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