December 15, 2011
NEUMAYER CHANNEL, ANTARCTICA -- Good evening from the coast off the Antarctic Peninsula! We cruised overnight across the Bransfield Strait southeast to the peninsula, and this morning arrived at Paradise Bay.
This morning we awoke to a change in weather. For the first time since leaving Buenos Aires, we had a big calming of the wind, and virtually flat seas. In exchange for those bits of good news, the temperature dropped from the upper 30s/low 40s to the low 30s, below freezing, and the skies decided to drop some snow on us, making the decks rather slippery, and our day of landings and cruising was quite eventful.
First up, in Paradise Bay, was a zodiac cruise. Instead of making an actual landing, we simply had an hour to cruise amongst ice cliffs and icebergs in the snow, which was a ton of fun, although shooting pictures was quite a challenge in a pretty heavy and wet snow. That said, I did get a few good ones, and the hour was busy. First up, we saw a full ten crabeater seals come within ten feet of our zodiac! They must have heard us coming and decided to be playful, and surfaced right in front of us. By the time everyone had our wet cameras ready, they were further ahead, although I did get some good pictures of them playing right in front of the zodiac we were traveling with us, just up ahead. After seeing the seals, we next saw a small flock of gentoo penguins, and then a couple of snow petrels. Snow petrels are birds that are actually native to Antarctica. They are born, live, and breed here without leaving, which make them incredibly unique. Most penguins, whales, seals, and other animals all leave and then spend some significant time here, but are not really native to Antarctica. The snow petrel, however, is just that, and seeing them flying in the snow and white ice was majestic.
The highlight of the zodiac cruise was stepping onto a floating iceberg in the middle of the strait. We found a larger piece of deep ice with a flat ending so that we were able to actually land the front of the zodiac on top of it, and then got off the bow of the zodiac onto the iceberg. We had a small makeshift snowball fight, took some pictures, and I got a nice video of everyone surrounded by the water on a single piece of ice, as we floated along. Kind of scary in hindsight but a great experience nonetheless!
After the zodiac cruise we had some lunch and set sail over to a British research station at the peninsula, Port Lockroy. We had a short briefing from workers from the base, and then got our passports stamped with an actual Antarctica stamp! Another milestone – getting my seventh continent passport stamp, and all seven continent stamps in a single passport, another one of those special things people deliberately set out to achieve, and that I didn’t realize was even possible until quite recently. The stamp is great and came out nice and sharp – see photo below!
We had two landings at Port Lockroy - the UK base itself and then a separate penguin colony across from it. First stop was the penguin colony, where we saw a huge number (several hundred?) gentoo penguins, and a beautiful and unique bird, the blue-eyed shag. I find it rather hilarious that a bird native to a British base in Antarctica was named a shag, yet not at all surprising, haha. At the base itself, there was a post office where I was able to send out a couple of postcards. The route they take is nuts – the mail goes from Port Lockroy to the Falkland Islands, and then from there on a military flight back to the UK, and then from the UK onto the US or anywhere else in the world you want to send mail to. Certainly not the most direct route, and I am quite curious when they will arrive!
Also at Port Lockroy was a souvenir shop – I got myself a hat, a t-shirt, and a small stuffed penguin animal for home. There was also a population of penguins at the base itself that is used to humans, and I got an excellent video of a penguin walking right up to and then next to me, and past me. You can see exactly what the penguin was thinking as it approached and then passed me – it is quite funny to watch.
The workers at the base work there for five months at a time, which is impressive enough as it is, but then on top of that, they aren’t allowed to have a boat per the Antarctic treaty, so they are effectively stuck on a tiny little island endlessly. We are letting the four girls who work there shower on our ship and have a good dinner with us tonight. Dinner ended up being Indian food, which, like everything else on this ship, was quite tasty. Another night at the polar bear right now blogging, checking photos, and enjoying each other’s company. Quote of the day belongs to me, referring to Antarctica as we took photos of all who had reached Antarctica as our seventh continent: “Antarctica, number seven on our lists, number one in our hearts.” Looking forward to what tomorrow brings in the white continent!