Friday, January 06, 2006

The Deep Deep South

Antarctic Peninsula

Our journey to the bottom of the world started around five o'clock in the evening when our boat, the Lyubov Orlova, departed from Ushuaia, Argentina out the Beagle Channel. The ship was built in Yugoslavia in the early 80s, carried a Maltese flag, was owned by Russians, and was rented out to the British expedition company. The folks aboard were a good match for the mixed pedigree of the vessel. We had a full complement of 110 passengers, some 60 Russian crew, and maybe 15 expedition staff including naturalists, a historian, and a medical doctor. Most passengers were from the US or Europe and all lectures and announcements were made in English only, but there were also people from Brazil, Japan, and Oceania aboard. The average age was pretty high. I sometimes felt like a kid among adults.

It did not take long to settle into the rhythm of life on board and meals were the key daily waypoints. All passengers ate at the same time at tables of 6 or more so you got to meet somebody new each time. Breakfast was served buffet-style around eight. All the bacon that one could eat was repeatedly eaten. Lunch and dinner where waited 4 course affairs (salad, soup, main, dessert) with daily options of seafood, terrestrial animal, or vegetarian muck. The chefs managed a surprising variety of dishes and everything was complemented nicely by the services of a full bar and respectable wine list. I never suffered from hunger, boredom, or sobriety.

The first two days at sea were taken up crossing the Drake Passage. This stretch of water is known for its rough seas, but we were blessed by relative calm. The staff put on a series of lectures about Antarctic landforms, the history of human settlement and exploration in the region, and animal life. I divided my time between standing around on the deck watching for albatross, hanging out on the bridge with Jarah wondering what all the instruments might do, and rolling about unconsciously in my bunk - motion sickness pills may me very sleepy indeed. Towards the end of the crossing, we started to see pieces of ice, then full of icebergs, and finally bits of snow-covered rock.

Trips off of the Orlova were made via 10 passenger inflatables called Zodiacs. The crew lifted them from the bowels of the ship and dropped them over the side (with driver aboard) using a crane on the bow. Passengers were loaded via a steep gangway. There were only enough Zodiacs for half the passengers, but it only took 20 minutes to get everyone ashore in shifts. On the night of our arrival, we took the first of many cruises among the icebergs and little bays. It was then that we got our first glimpse of penguins and the extremely blue ice that characterizes glacial flows. Exploration by Zodiac is particularly good for studying the ice as you can move all around it easily and cover a lot of ground.

The next morning we made first landfall on the continent. As at all such landings, the crew ran the Zodiacs halfway onto the sand or rock and we jumped out of the front in our Wellington boots and warm clothes. It was not nearly as cold down there as I thought it would be. Air temperature varied no more than 2 Celsius degrees from freezing, so you only felt really cold in high winds. In addition to rubber boots, we easily got by in long-Johns (thermal underwear), waterproofs, and a decent coat or thick jumper. Gloves and something to cover the face were also nice for the particularly breezing outings.

Most landings were made with the intent of siting specific animals. Penguins were often the target as their mating season was in full effect. It is great fun to sit next to a "Penguin highway" (established paths from nests to the sea) and watch them saunter back and forth in little groups, sometimes no more than a few feet away, or check out the action around the nests where mom and Dad take turns sitting on the chicks, howling at the sky, and stealing rocks from the neighbors. We saw many other seabird species, but none nearly as fun as the penguins. The presence of so many birds in such a small area had the predictable side effect of an intense and sometimes overpowering odor. Those little buggers poop all over the place.

We were also lucky enough to sea a few ocean mammals. Killer, minke, and humpback whales were seen from the water while a variety of seal species were spotted on the land. In one especially notable incident, I was chased out of the water by the sudden arrival of a gigantic elephant seal. That was the only time I saw a seal actually in the water. In all other sightings, they were lolling about on the ice, apparently taking an extended siesta. The onboard marine biologist claimed that they need a lot of rest to recover from the rigors of their deep-diving to feed. If you watch closely, they do this thing which makes them look like they are scratching their belly with a flipper. Add a couch, a TV and a nacho hat and you could easily transform one of these lazy critters into a middle-American football fan.

A few landing sites were notable not just for their wildlife. Deception Island was a nearly complete circle of land around a small bay formed by a volcano - the perfect site for a Cobra base or Bond villain lair. Here we saw the remains of several bases damaged by eruptions. At one point near the shore, the beach and water are heated to something a bit higher than the normal temperature of "damn cold" and passengers were invited to take a dip. At another spot, we visited an active Argentine military base and research station. Most of these stations are manned only during the summer and are heavy on the military and light on the research. Various interested countries are trying to stake their claim to any resources that might be found in Antarctica in anticipation of the ban on drilling and mining imposed by the Antarctic Treaty.

The northward passage was only a little bumpier than what we had on the way out and the time was passed in much the same way. There were a few more presentations, a bunch of good meals, and several fun evenings in the ship's bar. Jarah managed to ingratiate himself enough with the Russian crew that we were invited below for drinks after hours a few times. The potential for motion sickness prevented us from throwing down an serious D20, but that was the only down note on an otherwise total result of a expedition.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The crew lifted them from the bowels of the ship and dropped them over the side (with driver aboard) using a crane on the bow.

That is the longest hyperlink I have ever seen.

I'm curious: Did they provide all the warm clothes, or did you have to get those yourself before? You know, in case I want to jump on over to Antarctica.

1/13/2006 7:54 PM gmt

Blogger Mik3 said...

You had to bring your own stuff except for the boots. Those were provided. It is not nearly as cold as you might think.

1/14/2006 7:49 PM gmt

Blogger jason said...

Then again, we happened to be blessed with some of the best weather possible. Apparently, when the wind really gets a-blowin', it can be harsh.

1/16/2006 1:31 PM gmt


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