Classic Antarctica: January 8, 2017 – January 18, 2017
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We arrived from all corners of the world to Ciudad del Fin de Mundo: the City at the End of the World – the port of Ushuaia, Argentina. Ushuaia is located on the island of Tierra del Fuego, which is shared between Argentina and Chile. Ushuaia is home to approximately 45,000 inhabitants and, although still growing rapidly, it maintains some of its frontier-town atmosphere with streets of small, higgledy-piggledy houses. Our flights were dramatic for grandstand views of the Andes mountains and their panoramas of glaciers, lakes, and towering snow-covered peaks. Even from ‘Le Lyrial’s’ position at the dock, we could see the broad sweep of mountains.
Buses took us through the town to Arrukar where we had a leisurely lunch before being taken to the ship. When we boarded ‘Le Lyrial’ at approximately 4:00 p.m. we were immediately made welcome by the crew and staff. We had to check-in in the Grand Salon (the main area for socializing) before being shown to our cabins where we could refresh ourselves and unpack after a long and eventful day. Waiting in our cabins were our complimentary parkas and backpacks and any walking poles and rubber boots that are loaned for the expedition. Meanwhile waiting for us in La Comėte restaurant was a celebratory glass of champagne to toast the start of the expedition. From the restaurant it is a short step onto the Pool Deck at the stern where there is a dramatic panorama of Ushuaia nestling under the tail-end of the Andes mountains. It was very warm in the afternoon sun and not quite what we expect to experience in the next few days. There was also leisure time to wander around and explore the layout of the ship. The first formal meeting was the mandatory Emergency Drill in which we learned how to gather at our muster stations, put on lifejackets and proceed to the lifeboats. It is all very simple and efficient, and hopefully never to be carried out for real.
The next formality was to gather in the lecture theatre, gathering a drink on the way in, where South African Cruise Director Jannie Cloete welcomed us and outlined the facilities on board and routine of daily life. He was followed by our Expedition Leader Suzana Machado d’Oliveira, a Brazilian who has a vast amount of Antarctic experience from working on cruise ships for 20 years. She has a key role, being responsible, with the Captain, for planning our itinerary to make the most of the opportunities for landing. We were told that in this part of the world conditions can make planning very difficult and that the Captain together with the Expedition Leader develop a plan with back-ups that permit changes depending on how conditions evolve. Suzana’s overview of the expedition’s itinerary has to be very flexible and our itinerary is dependent on wind and weather – and perhaps also on the ice in Antarctica. Plans may have to be modified as we go along but there is no doubt that we are going to have a great experience.
Jannie introduced the Captain Olivier Marien who welcomed us on board and in a few words described his experience as an Antarctic mariner and his delight in taking us to share his enthusiasm for the White Continent. When possible, we will be welcome to visit the bridge for superb views and the chance to see how the ship is operated. The members of the Expedition Team now gave brief introductions to themselves. They are the men and women (from the USA, UK, NZ, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, the Philippines and Costa Rica) who will give lectures and conduct the all-important landings on the shores of Antarctica. Each one said a few words about their role, which left no doubt that they have the knowledge and enthusiasm to deliver a very memorable cruise. Many have several decades’ experience of working in Antarctica (over five decades in one instance!).
After dinner it was an early night for those who had flown in from distant parts of the world. We could hope for a speedy and comfortable passage across the Drake Passage to Antarctica.
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.
The weather is holding and the sea remains calm but, although the sun was still shining in the morning, it was feeling a lot colder when we went on deck. (Later in the day there was a little flurry of snow.) During the night ‘Le Lyrial’ had crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the boundary where the warmer water of the South Atlantic sinks under the cold water of the Southern Ocean. In the space of four hours the water temperature had dropped 2.5 degrees Centigrade. The mixing waters provide the environment for an abundance of plankton, so the Convergence region nourishes huge numbers of seabirds and sea mammals. So we are now in Antarctic waters biologically. A few hours later we crossed the 60th parallel into Antarctica politically, as this is the boundary of the area covered by the Antarctic Treaty. Lecture presentations started with Photo Coach Richard Harker’s ‘What to expect – How to Prepare’. This was an overview of how best to photograph Antarctica. Richard showed photos of animals and landscapes, offering tips on how best to take advantage of the many opportunities that Antarctica offers. There will no problem for any of us going home with a collection that will delight our family and friends – and turn them green with envy!
Before lunch, Expedition Leader Suzana conducted the mandatory briefing on the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) guidelines for going ashore in Antarctica. The essential aims of this talk were to ensure that our visits there are conducted safely, and that the environment and wildlife are not disturbed by our presence. The ‘rules’ are mostly obvious – no littering or trampling of vegetation – or common sense. For instance, we may not approach within 15ft (5 metres) of penguins and seals, although they may approach us. And we must take precautions not to carry any alien animals, plants or disease organisms when we land.
Suzana then told us how we will use Zodiac inflatable boats to land for our all-important explorations ashore. These boats are extremely reliable and safe, and the naturalists who drive them have many years of experience of working in Antarctica. Zodiacs are fast and reliable: ideal for landing large numbers of people on beaches where there are no facilities. Suzana’s briefing gave us simple instructions on how embark and disembark zodiacs in complete safety and Cobus demonstrated how to dress correctly for landings, including the use of lifejackets (vests). The afternoon started with ‘Antarctica’s Journey: From North Pole to South Pole’ by Colin Summerhayes. It surprises a lot of people to learn that, 750 million years ago, Antarctica was close to the North Pole. Subsequently it migrated southwards and reached the South Pole around 100 million years ago during dinosaur times. The processes of continental movement have led to the Antarctic Peninsula being pushed away from Tierra del Fuego. Between the Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands there is what geologists call a ‘back-arc basin’ that is widening and forcing the Peninsula and the islands apart. Between them lies a line of new active volcanoes. Deception Island is the only one that is visible above sea level.
As far as the rest of Antarctica is concerned, Colin told us that we know rather little about its geology, because most of the rocks are buried by up to almost 5000 metres of ice. But radar that penetrates the ice is used to map the surface of the buried continent. Recently to their surprise geologists found a buried mountain range – the Gamburtsev Mountains. Equally surprising there is a complex network of river valleys and lakes, the largest lake being Lake Vostock – the size of Lake Ontario. Finally Colin pointed out that when the continent arrived at the South Pole, its climate was warm and temperate, quite different to what it is today.
Rob Tymstra’s ‘A Perfectly Peculiar Parade of Penguins’ touched on that most popular group of animals. He started by showing how these ‘little gentlemen in tuxedos’ pervade our culture. The Norwegians have even knighted a king penguin that lives in Edinburgh Zoo – Sir Olav. Who doesn’t love penguins?! They are probably the reason why some of us have come to Antarctica – and no one will be disappointed. The success of the award-winning ‘March of the Penguins’ and the animated ‘Happy Feet’ reflects the popularity of these engaging birds. Perhaps we love them for their similarity to us: upright walkers and social creatures.
But few people get to know the real penguins and we are all very fortunate to be travelling straight to their homes in the Antarctic where we will stand among them and get to know them intimately. Rob presented some of the physical and behavioural adaptations to a cold climate and living in one of the harshest environments on Earth, as well as the many threats to their survival. We may well discover that their aura of ‘goodness’ is just a myth and learn that there’s a dark side to their personalities that is little known and probably best forgotten.
By late afternoon, the mountains of Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands had come into sight and some fur seals were seen leaping clear of the water. At 6.30 pm Debbie Robins and CJ Moran won the competition for spotting the first iceberg as least as big as the ship. Their prize is a bottle of champagne awarded by Captain Marien. We have arrived!
We have been extremely lucky – and well advised – for our first day in Antarctica. Modern technology allows accurate weather forecasts for the Antarctic Peninsula. When Suzana checked the weather map before our departure, she saw that a storm was forecast for the north-east of the Peninsula, which was planned as our first destination. Shore landings (the most important part of our expedition) and a day would have been impossible. So, forewarned, Suzana reworked the itinerary to the west coast and chose two new landing places which would be just as interesting as her original choices. And it all worked out! When we were roused for an early morning landing, a peep out of the stateroom windows revealed a sprinkling of snow (so we are in Antarctica!) but very little wind. The weather improved during the day; the snow ceased, the clouds lifted and by the afternoon the sun was breaking through. So we had the setting for a marvellous introduction to the Antarctic landscape, wildlife and history.
Our first destination was Hannah Point, Livingston Island, named for a British sealing vessel wrecked nearby in 1820. This is one of the richest places in the region for wildlife, both animal and plant. Consequently it is a very popular landing place for cruise ships and there have to be strict regulations governing access and behavior ashore. Organising such landings is all part of the job for our experienced Expedition Team. The landing started perhaps a little earlier than some of us would have liked but any reluctance was soon dispelled by the experience ashore. Hannah Point was thronging with gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Their chicks were well-grown so they had left their nests and were wandering around. This made it extra difficult to maintain the mandatory distance of 15 ft but a flagged route and helpful staff meant that we could have the best experience without disturbing the objects of our visit. There were also colonies of southern giant petrels and kelp gulls, which are known to be skittish and need to be given a wide berth, blue-eyed shags and sheathbills, and we also saw small Wilson’s storm petrels flying to their nesting burrows in the scree slopes.
Two very unusual species of penguins were a major excitement for birdwatchers. Macaroni penguins (named for the plume of gaudy feathers on their heads) are very abundant on the island of South Georgia but a few pairs breed farther south. Hannah Point is one known site and we were lucky to find a parent bird with its chick. Then, most surprisingly, a solitary rockhopper penguin was spotted. This species breeds on South American coasts and was well away from home. We had a second landing nearby in Walker Bay which features a collection of whale bones to approximate a skeleton, a collection of plant fossils conveniently laid out on a flat-topped boulder, and an elephant seal wallow where young males were hauled out to molt. Although spending much of the time asleep they kept us amused with occasional outbreaks of half-hearted battling for supremacy. And offshore, we witnessed a predatory leopard seal catch and dismember a luckless penguin by holding in its mouth and thrashing it from side to side. ‘Le Lyrial’ repositioned over lunch to Deception Island, a volcanic caldera like Santorini and the Ngorongoro Crater but flooded with access through a narrow passage called Neptune’s Bellows. This is the most historic place in Antarctica. It was discovered in 1819 and was the site first for 19th century sealers and then 20th century whalers and national research stations. We landed in Whalers Bay at the ruins of a Norwegian whaling station and British base which were engulfed by a flood of ash during an eruption in 1969. The firm even surface of the ash allowed a climb to Neptune’s Window which gave a wonderful view of the South Shetlands and then a walk in the opposite direction to the British aircraft hangar. Steam was rising along the shoreline which showed that the Deception Island volcano is not extinct.
Finally, at bed time, a dozen humpback whales were reported ahead so the captain slowed the ship and followed the whales at a respectful distance and we could watch them feeding. What a good start to our Antarctic experience.
The weather has got even better! The sun shone from a blue sky all day. Our first destination was Cierva Cove, a well-known ‘beauty spot’, in Hughes Bay, for a morning’s zodiac cruise. The cove is named for the Spaniard Juan de la Cierva who designed the autogiro in 1923. At the back of the cove there is the small Argentine Primavera (Spring) station. The cove is also a ‘hot spot’ for wildlife and some of it is off-limits to visitors.
The sea was calm and the sun shone on a wonderland of icebergs and icefloes, all set in a sparkling blue sea with the white cliffs of glacier fronts behind. However, the most graphic literary efforts to describe the Antarctic scenery of sea, mountains and ice fall short of reality. Even photographs do not convey the atmosphere of clarity in these calm scenes. As Ernest Shackleton wrote in 1908:’Tongue and pen fail in attempting to describe the magic…’.
We had a zodiac cruise because there is no chance of landing here. Indeed, it is in some ways better than a landing because a boat covers more ground than simply walking around a landing site. There are different perspectives of the scenery, the chance to approach icebergs and floes and have close encounters with whales and seals. Today, we were among humpback whales. Although we are seeing them on a regular basis, the excitement of watching them feeding and showing their tail flukes as they dive does not pall. The cruise took about one hour. Sitting still for this time can be chilly and the recommendation was to dress as warmly as possible, but in today’s calm, sunny weather people were even removing a layer or two.
The next stop was Mikkelsen Harbor, 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 harbour is a sheltered bay where whaling factory ships moored in the 1920s to carry out their grisly business. The shore is still littered with a tangle of huge bones which are all that remain of giant blue whales that were slaughtered nearly a century ago. The deep snowdrifts from the winter’s snows had melted so the bones were exposed, as were a couple of old whaling boats. There were half a dozen Weddell seals lying on the beach. This seems to be a favorite place for them. Weddells have spotted coats and were once called Weddell’s false sea leopards. But they are fish-eaters rather than predators. They are a favourite for many visitors because of their friendly faces. These seals had probably come out to bask in the warm sun. There was also a young male fur seal. This is rather far south for the species but young males travel widely before settling down. From the beach it was an easy walk to a gentoo penguin colony and an old Argentine refuge hut, but the scenery was the prime attraction.
As last night, there was a shout from the bridge in the late evening that there were humpback whales ahead. These whales are becoming commonplace on this expedition but only a few years ago sightings were not nearly so numerous. This occasion was more notable than usual. There were about 40 to 50 whales around the ship and they put on a magnificent display for us. There must have been a huge swarm of krill near the surface because the whales were ‘lunge-feeding’ – rearing vertically out of the water with their mouths wide agape, their throats distended and the rows of baleen plates plain to see.
The fine weather continues with very little wind, high clouds and the sun breaking through. Our first landing was a special one. The time had come for us to finally set foot on the Antarctic continent and a number of guests celebrated landing on their seventh continent. (Previous landings had been on offshore islands. Although these are strictly speaking part of the continent, it is the mainland that is important.) The chosen landing place was a very scenic spot – Neko Harbour in Andvord Bay. The bay was first seen and roughly charted by Adrien de Gerlache during his Belgica Expedition of 1897-99. This explains why many places, such as Anvers Island, in the area have Belgian names. In 1921, Neko Harbor was named after 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 is an immense wall of ice where a glacier drops almost vertically into the sea. It is heavily crevassed and the shadows thrown by the low sun made an incredible backdrop to our landing. 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 the cliffs or splashed into the sea. On the other side of ‘Le Lyrial’s’ anchorage, distant mountains of Anvers Island completed an all-round panorama.
It had frozen overnight and the snow was crisp with patches of ice which meant that we had to proceed carefully along a flagged trail which even had old towels thoughtfully laid on the very slippery sections and fit, young staff members to lend a supporting hand. With the fine weather, we could comfortably sit and watch the penguins, and absorb the scene in its entirety. Gentoo penguins loafed along the shoreline, and made the perfect subjects for photography. From the shoreline up to the nesting colonies stretched steep meandering ‘penguin highways’. We could see them proposing in from the sea and trekking up to the colony along the highways carved into the snow by the passage of many feet. Those penguins going up the hill looked clean and fat, those coming down were guano-soiled and hungry. The penguins stick to these traits religiously when the snow is very deep. We couldn’t help but think what it must be like for the very first penguin that arrives there each spring and has to break trail for the group. It was interesting to note that, while the penguin chicks at Hannah Point were well-grown and even starting to molt into their adult plumage, the Neko chicks were tiny and only a couple of days old. They were being brooded by their parents and could only be seen when the adult stood up. One was seen to still be in its egg!
On the way back to ‘Le Lyrial’, the zodiacs deviated to cruise around the corner for more scenic views and spot leopard seals. And there was a surprise! There was another zodiac awaiting us, from which glasses of champagne were dispensed to celebrate our landing on the mainland of Antarctica. While we enjoyed lunch, ‘Le Lyrial’ relocated to Cuverville Island, a small island nestling among larger, ice-capped islands, which was named for a French admiral who had supported the Belgica Expedition. Our route took us through some scenic channels and, when icebergs blocked our passage through the Errera Channel, we approaching from the opposite direction by passing through the magnificent and well-named Paradise Harbor. Cuverville is notable for the profusion of green vegetation made up of extensive banks of mosses. The situation for the landing was much the same as at Neko Harbor except the hike up the hillside was for the fitter and more adventurous. This was quite arduous as it involved ascending a steep snow slope. But the pay-off was the opportunity to slide down a steep snow slope. The rest of us spent the time watching gentoo penguins going about their business. Now we are more familiar with them, it is easier to appreciate the different aspects of their behaviour. These chicks were about a week old than those at Neko Harbor and were too large for their parents to brood them. Marauding brown skuas were waiting to carry off any chicks that were not closely defended. The trip back was a delight because the bay was choked with small icebergs and large icefloes. As well as being very scenic, the floes were inhabited by crabeater and leopard seals which lay undisturbed as the zodiacs stopped to allow photographs to be taken.
During the night ‘Le Lyrial’ had 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 was devoted to a visit to the research station. Only nine cruise ships will be allowed to visit this year to reduce the disruption to the work of the station. However, we were privileged visitors and we were 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 ecological changes caused by climate changes. It was snowing lightly at the start which gave a nice Antarctic feel to the day. The morning was spent on a Zodiac cruise around Torgersen Island, not far from Palmer, which is noted for its colony of Adélie penguins which is the subject of long-term research which reveals that numbers have dropped by 90 per cent in recent years because of changes in their environment. The penguins depend on the pack ice as a 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 hugely in this area.
As well as the Adélies and stunning ice formations, we were treated to good views of elephant seals. There were adults, which have come ashore to molt their coats, and ‘weaners’ – the newly-independent pups which look like blubber sausages. Their mothers pumped them full of rich milk and then left them to their own devices. They will spend a few weeks ashore or feeding in shallow water before heading into the open sea. 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. It is the smallest of the three U.S. year-round stations with a population of 45 in summer (the others are 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. Bill Fraser, a veteran of 43 years’ employment in Antarctica and one of the world’s leading penguin biologists, then 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. Bill 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 and proclaimed ‘I’m home!’, called up representatives of the six nations represented by the guests and formally presented the gift of eight satellite tags, funded by A&K Philanthropy, which will be used to track the movements of penguins.
After a barbecue lunch on the deck, it was time to go ashore and 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 happy to chat about their time in Antarctica. A shop for souvenirs and the canteen offering coffee and ‘world famous’ brownies completed the experience. A&K Philanthropy are making a significant contribution to important science.
What a day! The weather started fairly bright and finished absolutely brilliant. Who could have realized that the weather in Antarctica could be so warm and sunny? Part of the reason was that there was not a breath of wind to cool us down.
‘Le Lyrial’ spent the night hovering around the entrance to the Lemaire Channel and around breakfast time the captain ‘drove’ 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. 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 with the ‘grand slam’ of gentoos, chinstraps and Adélies, and in the other direction a long trail led up a hill to a cairn commemorating Charcot’s expedition, where the view was even more wonderful.
In the afternoon there was a Zodiac cruise among the same icebergs that we had looked down on in the morning. Close-up, the bergs are seen to be even more spectacular in shapes and colors. There were also seals and penguins to watch in close-up.
For those who were not in the Zodiacs, historian Bob Burton gave his presentation ‘Penguins to the Rescue: the unsung role of penguins in Antarctic Exploration’. Bob showed how from the first voyagers to the South Seas and through the Heroic Age, penguins have been used of a source of food. They were a valuable supplement to salted or canned meat rations but were invaluable for preventing death by starvation when expeditions were stranded. Examples were given of several expeditions which had been saved by penguins.
From our last landing place at Port Charcot, we sailed up the Gerlache Strait and through Dallmann Bay between icy mountain ranges and into the open seas of the Drake Passage. The wind was beginning to rise from the east and waves were beginning to build up but ‘Le Lyrial’ is a very stable ship and on board life did not become uncomfortable. Indeed, it gave us a good chance to look out at the tumbling waters and watch the pirouetting petrels and albatrosses.
Our series of enrichment lectures continued with more on the subject of climate change. Colin Summerhayes based his lecture ‘From the Age of the Dinosaurs to the Ice Age: 100 Million Years of Climate Change’ on his book ‘Earth’s Climate Evolution’. He started by reminding us that we may come across global warming sceptics who say: ‘The climate is always changing, and so what we see now is merely natural variation’. But Colin’s studies of how climate varies through geological time show that this statement is simply not true. Yes, the climate does vary through time, but there is a well-understood reason for each of the changes that we observe, and it is clear from the evidence from the past that what we are seeing now is not natural variation. Colin suggested the audience might like to read books by scientists who have spent their working lives studying past climate change. Our geological studies tell us that there were times in the past when large outputs of carbon dioxide from volcanoes kept the atmosphere much warmer and times when the chemical weathering of mountains took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and kept the world cooler. During the time of the dinosaurs, our climate was rather warm, while about 300 million years ago the Earth became glaciated for 30 million years. We are now living in a warm interval of another Ice Age.
Colin showed how our own emissions of carbon dioxide have increased the amount of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by 40% since the start of the Industrial Revolution – a rate of increase 100 times faster than any natural change in the past 1 million years.
Our planet’s geological history tells us that, during warm intervals within the Ice Age, temperatures reached 2-3°C above those typical of our pre-industrial period, and sea level rose by 4 to 9 metres. We can expect to see much the same, along with an acidifying ocean, if we continue to warm the planet at present rates. The growth in population from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to 7.5 billion today has made humans a force of geological dimensions. We are transforming the surface of the planet and its air and water. Many geologists see these changes as having moved us into a new geological era they call the ‘Anthropocene’. Can we stop the current climate trajectory? Yes, if we put our minds to it.
The next lecture ‘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. Their interests have largely focused on how these toxic chemicals defend an organism against being eaten by a predator, covered in settling larvae or overgrown by a competitor for space. What is very exciting is that these same toxic compounds can also kill cancer cells or harmful bacteria. In their work the trio have found that chemicals from an Antarctic alga can inactivate flu viruses, that a chemical from an Antarctic tunicate might yield the next drug against melanoma skin cancer, and that a chemical that occurs in a common marine sponge has the ability to kill MRSA bacteria. The last is timely as hospitals have become breeding grounds for MRSA bacteria and also because MRSA on implants such as artificial knees cannot be treated properly without removing the implant. In the big picture, Antarctica is ripe with organisms with a high diversity of chemicals that may prove useful in medicine. Climate change is rapidly threatening the very species that may serve humankind in this fashion.
Next, Larry Hobbs led a lively and well-informed discussion on the issue of the day ‘Climate Change, Sustainability and a Life of Work in the Wilds: Facts, Stories and Dubious Moments’. 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, 3 in 1959, 4 in 1974, 5 in 1987, 6 in 1999, and are now at 6.7 billion. Increasing numbers cause problems. UNESCO in 2007 focused on the problem of ‘Melting Ice’. Polar regions are important in maintaining Earth’s heat balance. Global warming effects on Antarctica are worrisome. For example, Antarctic fish have low tolerance to changes in temperature. Declines 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 comparison with 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!
The last presentation on this sea day was on the practical and timely subject of ‘Turning Good Photos into Great Photos: the Basics of Digital Workflow’ by Photo Coach Richard Harker. 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 were Adams alive today, he would be a supporter of processing images.
The sea has become calmer and, by afternoon, we will be entering the shelter of the Beagle Channel. Meanwhile, it will be another day of Enrichment Lectures that will complement our experience of the Seventh Continent. First off was Jim McClintock telling us about ‘Diving under Antarctic Ice’. This is rather different from diving off 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. There was more to see from the deck than when we were farther south because we had entered the albatross zone. Many of us joined the Expedition Naturalists on the Pool Deck to do some birding. There was enough wind for the albatrosses to put on a superb display of effortless gliding, criss-crossing 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.
Back inside, we had to gather in the lecture theatre to hear Cruise Director Jannie Cloete deliver the important, if unwelcome, briefing about the arrangements and procedures that will enable a smooth disembarkation and onward travel after our arrival at Ushuaia. It is a considerable logistic exercise to get everyone and their luggage onto the right flights, but the A&K have this down to a fine art. All we have to do is to obey instructions and be at the right place at the right time. It’s effortless traveling! More entertaining was the preview of the DVD that has been made of the expedition and will be available for sale.
The last of the Enrichment Lectures was delivered after a special Afternoon Tea that featured a variety of crepes prepared on the spot by the chefs in the Grand Salon. Historian Bob Burton reminisced about his time at the British Antarctic Survey’s Signy Island station in ‘When I was a Lad: Two Years in Antarctica’. This was 50 years ago – almost living history! Bob had signed on as a meteorological assistant to make daily weather observations but had plenty of time to work with the birds and seals. However, he concentrated on giving an amusing account of life in a community of 11 young men who were isolated from the rest of the world for eight months of the year.
The last formal meeting was On Expedition! in which the Expedition Staff, who have done so much to make this expedition cruise memorable, presented a ‘look back’ to remind us of what we had experienced. The highlight was a ‘slide show’ of their photos and video clips that traced the entire voyage from boarding ‘Le Lyrial’ in Ushuaia. We had made landings on the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, and we have had shipboard experiences of whales, albatrosses and icy landscapes. So much has happened in a short space of time that it took many slides to do the experience justice! This final meeting also held the raffle for the crew fund – 2534 euros raised. This is a welfare fund which provides not only items for the crew’s entertainment but also gives assistance in time of trouble or hardship.
By this time the pilot had come aboard and we were sailing between tree-clad hillsides with the little city of Ushuaia coming into sight.
We had re-joined the real world. 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. Shackleton wrote: ‘Indeed the stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can hardly be understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civilization’.