of fire when one of those babies are launched.

As they climbed from the water, their fat, clawed feet reflected against their wet bellies, turning them from white to a soft orange. They are SO funny, waddling through their well-traveled penguin highways. I could have watched them all day.

Riding in the zodiac was also our first foray into the world of the Mustang Suit. I developed a love-hate relationship with this lifesaving garment that will keep you afloat if you happen to experience an unplanned ejection from the boat. They will keep you warm under any conditions. They are a barrier to the unavoidable, prolific, odiferous penguin poop. And they are hard to get on. It was during our first fitting that I developed my, “I’m too sexy for my mustang suit … too sexy for my mustang suit … too sexy … yeah” dance. Welcome to my world, fellow travelers. We were all dancing and singing by the end of the trip.

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 As the day wore down, I began to fully grasp the notion that there will never be a way to communicate the majesty of this place with words or photos. In isolation , these immense icebergs have no sense of scale. They are the size of a house, of a skyscraper, or even a mountain. The light hits them in a way that they glow with an otherworldly blue, seemingly from the inside out. I will share what I am able of the wonder of this magnificent place, but those indescribable bits have now become a part of me, and will live on quietly, in my memories and in my heart.

We anchored, and went to sleep to the pinging of brash ice tapping against our hull. Tomorrow, we’ll head through Gerlache Straight to the Enterprise anchorage, and watch for whales along the way. Looking around, at these monolithic mountains of ice, millions of years in the making, I feel so small.

And so grateful to witness this wonderland. This is my kinda Disneyland.

King George Island, Antarctica

After one false start the day before, we got on an early morning flight to the King George Island airstrip, located on a military base in the Shetland Islands.

We saw our first iceberg as we approached the runway; a short, unpaved, rocky strip of land. As our plane touched down, the staccato tick, tick, tick of stones hitting the belly of the plane filled the cabin. We taxied away from the runway, and exited the plane on to an icy, rocky section of the military base. We waited there for the second plane; the only other flight to depart Punta Arenas for Antarctica that day. The icy, biting wind nipped at our exposed skin. Our expedition leader told us to dress for polar weather, and now I understood why. Standing in the unprotected area, I questioned my decision to pack my fleece neck gaiter, rather than wear it. I pulled down my wool headband to fashion a makeshift gaiter to warm my nose and chin.

Once the second plane arrived, we were escorted through the military base. We made an interesting procession … we were traveling with a group of ninety-two passengers that were boarding a scientific expedition boat, and their attire ranged from jeans to skirts and leggings to proper polar gear. Trudging over the stones and through the mud, I was grateful for my hiking boots, fleece, and wool base layer.

We got our first glimpse of the Australis as we descended over the hill and down in to the harbor. She was dwarfed by the other behemoth ship (which was small in comparison to the cruise ships that frequent Antarctica). Not for the first time, I was grateful for our intrepid group of seven.

We met our captain, Ben, at the shore, and headed to the zodiac. On board, we met the other crew of the Australis… Kari (pronounced “kah-dee”), from Norway, who was our chef for the journey, and Simon, our first mate, from Australia. We gathered to talk about our course, which was originally planned to start at Deception Island, home to an abandoned whaling village. Because of our delay, we decided to instead head to Trinity Island, in Antarctica proper. (The Shetland Islands are considered sub-Antarctica.) So, we got our luggage, unpacked, had a delicious lunch, a safety briefing, and we were underway!

Our course took us through some extremely turbulent seas. I liked to think of it as our Drake Passage training voyage. I watched from the wheelhouse for a while, and the local petrels and skuas saw us off. We saw our first penguin colony, complete with a penguin highway. It was also our first chance for a whale sighting, and we saw two grey whales… the spouts of one, and a fantastic tail shot of the other. The seas eventually became rough enough to make standing difficult, and everyone retreated to their bunks.

Our cabins were low to the waterline, and my bunk had a porthole. I pressed my face against the glass, and watched in awe as the waves crashed in to the hull, periodically submerging my porthole in to the wild sea. What adventures await? I can’t wait to see them unfold …

Punta Arenas, Chile

I arrived in Punta Arenas on Sunday afternoon, and had time to clean up before meeting the rest of the group for a welcome dinner at the beautiful restaurant, La Pergola. We gathered in a sun-dappled, vine-covered room, and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve had since coming to Chile. NatHab has a knack for finding the best restaurants in town, from quirky neighborhood joints to elegant dining, like La Pergola. I immediately had a great feeling about our group. I know I’m going to leave here with some great new friends.

My roommate is fabulous. She doesn’t snore. She’s quick-witted, and laughs at my jokes. An unknown roommate is always a crapshoot, and I won the lottery.

We also won the lottery with our expedition leader, John Mittan, who is a staff naturalist with NatHab. He and Olaf Malver, CEO of NatHab, created this trip, and this will be his twentieth journey. He is an expert on the area, and knows exactly where we should go to see the best scenery and wildlife possible. And, he is exceptional with his guests. I think he might have some kind of hearing superpower. Someone will quietly mutter, “it’s hot”, and the air is suddenly circulating. He’ll notice a camera setting that may not be the best choice, and he will offer to help you change it. An expedition leader has the ability to make or break a trip, and I am confident he is going to make this trip one of my best.

We toured Punta Arenas yesterday, and saw some terrific scenery and learned some history of the area. I am in awe of the courage and tenacity of the explorers that discovered so much of the area we have seen, and are about to see. They were bad ass. We saw reproductions of some historical ships (Magellan, Darwin’s Beagle), saw ship skeletons that lined the coastline, and admired spectacular views. I wish I had time to write more, but I need to go now. To Antarctica!

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One more thing before I go. When you get a chance, google Lyle Lovett singing “Penguins (Are So Sensitive to My Needs)”. My roommate, Joan, and I have already choreographed a song and dance routine for it, which is sure to be performed on the ice of Antarctica.

Bon Voyage!

Magníficas Montañas de Torres del Paine

I woke yesterday morning to a clear, crisp day. Cuernos del Paine shone brightly in the morning sun. Days like this are precious. The weather in Torres del Paine is notoriously unpredictable and quick to change.

I made the five-hour trek from Punta Arenas the day before with two Chilean women, Carolina and Christina, and by the time we got to Torres del Paine, we were fast friends. Christina didn’t speak English, but that didn’t seem to matter much. Google Translate was useful, but it has its limits. At one point, I entered, “That door is beautiful, covered in rust.” Google returned “Az ajtó gyönyörú, roszdás”, which didn’t seem at all correct. It didn’t even LOOK Spanish. She looked puzzled. I checked, and realized I had translated my phrase into Hungarian. So I typed, “What, you don’t speak Hungarian?!”, in Spanish this time. We laughed and laughed and laughed. This would be a good time to note that a two pisco sour limit is a sensible policy.

Carolina and Christina graciously invited me to join them for dinner, and it turned out they were celebrating Carolina’s birthday! They shared a special bottle of wine that they brought. The two of them turned out to be one of the greatest highlights of my trip to Torres del Paine. As it turned out, they were also scheduled to go on the trip I had reserved for the following day.

That was the good news. The bad news was that there were so many people going on that trip, they divided it into the English speaking van and the Spanish speaking van, so we were separated. The upside was that I had the opportunity to make some new friends, particularly my seat mates, Molly and Ken. Molly was a fisherwoman with an adventurous soul and the brightest smile you’ve ever seen. And Ken was hilarious. It was an international group … Americans, Swiss, and Belgian, and everyone got along famously.

We had breathtaking views of the Paine Massif, throughout the day, and the weather continued to cooperate. We had crazy wind, which is common in Patagonia, and created ever-changing color and texture to the clouds in the sky. We hiked out a long jetty to get a peek at Grey Glacier, and I was extensively sandblasted. I’m fairly certain I will need to re-grow a couple of layers of skin. Later in the afternoon, we made our way to an unforgettable overlook, where the views of Cuernos del Paine were a spectacular backdrop to the turquoise hue of Lago Pehoé.

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After lunch, we took a short hike to the Paine Waterfall, where I experienced the windiest conditions of my life thus far. At one point, I had to stop and put all my weight forward just to keep from tipping over. The waterfall? Worth it. We also saw hundreds of the quirky, funny guanacos. One was in a super bad mood and chased another one out of the herd. It was fascinating. They are FAST.

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I enjoyed another dinner with Carolina and Christina, where they later taught me a couple of their favorite Spanish swear words. I was having trouble with the pronunciation of one, so we were exaggerating the enunciation: Mierda. No. Meeeee-errrrr-dah. Mierda. Mierda. And so on. When we noticed our neighbors at a nearby table looking at us in horror, we laughed and laughed and laughed. Remember: two pisco sours. Tops.

This morning came too soon. I longed for a few more days at this otherworldly place. But … on to the next adventure. We had a full van back to Punta Arenas, with not a single English speaking person on it. I kind of loved the challenge, with only hand gestures and community college Spanish classes in my toolkit. I got really good at charades.

We were treated to vibrant rainbow after vibrant rainbow on our way out of the park. It was a magical way to transition to this next leg of my adventure.

Now, off to Punta Arenas for a day before I head off to Antarctica. I’m always fearful before a trip like this. But the moment I begin my journey, the trepidation falls away, like I’ve shed a heavy coat. I am left with nothing but a sense of wonder.

Tiptoeing along the razor’s edge of death was hard. It was scary. But it occurred to me today that I would not be in this beautiful part of the world had it not been for that day. I never would have been so bold; so audacious, if I hadn’t been given that glimpse into my own mortality. I’ve never had an appreciation for that truth as fully as I do at this moment. Surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I have seen in my life.

I am grateful.