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12/23/2007

At Sea

Throughout the night Explorer II made very good time toward our next landfall, South Georgia, moving along at a steady clip of 13 knots. The seas had increased modestly to a Beaufort 4, and the ride was smooth. The sun came out on cue for a while in the mid-morning, when both guests and naturalists gathered on the aft deck to view the many tubenosed birds following the ship. Somewhat earlier the blows of a few distant and subsurface baleen whales were seen, yet the animals never revealed enough of themselves for an identification. Among the birds we ogled were white-chinned petrel, several Southern giant petrels, numerous prions, Cape petrels, and a wandering albatross. An immature Northern royal albatross was seen well, and it stimulated lively discussion on plumage maturation patterns and the seemingly vain search for a unified field theory that would definitively distinguish between the plumage stages of young of the ‘great albatrosses’. A gray-headed albatross and a greater shearwater each made appearances, lone representatives of their kind.

Henry gave a lecture entitled “Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift: How Antarctica Came to the South Pole,” a story of incredible geological forces repositioning the crust of the earth over thousands of miles and millions of years. The “young explorers” learned how to keep an expedition journal and played charades. We all gathered for a mandatory IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) briefing, where Marco told us about the rules in place to protect Antarctica from exotic invasive species whilst minimizing our impacts in general upon the environment and its denizens. The dorsal fins and blows of two massive fin whales were seen near the bow.

Ron presented a lecture on “Exploration of the Antarctic Regions,” in which he highlighted some of the more remarkable stories of human interactions with “Tierra Australis Incognita.” We spent more time out on deck before ‘Tea’, and then Chris delivered a lecture on the “Pinnipeds of the Far South.” This lecture was followed by yet more time outside by the intrepid amongst us, who stood on the promenade deck as the seas built. Fortunately the “seas” were “following,” so we surfed our way eastward and stood protected from the mounting winds. Prions wheeled in the strong winds, seemingly barely in control, like scraps of paper blown down a city street. A wandering albatross and Northern giant petrels appeared to defy the force of the wind by transforming it into lift and speed by heading straight into it. Two soft-plumaged petrels arced high on the wind, and both Wilson’s and black-bellied petrels stayed just above the water’s surface. At recap Ron recounted the tragic history of whaling at South Georgia Island with some disturbing graphics. Brent spoke of the life history of the diminishing populations of black-browed albatross and illustrated the awe-inspiring wingspan of the wandering albatross, the largest flying bird in the world. Marco briefed us on our plans for arriving at South Georgia. During dinner, the weather intensified to a Force 11 storm, and yet Explorer II evidenced it only by means of the controlled sliding of wine glasses on crisp tablecloths in the formal dining room. Few drops were spilled as we learned just how well-suited for the vagaries of the Southern Ocean this ship truly is.

   

The onboard lecture series was in full swing as mammalogist Chris Cutler made a point during his lecture on seals.

Naturalist Sarah McElrea talks with a passenger in the lounge on this day at sea.

Three passengers went out on deck to experience the wind and waves as the Explorer II encountered strong winds.

Although the wind was blowing, some passengers preferred to be on deck rather than inside.

The Young Explorers got together for a lively game of charades in the afternoon.


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