Live from Antarctica, Part 2

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

NOTE:   Society Expeditions is no longer in service, however this four-part report on Antarctic cruising contains much valuable information for those wishing to sail in the region with other cruise lines.

Click here for Part 1

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One thing we quickly learned during our Antarctica sailing aboard Society Expeditions' World Discoverer is that flexibility is an important component of traveling in this part of the world. Not only can the weather change in a second --literally--but there's always the chance of an unexpected encounter.

Yesterday at 5:45 a.m., the captain made an announcement over the P.A. system for everyone to get up if they wanted to see the lone Emperor penguin standing on the icepack. Seeing one of these rare birds is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity unless you happen to be a researcher stationed way down the continent. This was the captain's 51st voyage in these waters, and only the second time he has seen an Emperor. Not that it was the only bird on the pack ice--there were entire colonies of Adelies.

Local conditions can determine the ship's itinerary on any given day. After several futile attempts to break through the pack ice (being surrounded by the ice is breathtaking) to get to Paulet Island, we had to backtrack and go to Brown Bluff. But we actually landed on the Antarctic continent by doing that.

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It was warmer than I had expected. A zodiac tour took us through the ice, past colonies of Adelie penguins, and through an enormous, beautiful ice cave. Then the rains came. But we saw nesting Gentoo penguins ashore. As we headed back for the ship, we passed a leopard seal swimming by an iceberg. Seeing the Antarctic wildlife in its natural habitat instead of a zoo is a highlight of these cruises, and it helps to have experienced naturalists along, as we did, to explain the various species we encountered.

The captain's alternate plan for the day's second landing was to head for Hope Bay and Esperanza, an Argentine station. But by the time we got there the wind had reached gale force, making it impossible to land. We sailed to the end of the bay and the glacier, glistening in the sun. Out on the ice, a lone crabeater seal was wiggling his way across the slope, far away from any water. Amazing.

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We spent the afternoon sailing past enormous tabular icebergs. The colors were stunning. These monsters are all several hundred feet long and rise anywhere from 70 to 300 feet above the water, reaching depths of 600 feet below the water. The weather continued to change--snow, hail, rain--all within minutes. The wind reached force 10, or 60 miles an hour, as the seas raged and huge waves crashed against the icebergs. What an adventure! It was all over by morning, but it was an interesting night. Many of us commented about what Shackleton and other early Antarctic explorers must have experienced in their small wooden boats.

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Today we went ashore on Livingston Island. Some people chose to hike along the beach and meet us at Hannah Point. They saw fossil beds, penguins, petrels and elephant seals. At Hannah Point, there were colonies of nesting gentoos and chinstrap penguins, plus some macaroni penguins. With their wild orange head feathers they epitomize a bad-hair day.

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Watching the birds is an education. Penguins trudged up a snowy hill while some of their pals came down. A skua sat on the beach, planning a nest-raiding strategy while beautiful white shearbills made forays into the penguin colonies and pretty kelp gulls guarded the heights. Gentoos performed courting displays. From a ridge you could look down to the opposite shore and a panorama of mountains, icebergs and penguins. One of their number sat at the top of the cliff looking down, very puzzled as to how to negotiate this cliff. Behind him a lone elephant seal snoozed. He must have hauled himself up from the same beach we arrived on. This little area was very different. No snow, low green plant growth, plenty of pebbles for the penguins' nests and lots of seashells, dropped by the birds. Breaking the color scheme was a seam of red jasper. It was a warm spring day and we had a great time.

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This afternoon we called at Deception Island. Sailing into the caldera of this live volcano, we came ashore at Whaler's Bay, an old whaling station abandoned after two volcanic eruptions. Steam rises from the shore. Remains of buildings and whaling boats sit amid the snow, ice and lava sands. Whale bones covered in lichen lie on the beach. Now the adventurous have gone to take a dip in Antarctic waters at Pendulum Cove, here in the caldera, where the water is warmed by fumaroles. Stay tuned for the next installment.

To be continued...

Click here for Part 3

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