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Classic Antarctica Trip Log January 7 - 19, 2019
Monday, January 7: Ushuaia, Argentina
We arrived from all corners of the world to the little port of Ushuaia, Argentina. Known as Ciudad del Fin de Mundo (the City at the End of the World), Ushuaia has grown rapidly in recent years, but still maintains its frontier-town feel, with streets of small houses and every kind of architecture. On the hillside behind the old town, clusters of new houses are appearing in clearings of the native forest. Our flights were dramatic for the grandstand views over the Andes Mountains and panoramas of glaciers, lakes, and snow-covered peaks.
By late afternoon, we boarded 'Le Lyrial' and were welcomed by the crew and staff, and were shown to our cabins, where we found our complimentary parkas and backpacks. After settling in, it was time for celebratory champagne in La Comète, one of two restaurants on board, to toast the start of our expedition.
After time on the pool deck in the warm afternoon sun, we gathered for a mandatory emergency drill at our muster station where we learned how to don life vests and make our way to the lifeboats. It was all reassuringly simple and efficient.
Next, we met in the lecture theater where Brazilian Cruise Leader Suzana Machado D’Oliveira welcomed us on board 'Le Lyrial' and Briton Cruise Director outlined the facilities available on our luxury ship and routine of daily life at sea. He was followed by Argentine Expedition Leader Marco Favero, who explained how changing conditions in this part of the world — which include wind, weather, and ice — require his team to work closely with our Captain to create flexible back-up plans.
Then Suzana introduced Captain Mickael Debien, who welcomed us on board. He promised there would be opportunities when we could visit the bridge, which offers superb views and the chance to see the operation of the ship. Finally, the members of our Expedition Team who had come from all around the world — the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and the Philippines — briefly introduced themselves and shared some of their responsibilities. Many members have several decades’ experience working in Antarctica — more than 50 years in one case.
After dinner, it was an early night and most of us retired to our cabins, hoping for a speedy and comfortable cruise across the Drake Passage and to Antarctica. The weather forecast is good.
Tuesday, January 8: Crossing the Drake Passage
In the early hours of the night, 'Le Lyrial' called at the small port of Puerto Williams where a barge came out to bunker us – transferring the fuel needed for our long voyage. Then we continued down the Beagle Channel. The sun rose into a pale blue sky around 4 o’clock in the morning and the only indications that we were moving were the rumble of the engine, the creaking of closet doors and the gentle swaying of our stateroom drapes. We were heading into a delightfully calm Drake Passage.
Our day would include four enrichment lectures, beginning with Patricia (Patri) Silva who talked about “Seabirds of the Southern Ocean.” She introduced us to the albatrosses and petrels that will accompany 'Le Lyial' throughout the cruise. They form the large group of Procellariiformes, the tube-nosed birds, one of the most incredible groups of seabirds. Their particular characteristic is that their nostrils are placed in tubes in the upper half of the beak, but they are better known for their effortless flight in the winds that sweep over the vast open spaces of the world's oceans. Patry gave us information about the life history of these birds, with special attention to the most common species we might see in the Southern Ocean.
Patri was followed by Photo Coach Richard Harker's talk on "Photographing Antarctica: What to expect and how to prepare." Nearly everyone aboard has a digital camera (often in a smartphone) and will take dozens of photographs to make a permanent record of the expedition and to share their experiences with friends and family back home. Richard's coaching will be invaluable for getting the most from our cameras.
Both lectures proved to be very relevant because 'Le Lyrial' was surrounded by giant petrels, black-browed albatrosses, cape petrels and other species. These ocean seabirds cover thousands of miles in pursuit of their prey and it is now known that they search for their food with a keen sense of smell. While on the wing, they are in constant motion and so they make challenging subjects for photography.
During morning and afternoon, the Expedition Team (wearing their identifying yellow parkas) were on hand to help identify the albatrosses and their relatives following in our wake and to keep a keen watch for whales. Photo Coach Richard Harker would also be available to give advice and assistance. They will be on duty every day when not leading shore excursions.
In the afternoon Whale Biologist Larry Hobbs presented “Marine Mammals of the Southern Ocean: Where Blubber and Bad Hair Days are Not a Problem.” After an overview of the evolution of whales, Larry identified the two main types of whales: toothed whales which include dolphins and porpoises, and baleen whales which sieve their food of krill and fish through plates of baleen or whalebone. There would be a good chance of seeing humpback whales and killer whales or orcas, Antarctica’s top predator, and maybe other species.
The final presentation was Climate Ecologist Jim McClintock’s “Impacts of Rapid Climate Change on the Antarctic Peninsula.” Jim offered a close look at the impact of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula. With rising sea and air temperatures, glaciers are receding at unprecedented rates, and floating ice shelves — hundreds of feet thick and attached to land — are breaking off huge tabular icebergs that float away and slowly melt.
Marine life is also responding to this dramatic change. The Adélie penguin, whose life is intimately tied to the annual sea-ice, is disappearing from Palmer Station, the U.S. research station where Jim conducts some of his research. Warmer, more humid conditions have caused storms that bury nesting penguins in snow, and when the snow melts, their eggs drown. But the hole in the ozone over Antarctica offers 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. Jim’s talk set the tone for an important subject that would continue to be explored throughout our cruise.
Tonight, we looked forward to Captain Debien’s Welcome Cocktail Party, followed by our Welcome Dinner. These would be semi-formal occasions when we dressed more smartly than usual.
Wednesday, January 9: At Sea Crossing the Drake Passage
Shipboard life proceeded at its usual gentle pace. Patri Silva gave her second talk on “Bird in Tuxedos: Why do they look so different?” This was an essential introduction to the penguins which will dominate our attention whenever we go ashore. Patri introduced us to the penguins of the world. She began with the very accurate comment that of all the over 8,800 species of birds in the world, the penguins are like no others. She then highlighted some of the species we may encounter on this trip including the Adélie penguins, which march many miles over the sea ice in October to reach their breeding colonies. She also spoke of the macaroni penguins, which lay two different-sized eggs, only one of which usually makes it fledge as an independent youngster. Then there are the two largest: the emperor and king penguins. Kings live to the north – for instance, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia – and emperors in the far south where they lay their eggs on the sea ice in the depths of the winter. It was a very entertaining presentation and we managed to pick up a smattering of Spanish as well as the biology of penguins.
Before lunch, Expedition Director Suzana briefed us on how we will use Zodiac inflatable boats for our excursions ashore and provided instructions on how to safely embark and disembark. They are an extremely safe method of travel of getting large numbers of people rapidly to and from the ship. Russ, our senior boat driver, demonstrated how to dress appropriately (and warmly). Then Expedition Leader Marco conducted a mandatory briefing on the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) guidelines for going ashore in Antarctica. These ensure that our visits will be conducted safely and that the environment and wildlife will not be disturbed by our presence. The rules are mostly obvious: no littering or trampling of vegetation, and no approaching penguins and seals within 15 feet (although they can approach us).
By the middle of the day, we reached the chain of the South Shetland Islands, which were the first part of Antarctica to be discovered in 1819. So we have crossed the dreaded Drake Passage and encountered hardly a wave or a breath of wind. We are so lucky to have reached Antarctica by crossing what the expedition team calls the “Drake Lake” when the sea is calm.
Proceeding through English Strait, we arrived at the two Aitcho Islands (Their strange name is derived from the initials of the UK's Hydrographic Office) in the late afternoon. The calm seas had allowed a very rapid passage from Ushuaia so there was time for a first landing today. This was a bonus addition to our expedition.
Barrientos Island was mostly clear of snow and it was an easy walk up the slope from the beach to small colonies of chinstrap and gentoo penguins. Their chicks were about two weeks old and still in their nests. We could watch their parents feeding them and, by keeping at least 15 ft away, we could watch them without causing a disturbance. A great surprise was a king penguin standing by itself on the beach. This species breeds on the island of South Georgia and in South America and is rarely seen so far south. We also saw giant petrels and Antarctic skuas but were not happy to see them attacking the penguins’ chicks, but predation is an essential part of nature.
While each group was ashore, Historian Bob Burton’s gave his presentation, “My Favorite Heroes of Antarctic Exploration” to the other group. He examined the heroic age of Antarctic exploration; the time of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton that lasted from 1895 to Shackleton’s death in 1922. This is the age of Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton but Bob showed that there were 17 expeditions to Antarctica during this period from the U.K., Belgium, Norway, France, Sweden, Germany, Australia, and Japan. They were heroic because they were exploring the harshest environment in the world with inadequate equipment and succeeding against all the odds. Bob demonstrated this by sharing stories that included Scott’s Last Expedition, in which three men trudged through a bitter Antarctic night to collect emperor penguin eggs, 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.
Thursday, January 10: Brown Bluff and Gourdin Island, South Shetland Islands
'Le Lyrial' was already at anchor off Brown Bluff when we got up and the earliest risers were treated to the sight of a humpback whale cruising around the ship before breakfast. It was to be a busy morning, as it will be on most days. The first group, The Endurances, were the first to be taken ashore, starting at 0730. They swapped with the Discoveries at 0930. Our destination was Brown Bluff, well-named for its vertical cliff face - 2,225 ft (745 m) - of rust-colored rock. This site is rarely visited but it gives a landing on the tip of the Peninsula and is therefore a "mainland landing" on the continent of Antarctica. So for some of us, it was their “Seventh Continent” (Most of our landings will be on offshore islands, which are easier to reach by ship.)
The principal interest on this landing was a breeding colony of 60,000 pairs of Adélie penguins, together with a small number of Gentoo penguins. The Adélie chicks were about three weeks old and beginning to gather in groups called creches, which will allow both parents to go to sea at once to gather food to fuel their fast-growing offspring. There was a continuous stream of adults leaving the colony and marching along the edge of the beach. They then gathered in a tight flock until, at some hidden signal, they would rush, squawking into the water and head out to sea. They like to go out to sea in groups because it reduces the chances of being caught by a leopard seal. One of these predatory animals swam past but we did not see it hunting.
Geologist Daria Nikitina was able to tell us about the interesting geology of Brown Bluff. The upper brown-colored rocks are pyroclastics which consist of compacted layers of cinders and ash thrown out of a volcano. The black rocks below are pillow lavas (from their shape) which formed in fresh water under the ice. NASA has come to Brown Bluff to study these rocks because they believe there are similarly-formed rocks on Mars. Behind the beach, there are large rocks that have tumbled down from the cliffs. They are called ventifacts because they are beautifully sculpted by the wind.
During lunch, 'Le Lyrial' steamed back through Antarctic Sound (named for the ship of Otto Nordenskjold’s Swedish expedition) and in the afternoon there was a change of tempo as we went for a zodiac cruise in the neighborhood of Gourdin Island. The weather was not so good as in the morning. There were some wind and waves which made the Zodiac ride more exciting and visibility had deteriorated but this gave a great sense of atmosphere and the scenery was very dramatic. Onshore, we could see a huge colony of Adélie penguins and small groups passed us, porpoising – leaping out of the water – as they swam to and from the shore.
We were lucky to see a Weddell seal asleep on an ice floe. The boats could approach quite closely without disturbing its slumbers. Its spotted coat showed its original name was Weddell's sea leopard. James Weddell was a Scottish sealer who was the first to sail into the sea that also bears his name.
Daria gave her lecture to both groups in turn. This was “Geology of the Antarctic Peninsula: Old continent under the ice cap.” The rocks of Antarctica are 3.9 billion years old. Antarctica used to be part of the super continent Gondwana that broke apart 200 million years ago. Continents rift apart when volcanic rocks intrude into existing rocks. Antarctica has a rift structure, the West Antarctic Rift, that is comparable to the East African Rift. Antarctica has 31 active volcanoes, with the southernmost active volcano Mount Erebus having a deep lake of molten lava on its summit. Earlier this year scientists found evidence of a volcanic eruption from beneath Antarctic ice sheet. This volcano erupted 2000 years ago and is still active.
It has been possible to reconstruct the position of continents as far back as 650 million years ago. 550 million years ago the super continent Gondwana included Antarctica, Australia, India, South America, and Africa. About 300 million years ago North America and Europe collided with Gondwana to form the super continent Pangaea. Pangaea began to break apart about 200 million years ago and by 14 million years ago the position of continents was as we know it now. The Drake Passage opened up about 5.3 million years ago and allowed the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and Antarctic Convergence.
The last activity of the day was a surprise General Knowledge Quiz held in Le Grand Salon after dinner. Compared by Cruise Director Paul Carter, teams of six attempted to answer teasing questions such as which book has been the subject of the most movies? (Answer: Dracula). A hilarious time was had by all and the winners were rewarded with a bottle of champagne.
Friday, January 11: Mikkelsen Harbor and Spurt Island, Trinity Island
Today we witnessed the advantages of the ‘expeditioning’ approach to cruises, in which experienced staff modify the itinerary to give us the best experiences. The weather forecast had predicted strong winds at our planned destination in the South Shetlands but there appeared to be an area of calmer weather farther south in the Palmer Archipelago. So Expedition Leader Marco made the decision to head south overnight.
So we awoke to find the sun shining from a blue sky. (Daybreak comes early at latitude 63 degrees South) This was a marked contrast to the overcast sky and snow showers of yesterday. More importantly, there was little wind. As soon as breakfast was over, the first group was heading ashore to Mikkelsen Harbour named for Klarius Mikkelsen, Captain of a whaling ship who mapped several sections of previously unknown coastline. His wife, Caroline, was the first woman to set foot on the Antarctic mainland in 1935.
The harbor is a sheltered bay where whaling factory ships moored in the 1920s to carry out their grisly business. The shore was still littered with a tangle of huge bones — all that remains of the giant blue whales that were slaughtered a century ago — and a couple of old whaling boats. We could not see much of these relics because they were nearly buried under deep snow.
Whalecatcher boats used to bring in the whales they had shot to be flensed (stripped of blubber) alongside the factory ship. The flensers sliced the blubber into strips which were winched on board, cut into small pieces and fed into pressure cookers where the oil was cooked out.
Whaling anchorages needed to be sheltered and have fresh water for the ships' boilers. The vessels did not have the distillation capacity to make enough fresh water to work the machinery and provide steam for the pressure cookers. So water was brought from the shore in water boats, like the remains of the boat we saw here.
In the mid-1920s, the old floating factory ships were replaced by pelagic (open water) factories, equipped with a slipway in the stern so whales could be hauled onto the deck. It was now much easier to process the meat and bones (1/3 of the oil is in the bones) and, more importantly, whaling could take place on the open seas, away from the shelter of harbors.
Behind the whaling relics, there was a dozen Weddell seals, an attractive species with spotted coats and smiling faces, lying on the snow and basking in the sun. It was an easy walk along a well-worn track through the snow over the top of the island to a gentoo penguin colony. Nesting was not so advanced as in other colonies we have visited and the penguins were sitting firmly on eggs or very small chicks. Once in a while, we could catch sight of a chick when a parent penguin stood up to feed it.
Beside the colony, there was a well-maintained hut ‘Capitan Callet Bois‘ that was erected by the Hydrographic Department of the Argentine Navy in 1954 as a refuge and to bolster Argentina’s claim to this part of Antarctica.
The afternoon’s program was rather weather-dependent but reconnaissance showed that there was a good prospect of a Zodiac cruise around Spert Island, a small neighbor of Trinity Island. It had now clouded over and there was a chill wind so plenty of clothes were needed for the 50-minute excursion. The scenery was dramatic in the extreme. A small channeled into a lagoon within Spert Island so the boats were surrounded by high, vertical cliffs of basalt columns that betrayed the neighborhood’s volcanic origins.
But the real attraction was a small group of humpback whales that were surfacing frequently as they fed. The Zodiacs were able to quietly approach them without disturbance. There are recognized guidelines for approaching whales in small boats. When whales are feeding, 100 meters (300 feet) is the minimum distance and the boats should approach slowly and quietly while remaining alert for any changes in behavior, and a group of boats should leave an ‘avenue’ of open water so the whales are not ‘boxed in’. This was achieved and we had grandstand views of a mother with a calf and of the tail, flukes flipping clear of the water as the whales dived.
Saturday, January 12: Cuverville Island and Neko Harbor
The fine weather continued with little wind, high clouds and the sun breaking through. There was a full landing at Cuverville Island in the morning. This bell-shaped island was named for Vice-admiral Chevalier de Cuverville of the French Navy, who supported Adrien de Gerlache’s voyage of the Belgica in 1897-1899. It is one of the most verdant places in all of Antarctica, its steep slopes covered with mosses and lichen.
The landing place is nearly always guarded by stranded icebergs and today was no exception. The keener and fitter members of our party went ashore with outdoor expert Russ Manning to climb the side of the 815 ft hill that makes up most of the island. The thick cover of snow slowed the ascent and they got only as far as a plateau half way up but there was still a wonderful view of the surrounding berg-covered sea and distant icy mountains. The rest of us were content to visit a colony of gentoo penguins and continue our appreciation of these birds. Stealing pebbles from each other's nests seems to be a major pastime.
A Zodiac cruise among the weird and indescribably-shaped bergs completed the visit. But it was not the end of the day's scenic delights. On our return on board, 'Le Lyrial' upped anchor and cruised down the Errera Channel, one of the scenically most beautiful places in this region. The cloud base was well above the highest mountains and patches of sunlight illuminated their tops with pastel shades.
Leaving the Errera Channel behind, 'Le Lyrial' turned into Anvord Bay. After lunch, we boarded the zodiacs for a ride ashore in Neko Harbor. This scenic spot was first seen and roughly charted by Adrien de Gerlache during the Belgica Expedition. (During this expedition, many places, such as Anvers Island and Brabant Island, were given Belgian (French) names). In 1921, Neko Harbor was named for Christian Salvesen’s floating whaling factory Neko, which operated in the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula area between 1911 and 1924. At the back of the harbor, there was an immense wall of ice where a glacier dropped almost vertically into the sea. The water below was filled with lumps of ice and, once in a while, there was a roar and crash as an ice-fall tumbled down and splashed into the sea. On the other side of 'Le Lyrial’s' anchorage, distant mountains of Anvers Island completed an all-around panorama. Unusually, the * meter, * foot Mount Français, the highest mountain in the area, was completely clear.
Many of us decided to make the hike to the ridgeline above but were pleasantly distracted by the gentoo penguins nesting in small clusters along the way. Once past the penguins, we ascended a steep snow-covered hill and cut back to a rock outcropping from which we could see Anvord Bay in its entirety. Many of the hikers rested their legs on the way back to the shore by sliding down the snow-covered slope. It was such fun that some decided to climb back up and slide down a second time.
The landing beach was an excellent place to watch the penguins coming and going from the water. We could see them porpoising in from the distance and then launching themselves out of the water to land on the beach. Then came their long trek up to the colony along the 'penguin highways' carved into the snow by the passage of many feet. Those penguins going up the hill looked clean and fat with krill, those coming down were guano soiled and hungry.
While one group was out in the Zodiacs, the other group had the opportunity to listen to historian Bob Burton’s presentation ‘Penguins to the Rescue: the unsung role of penguins in Antarctic Exploration’. Bob showed how from the first voyages to the South Seas in the 16th century and through the Heroic Age of the 20th century, penguins were used of a source of food. They were a useful supplement to salted or canned meat rations but, more importantly, they were invaluable for preventing death by starvation when expeditions were stranded. As well as providing meat, penguins laid large, nutritious eggs and their blubber could be burnt to provide heat for cooking. Examples were given of several expeditions which had been saved by penguins when the men were stranded and forced to winter over.
Sunday, January 13: Port Charcot and Saltpetriere Bay, Booth Island
Before breakfast Captain Debien took 'Le Lyrial' on a winding course between the myriad icebergs to Port Charcot. This is a small bay named for his father by the French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot who wintered his ship Français there in 1904. (In the distance we could see Mount Français, the highest mountain in the Antarctic Peninsula region.) Naming a place after yourself is not permitted but Charcot named Port Charcot for his father, an eminent neurologist.
From the landing place, there was a short climb up a path beaten in the snow to the top of the ridge. As people reached the top and saw the scenery of blue sea studded with a myriad of stranded icebergs glistening in the sun, the common exclamations were ‘Wow’ and ‘Awesome’. This place is sometimes called an ‘iceberg graveyard’ because so many bergs are carried there on the prevailing current and left stranded. After a round of photographs, a track led in one direction to a penguin colony where Patri pointed out the ‘grand slam’ of brushtail penguins: gentoos, chinstraps, and Adélies, as well as a nearby colony of blue-eyed shags (or cormorants) that look like long-necked flying penguins. In the other direction, along trail led up a hill to a large cairn commemorating Charcot’s expedition, where the view was even more wonderful.
In the afternoon there was a Zodiac cruise among the same icebergs of Saltpetriere Bay that we had looked down on in the morning. The sun had come out and the ice-covered mountains and broad glaciers were glistening between the blue sky and blue sea. It was too beautiful for words! Close-up, the bergs are seen to be even more spectacular in shapes and colors. The Zodiacs were able to bring us close to a number of leopard seals and crabeater seals that we had seen distantly on the morning’s landing. They were basking on ice floes and they showed absolutely no interest in the cautiously approaching Zodiacs. Other leopard seals in the water, on the contrary, we're actually inquisitive and would swim right up to the boats.
All in all, it was a Zodiac cruise that outstripped all the earlier ones for sheer delight. And surprise! The icing on the cake was a glass of champagne served in the boats to celebrate our successful cruise.
“Drug Discovery in Antarctic Seas” started with cause for optimism, but there was a sting in the tail. Jim McClintock and his colleagues, chemist Bill Baker, and seaweed ecologist Chuck Amsler have spent half a lifetime studying why Antarctic marine plants and animals produce toxic chemicals. What was very exciting is that these same toxic compounds can also kill cancer cells or harmful bacteria. In the big picture, Antarctica is ripe with organisms with a high diversity of chemicals that may prove useful in medicine. At the same time, it’s important to note that climate change is rapidly threatening the very species that may serve humankind in this fashion.
The evening’s entertainment was a cruise through the Lemaire Channel which, in the days of film cameras was nicknamed Kodak Alley. The Channel, 7-miles long, 1-mile wide, is a passage between Booth Island and mainland Antarctica is a ‘must’ for any visit to the Antarctic Peninsula. The Channel is flanked by glaciated mountains and peaks that soar to over 2000 feet on the island and 3000 feet on the mainland. It is one of the most scenically beautiful places in the world and your correspondent lacks the ability to describe the scenes that were revealed as the ship moved slowly down the Channel.
The Lemaire Channel is visited by nearly every cruise ship that comes to the Antarctic Peninsula but not all get through. It is quite often choked with ice floes and small bergs and we had to turn back where the Channel broadened in front of a large glacier. The double transit took about two hours and was made more glorious by the setting sun bringing out changing colors on the ice and water.
Monday, January 14: Torgersen Island and Palmer Station
Last night 'Le Lyrial' cruised off Anvers Island until it was time to anchor in Arthur Harbour, where the US Palmer research station is situated. This would be a special day because it is devoted to a visit to the research station. Cruise ships visits are limited to nine each year to reduce the disruption to the work of the station. We are privileged visitors and made especially welcome because of the links with Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy who support research by contributing important pieces of scientific equipment to the station. Palmer Station's main program is long term ecological studies which, among other things, will demonstrate variations caused by climate change.
The weather was not so good as yesterday – overcast and with a little wind, but still pleasant. The morning was spent on a Zodiac cruise around Torgersen Island, not far from Palmer, which is noted for its colony of Adélie penguins. Longterm research has revealed that numbers have dropped by 90 percent in recent years because of changes in the environment. The pack ice is an important feeding ground in winter but the area of pack ice has been decreasing through climate change. On the other hand, the absence of ice benefits gentoo penguins which have increased enormously.
As well as the Adélies and stunning ice formations, we were treated to good views of elephant seals and alone fur seal. Fur seals were almost wiped out by sealers for their dense, fine underfur in the 19th century. Their numbers have now fully recovered on the island of South Georgia, they are spreading through the South Shetlands and are now reappearing down the Antarctic Peninsula.
On our return, we had a fascinating briefing about Palmer Station, which will help our American guests learn how their tax dollars are spent. Station Manager Bob Farrell described the station. Named for Nathaniel B. Palmer, a sealer who explored the Antarctic Peninsula in 1820, it is the smallest of the three U.S. year-round stations with a population of 45 in summer. (The others are the South Pole with 150 and McMurdo with 1000.) The station was built in 1965 and is administered by the National Science Foundation. Randy Jones, the Science Lab Manager, who gave a quick overview of the 48 research programs at the station. introduced us to science in Antarctica: how international co-operation is essential for research programs; the research is about the Antarctic’s role in global systems as well as the study of Antarctica itself. Schuyer Nordell and Jack Conroy described the work of the Long Term Ecological Research group.
At the end of the briefing, our own marine biologist Jim McClintock, who works regularly at Palmer, called up representatives of the eleven nations represented by the guests and formally presented the gift of a Dissolved Carbon Dioxide Sensor, funded by A&K Philanthropy, which will be used to measure levels of carbon dioxide in the sea. As levels increase, seawater is becoming more acid which makes it more difficult for animals, such as mollusks, to build their shells.
After a special barbecue lunch on the deck, it was time to visit Palmer Station. We were escorted around the buildings in small groups and it was interesting to see the life and work on an Antarctic research station. Our guides showed us the laboratories and support areas and were a happy chat about their time in Antarctica. A shop for souvenirs and the canteen offering coffee and ‘world famous’ brownies completed the experience.
Conclusion for the day? Tax dollars are well spent here and A&K Philanthropy is making a significant contribution to important science. We were all back on board by 5.00 and, 'Le Lyrial' turned her bows northward to take us back to Ushuaia.
Tuesday, January 15: At Sea, Crossing the Drake Passage
The morning saw 'Le Lyrial' well out to sea and crossing the notorious Drake Passage where the westerly winds that sweep unchecked around the world are funneled and waves can pile up to alarming heights. We have been lucky because the passage was flat calm on our way south and is now almost as calm on the way north. The passage is named for the English privateer Francis Drake whose ship, Golden Hind, was swept south and east as he attempted to sail into the Pacific Ocean in 1577. So he demonstrated the land that we call Tierra del Fuego was not part of the continent of Antarctica.
It was a day to start packing between the full program of Enrichment Lectures. There had also been opportunities to join the expedition naturalists on the pool deck to spot seabirds and whales and the bridge was opened so we could get an impression of how the ship is ‘driven’.
Larry Hobbs started the day by leading a lively and well-informed discussion on the issue of the day “The Underpinnings of Climate Change: Discovering Sustainability through a Life of Work in the Wilds.” It was fascinating to learn of Larry’s past life studying a diversity of marine mammals, from whales to sea lions. Larry was one of the pioneers of fitting these animals with recording devices. However, he became interested in what we are doing to the Earth and what sort of future awaits humanity. The human population is growing at an unprecedented rate. We reached 2 billion in 1922 and are now at 6.7 billion. Increasing numbers cause problems. Global warming effects on Antarctica are worrying. For example, Antarctic fish have a low tolerance to changes in temperature and will suffer. The declines seen in the numbers of charismatic large animals, such as whales, narwhals, walruses and polar bears, are of global concern.
Larry believes that sustainability over the long term must be questioned. In a comparison of 53 animal species with body sizes similar to humans, it is shown that human consumption from the marine environment is 1,000 times greater than the mean, our CO2 production is 100,000 times the mean, and our population size is 10,000 times the mean. And yet our numbers still grow unchecked.
Another subject was discussed by geologist Daria Nikitina: “Is Antarctica Melting?” Whether the continent is warming or cooling at present has been a question of intense debate and uncertainty. While East Antarctic temperatures appear rather stable, long-term warming has been detected in the Southern Ocean as well as in West Antarctica. Since the 1950s, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current has warmed by +0.2°C, with the warming greatest near the surface. Waters west of the Antarctic Peninsula have also warmed rapidly.
The Antarctic Peninsula is presently one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth. It is very sensitive to climate change because of its small size and northern latitude. Numerous floating ice shelves fringing Antarctica play a fundamental role in ice sheet stability because they hold back the flow of ice from inland. While East Antarctica has shown little warming or even a small cooling around the coast, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Antarctic Peninsula are losing ice rapidly due to ice shelves calving and collapsing. The calving of icebergs from ice shelves accounts for about 90% of Antarctic ice loss. Currently, 87% of Antarctica glaciers are currently retreating. Warming over Antarctica is related to the warming of the atmosphere over West Antarctica, increase in ocean surface temperature, loss of ozone and circumpolar winds.
In the afternoon, husband and wife team of Marco (Expedition Leader) and Patri (Ornithology Lecturer) took a look at the disastrous effect of long-line fishing in "Seabird Conservation in Fisheries." Long-lining claims the deaths of thousands of albatrosses and smaller seabirds every year and some species will become extinct if the deaths are not checked. The birds seize the baited hooks and are drowned as the lines are dropped over the side of fishing vessels. There are ways of preventing this slaughter and the Save the Albatross program is working to have them implemented.
The last lecture of the day was Richard Harker’s “In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams: Processing like Masters.” When we get home we will be able to transform our hundreds of digital photos into excellent shots that will really impress families and friends. Richard discussed the value of 'processing' digital images with software such as Photoshop. He compared the work done in the wet darkroom by Ansel Adams (famous for his pictures of Yosemite National Park) with the computer work done today by digital photographers. The conclusion was that if Adams was alive today, he would be a supporter of processing images.
Finally, we had Captain Mickael Debien’s Farewell Cocktail Party and Dinner. The noise level was notably higher compared with the Welcome Party at the beginning of the cruise. We were now meeting as friends rather than strangers.
Wednesday, January 16: Crossing the Drake Passage and Sailing up the Beagle Channel
South America was in sight by breakfast time and we were soon entering the Beagle Channel. The wind had got up during the night but it was pushing 'Le Lyrial' along and she was still on an even keel. We have been so lucky that we have not had any rough seas on this cruise.
Meanwhile, it was another day of Enrichment Lectures that will complement our experience of the Seventh Continent. The day started with Historian Bob Burton reminiscing about 'When I was a lad: Two Years in Antarctica'. He had spent two winters in Antarctica in the early 1960s and pointed out that this was closer to the Heroic Age than the present day. Bob had worked at the British Antarctic Survey research station on Signy Island in the South Orkneys (the same station that Naturalist Russ Manning commanded in the 1990s). Unlike other nations, Britain sent men to Antarctica for two years' overwintering. This not only gave scientists time to collect good sets of data but overlapping personnel ensured a nucleus of experienced men on the station. Bob told stories of how life was lived in a small and very isolated community of young men and included the adventures of Ginge the cat.
Some of us joined the Expedition Naturalists on the pool deck to do some birding. There was more to see from the deck than when we were farther south in the Drake Passage because we had entered the albatross zone. There was plenty of wind for the black-browed albatrosses and sooty shearwaters to put on a superb display of effortless gliding, crisscrossing the wake, while a flock of black and white checked cape petrels were gliding alongside the ship in an exhibition of synchronized flying, and diminutive Wilson’s storm petrels flitted to and fro. And there were our last penguins – Magellanic penguins.
In the afternoon Jim McClintock told us about ‘Diving under Antarctic Ice’. This is rather different from diving in the Bahamas. You have to wear a warm layer under your dry suit which then means you have to guard against overheating and sweating before taking your polar plunge. Then there are various safety protocols for swimming in freezing water where access is through a small hole in the ice. Jim’s photos showed that it is worth the effort: the life on the seabed is surprisingly rich and varied.
The final formal gathering of the cruise was ‘On Expedition’ with the Expedition Team. The events of our ‘voyage of discovery’ were reviewed, the winner of the raffle in aid of the Crew Welfare chosen and the highlight was a show of photos and video clips of the cruise taken by the Team and compiled by ‘Blackjack Piracy Productions’.
As 'Le Lyrial' proceeded up the channel, the pilot was picked up and by late afternoon we were approaching Ushuaia. Dense grey clouds had lifted to expose the snow-flecked flanks of the Cordillera that provides the stunning back-drop to Ushuaia, which means 'inner harbor to the westward' in the native Yahgan tongue. Docking can be difficult when there are strong cross-winds but there was no difficulty today and we were on the side of the dock with the wind pushing 'Le Lyrial' in rather than driving her out.
So ended our cruise to Antarctica. We will leave tomorrow to go our separate ways – perhaps to meet again aboard one day. How about a cruise to the island of South Georgia or somewhere in the Arctic? We have photos, videos, journals and most importantly vivid memories of a land almost too magical and captivating to describe. Now that we have experienced 'the Ice,' we shall never forget it.
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