Breakfast time saw ‘Le Lyrial’ leaving the Beagle Channel and heading into the Drake Passage which was thankfully very calm. This was a great relief for anyone with a queasy stomach. Being a sea-day, the program of activities included four enrichment lectures from our shipboard experts. We started with Marine Biologist Jim McClintock presenting ‘From Plankton to Penguins: the Impacts of Climate Change on the Antarctic Peninsula’. This was no dry discussion of scientific data because Jim has been working on the ecology of this region for 30 years and his lecture was punctuated by his personal experiences and the fascinating results of his work. He gave us very convincing facts that show how human-induced climate change is dramatically impacting on the Antarctic Peninsula. As sea water and air temperatures warm up, glaciers are receding at unprecedented rates. Moreover, floating ice shelves, hundreds of feet thick and attached to land, are following suit. It is in the news at the moment that a widening crack in the ice spells an imminent break-up of the Larsen C iceshelf. Take away the ice shelves and the land-ice flow into the sea increases, so accelerating global sea-level rise.
Marine life of the Antarctic Peninsula is also responding to climate change. The Adélie penguin, whose life is intimately tied to the annual sea-ice, is disappearing from Palmer Station, the US research station where Jim works. This is linked to warmer, more humid, conditions causing storms that bury the nesting penguins in snow. When the snow melts the eggs drown. A generation of penguins can be lost in a single storm. The Adélies also depend on the sea ice to reach their food – the rich schools of krill. As the annual sea ice disappears the penguins have to swim rather than slide easily across the ice, so using up critical food reserves that should be used for raising their offspring. And krill themselves are having trouble because ‘teenage’ krill depend on tiny plants called diatoms that grow under the sea ice. Phytoplankton (microscopic floating green plants) are being driven deeper by surface currents induced by climate change so they receive less of the sunlight required for growth. Finally, ocean acidification, the result of the absorption of carbon dioxide by the world’s oceans, is challenging Antarctic plankton, especially sea butterflies, numerous as the stars in the sky, whose thin delicate shells are dissolved by the acid. But there is hope. The hole in the ozone over Antarctica offers a model of promise. Over 190 countries collectively enforce regulations to prevent the release of refrigerants that destroy the ozone that protects us from ultra-violet radiation. Scientists now estimate the ozone hole is likely to close by mid-century. Let’s hope that humankind will apply a similar global approach to solve a problem as all-encompassing as global climate change.
Jim’s talk has set the scene for a subject that will be raised throughout this cruise. Not only do we have the experts to lead the discussion but the Antarctic Peninsula is a part of the world where the effects of warming are very obvious.
Historian Bob Burton’s presentation of ‘My Favourite Heroes of Antarctic Exploration’ changed the perspective from the future to the past. It was a discussion of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration: the time of Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton that lasted from about 1895 to Shackleton’s death in 1922. Bob gave a brief overview of the 17 expeditions from 8 nations that made up the Heroic Age. The main focus of the lecture was that Antarctic exploration in this period was heroic because men were trying to investigate the most inhospitable, savage part of the world with inadequate equipment and provisions, but with indomitable courage. Bob demonstrated this with three stories of unbelievable hardship and endeavour: The Winter Journey on Scott’s Last Expedition in which three men (Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard) trudged through the bitter Antarctic night to collect emperor penguin eggs; the six men of the Northern Party of Scott’s Last Expedition who were stranded and spent the winter in a cramped, chilly snow hole with very little food; and Australian Douglas Mawson’s incredible solo trek back to base after his two companions had died – a triumph of mental strength over physical adversity.
Lunch came as a welcome relief from stories of men starving themselves on inadequate diets of pemmican, seal and penguin, and there was time for a rest before Ornithologist Rob Tymstra brought us back to the immediate present with ‘Seabirds of the Drake Passage and Antarctica’. The first thing we think of in association with the planet’s Deep South is penguins. But there are lots of other interesting birds flying and swimming around the seas fringing the continent.
We are already seeing some of the several species of magnificent albatrosses that circle the continent in quest of food and breed on subantarctic islands. They are members of the group known as ‘tubenoses’ from the twin tubular nostrils on the top of their beaks. The range includes the relatively tiny storm-petrels, larger prions, diving-petrels, cape petrels and the two species of giant petrels. When we go ashore we will see marauding skuas (members of the gull family) and giant petrels patrol the edges of penguin colonies, hoping to steal an egg or a hapless chick from watchful parents. Running around the colonies there will be the pure white, pigeon-sized sheathbills which are always on the lookout for ways to steal food. They are usually trying to steal krill that parent penguins are passing to their chicks but they even intercept a mother seal’s milk before it reaches her pup. In rocky places we may see blue-eyed shags busy courting as they try to find fresh mates for the year – very different from the albatrosses that mostly stick faithfully to their chosen ones for life. Then there are the visitors, like the long-distance nomads: the Arctic terns that fly 20,000 kilometres from their nesting grounds in the far north to spend their winters around the Antarctic pack-ice. There’s a lot more going on in the Antarctic than waddling penguins. To help novices who wanted to get the most out of this unique opportunity for watching seabirds, Rob gathered them on the Pool Deck for a workshop on binoculars. This was a real ‘in-depth’ instruction of everything you need to know about these versatile tools. Rob covered the history of their development, how they work, how to take care of them, how to set them up for the best performance and (a bit late!) what to look for when purchasing them.
The last presentation in this marathon day of enlightenment was Marine Biologist Larry Hobbs’ ‘Marine Mammals of the Southern Ocean: Where Blubber and Bad Hair Days are not a problem’. He began with a fascinating overview of the evolution of whales from land-living ancestors. The two main types are the toothed whales (which include the dolphins and porpoises) and the baleen whales that sieve their food of krill and fish from the water with baleen or whalebone plates. He related the amazing life-histories and habits of some of these giant animals, including the blue whale whose enormous size is hard to appreciate, the humpback whale which is the one we are most likely to see at close quarters, and the orca (killer whale) which is one of Antarctica’s true top predators and has a fascinating and sophisticated social life. Species like the blue and humpback are beginning to make a very welcome comeback after the ravages of whaling. The most dramatic parts of Larry’s presentation were video clips of a blue whale feeding – its huge mouth engulfing tons of krill – and killer whales creating waves to wash seals off ice floes. Having fascinated us with his stories of whales, Larry turned to the seals which we will encounter on the cruise. In Antarctica, we should see four species of true seals: the Weddell, crabeater (which eats krill!), leopard (with spotted coats!) and elephant (with big noses!) seals, that swim with their hindflippers. Fur seals are eared seals with small external ears that swim with their foreflippers and tuck their hindflippers under their bodies to run rapidly. The true seals do not have external ears, they swim by ‘sculling’ with their hindflippers and move relatively slowly on land. Larry gave some interesting and often graphic details of the feeding and breeding habits of the various species.
For the evening we switched to ‘social mode’, starting with Captain Marien’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party in which he introduced the senior officers. This was followed by the Welcome Dinner in Le Céleste restaurant. And so ended a quite hectic, but meteorologically calm, day.