Thursday, 18 February 2010

Antarctica - Continent Number 7

Everyone who ventures to southern South America can not miss getting on a boat in Ushuaia and heading to Antarctica. My pictures and words can not prepare you for this unadulterated nature reserve beyond your wildest expectations! This will not be my last time to Antarctica! 

Antarctica is AMAZING!

To write words or show you some pictures to try and describe this most southern desert does not seem appropriate as you truly will not comprehend the magnificent beauty that is found here in Antarctica. Never have I seen anything like this before...the largest and most sacred of nature reserve in the world.
A photographers playground where every shot looks like something off the cover of National Geographic magazine. Unfortunately this amigo left his SLR at home due to the bulkiness of the bloody thing so now I venture to the worlds most distant sanctuary of wildlife with a miserly point and shoot Lumix digital with an internal lens....grrrr!!! 
Day 1 of Landings -  Half Moon Island
After 2 and a half days across the Drake Passage and many sick crew mates we arrive at Half Moon Island, our first landing. We charge through the rough seas in our Zodiac rubber inflatable dodging the odd pack of penguins skimming through the surf. On shore we have been blessed with many Chin Strap Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, Adelie Penguins, many Albatross and a hand full of Antarctic Fur Seals. The remains of a whalers ship stands tall on the shore offering some coverage to the breading Chin Straps. A few hours were spent hiking over the Island viewing many colonies and simply sitting back and watching these funny little creatures go about their daily routine as if we were not within an arms reach of them! 

With this being Number 7 for approximately half of the ship you can imagine that the bar was pretty rowdy that night! 

Day 2 of Landings - Brown Bluff and Devil Island
Two landings the following day with Brown Bluff being our first official landing on the continental Antarctica. Many more Penguins with their chicks however with new life comes death and we experience many of these new chicks being the victim of their largest threat - Skuas. These scavenging marine birds are distant relatives to gulls but with a slight more aggressive nature.  Approximately 1.2 chicks per happy couple so to see 2 was quite a rare experience and to get so close to this highly perched nest was unreal. After an epic climb to the summit with most spectacular views and a good slide back down on your bum we returned back to our vessel. Whilst cruising about we en-counted a pod of Killer Whales resting only 20 meters away from the ship. With approximately 40 of these Orca’s you can imagine the excitement that this created onboard so we circled these magnificent specimens of the sea once more to get the picture perfect odd 40 something photos! A quick sauna drained all the life left in us that afternoon and the bar was less popular then the night before...

Day 3 of Landings - Paulet Island and Antarctic Sound
Icebergs ahead!!! Unfortunately, due to pack ice being in our course we had to divert to Plan B and Snow Hill would not be reached on this endeavor. On route we still had thousands of icebergs scattered in front of us like pieces of glass across a kitchen floor. We would simply pick a course and charge these bergs at a good speed hitting them directly in the centre and splitting them open so that we could pass through. The Captain had replotted a new route and our destination was Paulet Island. On our way though we en-counted our first sighting of Emperor Penguins! Two 4 month old chicks were standing around on top of an iceberg slab sunning it up. This was a special day as this species were not usually found this far north and had hitched a ride on the iceberg with a few other Adelie’s playing around. Our crew leaders first sighting of such young Emperors so we truly were blessed! Now we had seen 4 of the 5 Antarctic Penguin species and only had the Macaroni Penguins to track down.

After a short climb past all the nesting Adelie Penguins up and over the summit we came down into an iceberg bay that was a winter wonderland for the Adelie’s to play in without the any fear or the close by Antarctic Fur Seals. We watched as they jumped off the icebergs and into the water skimming it as if they were dolphins and at some points getting a good 2 feet of clearance out of the water as if they had the ability to fly themselves. They would often stretch their wings and you thought to yourself that you needed to remind them they couldn't take off. Must have been instinctual for these guys to try. More seals being territorial as I snuck up nice and close for that perfect snap shot.

In the afternoon we spent a few hours cruising around the Active Sound in our Zodiac’s. As you can imagine it was bloody freezing and this amigo had on thermal pants, jeans, Gortex trousers, 3 shirts, 1 jacket, 1 Gortex jacket, 1 rain coat, beanie, gloves, scarf and 3 pairs of socks under my Wellingtons! Still I froze but it was so worth it! Our Zodiac driver was Julio the crazy Argentinian who pulled the nose of our Zodiac up to an Iceberg and let us get out on it and run around like loonies! You can not imagine the feeling of being able to dance around on a Iceberg in the Antarctic!! This was merely the beginning for Julio’s madness as we had spotted a massive 3000kg sea serpent that looked as prehistoric as they come - The Leopard Seal. This slug like creature was sunning itself on an Iceberg and for that picture perfect opportunity Julio decided to pull up next to the berg and let a few off. Being at the front of the boat Martin (Crazy South African) and myself get ready to dispatch. To my surprise I get almost knocked out of the boat as Kate (scandalous Pommy) barges past to make the landing her own! My time to dance like a penguin on the berg with this monster of the deep would not come as another Zodiac had pulled up quite close and the Leopard Seal had slithered back into the sub minus waters. Grrrrr!
“More Emperor Penguins” was the call over the two-way as some had been spotted close to where the Captain had decided to park the ship (literally parked on a Iceberg so the boat wouldn’t sway that evening) so we shot off to find roughly 10 - 15 of these adolescent Emperor’s. This was the most that any of the crew had ever seen this high up and we had truly been blessed with some good luck that morning when our path was changed. 

Boy did we party that night. A BBQ was held on the stern of the ship, hence why the captain had made the boat steady. Russian’s behind a BBQ is not as bad as it sounds and we ate like kings. Russian’s behind the bar is more suited and we had free booze until it ran dry. Russian limbo is not a game to be taken lightly as Ben (youngest on board) and Craig (incoherent Welshman) learnt the hard way. Cheap and nasty vodka is poured down your gob, face and all over your cloths as you do the limbo! If some smart ass is standing near the limbo poll at the time of you doing limbo then chances are he will pour beer in at the same time. It was either the wrong techniques during limbo or the sculling of booze that occurred during the game “Goggles On” that sent both Ben and Craig to their bedrooms at an unprecedented hour.   

Day 4 of Landings - Bernardo O’Higgins Chilean base & Zodiac cruising in the Bransfield Strait
A rather sketchy start to the day as we headed over to Bernardo O'Higgins Base the Chilean Army Base where we were lucky enough to get our passports stamped as this was our second official continental landing. A crew of approximately 40 Chileans working throughout the summer to do research and repairs to the 1950’s base. A few more Chin Straps and their chicks nesting were to be found scattered around the base.
On our way to our next destination the camera happy Martin spotted some humpbacks that were resting which meant the spent allot of time on the surface fluking but unfortunately no breaching!
That afternoon we ventured in the zodiacs around Astrulabe Island on the hunt for some more wildlife and boy did we find it! Numerous Leopard Seals, Fur Seals, Penguins, bird life and a few Elephant Seals! This was our first sighting of Elephant Seals and we were keen not to get too close to as they are one of the few creatures that are known to be better smelling dead rather than alive.

Day 5 of Landings - South Shetlands: Deception Island and Hannah Point
A very early start to the day for most yet I seemed to press the snooze button a few times and was lucky to grab the last boat to the Bailey’s Head (on Deception Island). Here we witnessed the largest Antarctic (2nd largest in the World) Chin Strap Penguin colony. These little critters were everywhere - like little people running around getting food, teaching their young, scampering up onto the shore after a quick dip. So funny to just sit back and watch as they went about their life without a concern in the world that we were there.   

Deception Island was just after breakfast and many of us were very excited as we had been waiting for this the whole trip. We sailed into the bay which was an active volcano. Once used extensively as a Whaling harbor, until an eruption emptied out this place, now just the remnants of a past era remain. Not as picturesque as the previous landings and there was an eeriness about Deception Island that may date back to the mass slaughter of so many giants of the sea.
After a climb up the peak over looking Deception Island, a wander around the old whalers station and a close encounter with a Weddell Seal who was content to just lay back and let me snap up some picture perfect snaps we were allowed to go for a swim! That’s right...a dip in the sub minus Antarctic waters of an ACTIVE VOLCANO! Only a small handful of people were able to brave these extreme conditions. Some were more willing then others...Ben who went nude was one. Some were a little resistant...Karina who I had to throw in and Kate, Steph and Martin really dragged out the whole getting unchanged process! Approximately a millimeter or 2 of thermal water sat on the surface however it didn’t seem to make any difference. Once you went under you pretty much ran back out screaming like a little girl. Some thermal pools of water were on the shore where you would stand in for a moment to warm your feet but then the heat was too much and you would run back into the ocean. 

A quick priority exit for the swimmers back to the ship where the sauna was pre-set to 105 degrees and was required to bring some feeling back into our blue bodies.
That afternoon we had our last landing for the trip. It was perhaps a combination of this being the last time we would be walking on Antarctica or the fact that the seas were extremely rough that brought no smile to anyones faces. The trips expedition leader almost called of the trip and if it wasn’t for the sighting of a large colony of adolescent male Elephant Seals the trip would have been scrapped. On the ride over we all got to test out the “Waterproofness” of our gear. Unfortunately my equipment didn’t stand up to the test. Lucky for me I had snaffled a bottle of vodka on shore to have a we sip on my 7th continent which helped bring some warmth back to me.
On our way over to the Elephant Seals we spotted four Macaroni Penguins  almost hiding incognito amongst a few hundred Chinstrap Penguins. This was it now for us....we had seen all 5 species of Antarctic Penguin’s and extremely satisfied with the variety and number of other wildlife, birdlife and sea creatures we had experienced! The odd Blue Whale on the way back to Ushuaia would top it off but considering one of the crew had only seen Blue Whales on 3 occasions in his 40 years experience in Antarctica and the Arctic our chances were slim! 
A few days cruising back through a relatively calm Drake and we were back in Ushuaia, Argentina. Not the happiest day of my life as all our moods were low considering we had just departed our most favorite and the most beautiful destination in the World - Antarctica!! 

Follow me on Facebook:

No comments:

Post a Comment