December 17, 2011
ORNE HARBOR, ANTARCTICA -- Hello, sunshine!!! For the first time since we were still in the Drake Passage, we got some really nice sunshine and weather all around. The wind wasn’t too terrible, nor were the waves, and the sun felt great. Almost more importantly, the sun granted us some good light for pictures, so all those gentoo penguin close-ups should turn out now. J
Our first stop was at Danko Island, where we climbed up a mountain, over 500 feet over the bay. The hiking trail went around a number of gentoo penguin colonies, with some very well-defined penguin highways. I ended up getting stuck in the snow on the way down – it had just fallen the previous few days, and therefore it was really tough walking and hiking conditions, but it was a lot of fun!
It was interesting watching the penguins – despite their appearance, they walked straight up this mountain way faster than we could, at probably 3-4 times our speed. You see penguins waddling around and walking quite slowly most of the time, but put a penguin on a penguin highway heading straight up a 500+ foot mountain, and they absolutely whoop our butts.
I fell over a number of times hiking, but the snow was refreshing in the sunshine and wind! Sometimes with all the gear on it becomes really easy to over-heat, so you need to slow down for numerous reasons – you don’t want to break a sweat and then be out in Antarctica with a cold body for several hours. As such, the quickest way to cool down is usually to just pull off to the side of a hiking path and throw yourself into the snow, laying there for awhile.
After our landing on Danko Island, we did an iceberg zodiac cruise right around the island. We saw a Wedell seal as well as a Crabeater seal. We also saw a number of ice arches and ice bridges that were rather unique. We asked our zodiac driver, Matt, if we could drive under one, and the response was that despite their innocent appearance, they weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds and could kill you instantly. We wisely took in the view from afar (not really afar, per se, but from 15 feet away instead of directly under it).
In the afternoon we cruised over to Orne Harbor, where we saw an iceberg with four Crabeater seals all sharing it. By this point in the blog, you’ve read a number of times about Crabeater seals. No, they do not get boring in the least bit – quite the contrary, you start to analyze them and look for traits, such as scars on the back (finding one without any is extremely rare), scars on the face (mostly fighting amongst males), and other characteristics. It is fun but also educational, and our ability to noticeably identify these animals as well as birds and others is a testament to the staff here and their lectures that have been top-notch. Thanks staff!
In addition to the four seals, we saw a colony of chinstrap penguins. Interestingly, there was one gentoo there amongst them as well, which isn’t extremely rare, but you really notice the differences between them when they are standing next to one another and one is twice the size while the others are more nimble and adaptable, etc. The colony of chinstraps was on the steepest mountain and rocks we have seen so far, virtually a cliff, and I gained a newfound respect for them in watching them attempt and succeed at scaling them.
Tonight was camping night, so for those lucky enough to have booked it (camping was sold out by the time I knew about it), they departed immediately after dinner. As such, for the group still on board, we were determined to have a memorable evening. We ended up in the Discovery Lounge quite late. At one point I was out on the deck behind the Polar Bear Bar, and saw an iceberg come flying by us as we were anchored. I decided to put the camera and tripod to action – I set it up on the ship railing, and shot a 10 minute HD video, that I later sped up to eight times speed. At that rate, you can really see the iceberg moving, our ship spinning on anchor, the zodiacs bringing out the campers zipping by, and even the penguins coming by into and out of the frame, swimming along.
During all of this, I was outside wearing my white workout shorts and a long sleeve black workout shirt. Why? No, I was not running (although that always sounds good). Instead, tonight was Black and White dinner night, so everyone was dressed up in black and white, and that was all I had. After dinner, however, we voted on the best costume, and the winners won some champagne. From there, we played a fun game of guessing Antarctica vocabulary – three staff members would go up and tell a story explaining the meaning of a word (lurker and doomix, to name a few examples), only one was true, and we had to guess. Our group did terribly – out of eight words, we got all of two correct, but the staff members were great and it was a lot of fun.
Quote of the day, courtesy ship historian Scott, comes from Barry Lopez, and I think does an excellent job of capturing the majesty of this place: “Antarctica reflects the mystery called G-d.”