Day 9: Antarctica

This one’s a long one but the pics are fabulous. Settle in…

The Endless Sunrise
Shannon set her alarm for 5:00 so we could catch the sunrise. I woke up about ten minutes earlier and looked out the porthole. The sky was clear of all clouds and the silhouette of the mountains was just lighting as the sun rose. We realized we were going to miss the sunrise so we jumped into our warm clothes and hustled out to the bow of the boat.

It was so peaceful there. No one else was awake other than the ship captain and the occasional cape petrel flying by. Massive snow-covered mountains surrounded us on all sides. Stunning, silent, and absolutely worth getting out of bed.

Antarctica waking up

Still waking

Twenty minutes later, the sun still hadn’t risen and the light had only slightly changed. You would think that two well-educated women would have thought beforehand this was summertime in Antarctica; a place where the sun sets over three to four hours. (See sunset on 13 February 2008) Wouldn’t it make sense that the sun would take just as long to rise? But no, no. We immediately applied our knowledge of American sunrises and jumped out of bed, assuming it would be over within minutes. Well… we were sort of right because it was over in minutes. About 180 of them.

Still rising

Still rising

David joined us and used the silence for a “king of the world” moment on the bow

An hour later the sky had lightened and some of the tips of the western peaks showed a lovely shade of pink, but still no sun. And the boat had been literally turning in circles, since we’d arrived at the Ferguson Channel but it was too early to enter the scenic wonder because no one was awake yet to enjoy it. So the captain turned the boat in large, lazy circles that were only noticeable to those of us who were – say – standing on the bow still waiting for the sun to rise.

The sun appearing on the mountains

The Ferguson Channel lights up

Ferguson Channel
While we were out shivering in the cold and waiting for our Holy Grail of Sunrises, Steven woke the rest of the ship with his “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning.” and had the captain turn the boat down the Ferguson Channel just as the bulk of the mountains reflected the pink light of the sunrise and skies showed their brilliant blue. We (and a small handful of other passengers) had been out in the cold for two hours – but the best part of the sunrise was just beginning. Yes we could have slept in, but Shannon and I both agreed we were glad we didn’t. The utter silence of Antarctica pre-dawn made it all worthwhile.

The stunning Ferguson Channel

Still Ferguson. Still stunning.

Gorgeous light

We couldn’t have ordered a more brilliant day. The Ferguson Channel flowed between the Continent and a few of its islands – all of it full of sheer rock walls and massive glaciers. I had no idea that Antarctica would be so immense in size. Of course it’s a large continent but I assumed there would be shorelines and sloping inclines – instead the colossal cliffs and crevasses took me by surprise. Pleasantly, of course. And combined with the gorgeous light from the blue sky and sunrise we were all obsessed with photographing every second.

Me, Mindy and Shannon

“Little” minke whale just breaking the surface of the water on the right

Landing at Neko Harbour
The Ferguson Channel led us directly to Neko Harbour – a gorgeous inlet covered with blue-green icebergs and surrounded by more glaciers than I could count. Having the sun out made such a difference to our landing experience. Neko would have been beautiful anyway, but the bright skies and brilliant sunlight made it even more spectacular. Chris D zipped our Zodiak through the brash ice and icebergs in the harbour, humoring us with a spontaneous tour of some lovely mini icebergs in the water before dropping us at the landing.

Little bergies

I dunno… can pictures really do it justice?

80% of the icebergs beneath the surface

This was officially our “Continental Landing”. The prior landings had all been on islands along the Antarctic Peninsula but not on the Continent itself. The reason for that is as I mentioned before; Antarctica is a land of sheer cliffs and almost no shoreline. So there were little landing opportunities, but the islands offer a number of them: both for toursists but also for the penguins and seals we like to see. However Necko Harbour is an exception. With its rocky shoreline and steep hills it was an ideal spot for the gentoo colony and for our morning excursion and – perfect for a fun afternoon – for a little sledding.

The girls at Neko Harbour

Mindy and her penguins, icebergs, glaciers and sunshine

Shannon photoing penguins

Molting penguin chick

Shannon and Mindy

The day was so stunning (I know… I keep repeating that… but it really was) that none of us wanted to leave. We all sat on the side of a snowy hill, taking pictures of each other and the scenery, enjoying the waddles of the gentoo colony down the hill, and soaking up the sun as well as the romance of the moment.

Hanging out on the hill

Shannon and the view

Heidi and the view (pic by Shannon)

Snowbunny Mindy and the view (pic by Shannon)

Snowbunny Mindy, sliding down the hill

The staff corralled us since we’d overstayed our allotted time but we all dragged our feet back to the zodiak landing sight. In no rush to leave. Shannon, Mindy and I discovered a nice little trick, though. Only one zodiak could be loaded at a time, and only ten people per zodiak. That takes time, so if we wanted to spend more time on a landing we just had to hang back and make sure we were in the last boat. More opportunity for picture taking since, as Shannon said as she scrolled through the 500+ pictures she’d taken, “I really need more pictures of penguins.”

She got them, including a photo of a little gentoo chick pecking at my snow trousers.

Cute chick(s) (pic by Shannon)

Penguin trumpeting

The Gentoo Boogie

Trip Through Errera Channel
During and after lunch the Polaris cruised gently through Errera Channel – another photogenic part of the Antarctic Peninsula. The morning spoiled us, though, because the weather had already changed and was cloudy and cold so the beauty of Errera was less striking than the sun-drenched Ferguson Channel was that morning. But that was because of the light – and wow were some of those icebergs massive.

Leopard seal on its iceberg

Landing on George’s Point
We were briefed that George’s Point was one of the less visited landing spots, so the gentoo colony would be much more skittish than the other colonies we’d seen. And since the area we could wander was limited the staff recommended that we use this as an “observation landing” – find a comfortable rock, have a seat, and simply watch how the penguins, the skuas and fur seals live and interact with each other.

Sittable rocks were in short supply so most of stood and watched, but eventually I found a nice rock and perched for a bit. While I did, an adorable gentoo chick waddled up to me and did its own observing. It looked at me curiously… it pondered… it fluffed its fuzzy little wings… it looked some more. So cute. I wanted to bundle it up and take it home, except that all my winter clothing already smelled like penguin guano and I wasn’t too keen on having my apartment covered in it. Plus, I doubted D’Agastino’s stocked krill.

My cute little fuzzy chick (my knee on the bottom of the frame)

Cute chick(s) part two (pic by Shannon)

I should have mentioned this in an earlier entry, but the penguin chicks were molting: losing their chick fur in favor of their sleek adult hides. Heidi the Ornithologist explained that this was a stressful time for them and requires a lot of energy so we should please walk slowly and quietly around them so as not to disturb this very physical process. We were definitely careful. Though sometimes there were so many of them and – when they lay on the rocks – they blended in so well that occasionally we’d go to take a step and realize that there’s a penguin chick in that spot. One must be very aware of one’s surroundings on the landings.

But on George’s Point their molting behavior was even more noticeable, since the chicks that were in the process of molting sat in one spot, off on their own, and waited. They were usually separated by a few feet and rarely moved aside from the occasional wing flap. The penguins that did move were the younger chicks, chasing after their mothers for food.

Solitary confinement in penguinland

Chick running after its mother “Gimme krill!”

There were also fur seals on George’s Point and two of them were tussling a bit when I arrived. Shannon the Mammal Biologist explained that they were just showing their strength for the sake of it. There were no females around since they were further north on the birthing beaches of King George’s Island. New to me was the process of mating and birthing for the fur seals. The males arrive on the beach to stake out their territory, then the females arrive and the mating begins. A week later, the females give birth – but to last year’s pups. What happens is that the embryos sit in “suspended animation” for three months and then gestate for nine months until the mother returns to the beach to give birth. And then the cycle starts anew. So the three months suspended animation allows the mother to nurse her young pup before actually being “pregnant” again, even though she really is pregnant. Nature is fascinating.

Male seals talking trash
A Rush Out the Door
After the landing and back on the boat most of the ship passengers had gathered in the lounge for pre-dinner drinks and a card game or two, when Barbara’s voice came over the loud speaker, “Ladies and gentlemen it’s very exciting because off the starboard side we have some killer whales.” You’ve never seen 60 people move so fast. We scrambled and squeezed out the one door onto the bow like a bunch of circus clowns tumbling out a clown car. It was hilarious. And once we got to the bow we realized that none of us were wearing winter clothes and it was absolutely freeeeeezing outside, but we hardly cared since there were ORCAS!! We could spot the bursts of their blow-holes and then their recognizable spots and dorsal fins as the pod of the whales cruised by.

Orcas – see the saddle patch behind the dorsal fin

Quite a few of them

I’ve never seen a killer whale so this was especially exciting – and even more so because they were traveling in a pod of 4-6 whales. They rolled through the surface, teasing us, then disappeared for a shallow dive before surfacing right next to the boat.

The brilliant part of all of this was the Captain of the Polaris. Apparently he’s passionate about marine mammals and giving his passengers an experience to remember, so not only did he slow the ship considerably so we wouldn’t out run the whales, but he actually turned the ship around when the whales swam beneath the boat and turned in the other direction. I doubt I’ll ever be on a ship this size where the captain was willing to turn on a dime for the benefit of whale watching. After a half-hour of snapping photos and freezing in our less-than suitable attire, we turned up toward the bridge and gave the captain a rousing round of applause.

Later that evening we were again in the lounge when they announced a humpback on the starboard side. We weren’t quite as crazed as we were before (how jaded we’d become – that seeing a humpback is no longer elicits an excited rush to the door) but we did get out to see its fin wave before it disappeared underwater.

There’s a humpback there. I swear
Hell Frozen Over by Chris Gilbert
Chris Gilbert, our Antarctic historian, is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever heard. He has a remarkable ability to recall facts and details about continental excursions in a way that holds us rapt with attention. His lectures have been my favorites among all the staff.

He created and narrated a short film called “Hell Frozen Over” – the almost unbelievable story of Sir Douglas Mawson and his harrowing expedition in Antarctica. We turned off the lights in the lounge and settled in for an evening of storytelling, but with the added animation of multimedia and production value. The film was low-budget, but that made no difference to the unforgettable story and Chris’ gripping narration. Sub-freezing weather. Deadly crevasses. Starving explorers. Blinding conditions. Mysterious illnesses. We were hooked. I wished for popcorn.

When the seventeen minute film ended, we sat in our seats as if digesting the torture Mawson went through to crawl back to his base. (The poor man – his feet actually fell off!) Not an uplifting story but definitely inspiring simply because of the spirit of these men who attempted such dangerous explorations. I’m going to have to read the book.

This was one of those days you just didn’t want to end, you know?