Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cruising with the National Geographic crew, Antarctic ports and Climate Change

Seen on the wall of the ship

The Bridge
Cruising with National Geographic was not only an adventure but an educational experience. Everybody and everything was approachable and accessible. The ship had an open bridge policy, which meant you were allowed on to the bridge any time to talk to the crew, look over the maps, have a naturalist point out birds for you and more. The ship was filled with naturalists and had a global perspectives speaker. All the staff would eat with the passengers so you could find yourself dining with several naturalists, the expedition leader or even the guest speaker.

Peter Hillary
Early on I was having a discussion abut the ice shelf collapses and how that will accelerate glacier melt with a particularly cluey staff member. After our discussion I said to Elizabeth, 'That guy knew what he was talking about' and she said, 'That guy was Peter Hillary.' Doh! Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary, was our Global Perspectives speaker.

Whenever conditions would cause plans to change and a morning or afternoon would end up free we would get presentations from the naturalists and photographers, as well as during evening 'recap' when they would do short talks on their favourite topics. As this was also a research ship, presentations could include videos, photos and information on research they had just conducted during a dive while we were out on excursion. Talks included:
  • Historical account of whaling
  • The skua support society. Skuas were generally not liked because they attacked the penguins, but they gave a more balanced perspective on the circle of life in Antarctica.
  • Ice and frozen oceans
  • Krill
  • Shackleton's amazing 1915/16 adventure in Antarctica
  • Their research on leopard seals
  • Killer whales
...and many more.

Palmer Station
Refreshingly most talks would include references to climate change and its effect on Antarctica and the wildlife there in a matter-of-fact scientific way. No debate, no hesitation, just straight out this is what is happening and why. Our trip also included an excursion to Palmer Station, a US research port that only allowed eight visits from ships this summer and we were one of them. The station presented a lot of local information on climate change:
  • Long term data shows temperatures at Palmer Station have increased 7 degrees Celsius since 1945. This is more than 5 times the global average. Antarctica in general has increased temperature at about twice the global average.
  • The station used to get fresh water from a nearby glacier but since it has receded so much they now use osmosis to purify seawater.
  • The Adelie penguin numbers have decreased from 15,000 in 1974 to 2,000 in 2014 due to the decline in sea ice.
  • Krill numbers are falling in the area and are affected by warming oceans. 70% of the krill population might die due to climate change. This is a huge issue as krill are near the bottom of the food chain and are eaten by penguins, seals and even whales.
  • Phytoplankton has decreased by 90% north of the station but has increased 60% in the south. Phytoplankton produces about two thirds of the planet's atmospheric oxygen. New research indicates that as oceans warm photosynthesis in phytoplankton may shut down.
  • There is accelerating glacier loss in West Antarctica.
  • The Larsen B ice shelf in West Antarctica is almost all gone making a total of 5 ice shelves that will have collapsed since 1989. Larsen C is showing signs of beginning to collapse. While ice shelves do not contribute to sea level rise they hold back glaciers that do contribute to sea level rise. These collapses are partly due to warming oceans melting the ice shelves from underneath and were unexpected, meaning current sea level rise projections are greatly underestimated.
Coming to Antarctica was always planned as an educational experience as well as an adventure; that was why we chose National Geographic. But it was frightening to see and hear how fast climate change is affecting this pristine and crucial part of the global ecosystem. One only hopes that the world makes good on its promises in Paris.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

There are penguins in Antarctica?

 "...I never saw, nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die, not though I live three lives of mortal men, so great a miracle..." Tennyson's Morte d' Arthur.

Antarctica, the final frontier, these are the voyages of the National Geographic Explorer, boldly going where...well, you get the idea :-) Seriously though, Antarctica is like another world: bleak, desolate, white, the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth. But, then again it was the most exciting, most beautiful, adventure and animal filled time of our lives. By animal I, of course, mean penguins. Those tiny, cute, adorable poo filled creatures that are all around you in their hundreds filling your senses in more ways than one.

First you have to get to Antarctica, and that is across the notorious Drake Passage where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans crash together creating  a maelstrom of water activity similar to a washing machine, well, usually. Fortunately for us we had a straight fairly sedate run across the Drake with the wind behind us that took half a day off our travel to Antarctica and gave the passage the nickname Drake Lake. This allowed us to go into the Antarctic Sound and see the fabulous table icebergs (not on the itinerary). That kind of unpredictability was the only thing predictable about our trip.

A day on the Explorer was always an unknown adventure. You would have a rough itinerary the night before that would completely change by the morning as weather and ice conditions would force our expedition leaders to change their plans and we would be going somewhere else to do something else. The something else would always be amazing. Let's go into detail about one excursion and you'll get the general idea:

It was our first actual landing on the continent of Antarctica, at Neko Harbour. You're given a 15 minute warning when it is your turn for your group to go to the Mud Room. The Mud Room is where your lockers are with your waterproof, windproof pants and knee high boots. After kitting up and putting on your life jacket you go to the opening in the ship where you disembark on to zodiacs (very hardy rubber rafts). These ferry you to the shore where long before you land you are aware of the aromatic smell of penguin poo (you get used to it).
The Mud Room and heading out

We stepped on to the continent and were greeted by hundreds (thousands) of Gentoo penguins calmly going about their daily activities and generally ignoring us as if we were an endemic species they were used to. They would waddle, jump, feed and warm their chicks, collect rocks to shore up their nests and more. We would be captivated and had to tear ourselves away to climb up a long snowy path to a craggy rock where two skuas were guarding their offspring from other skuas. We looked past the skuas to an amazing panorama of snow, water and glaciers with the occasional sound of a crack signalling a calving event. Eventually we needed to wrench ourselves away from that amazing experience and return to the shore.

But we did not have to walk all the way; we were able to slide down the snow like a water slide on our waterproof pants, surprisingly slippery and fast, spinning out of control at the bottom like little kids. We then hopped into the zodiacs and headed back to the boat where we went into the now aptly named Mud Room to clean all of the penguin poop and mud off our shoes and pants with specially set up cleaning brushes in buckets of disinfectant.

Another time we went out on zodiacs looking at icebergs of all shapes and sizes, some even with caves, while dodging chunks of floating ice. The driver pulled a chunk on to the boat so we could feel how heavy it was. We came across Crabeater seals (they eat krill, not crabs) and Elephant seals (they eat penguin as well). We had a perfect moment where the engine was turned off and we all sat in silence listening to the birds, waves lapping, ice cracking and wind howling around us. Afterwards we just coincidentally came across a pirate zodiac that was giving out hot chocolate with a wee dram (not) of whisky added. I don't think they quite get the concept of pirate...

Chunk of ice pulled out from the sea

Friendly Pirates

The days were one amazing adventure after another, with postcard scenery and bountiful bouncing, swimming and waddling penguins, lazy curious seals and swooping birds. We even had a morning of kayaking, until the wind picked up, the rain started to fall and we all had to scramble back to the boat, some people needing a tow from a zodiac. Luckily I saw the weather changing and had already started heading back; it was hard work but we got to the boat under our own steam, good exercise. The weather changes fast down here.

Skua protecting their nest

A Blue Eyed Shag

Sliding down the snow

Moving through the ice in a Zodiac