Friday, November 23, 2012

Welcome To Antarctica

Map picture

Yesterday afternoon we crossed into Antarctica- well perhaps; and therein is a story worth telling.

You may recall from our trip to the Arctic that a general definition when you are actually in the Arctic is when you are north of the 60 degree North parallel. Remember, the equator is defined as zero degrees, and the North Pole is at 90 degrees north. Similarly in the South, anything south of the 60 degree South Parallel is considered to be in Antarctica, and the South Pole is at 90 degrees. These parallel lines drawn on the earth’s surface were not done at random, but are based on the fact that the axis of the earth is at an angle to the sun, so that the 60 degree parallel marks the location on our planet where the summer solstice, at 60 degrees north there is 24 hours of sunlight, and at 60 degrees south on that date there is 24 hours of darkness. The winter solstice simply reverses everything with 24 hours of darkness in the north, and 24 hours of light in the south.

So, regarding Antarctica, the international treaty which governs this vast continent, defines all territory south of the 60th parallel south to be within Antarctica. At this point in time, we are visiting the Islands of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, both of which are possessions of the United Kingdom, and are above the 60th parallel. However, as I will explain, most scientists would consider them as part of the Antarctica territory.

To understand the reasoning behind this, I need to introduce another concept that of the “Antarctic Convergence.” The boundary at which the cold waters of Antarctica converge with the warmer waters to the north is defined as the Antarctic Convergence. This is an extremely important physical boundary in science, and it is relatively easily observed. By way of example, every two hours our ship records the water temperature. Yesterday afternoon we were in beautiful sunny skies and moderate temperatures. However, within a matter of six hours the water temperature had dropped by 8 degrees. Our sunny skies gave way to sea fog, and the outside temperature was noticeably colder. We had crossed the Antarctic Convergence Boundary. This boundary is what scientists consider as the real delineating factor as to what constitutes Antarctica and its boundary. Even while moving slightly from year to year, this boundary is amazingly constant in its location. It is very close to the 60th parallel, but not synonymous with it. In most places, it is actually slightly north of the 60th parallel, but in a few locations it is actually south. So, back to our location, yesterday having crossed the Convergence Boundary, we technically entered Antarctica, even though we have yet to cross the actual political boundary, the 60th parallel.

I know it is confusing, however at the convergence, the waters are incredibly nutrient rich and hence, a great feeding area for wildlife. These waters can also be unpredictable and at times extremely rough. This is one reason that the Drake Passage is so well known for its rough waters because the boundary passes right through it. We will talk about the Drake Passage later when we actually transit it on our way home. A good example occurred on this trip. We just visited the Falkland Islands. The have very little if any snow in a year, and never see an iceberg. By comparison, we travelled about 800 miles almost directly East, so we were at the same latitude as the Falklands, but the South Georgia Islands still had a great deal of snow on the ground, and the very first sight that greeted me when I opened our curtains, was a very large iceberg silently gliding by my window. We had indeed crossed the convergence.

This morning we awoke to a low overcast sky from which we could from time to time get either rain or light snow. The temperatures were slightly above freezing. The winds were moderate at first, causing a little swell, but as the morning progressed both the winds and the swell increased dramatically. We had all been made aware of an approaching storm, but the forecast indicated that we should be able to make our wet landing on the Salisbury Plain and retreat back to the safety of the ship before the winds and waves became too intense. It was a good plan that almost worked!

Our reason for visiting this location was simple; here is the second largest King Penguin colony in the South Georgia Islands. At last count, there were reputed to be around 150,000 nesting pairs of birds, and since their little chicks had recently arrived, the actual number of birds in this location was probably closer to 400,000. It was a truly incredible sight, but it did offer a few challenges. The weather was far from perfect, and predicted to worsen as the morning progressed. For this reason, we started operations very early in the morning. Our group managed to make the shore without incident, but the wet landing was a little rough. At that point, Lisa and I were confronted with a very uneven stone covered beach on which to walk and we both had our walking sticks. Then there was the little matter of the male fur seals who had staked out their territory along the beach. DSC09697It was nearing mating season, and the males were in the process of claiming a good spot right on the beach as near to the water as possible in order that when the females would arrive they might be the lucky suitor. When we landed, they were not yet too aggressive, but both Lisa and I had the aroused seals charge us with a loud roar. Considering the little darlings weighed between 800 to 1,000 lbs., it was an intimating site. We both did as we had been told, and that was to growl back, clap our hands, and not to retreat an inch. If you retreated then it was a sign of weakness, and they would continue charging and very likely give you a bite on the leg. I was threatened several times, but Lisa had only the one event fortunately. Of course, we were not the only objects of their threats. We witnessed several all-out fights between groups of males, and I can tell you that it was rather viscous. In fact, most of the animals had large gouge marks and open wounds on their sides, so this was a serious matter.

The little, or should I say, large King Penguins were another matter altogether. DSC09732The entire beach was filled with them, and we had to remember that a penguin always has the right of way. We were prohibited from approaching them any close than 5 meters, but if we stood still the penguins became curious and would walk right up to us. I was absolutely having a blast– this is something that I have always wanted to see! As I watched, I saw that the penguins on the beach were in transit between the large colonies just up the hill from the beach, to the ocean where they were hunting for food to bring back to the newly hatched chicks. Because the colony itself was rather far up the hill, I could only observe the big brown chicks from a distance, but it was an amazing sight to see so many in one place. At the beach front, large numbers of King Penguins were jumping into and out of the roiling surf. It struck me as funny that I never saw just a single penguin jump in or out of the water. Instead it was always groups that moved in unison.

Because the wind was increasing as well as the rain, Lisa and I decided that it was time to return to the ship – that proved to be a good decision. After we had all our safety equipment on, we walked down to the water’s edge to grab our ride back to the ship. The surf was really up and as our zodiac approached, a wave caught the front, pushed it into the air, and the wind just about flipped it over. Miraculously the driver barely managed to stay in the boat, none-the-less a disaster was narrowly averted. By the time the crew managed to wrestle the little boat into position for us to board, it had filled with about six inches of water. We had a really rough ride back to the ship, but I was so excited about having finally seen a King Penguin, that I hardly noticed the ride.

By the time we had dried off and changed clothes, the weather outside had really worsened. This meant that the predicted storm had moved in much sooner than anticipated. We went to get a cup of warm coffee planning on doing some reading when we realized that a real life drama was unfolding. Conditions had continued to deteriorate at the landing site where it reached the point that one of the craft almost flipped over, and most of the little zodiacs had filled with too much water to be safe. So, the shuttles were stopped, however that left 33 people stranded on shore in worsening conditions.

I was extremely impressed with the way in which the crew and the Captain handled the situation. First, the group on shore had all the emergency equipment needed to safely spend several days there if necessary – that had been planned for well in advance. Also planned in advance was an alternate landing site that offered a little more shelter from the wind. It had not been selected in the beginning since it was almost 2 miles from the colony and the beach was full of “really” aggressive males, which only added to the excitement. Everyone had been fully briefed on the importance of wearing proper clothing just in the event that something like this occurred. So even though the winds were now howling and it was a rain/snow mix, the group managed to make the 2km walk without incident. In the meantime our ship had repositioned, and once things were ready, a fleet of zodiacs was dispatched to retrieve the poor stranded travelers from their cold walk.

During lunch, our ship repositioned to Stromness, which is a former whaling station on the northern coast of South Georgia Island. The historical significance of this location is that it represents the final destination of Ernest Shackleton’s epic rescue journey in 1916. The main event for the afternoon was an opportunity for people to walk the same 4km journey as that taken by Shackleton, and to visit what is now known as Shackleton’s waterfall. For people like Lisa and me, a ride to the beach to view the wildlife and the abandoned station was also offered. While walking the beach area, we saw mostly Adele penguins and Fur Seals. A few Elephant Seals were scattered about, but given the cold and the wind, we stayed long enough to enjoy the experience before returning the our ship.

Because of the bad weather, and in an effort to position the ship for a meaningful day tomorrow, the Captain decided to move down the coast to a more sheltered bay, and then to anchor there overnight. That proved to be a wild ride! At one point, we had 21ft waves and 40 mph winds, all of which made for a challenging experience before we pulled into our shelter where we spent a calm and pleasant night.

Tomorrow we are visiting Grytviken where believe it or not, we must clear customs and immigration before proceeding ashore. It is at Grytviken that Shackleton is actually buried, and today it is the home to a research station and also the local administrative offices.


Ps I am posting this on our blog along with a map, however I have taken so many pictures that there is almost no way I can edit them to add to the project. That may have to wait until I am home.

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