Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Additional photos by Manos Angelakis
Land at the End of the Earth
Antarctica – Part 2
The visit to Cape Horn although physically demanding, was doable and exhilarating, and The Drake (waterway that leads to Antarctica) was unusually gentle with us which gave us false hope that it would be smooth sailing ahead. Never underestimate the gods of wind and water because when we arrived at Yankee Harbor at the Nelson Straight near the South Shetlands (Islands) the next morning, hoping to visit Gentoo penguin colonies, the day dawned foggy with very choppy seas and it was too dangerous to launch the zodiacs. Undaunted we sailed on to Half-Moon Island to view the Chinstrap penguins, but again the weather thwarted us. On we sailed, seeking a safe harbor. Finally we found Charcot Bay and our first zodiac excursion in the Antarctic Convergence (a marine belt encircling the land mass of Antarctica where cold northward-flowing waters meet the warmer sub-Antarctic waters).
The seas were exceptionally rough so kayak and paddle boarding excursions were cancelled but the zodiacs were launched. Climbing down a ladder into a zodiac with waves rising and falling six to eight feet was a tour de force but somehow the staff managed to drop us one at a time into the zodiacs of 9 passengers plus one pilot per. Off we sped, bumping into waves that splashed and drenched us as we powered on toward Tower and Zig Zag Islands. Along the way we passed Gentoo penguins frolicking in the water – I liked to think they were showing off for us - but the waves were too heavy to pause the zodiac to photograph them so I resigned myself to enjoy the exhibition while my camera stayed securely tucked away in my dry bag. As we passed by Tower Island I spied an ice shelf with a small colony of penguins but again the sea was too angry to get close and we continued fighting the waves for another half hour or so. Finally cold and wet we tried to locate the Ultramarine which had all but disappeared in the heavy fog. Thankful for GPS, we headed towards where the signal indicated the ship was. When we got close the waves were running so high that the Captain had had to reposition the ship for easier access. That meant all zodiacs had to tread water for some time and then queue to re-board. Our anticipated hour and a half excursion more than doubled before we were next up and by that time the seas were even more treacherous and it took a Herculean effort on behalf of the handlers to get us all safely back on board. While it was far from the enjoyable experience I had anticipated I was still hopeful.
My optimism was rewarded. What a difference a day makes. While the sky and the sea were one monochromatic shade of grey, the wind has completely died down providing feathery falling snowflakes a gentle reception and allowing them to gather into clusters forming ice sheets on the face of the water. We are fortunate to see this phenomenon which happens only in the early spring when the sheets collide with icebergs calved off the glaciers - some sporting the rich blue of compacted ice from deep within the mother glacier. In a few days the ice flows will be lost to the warming waters. When water starts to freeze on the ocean it is called “grease ice” which is frozen Frazil Ice. Porridge ice turns into pancake ice and when it gets colder it becomes nilas ice or glassy flat sheets. Who knew there were so many different classifications for freezing water? But this was not the only bit of spicy information the expedition staff explained to us during their daily lectures. We learned of the mating practices of penguins that have no external sex organs so we can’t tell the sexes apart but thankfully penguins can. We learned of the topography of the 7th Continent and its political and scientific importance. We learned of intrepid explorers that sailed these seas and the hardships they endured. And we learned so many more factlets (bits of trivia) from the enthusiastic expedition staff about nature and the wildlife of Antarctica, especially how to survive its challenges such as the raging seas we already experienced.
Next day getting in and out of the zodiacs was much simpler as the loading platform was able to be lowered onto calmer seas and we were no longer required to climb down a ladder buffeted by the waves. Today the ride among the ice floats was magical, silent and serene. Again we could not locate a safe landing site but our excursion lasted about two hours and re-entering the ship was accomplished with ease. Once out of heavy boots and divested of life preservers required when riding in zodiacs, we were handed a hot cup of honey ginger tea with a hearty welcome back.
Day after day, hour after hour, we watched as the weather engineered a show for us. It is an uncommon feeling to be on a vessel in the middle of an ocean floating in eerie solitude when sky and sea are one; when there is no day and no night; and where one minute the sky is blue and the next you can’t distinguish it from the forever ocean. One day we saw a rainbow. One night a passenger spied a pod of minke whales moving past the ship in a sea so clear you could watch them maneuvering playfully under the water. We saw thousands of penguins; many doing mating dances others just doing what penguins do. We saw colonies of identical birds waddling with flippers askew and sometimes advancing on their rotund white bellies or diving into the sea, endlessly entertaining.
Every day offered a different adventure. Some days were better than others but all were magical such as the day half of the passengers on the ship donned bathing suits, walked out on the freezing landing platform in a snow squall and took the Arctic plunge. A time honored and hilarious spectacle of human beings flinging themselves into the icy abyss – thankfully fortified with spirits before and after.
There was the day the Expedition Leader Shane Evoy and the ship’s Captain broke out of the dense fog and pulled up to our zodiac in the middle of nowhere and handed each one of us a cup of Bailey’s Irish whiskey accompanied by a drinking ditty.
There was the day we walked on the face of the “Unknown Southern Land” for the first time; Antarctica the 7th Continent and raised its flag in our frozen hands.
Memories to savor for a lifetime...
To see Antarctica – Part 1 click on the link.
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