The Great White South: Antarctica
I feel very privileged to have visited the Antarctic Peninsula. Words cannot really describe how awe-inspiring it is, and I don’t think that pictures can fully convey what it’s like to visit there either. But I hope through both my words and images that you can share in a little bit of the magic and understand through the references I’ve included how climate change is affecting this important place. This is a lengthier blog post so you may want to pour yourself a winter warmer as you settle in to read it.
Days 1 -3
From the minute our trusty Russian ship, The Akademik Ioffe, pulled out of port in Ushuaia (the self-proclaimed “end of the world”) there was excitement bubbling up among the 64 passengers on board. Since the boat can hold about 100 guests, we were an unusually small group. In addition to charmed Hillary Guy from the UK who won her trip with a 1 pound auction ticket, there were about 13 lucky backpackers who bought last minute tickets at discounted prices. (Hint – apparently the voyages that set sail just before the Christmas ones are generally less full and thus you are more likely to be able to hitch a ride last minute). I also felt lucky since I paid to share a triple cabin but got upgraded to a spacious solo cabin.
Our cruise was run by the Canadian-based company One Ocean Expeditions. We were joined on our trip by the company’s managing director, Andrew Prossin. Andy has been coming down to Antarctica for nearly two decades. It was a pleasure having him aboard as I learned firsthand about One Ocean’s commitment to conservation on the Great White Continent. From using low-emission fuel to offering carbon offsets for their trips, they take their company philosophy (“the world really is one ocean”) very seriously.
It was clear that not only does Andy still get a thrill from being in Antarctica but, that he also takes great pride in his spirited staff. I cannot praise them enough. I truly believe that their many years of experience and boundless energy were a large part of what made the trip so worthwhile. With the daily sultry wake-up call by Chad Gaetz (“Good Morning everyone. It’s another beautiful day outside”), the informative daily presentations by the knowledgeable staff, the attentiveness of the Russian crew, and the friendly pourings by bartenders Andy and Rose, I felt very pampered.
After 2½ days of a relatively calm crossing of the infamous Drake Passage, I awoke at 5:30 am for my first glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula. At first I thought I was seeing just dense clouds out my window but after a few blinks of my dry eyes I realized it was Land Ho! I headed up to the bridge and was soon joined by more of my shipmates. Eyes wide with wonder and reverence, we sailed to what would be our furthest point south (65°104’) until chunks of brash ice forced us to skip our intended first destination of Peterman Island and head inland to Damoy Point instead.
After donning our gum-boots and Christmassy-red “wet skins” we marched down the gangway to waiting zodiacs which whisked us off for our first of ten excursions off the mother ship. Here we had our first encounter with a rookery of Gentoo penguins.
Although I took this trip to primarily photograph the landscape, I must admit I was impressed with all the wildlife we saw: the many sea birds (albatrosses, skuas, shags, petrels, gulls…), seals (Weddell and Leopard) and of course, penguins. They sure are cute – but stinky! As our landing was downwind there was no way to avoid the stench of their guano. We had been warned of this by shipmates Rebecca and Paolo – penguin “counters” working on behalf of the nonprofit group Oceanites – and they did not lie. While these two gals were allowed to enter the holy sanctuary of the rookery to gather eggshells and click their counters the rest of us were asked to stay five meters away from the penguins which was sometimes hard to do as they would curiously saunter close to us.
I slowly tracked up a hill turning every so often to take in the views behind me. The staff said we could explore at our own pace but asked us to stay on trail so that we didn’t create deep “post holes” with our boots that could create traps for the penguins. At one point I got on the trail between the two Japanese men on our trip. The one ahead of me turned to make a comment to his friend and seeing me instead just lifted his arms up to the view and voiced something like “wowwwwwouuuu” – to which I replied , “Yes, wowoooowwwwouuuuu.” No translation needed. We were in full agreement about the stunning landscape in front of us.
After a couple hours of exploring we reluctantly headed back to the ship for a hearty lunch and to gear up for our next outing to Danco Island. I reveled in the subtle but constantly changing luminance. The snowy white glaciers set off by dark skies were a treat for my eyes. In fact, sometimes the peaks in front of me looked like meringue. When asked by someone if I thought I got any good pictures that day – my response was, “I feel like I am photographing a supermodel. It’s hard to take a bad picture of such a gorgeous subject.”
That night about 40 of us took advantage of clear skies for an optional night of camping on Ronge Island in the Errera Channel. I had hoped to stay up all night but once most everyone had settled into their sleeping bags and bivy sacs I too, succumbed to the warmth of the snowy “grave” my new Dutch friend Marvin had dug for me. I managed to stay up to watch the sun more or less “set” at 23:55 (it never really got dark) and saw the first glow of the sun that was to officially “rise” at 2:30.
That morning with the sun shining more brightly we docked in Neko Harbor for an even more spectacular view (I fear I am going to run out of superlatives while trying to describe the landscape) of the bay surrounding us. We spread out among the Harbor’s hills each finding their own space to savor the sunshine. Our artist-in-residence, David McEown painted a watercolor of the harbor while staff member Kristy Wright did some yoga. Others watched more Gentoo penguins while some lucky kayakers and zodiac passengers got to commune with some humpbacked whales.
Our afternoon expedition took us a little further north to Paradise Harbor, an aptly named spot but instead of making a landing we spent some time exploring Andvord Bay in the zodiacs looking at some very large icebergs and a few ice shelves. I was glad I had this opportunity to see the ice so close-up as the naturally sculpted forms are very stunning and this is what I had come to photograph.
Ice is melting faster in Antarctica than anywhere else in the world and the rate of melting is accelerating more rapidly than was initially thought. Ninety percent of the world’s ice and about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is contained in Antarctica. Since the 1940’s temperatures there have been rising an average 0.5 degrees C per decade. In the last fifty years it has risen a total of 3 degrees C. If all the Antarctic ice melted sea levels would rise over 6o meters. Although this is not likely to happen in our lifetimes there are predictions that If Antarctic ice shelves continue to melt sea levels could rise 3 meters by the end of the century.
According to NASA, since 2002 Antarctica has been losing at least 100 cubic meters (24 cubic miles) of ice per year. The ice in East Antarctica is currently fairly stable, as it is a cold high desert about 1.2 km (2 miles high) and little surface warming is occurring there now. West Antarctica is where most of the melting is occurring since it consists of a series of islands covered by ice and most of which is sitting on the Southern Ocean floor and not on land. With ocean temperatures on the rise large ice shelves are collapsing into the ocean as their underbelly gets weakened. (Ice shelves are thick floating pieces of ice fed by glaciers which are essentially moving rivers of ice.) In the last couple decades, two of the three parts of the Larsen Ice Shelf and the Wilkens Ice Shelf collapsed. Over 20 billion tons of ice has been lost in this area since 2001. Ice shelves act as a sort of “plug” at the end of a glacier so when the shelves break off, the glacier starts to flow more rapidly.
Currently a group of international scientists are studying the Pine Island Glacier to see the effect of warming ocean temperatures on its melting process. This area is the new “hot spot” that climatologists are keeping an eye on.
When queried about the ways in which they see climate change affecting Antarctica, some of the One Ocean and Oceanites staff members noted the following changes: glaciers that used to extend farther out into the bays are visibly receding, rocky peaks are appearing earlier in the season due to warmer temperatures, penguin populations are both shifting and declining.
The skies were overcast and heavy with snow for our expedition to Spigot Peak in Orne Harbor. We climbed up a steep hill to observe a Chinstrap penguin rookery that contained over 400 birds (although we only saw a portion of them). It was amazing to witness the heights at which they build their nests. Apparently they chose to nest so high since higher rocky outcrops get more snow blown off them earlier in the winter and thus make for better nesting areas despite the demand of having to climb down so far to get food.
In the afternoon we went to Cuverville Island in the Errera Channel which hosts the largest colony of Gentoo penguins on the peninsula (approximately 4,500 birds). There was one lone Adele penguin who kept more to himself and I found him quite stunning with his dark head with a bright white circle around his eye.
Ron Naveen, the director of Oceanites who joined us near the end of our voyage gave a presentation on the current state of the penguin populations in the Antarctic Peninsula. While Gentoos are thriving and even on the increase in some areas, Chinstrap and Adelie populations are on the decline. Since Gentoos prefer open water and are more opportunistic colonizers they are the “climate change winners.” Adelie and Chinstraps are the “losers” since they are more ice-loving and “obligatory” colonizers who will not seek out a new home as the ice decreases near their usual habitat. Gentoos also have the upper-hand as they will also eat fish but Adelies generally eat krill (a small shrimp-like crustacean) which are on the decline as ocean temperatures warm. I salute this organization for their hard work in keeping an eye on the changes happening in Antarctica.
We spent the morning in the zodiacs in Wilhelmina Bay. Humpbacked whales had been sighted in the bay so we wondered if we might be lucky enough to come upon them in our little boats. I was in a zodiac piloted by “Whale Whisperer” Liz Calhouln. Liz has been leading whale watching expeditions in Canada for many years so even though I came to Antarctica to witness the landscape I was hoping her svengali powers might bring a whale close enough to photograph. After thirty minutes of cruising around and taking in the views, we spotted some humpbacked whales in the distance. Within minutes there were two of them were within meters of our little zodiac. They were next to us before I had time to change my long telephoto lens for something more practical. Not knowing how long they would stay near us, I quickly made the decision to make a video (still to come! I couldn’t upload with the weak internet signals I’ve been getting) of them rather than shoot still images. I am still amazed how gentle these giants were around us. They clearly just seemed curious as they surfaced to get a view of our boat several time before swimming away. It was breathtaking to be in their presence.
In the afternoon we docked at Portal Point to give three cheers and raise a toast to Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his crew of three who were the first explorers to reach the South Pole on December 14th, 1911. Sunniva Sorby led the salute to her countrymen for their bravery. She is one who can genuinely speak from experience about how challenging that trek can be as she was part of the first all-women team to reach the South Pole in 1993. Everyone was in good spirits (the whiskey certainly helped) and we lingered here awhile to bask in the sun and reflect on our adventures.
Our time in Antarctica was officially over but we still had another day of adventure left. As our ship successfully navigated the narrow and shallow channel of Neptunes Bellows the fog grew thicker and a misting rain began that would last during the entire day we spent in the South Shetland Islands. We docked that morning in Telefon Bay for a walk around the lunar-like landscape of Deception Island. This active volcano is horseshoe shaped with a large flooded caldera at its center. The barren ashy-black ground covered with dirty white snow made for a stark landscape compared to the soft white-on-white world we’d just left.
In the afternoon we visited Whalers Bay – the site of a former whaling station and also a now defunct research station. The rain continued as we explored the remains of the buildings, whale bones, and boats. At one point I looked around my shipmates in our red rain-suits scattered around the beach and I felt like I was wandering in a post-apocalyptic world. It was very surreal. But this dream-state was shaken off as many of us chose to take the plunge into Antarctic waters. A balmy 1 degree Celsius, it was a quick and frigid plunge. I think I am now ready to join the Polar Bear’s Club at Coney Island next New Year’s Day.
Once we started back across the Drake Passage passengers began retreating to their cabins. The Dramamine I succumbed to taking when my homeopathic sea-sickness medication failed took the edge off my queasiness, but made me only want to sleep. The last highlight of our trip (besides the last-night party in the bar) was passing by Cape Horn on our last morning. I imagine I am not the only one who started to feel a bit sad at this point. When I booked my trip to Antarctica I thought of it as a “once in a lifetime” trip. But now I know I must return. I have been bitten by the South Pole bug and will somehow find a way to get back there. Perhaps I can do it as a staff photographer on another One Ocean voyage or maybe I’ll start buying $1.00 auction tickets and hope to get lucky.
I am sure most of you rarely think about Antarctica in your daily routine. But since the world really is “one ocean” we all need to consider how climate changes in the land way down under will ripple across the water to affect us all sooner or later.