Earth’s Last Frontier
In January 2006, Trevor and I were privileged enough to visit The White Continent. We flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and spent a couple of days exploring this fascinating city before our flight down to Ushuaia – el fin del mundo – the end of the world, where we joined our ship, Orient Lines’ Marco Polo.
In those days I didn’t keep a blog, but we did take lots of photos. The best of these are shown below. Sorry for the photo quality; we did not have a fantastic high-megapixel camera in those days.
Friday, 13 January 2006 – Ushuaia, Argentina
Today we joined the Marco Polo, our expedition ship. We have been allocated cabin number 219, which has a couple of large portholes.
We set sail at 18:00 hours, a couple of hours earlier than scheduled. Just after sailing, a couple of ship’s stewards came to our door and said “The captain is predicting very rough weather on our crossing of Drake’s Passage, so I’m afraid we are going to have to close your portholes”.
Close our portholes!! We’re five decks up! 🙂
We set sail along the Beagle Channel, which bisects Chile and Argentina. To the port side of the ship was the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina, to the starboard side was Chile. We should reach the open sea, and the Drake Passage, around midnight tonight. It takes about 27 hours in total to cross the Drake Passage.
Sunday, 15 January 2006 – Deception Island, South Shetlands – 62° 40’ S, 60° 30’ W
We arrived at Deception Island at 08:00 hours this morning. The temperature was just below zero, but it was a crisp, bright day. From up on the Marco Polo deck all you could see was sparkling blue sea, sky and dazzling white mountains. We had crossed the Antarctic Convergence at 60° South so we were now officially in Antarctica!
Here are some more views of Deception Island. While we did not actually land here, the Marco Polo did a complete circumnavigation of the island. The landscape was spectacular; all mountains, glaciers and icebergs. We were due to disembark the ship this afternoon for a ride in the Zodiac inflatable dinghies; these would be our only method of transport between ship and land. You need to have all the proper gear – winter woollies, bright red official issue polar Parka, overtrousers, wellies, balaclava, sheepskin mitts etc.
Here’s a shot of a couple of the Zodiac landing craft. Each one has a two-stroke engine and holds 14 passengers plus one crew. You sit on the edge of the dinghy and hold onto the ropes! If you need to stand up for a better view, you MUST ask the ‘captain’ first. This is to ensure more than one person doesn’t stand up and cause the dinghy to over-balance. I for one did not fancy the idea of falling into the water, the temperature of which was 2.7°C. Brrrr!
Sunday, 15 January 2006 – 17:00 hours – Cuverville Island, Antarctica – 64° 40’ S, 62° 36’ W
Isn’t that spectacular? This photo was taken from the Zodiac dinghy. Seeing Antarctica is just such an amazing experience. You just cannot stop staring, wide-eyed, and you can’t help wishing your eyes were bigger in order to take in more of the sheer, unspoilt, pristine beauty. Every now and again the whitescape was interrupted by a flurry of black-and-white as a Gentoo penguin surfaced from the water, after fishing for krill and small fish. You had to be quick to spot them!
You can really get close to nature here! Here’s a crabeater seal basking on an ice floe. The gorgeous blue colour you see all around you in the icebergs and glaciers is due to the ice being so compressed that all oxygen is forced out; because blue in the colour spectrum has the longest wave length, this is the colour (from white light) that reaches your eyes first. This is the same reason that the sky appears blue (I think… but correct me if I’m wrong!) 🙂
This is a leopard seal. All in all, we saw four different species of seal: crabeaters, leopard, Weddell seals and elephant seals. Leopard seals prey on penguins and their chicks, as well as fish and krill. In fact we learnt a lot about krill, those small shrimp-like creatures. Without them, the whole eco-system of the Antarctic Continent would collapse. Just about everything eats them, from birds to mighty blue whales.
Here’s our trusty expedition vessel, the Marco Polo. At 22,080 tons she is the biggest ship that comes down to Antarctica. She normally holds 800+ passengers, but for this trip there were only 494 on board, plus crew and expedition leaders. The reason for this was that once we’d left South America, there was nowhere else the ship could stock up on supplies!
Another view of the Marco Polo, taken from my vantage point on a Zodiac dinghy. Look at all those icebergs floating past. You really knew when one came in contact with the dinghy! In fact, our craft was over 20 minutes late getting back to the ship, as we had to wait for some pretty big bergs to pass. Our captain told us that, the previous week, there had been no ice-bergs but, because the weather was “warm” this week at just two degrees above zero, some of the glaciers had cracked and so bergs had been released.
The Antarctic Peninsula is very mountainous; this is because, over 200 million years ago, this part of the Antarctic continent was joined to the bottom of South America, so these mountains used to be part of the Andes.
Monday, 16 January 2006 – LeMaire Channel, Antarctica – 65° 01’ S, 63° 51’ W
We arose very early this morning and were up on deck, in the frozen air, just after 07:30 hours. And for a view like that, wasn’t it worth it? Here the Marco Polo is approaching the LeMaire Channel. From here we were less than 75 nautical miles from the Antarctic Circle. We were very lucky with the weather; the previous week the ship had been unable to enter the channel due to ice. As you can see, the sea was like a mirror. Beautiful!
We’re still in the LeMaire Channel, and here, on the mirror-like water, we see an ice-floe with a crabeater seal (left) and a leopard seal.
We’re not far off the narrowest part of the channel now. At this point the ship was barely doing 10 knots. Once she negotiated the narrow straits, she turned around and headed back out again. This afternoon we were due to visit Port Lockroy.
Monday, 16 January 2006 – Port Lockroy, Antarctica – 64° 49’ S, 63° 29’ W
You know you’re in Antarctica when you see penguins!
There are VERY strict rules when landing on the continent; the overall rule is “Take nothing except photographs, and leave nothing except footprints”.
Gentoo penguin colonies in Port Lockroy. Look at the guano-covered rock. It had quite a distinctive, pungent fishy smell and each time we landed we had to have our wellies scrubbed and disinfected before re-embarking on the Zodiacs and the ship. It was important to maintain the ecological balance of each of the unique islands around the Antarctic Peninsula; even transferring penguin guano from one place to another was to be avoided.
Antarctica consists of 98% ice and 2% barren rock; there are no trees, bushes or other plants, apart from lichen on some of the rocks.
Among the rocks and shingle of Port Lockroy and against a clean white backdrop, here we see the sad remains of a humpback whale, in the form of an almost complete skeleton.
Port Lockroy used to be a thriving whaling area; whaling ships would come down from Deception Island and it is estimated that over 3,000 whales were killed and cut up for their valuable oil, which was a good source of fuel.
Tuesday, 17 January 2006 – Paradise Harbour, Antarctica – 64° 49’ S, 62° 51’ W
Today we were due to set foot on the Antarctic mainland – ice permitting. There were many large icebergs around the ship, getting in the way of the floating platform from which we embarked the Zodiacs. Here we see four of the Zodiacs trying to “push” an iceberg away from the side of the ship! It needed a combined and sustained effort to divert the iceberg so it didn’t come in contact with the landing pontoon.
Here’s a lovely close-up shot of a Gentoo colony. Aren’t they cute? Some of them had their white chests covered in a pinky coating of guano; this is because they sometimes like to ‘toboggan’ down slopes on their bellies as it’s easier than waddling down on their little legs.
The penguins would then go down to the water’s edge and dive in, surfacing and rolling and flapping their flippers to wash themselves off. You never tired of watching them.
Not a paradise with palm trees, but a breathtaking beauty from the sublime ice-bergs to the backdrop of mountains and glaciers one is able to see here in the bayMarco Polo expediton leader, describing Paradise Harbour, Antarctica
It might not have palm trees and golden beaches, but it is Paradise none the less. There are no roads, no cars, no factory chimneys, no industrial estates, no telegraph wires, no mobile phone masts. The place is completely unspoilt and untainted by man. It is a huge privilege to be able to come here and experience this. It makes you so much more aware of the damage that mankind has done to the Earth and the environment. Let’s hope Antarctica remains unsullied forever – it’s Earth’s last frontier.
Wednesday, 18 January 2006 –Half Moon Island, South Shetlands – 62° 36’ S, 59° 55’ W
Everyone was issued with official expedition parkas, life-jackets etc. and you had to come equipped with thermal undies, hats and gloves; in addition, waterproof over-trousers and wellingtons were a must. You can see why!
Chinstrap penguins are probably the most easily recognised. As you can see, they have chicks with them.
On another rock across the way was a nest containing an Antarctic brown skua and her chick. As we watched, she soared into the air, no doubt looking for a penguin chick for her dinner. As we came down the hill, sure enough the skua had snatched a young chick; in fact there were two skuas eating the chick alive. As we watched, they grabbed half each and literally tore the chick limb from limb, in a mess of blood and guts. The skua then carried a large chunk of raw flesh back to her nest, to feed her chick.
Finally, here I am on the deck of the Marco Polo, reading my copy of Glamour magazine. Why, I can hear you ask, am I standing reading Glamour instead of gazing at the stunning scenery? Well, each month Glamour invites its readers to participate in a competition called ‘Glamour-to-Go’ in which readers send in photos of themselves reading Glamour in a glamorous location. I figured that Antarctica was as unusual a location as you could get, so I sent in my picture which was published, winning me a digital camera!