Monday, February 11, 2013

A full day of penguining....

The day after being flown over to the continent of Antarctica and we awake to a day's plan that has us heading over to Devil's Island to see an Adelie penguin colony.  Based on the group numbers and the order shuffling that works to make sure everyone gets a chance at the front of the line, we are scheduled to take our second trip on the helicopters just before lunch is served.

So, knowing that we will not get lunch on board we fill up with breakfast and in snacking a lot while enjoying the beauty of the vast landscape of ice that we looked out upon.  But, as we are warned often happens in Antarctica, the weather changed and just before we were due to take off the winds picked up and they grounded the helicopters so that the ship could move south closer to Devil's Island and the better weather that they were enjoying.

One nice thing is that we would then get lunch on the ship, and although somewhat full it was good to eat in preparation of 3-4 hours out in the elements.  It took the ship almost an hour to move to a new position where the winds were favorable, and we did for a minute feel bad for the early groups that had gone out in the morning and were now stuck out on Devil's Island if they had wanted to head back earlier on their tour.

The world seems to like us, in that as we were at lunch and the ship was moving we happened upon a lone Emperor Penguin out on the ice.  The entire lunchroom emptied to run out to get photos and I learned quickly from listening to the group next to us that in German an Emperor Penguin is simply called "Ein Kaiser Penguin".

So after the happiness of seeing a Kaiser up close we moved on to the helicopters, and a short ride  later we were sitting on the fast ice looking at a 30-40 minute walk to the Adelie Penguin colony.
 It was interesting to land on ice and know that in another month or two the hike we were making would be over open water.  As we walked you could feel the soft snow, and when we got to Devil's Island you could see melt water streaming down the hills past the penguins.  We had to walk up a carefully marked path, basically up the waterfall of melt, so that we did not disturb the penguins that were guarding their eggs.  We made it up that slippery slope to get close ups of the Adelie's - we did see some mud covered guys that had slipped - and spend time amazed at watching these loud and stinky animals up close...
By stinky I only mean that you can smell them when you walk up to them, but then within 5 minutes of just watching you move past that and just sit in amazement at the actions of the group.  The cooing, the codling of the eggs, the stealing of nest rocks, and the bachelors wandering off early to the ocean for food..
I've still got my egg - I'm good.
Stealing a nest rock

 After we felt we had gotten more photos then we needed we headed back down across the ice and even had fun watching the penguins that were heading out across the ice towards the ocean.
Come on buddy, it's only 2km to open water...

The whole scene was amazing, and as you walked back you could just see how desolate the place is despite all of it's beauty.  They had a emergency tent stationed at the landing point, but even with that you get an idea that if the weather really took a turn you could be in big trouble.  It's a very isolated place and the time you spend there really makes one appreciate what the early explorers went through...

That evening at a very late dinner our table recounted our stories of the day, we did feel somewhat bad about talking about seeing an Emperor up close whilst others were out touring Devil's Island, we were interrupted with an announcement that there was another Kaiser penguin just right outside.  Everyone on the trip had now seen at least one Emperor, not a bad way to end our day...
Kaiser Penguin enjoying the sunset in Antarctica

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Officially on Antarctica

After two plus days of crossing the Drake Passage we awoke excited to be deep into the Weddell Sea and close to Snow Island.  Snow Island was the focal point of this trip, the Emperor Penguin Rookery where the penguins would have just had their chicks and we would be able to wander amongst these southern giants and their newly hatched babies.

So the whole ship was excited about this and we talked about the day at breakfast while we also discussed the fact that the ship was fully driven into some serious pack ice.  We were stopped and it wasn't until later in the day that we realized exactly where we were in relation to Snow Island.  Turns out we weren't anywhere near it...

So during the night we turned the corner of the Antarctic Peninsula and immediately ran into a sea completely covered in ice.  Snow Island was 60+ miles to the south and although we were on an ice pushing ship you can't push ice into ice, so we were stopped.  The captain back up a few times and tried other routes, the helicopters went up to scout for openings, and nothing was available.  The trip to Snow Island was not going to happen on this tour.

The lecture that Delphine had to give explaining this was a bit of a let down, Tina called it a "come to Jesus" meeting,  and it left people with all sorts of mixed emotions.  You could tell that the crew wasn't happy about it - most ice seen this late in the season in more then seven years - and they were in full scramble mode to try and placate those of us that were not exactly excited about the fact that we were not going to be able to meet the objective of our tour.

Let me take this moment to talk about the passengers on this cruise - there were a total of 87 of us and Tina and I were in the minority in being that this was our first Antarctic trip.  There were a majority of professional photographers on this trip and several groups of people of that had been on several Arctic and Antarctic trips.  This trip was/is one of those 'once in a lifetime' opportunities that do not come up that often, and the Emperor Penguin is at the top of the list of least accessible.  As much as every itinerary states that conditions change and the whole trip plan may need to be scrapped nobody really want's to believe any of that, so when something as simple as ice gets in the way of everyone's dreams calling it a disappointment is a bit of an understatement.

The first step in trying to determine what to do was to take us passengers and put us into the helicopters and fly us to the continent, over to View Point.  The thing about the trip to View Point is that it is solid land on Antarctica as our original itinerary did not have us ever actually touching the continent.  One of the expedition leaders, Pablo (the 'token Argentinian' as he put it) explained in one of his lectures that getting to Snow Island, Devils Island, and Deception Island are the same as being on the continent the same as you can say that you've been to the North American continent when you've been to Manhattan.  This did bring up a lot of discussion as to if you really were going to be able to say "I've been to Antarctica" - England doesn't count as Europe, islands don't count and the like - and the trip to View Point essentially ended all of those discussions.

I like to think that we were in the better group on the cruise, although we were disappointed we knew this could happen and we were glad in general to just be on a nice 2 week holiday.  So far up to this point, and I'm including how bad we felt with the seasickness, we had been fully impressed with and enjoying the trip.  So following now are the photos of our awaking to a solid ice sheet and the trip to View Point, Antarctica.

 Early morning, looking off the back of the ship at open waters and the eastern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, and then looking forward as a complete sheet of pack ice that we just could not break through.
 Adelie penguins making the long trek across the ice to get to the water.

There were a good amount of Adelie penguins that we got to see, but one of the more exciting moments came later that evening when Emperor Penguins were spotted -
 There were two of them followed by an Adelie and I'll swear that the ship listed to the side when everyone ran up to watch and snap documentation of their memories.  This was cute and funny and a great insight into what we later dubbed the 'comical mindset of the penguin.'  The Adelie was following the two Emperors as they walked across the ice, and at one point they stopped to let him lead the way.  He looked back at them and they stepped in his direction but as soon as he continued on again they turned and made a straight run for the water.  Photo two there shows the Emperors heading away from him, the poor little Adelie turned to see the second one about to dive in and immediately set out in a full penguin run catch up to them.  Penguins, be design, do not run well at all, and what with their speed in the water we doubt that he managed to find the emperor's again...

Okay sorry, didn't mean to get distracted with penguin stuff - let's go back to photos of the trip to the continent.
Helicopters on their way out and back again with other passengers.  The ship was broken down into 10 groups and we were in group 7 so this first day of helicoptering we were in one of the later groups to head out.  But soon we were off on Tina's first ever helicopter ride and with having to climb up over a mountain ridge and some good winds it made sure to be exciting for her...


And then there we were safely on land, on the land of Antarctica, and looking out over those damned sheets of solid ice that had stopped our ship.
 We returned to see out ship surrounded by ice - one of the guides stated that he thought the captain was 'getting twitchy' about the ice closing in and so he backed it out to more open waters so that we could head off to yet another adventure the next day.
Another good dinner around 20:00 and we retired to the bar to enjoy to company of others and watch the sunset.  The above sunset photo was taken just minutes before 22:00 and was then followed by a spectacular rising of a full moon before we headed off to bed.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Finally - on to Antarctica

The brief pause in posting was not just to build up anticipation for writing about the remainder of our trip, but just an abundance of work which took precedence over taking the time for  storytelling.  I do apologize and plan to pump through and get caught up on what I feel I owe to those of you who occasionally stumble in here looking for stuffs to read.

That said, let's move on to talking about our trip to Antarctica.  From our last post, we were all settled into our cabin for our first night and just still trying to comprehend that we were just a few days away from actually getting to the continent.  During the overnight the ship had moved down through the Beagle Channel and stopped to wait for the helicopters that would take us to the Emperor penguin colony.  With the rough weather the helicopters had to delay their takeoff from Chile and there was a bit of waiting during that first morning.

During that time there were lectures from all of the guides talking about the animals that we would see, the weather, the history of trips to Antarctica, and just about anything that you would want to know about the trip.  The guides each had their own area of expertise and all gave amazingly interesting presentations.

However there was one issue and that was that the trip down the channel and the waiting were in slightly rougher seas then we would have liked - a bad start to the dreaded Drake Passage, waters that we knew could be quite rough.  One photo that we wish we had taken was the sea sickness bags that had been placed at regular intervals all along the railings in the hallways of the ship.  With the waters Tina spend the day bedridden after getting up and pushing her breakfast around her plate while not feeling well.  I was slightly off but managed to get to all of the presentations and grab some photos of the birds circling the ship and when the helicopters finally arrived.

At dinner that night I sat with a couple of the expedition leaders and we all laughed about how there were less then 1/2 of the people at dinner that night due to the seas, they asked about Tina and I explained that she had succumbed to be one of the lesser half.  I joked but just eating the rolls while waiting for dinner and I could feel my stomach turn, dinner was served and one bite into my meal I had to excuse myself and run up to our cabin.  The seas had gotten to me too, and when I returned out of the bathroom Tina simply said 'Welcome to the dark side..."  It was at that point that we decided that maybe we should put on those anti-nausea patches that so many other people including the staff were wearing neatly tucked behind their ears.

A long nights sleep and possible help from the patches and we awoke refreshed.  The next two days were spend in the drake passage with choppy waters and the occasional plates sliding off of tables while enjoying meals.  We wandered the ship, spend time at the bar chatting with others and enjoyed watching Corner Gas - which we had just downloaded to our iPod - in our cabin.

Enjoy now these photos that encapsulate the first days of our trip:

One of the helicopters arriving
 Several photos of the various birds that accompanied us through the Drake Passage

 At one point during the crossing we had to vacuum all of our velcro fasteners and clothing to ensure that we introduced no foreign material to the pristine environment of Antarctica.

And then finally - land.  The South Shetland Islands and a magnificent sunset...

That night we all went to bed knowing that overnight we would round the corner into the Weddell Sea and would be sailing down towards the Emperor Penguin colony.  Just a day or so away from what we came to see.
One of our first penguin sightings near the South Shetland Islands.