Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Stories of Survival

We took the zodiacs out around Elephant Island, which is steep and rocky with little actual flat area, and home to a colony of Chinstrap Penguins and one solitary Macaroni Penguin. This is where 22 men of Ernest Shackelton’s crew of the ship called The Endurance were forced to spend the winter in 1916. This is after being on sea for over 400 days and previous to the island surviving in a make shift camp on ice flow after their ship was crushed. They reached Elephant island split between 3 life boats. The entire crew numbered 27 of which 5, including the leader Shackelton set out on an impossible journey of over 800 miles in open sea in one of the life boats to try and reach a whaler station in South Georgia. Once the miraculously reached South Georgia, 3 of them, again including Shackleton, marched for 36 hours straight over dangerous crevasses and unyielding landscape for 30 miles to reach the whaler station. At the end of August, after 3 attempts, Shackelton and crew successfully rescued all 22 men who had been left on Elephant island, for the past 5 months. What all 27 men endured is mind boggling. I encourage you read more about their story online or pick up one of the many books available.

There are many such stories of early explorers, whalers, seal hunters, scientists and so forth that have made astonishing travels to Antarctica. There is a quote that goes “For scientific discovery give me Scott, for speed and efficiency if travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shakelton.” - Sir Raymond Priestly

We will spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day at open sea traveling to South Georgia islands. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Littlest Penguin

We have seen and done many great things over the last 2 days. Yesterday was Port Lockroy, former British Base, turned museum (open for 4 months of the year). Today we were at Deception Island, so named as many ships missed the small entrance into the bay of the donut shaped island. It is also an active volcano. We hiked to a volcanic crater here. Later we went for an Antarctic ocean dip in an area where there is geothermal activity which makes about 1.5 metres of the shore warmish as it bubbles up through the sand. It made for a cute picture of me in my swim suit and fluffy fake fur hat and Jason in is swim shorts.

We also visited a huge colony of Chinstrap Penguins numbering around 250,000 with chicks. They take up a huge space from the shore up the cliffs, and it can be a dangerous world for a penguin. This is where I met the little one I call “The Littlest Penguin.” It was a heartbreaking sight. A little tiny baby penguin, covered in downy feathers, abandoned on a penguin path. With wounds on his back, perhaps from a predatory sea bird, struggling to breath and flapping his little flipper.  But there was nothing I could do, and believe me I racked my brains to come up with a solution for this little soul’s suffering. I could not identify his parents, nor would they necessarily take him back in this condition. And with the huge penguin population it is a reality that this occurs. I can only hope he passes away quickly and perhaps fills the belly of some other creature trying to survive. I cried my eyes out for some time.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Petermann Island

Today we took the zodiacs out to Petermann Island, where Jean-Baptiste Charcot wintered in 1909 with his boat the Pourquoi-Pas?. The island is home colonies of Gentoo Penguins and Adelie Penguins. Thousands of penguins were all around. The Gentoos are my favorite I think. They build rock nests, and several had chicks at different ages. Jason filmed a Jentoo building his wife a rock nest. We set out a few rocks we had picked up from a short distance away. He was delirious with joy at seeing the four rocks and quickly scooped them up, one at a time, in his bill. Then he spent a few minutes earnestly searching that same area for any more. Once he realized there were no more, he tried to steal a rock from another nest and was promptly bit in the bum. 

The island also has a bright red building which is an emergency refuge in case someone is stranded. We hiked around in our heavy rubber boots. We have the Fort McMurray special; -40 rubber boots, steel toed, with grips on them deeper than the best winter tires. 

I have attended several lectures. I think thus far I have enjoyed the lecture on ice the best. It detailed everything from the chemical composition, how it forms, to bergs, and ice caves. Do you know what a chunk of floating is is called if it is between 1 and 5 meters (area seen above the water)? It is a Bergy Bit. If it is over 5 meters it is an Ice Berg. And if it just a wee thing less than 1 meter visible it is a growler. These ice bergs and chunks are made of fresh water. The portion you see of an ice berg is approximately 1/9 of the total size with the remainder hidden under water. 

Another favorite aspect of the trip is the evening re-cap. Each night the staff do a presentation that combines power point, video, pictures, lecture etc on the days events and sights. The re-cap today had an amazing microscope view of arthropods and plankton shown on the projection screen. One of my favorite things is when they show the footage from their undersea camera (called a ROV) that can go up to a thousand feet. They showed footage tonight that was taken yesterday. We saw amazing creatures; snails with amoebas living on them (they work together; the amoeba gets a free ride through the muck while the snail gets protection because of the amoeba’s stingers), prawn, krill, a tiny octopus, starfish, and so on. 

I am also reading the book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer about the true story of Chris McCandles, a vagabond, who travelled across the USA, and who died from suspected starvation in the Alaskan wilderness. I also watched the movie by the same name, and while both are good, I think the book is better as it goes into greater detail. 

Tomorrow promises to be just as exhilarating as all those before it. We are planning a trip to Port Lockroy, where we can actually purchase a few souvenirs. It was a British base that is now a museum, and a post office! 

Click to see the PHOTO ALBUM

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day Among the Bergs

Another glorious day full of adventure! A few facts first; today was +12 celsius, at our further point south we were 67.5 latitude, the Arctic Circle is 66.5 latitude, and water is about -2 celsius (colder than ice, but with the salt it does not all freeze solid). 

We were in dog leg fjord this morning. We were told that last time a vessel was in this particular area was the 1950’s! The National Geographic boat is very nimble and seems to get around easily.

We started the day by kayaking in these great 2 person inflatable kayaks. They have it set up well so you you can easily get in and out of them on a floating platform. Quite honestly Jason did 99% of the paddling but what a view! We were among small ice bergs and chunks of ice. We paddled up to 5 adelie penguins hanging out on the fast ice. In fact we heard later that one of the female staff who does the filming had quite the adventure with one of these little fellows. As she was standing in the zodiac, she felt something hit her in the leg and looking down one of the penguins had jumped in the boat. I guess he wandered around and then jumped off the bow. We also saw more seals lounging on the ice. I dipped my water proof camera into the icy water to try and get a picture of the ice edge. However, with no camera cable I can not download it to see if it worked out. 

After the kayaking we switched back to the zodiac and made a landing on the rocky edge of the Antarctic continent. Our previous landings have been on Antarctic islands but not the main continent. Jason scaled up the rocky scree slope with all this loose rock. It was too steep and high for my liking so I only went a little bit up. I found a nice warm rock, took off my jacket and meditated. What a feeling :)

Now we are back on board, full from lunch, considering a nap, and awaiting a presentation this afternoon on a Oceantis research program, and later tonight a showing of the penguin cartoon Happy Feet. 

I have also managed to squeeze in a short but fabulous book; “The World We Have; A Buddhist Approach to Ecology” by my fave Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh. It has thoughtful insights on the need for environmental protection for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. It really points out how if we ignore the environment we ultimately are killing ourselves and discusses some practical ways to make changes. Not just things like recycling (also very important), but how we view the world, how we value ourselves and other beings, how we consume and how we act with either compassion or lack of compassion. A profound excerpt “We have created a society in which the rich become richer, and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet earth. In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a  few hours they will be killed” (p. 3) I feel very fortunate to to have all that I have in my life and hope to live each day compassionately and mindfully. This book reminds me of this.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Antarctica is in me, I am in Antarctica

This afternoon we had an amazing experience when the ship docked straight into some solid fast ice. We then descended the gang plank right onto to the ice. Once there Jason and I ate some snow, so Antarctica would be in us as we are in it!

On the ice we saw several ‘crab eater seals’. Their name is actually a mistake, given by an early explorer, as they mostly eat krill. Some had red krill juice around their mouths. Others showed the tell tale signs of violent encounters with leopard seals who had sliced into the skin. The crab eater seals then twist to get free of the grip, and deep incisions are left. There was one lonely Adelie penguin as well. There were some large sea birds, and one actually swooped down on the penguin but no harm was done. 

We made a quick xmas call home to Jason’s family and had a brief chat as it costs about $7.00 USD a minute! I tried my mom and my sister Madeline, but no answer! So Merry Christmas to all via the blog.

PS you can also click on the underlined words above to learn more about it.

Tuxedo Christma

We entered Marguerite Bay this morning and took zodiak boats out to land on Pourquoi-Pas Island. The island is home to around 3000 Adelie Penguins. Those are the super cute little ones that are all black and white. But let’s be honest every singe kind of penguin is cute. We wandered on the island for about two hours watching the penguins, snapping photos, looking and glaciers, and even saw 2 weddel seals.

Many of the penguins had little fluffy grey chicks. Other penguins were sliding, running around, squawking, and so on. The rule is to stay 15 feet from the animals unless they approach you as they did not get the same briefing. You also stay out of the well travelled penguin highway that is all flat smooth snow from the upper area to the water. Like seals, penguins are also little stinkers as well. But you get used to the smell. We are now back on board and in a few hours will try to make another landing. Today the sun does not set at all.

Check out some new photos here: Antarctica Album

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve with humpback whales

We awoke to a glorious display of humpback whales surrounding the boat. One of the staff stated there could be as many as 100 in the surrounding area. We saw a mother and calf right beside the boat. The captain slowed the boat so we could see all the whales very well. They were flapping their fins and tails and blowing out water through their blow holes. 

I was feeling a little sick this morning but it has passed and I am happy to say I have not yet lost my cookies and have not taken any sea sickness medication. Jason is much better as well and joined us for breakfast and lunch.

Tomorrow we should see Antarctica itself. From some of the lectures it seems with the wind and ice is agreeable we will see many awesome sites. I thought I would get in a lot of reading but with the boat movement I am still avoiding it. However, they keep us really busy and of course I have had some naps. At 4pm today we are having Swedish Christmas Tea, 5pm is a lecture on polar seals, dinner is at 7:30. The sunsets at 1:00am and rises at 3:47am. It is really a bizarre feeling!

Just a warning that I may not be able to post for several days as we are heading close to Antarctica now and will be crossing the Antarctic circle. The satellite internet may no longer work. So don't worry if there are periods of days when you don't here from us. It is unlikely that we have been eaten by seals.

Check this out for videos of past national geographic Antarctica trips:

Jason would also like to publicly declare he hates boats but loves that magic shot the doctor gave him. He is actually going to leave the room today and try breakfast!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is it really that bad?

Yes it is. It really is that bad. I am quite sure the Drake Passage is the most miserable section of sea known to mankind. The captain said we are having 25 foot waves. I feel like a lightly whisked egg where as Jason is fully scrambled. 

Last evening seemed fine so I was lulled into thinking how bad could it be? Now I should have seen the warning signs. The railings on every hallway wall, the protective edges on the shelves and tables, the pictures bolted to the walls and even the non-slip material under the place mats. Being jarred awake at around 1:30am by what can only be described as a fair ride I don’t remember agreeing to get on. So I could not sleep and spent the night wandering around and trying to help out poor Jason. He has been sick from 1:30am until 2:00pm today. The only thing that helped was a magic shot from the doctor on board that knocked him out; Gravol and the patch failed. 

I am very fortunate that I have not been sick and have not yet taken any medications. Now don’t get me wrong I don’t feel awesome either and am carefully rationing my tums. And, I do look like a giraffe on the ice trying to stay right side up as I bounce around the hallways of the boat. The 5:30am shower was beyond belief. I made good use of the hand railing and watched as the water sloshed over the edge into the rest of the washroom. I kept thinking I have to get in and out quick as I do not want to be found by the cleaning staff; naked, soapy and knocked out. No one is paid enough for that! The constant rocking makes my brain feel like it is bouncing from one side of my head to the other. I am also convinced it makes me pee more as I must have a mini replica of the Drake Passage sloshing around in my bladder. They lost a few glasses out of the bistro which made for an interesting breakfast. They have also strung up a safety rope between the bistro and the restaurant where the area is open with out railings. 

I spent much of the day napping to make up for the lack of sleep last night. Since my tummy has been a little off I have mostly been eating bread and fruit. Which is about a zillion more than Jason. I believe he has just recently had a banana. I am quite sure that the trip will be worth it and much smoother out of the Drake Passage but I am also quite sure this may be our last boat trip! Tomorrow should bring better weather and less waves, and if you are all lucky, less of my whining.

We are heading towards  Marguerite Bay where we will anchor for at least 2 days, over Christmas. Tomorrow we have a zodiac boat safety briefing in preparation. They actually have lectures, films, camera lessons on board but as I said I spent most of today sleeping.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Beavers & Stinkers

We flew into Ushuaia mid-day and toured around the national park. This is where I learned of the failed 1940’s experiment in which Argentina introduced Canadian beavers  to the country to start a fur trade. I guess they found out 2 things; the fur was not popular and the beavers populated! In fact the guide said there are around 100,000 of them now and they are trying to find ways to control the population. With temperatures moderate temperatures all year long and no natural predators it is beaver paradise.

Then we boarded the cataraman and toured around. We stopped at a few rock outcroppings to watch the birds. We came across of group of seals sunning themselves. Now imagine the most disgusting smell you have ever had the mis-fortune to smell and that might come close to how these little stinkers smell. I was however told that a whale burp is worse. Hopefully I’ll get to see that for myself. 

At 5pm we embarked on the boat. It is a lovely vessel. It is about the size I anticipated and nicer than I thought. It was totally gutted and re-done from a working ice breaker to become the expedition vessel it is now. I can really feel the boat moving but no one is sick yet. I guess we get to go start going through the drake passage tonight. The Drake Passage is known to be the roughest part of the sea. We did hear that on their last trip through it was quite smooth. Time will tell. The extended sun light is wrecking havoc with my mind. It is about 10pm now and it is bright out. I guess the sun sets at 11pm and rises at 4:30am, and the day keeps getting longer as we get closer to south pole. The room on board is nice and compact. It reminds me of what I hope Myrtle, my motor home, turns out like. All the drawers and doors latch so they don’t fly open in rough sea. The food on board is really good so far and we’ve met some super nice people. 

Tomorrow the agenda reads; eating, some films and lectures, digital photography class (maybe helpful with Jason’s new 5D Mark 2 Cannon, that shoots HD movies as well!), tea time, cocktails, watching the sea go by, and the like. It is a few days travel until we start hitting land. We went through the safety drill today so I feel all prepared to evacuate on the life boats, which of course won’t happen. They run a great vessel. 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Santiago, Chile

We are just settling in for the night in our hotel in Santiago, Chile. We met with some of the staff of the expedition and there are about 80 guests. Tomorrow we get up at 4:30am and breakfast at 5am and then on to a plane to Ushuaia, Argentina where we will go on a catamaran tour to Tierra del Fuego National Park 

From there we will get onto the boat and start our tour.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Getting ready for Antarctica!

We leave December 20th on our adventure to Antarctica. We go through Santiago Chile then to Argentina and then onto the National Geographic icebreaker were will live for 3 weeks. You can view the boat here: National Geographic Explorer

We have bought all our extra warm items and I have broken in my new winter boots. A lot of people are wondering about the temperatures. Well it is currently summer there so it seems the average is -15 to -30 celsius. Apparently on July 21, 1983 they recorded the coldest temperature at Antarctica at -89 celsius. To view more click here: Antarctica weather

For a nice balance Santiago Chile has be recording +22 to +30 celsius lately. We will stay there for 4 days on the way back from Antarctica.