Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative blog where you can join me vicariously as I adventure around the world. In the archives you'll find posts from some of my travels ... these are very casual "letters to home" style accounts of what I did, with lots of photos. To read my formal articles, they're listed in each archive home page, or visit one of the blue buttons above: Articles/Guest Posts, Interviews, or Literary SKJ, or see the Travel Essays section (right side below archive -- mostly documentaries). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
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While the majority of solid objects visible in Antarctica are various forms of white -- snow and ice -- it can be quite striking when the underlying rocks poke out, often in jagged peaks or rocky towers. Sometimes it seems like the land was built from bits and pieces ... as if giants piled a bunch of rocks on top of each other in some kind of game or children's toys, like Jenga or Leggos. I'm sure erosion must be a pretty fierce power here with the weight and movement of all that snow.
I've already mentioned several times the spectacular weather we had on this cruise. It's made clear when you sign up that landings or zodiac outings cannot be guaranteed to happen each day; it is all weather-dependent. And also the ship's course may change from day to day, even hour to hour, if weather or ice conditions change, making an originally intended destination inaccessible or perhaps making a different one a particularly good prospect. On our last full day of the expedition part of the cruise (before heading back toward the South Shetland Islands and into the Drake Passage), we had an extra special treat in getting three expedition activities! That evening, a spot that supposedly is not often accessible was open and so the captain took us there -- dinner was delayed so that we could have an evening zodiac cruise around a place called Spert Island. This was a treat indeed. Not only for the extra activity, but it was an interesting place and very different from anything else we'd seen. Here, sharp spikes of rock poked up out of the ocean.
The water was this incredible green color that I've never seen before. It depended on which direction the sun was relative to the photo and on the exposure length of the photo as to how well the green color came out on "film." So some of these pics the water is black, but the true representation of it is the pics where it is the astounding green color.
A very cool feature of the area was a series of arches and narrow passages through the rocks. It really felt like we were on an adventure such as one that might take place in a fantasy movie, braving the ancient lands of a lost or magical civilization, with mystery lurking around each corner.
The late-day sun and the low cloud ceiling made for some lovely colors in the sky. At 8:00 p.m., it was still quite a ways until sunset, which happened somewhere around 11:00 p.m. (though it stayed light well after that) but the sky had what I typically think of as sunset colors.
I love books about Antarctic explorers (though I've by no means read an authoritative number, just a few, but I've found them all riveting, and intend to read more in the genre). Hmmm .... perhaps here is my opportunity to plug my all-time favorite book, "Shackleton's Forgotten Men" by Lennard Bickel. Many people know the story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated attempt at crossing the Antarctic continent and how he and his men ended up estranged from their ship and survived a harrowing sea crossing in a measly life boat to Elephant Island and South Georgia. An exceptional feat (though more due to his ship's incredibly capable captain who was a deft navigator with a knack for dead-reckoning, than to Shackleton himself). But most people do not know of the party who landed on the other side of the continent tasked with laying food caches for the Shackleton party so they didn't have to carry their whole expedition's worth of food with them. Like Shackleton's ship, theirs was damaged in the sea ice and they were marooned on the continent, most of their own supplies were lost and yet they carried out their duty to lay the caches while they themselves nearly starved. Three members of their team died in the endeavor. If you ever wonder what the human body might be capable of, these men will show you the remarkable strength and endurance it can have. And in the end, the men carried out this feat in vain, for Shackleton never showed up. They are the epitome of the unsung hero. If you ever are to receive a birthday or Christmas gift from me, you can probably formulate a good hypothesis that it will be either "Shackleton's Forgotten Men" or my other favorite book, "Babylon's Ark." haha.
Anyway, in reading these various polar exploration books, I had always tried to imagine the landscape as described (as there are few photos from these early 20th-century expeditions). And while I have a more vivid visual imagination than most, I still had a hard time picturing a ship among icebergs, vast crevasses on glaciers, a ship being crushed by ice, etc. (While on the Sea Spirit, they showed a very good documentary about Shackleton's "adventure" which had quite a number of photographs and even film footage ... you know, moving pictures! I was pretty enthralled with the video footage.) While I was riveted by the anxiety and apprehension that the explorers felt while navigating the polar waters in their wooden ships, I just found it difficult to find a mental image that I had any confidence in. So part of my excitement in making it to Antarctica was finally understanding the landscape and icescape. The best illustration of it, and the best part of the Spert Island zodiac cruise, was when our boat driver asked if we wanted to try to find our way through a jumble of icebergs as a shortcut back to the ship. If we could not find passage, we'd have to back out and go all the way around the way we had come and be even later for dinner. He presented us these options (try the channel or head back now) as if there might be anyone who would be upset over being late for dinner when we had the opportunity to explore a passage through icebergs in Antarctica! Bah! I can't imagine. (I was especially keen since we turned back from a similar opportunity while kayaking at Cuverville Island -- and had to settle for just watching a whale swim by, poor us, haha).
So ahead of us lay a jumble of icebergs and we moved ahead slowly through them. I imagined a wooden ship, creaking in the waters, the crew looking ahead anxiously, wondering if they would find passage or be turned back.
All around us was ice and uncertainty. Then suddenly we emerged from the ice forest and there was completely open water ahead with the Sea Spirit at the far end. I just felt for a moment the exhilaration those old-time crews must have felt when they saw open waters, having successfully made it through unknown passages. How they must have cheered at the sight. We saw a pair of giant petrels in the water picking at what looked like a dead fish. We'd seen the southern giant petrels on land earlier and were told it was a pretty neat sighting (I guess not super common). So here they were again!
Some of the other icebergs we saw during the zodiac cruise at Spert Island ... hard to tire of photographing and feeling in awe of them. Not the best photo quality, sorry.
So it was of course important to me that I step foot on land during this cruise to be able to properly claim my badge of having been ON all seven continents. At Orne Harbor we were told this was our opportunity, and Erik and I skipped the kayaking to get on the continent. Hurray! My one and only lifelong goal definitively accomplished.
Zoomed in to the snow-covered peaks surrounding Orne Harbor.
To get back down the hill to where the zodiacs waited to shuttle us back to the ship, we were allowed to slide down on our coats like a sledding run. Our friends from across the hall (with whom Erik polar plunged) were at the top with us and neither he nor Erik could get themselves to slide down the trough that other people had made. Erik kept getting stuck at the hips and decided he was too wide to plow through the trough that way. So, he cleverly turned himself around and slid down on his back head-first like a speeding bullet. This was so funny -- I can't really explain how hilarious it looked -- our friends and I laughed so hard. It was one of the more entertaining moments of the trip.
We're pretty bad about taking photos of ourselves together on trips, but wanted to make sure we caught some on this momentous trip to a location which we will surely never have the opportunity to visit again! I posted this first pic on Facebook and received some amusing comments about my lens somewhat dwarfing me. haha. It doesn't really look like it, but Erik must standing on a slope because I'm really not *that* much shorter than him!
But I think below is my favorite of Team Johnson. This is where passengers who signed up to camp out on land one night dug their pits into the snow and slept in mummy-tight bivvy sacks. How do I know how tight they were? We had originally signed up for this activity. I had figured we should do everything that was offered. I had no illusions that it would be comfortable ... I figured it wouldn't be a particularly pleasurable experience, just a once-in-a-lifetime experience to sleep outside in Antarctica. But several things made us change our minds and back out. One was learning we had to dig our own sleeping pits, and my hands were already so taxed by kayaking and holding my big camera lens all the time; the other was the claustrophobia that overtook us after we were given our gear and counseled to try it out in our room so we were familiar with the process of getting in and out of them. After realizing what an ordeal it was to get in and out (and I would surely have to get up to pee in their provided bucket), we returned the camping gear and just climbed the hill during the day, and slept soundly and cozily at night. The common report from those who slept out was that they "slept" out ... most of the people we talked to were either cold or uncomfortable and were mostly awake, though I don't think anyone said they regretted it. And we didn't regret backing out.
Now, if we had this kind of blubber to insulate us, we would have been just as cozy sleeping outside as our bony little bodies were inside!
One of the funniest things about being around the elephant seals in particular was the sounds they made. A couple times I didn't even realize there were any nearby because they blend in with the rocks and my focus was on the penguins. How did I realize they were there? I didn't spot them with my eyes. I heard them with my ears! They make all these noises that sound like a chorus of farting. It sounds like The Bog of Eternal Stench if you happen to know the movie, "Labyrinth." To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where all the noises came from and if they were all from the same place -- their throats or the other end of their bodies! This is a young male elephant seal with something to say.
It's amazing how all the seals can make lying on a pile of rocks look so cozy. They just nestle right in and look so content.
I loved scenes where penguins were walking by the seals so nonchalantly. But if you've been following my blog for long, you probably already know that I have a particular fondness for animal-scapes that have multiple species in them. This first pic below makes me think of the Seven Dwarfs heading off to work at the mines, industrious little critters that the penguins are, while the seals are just basking in the sun in unabashed laziness.
Many times the seals we encountered had open wounds and red-streaked fur.
And one day we saw how they got them. These were a group of young elephant seals fighting on the shore at Penguin Island.
Have you ever seen a seal flipper curled like this? Up in Iceland we saw some whose flippers were kind of like this -- like crude, floppy hands. But this pic almost disturbs me with how creepy the flipper looks! Seems like some weird Gothic, vampiric creature.
But back to the main theme of this post ... the land forms. The penguin's point of view.
Often, the clouds enhanced or even made the landscape. For example, this little island that looks like just a pile of rocks in the ocean is only of interest because of the clouds. The next pic down, I like how the dark umbrella of cloud rises up almost looking like smoke.
A random selection of shots taken from the ship. You start to get a feel for the general character of the landscape, which was pretty consistent along our journey (save Spert Island).
The snow often turned that lovely golden color that often comes with the lowering late-day sun.
And so I wish you goodnight, dear readers. A shot from the ship with the moon in the far corner. This is actually taken with my 70-200 lens, when you might be tempted to think I took it with the wide angle. Don't dream about seals with freaky flippers! (but do dream about magical green waters and snow-capped peaks ... :)
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When I stopped making posts in real-time (or near real-time) while traveling and backed off this blog a bit to write only upon inspiration and free time, I started organizing posts by more broad topics rather than chronologically. And so it is with Antarctica ... penguins, kayaking, now a focus on ice. I will win no awards for logical and well-ordered photo essays! But here is a collection with a theme of ice. Obviously, this is the primary defining feature that makes traveling the seas around Antarctica so special, magical and other-worldly. So allow me to begin with what is probably my number-one favorite photo from the trip. To me, it represents in a majestic fashion the things I came to Antarctica to see -- the variety of icebergs and penguins. (and blue is my favorite color ... maybe that adds to the appeal) Can you see the penguins on the smaller iceberg in the middle of the photo? They help provide the sense of scale. Big scale. If you were ever to view one of my photos larger (right-click), this is the one to view.
Now to anyone else, this next pic will seem like a really lame photo, but it was the first major iceberg we saw from the ship, which the expedition leader announced we were coming toward so we could rush on deck to see it. So, for me, having seen nothing else like it in my life to date, it was exciting and worth documenting. It's kind of surreal to come across these huge blocks of ice, big as an apartment building, just floating serenely, quietly through the ocean. It's mind-boggling to realize that only a small fraction of the iceberg's total volume is visible above the water. Why is that? Because of the different densities of freshwater ice (originating from snow) and seawater.
So there are many types of icebergs. I have used to date, and will continue to use, the term generically for any ice formation sticking up out of the water, for ease of the lay person's reading, because I think most of us non-polar-scientists and non-climatologists don't care about the distinction and find the unfamiliar terms merely distracting. But for the record, if you're interested, I present to you the technicalities of what to call floating ice on water. This is copied from the NOAA website:
"To be classified as an iceberg, the height of the ice must be greater than 16 feet above sea level and the thickness must be 98-164 feet and the ice must cover an area of at least 5,382 square feet. There are smaller pieces of ice known as “bergy bits” and “growlers.” Bergy bits and growlers can originate from glaciers or shelf ice, and may also be the result of a large iceberg that has broken up. A bergy bit is a medium to large fragment of ice. Its height is generally greater than three feet but less than 16 feet above sea level and its area is normally about 1,076-3,229 square feet. Growlers are smaller fragments of ice and are roughly the size of a truck or grand piano. They extend less than three feet above the sea surface and occupy an area of about 215 square feet."
The colossal tabular icebergs are particularly useful to scientists, for they can date the age of the iceberg much like you can a tree using the tree rings, by counting the striations in the exposed cliffs of the iceberg which has detached from a glacier; each winter a new layer of snow is added and you can see a faint line between each near year's snow, falling after the previous one has melted and compacted. You can see not only age, but also the general climatic conditions of each year based on the height and chemical composition of its layer.
I've seen small glaciers calve before, and of course members of our kayaking club experienced one first hand. Can you even imagine a chunk like the ones above separating from its mother and floating off? Here's a bit of snow in Wilhelmina Bay that looks ready for launch.
Check out the face of this glacier, the topography and colors. If you ever thought snow was just white ... you have been corrected. On the far left you can see some of those striations like tree rings I mentioned above.
One of the loveliest places we visited to see smaller icebergs -- the bergy bits and growlers -- was Wilhelmina Bay via zodiac cruise. For these "cruises" (two to three hours in length), smaller rubber zodiacs were deployed from the ship with 10 passengers in each. For the most part they all traveled around the site of interest to basically all the same places, but often different drivers (one of the expedition crew) would explore different little nooks and crannies of a bay. If one boat saw something of particular interest, they'd radio in to the other ones to come over and see. It seemed like we were always in a zodiac doing the radioing rather than responding to somebody else.
Our tour around Wilhelmina Bay particularly emphasized the peculiar lighting and coloring that often beset the Antarctic landscape. I didn't keep an actual journal or diary on the trip (though in retrospect I wish I would have), but I did write down some occasional notes that I wanted to be sure to remember. I didn't know how well my photos would evoke reality, so I wrote down for myself so I would be sure to remember of Wilhelmina Bay, "... the mountains in the back illuminated yellow from a seemingly unidentified source as if they are creating their own light, that they glow from within themselves; they’re glowing [really from the sun, of course] under the low ceiling of gray clouds, then the dark peaks thrusting up out of the glow, and the slate gray water, then a neon-blue iceberg in the slate gray water in front of the glowing golden mountains. Once again the water like glass so still and smooth." I took two cameras on the zodiac, my wide-angle with a warming filter and my 70-200 with no filter. These first pics below came from the wide-angle with the filter, which really brings out the mystical dark nature of the water, which was something that particularly stood out to me while there, and the moody feeling of the place. The first one isn't a very exciting photo but it depicts the "infinity pool" feeling of the bay, like the horizon there on the right is the literal edge of the world.
The rest of the photos I'm sharing from Wilhelmina were taken with the 70-200 with no filter. But these first two illustrate, I think, the layers of colors that I described in text in my notes, with the yellow, blue and gray.
Some various icebergs with interesting topography in them and icicles.
A lone penguin at the edge of the sea ice extending out from the land in Wilhelmina Bay. I think he is saying to himself Bug Bunny's famous line, "I knew I should have made a left turn at Albuquerque."
We also had some visitors right next to our zodiac! These seals surfaced very suddenly right next to us; it was kind of a miracle I got my camera up quickly enough to get a photo in.
I also wanted to remember the funny behavior of the seals and wrote in my notes for that day, "Three seals right next to the zodiac, one hopped onto the ice sheet and inched his way back, the way seals do, awkwardly flopping across the land. Then he rolled around on his back as if he had an itch he was trying to scratch on the ground, squirming and wiggling. Then he would stop that and do a very slow log roll. Then squirm again, then log roll, over and over several times."Seals were a fairly common sight on both ice and land. I'd only ever seen wild seals on the pier at San Francisco, so this was quite exciting to me. I especially loved them on the ice. For, like the penguins, this to me is their iconic and unique habitat. Here are a few more we spotted on the ice or in the water on other days.
The most prized sighting in terms of seals was the leopard seal. This was one of the things that if a zodiac saw it would radio into the other ones to come over and check it out. They're not too common to see, unlike the common crabeater seals and weddells. If I remember correctly, we saw three.
Show us those pearly whites! Er, those kind of yellow, vicious-looking things. Wouldn't want to get my hand caught in there!
A few more icebergs from other random locations during our Antarctic journey that I think are pretty cool:
Here's another shot that illustrates that interesting lighting I like with darker colors in the background and lighter-colored ice in the front on the gray water.
I'll close out this look at icebergs and some of the life found thereon with my faves ... those silly little penguins on a chunk of floating ice like a couple of bowling pins ready to knock down. I'm looking down on them from the ship's deck. You can see how the ice of the icebergs is extending down into the water in the light blue and aqua coloring of the water. I like this pic also for the contrast of the vibrant blue and the crisp bright white. Obviously on a gloriously sunny day!
More ice to come .....
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I had never traveled via ship before we signed up for this cruise to Antarctica, so for me it was pretty exciting and interesting. This post is largely for those of you who might not know what it's like onboard a ship. We were on the ship "Sea Spirit," which accommodates I believe 110 passengers. Something very near to that, anyway. When I tell people we went on a cruise to Antarctica, I think a lot of them are picturing Celebrity Cruises-type ships that are like floating islands, servicing many hundreds of people, with swimming pools and casinos. Umm, no. Now I always call it an "expedition cruise" to separate it from the typical Caribbean cruise. Here's a little diagram to show you where our main activities took place.
The ship was, by my reckoning, very comfortable -- far more luxurious than I imagined, to be honest. By the time we booked the trip, the two lowest grade of cabin were sold out. So we were in the "superior suite" class. Check out our digs:
There was a steward for every few cabins whom you could summon for anything you needed. Often ours (who hails from Guatemala) would be in the hallway when we returned from an expedition and he'd open our cabin door for us. I always try to look people in the eye when I talk to them, but he had a gold-rimmed tooth in front that I found I could never stop staring at, haha. They did bed turn-down every evening with mints on the pillows. If we left stuff lying around haphazardly in the room, we'd usually come back to find the clothes that had been strewn around the room folded neatly on the bed. Oftentimes we came back to find little towel animals waiting inside for us. I must admit I always delight in these things. (an elephant here)
For dealing with the ship pitching in rough seas (this mostly happens only during the crossing of the Drake Passage between Ushuaia, Argentina, the port city, and the South Shetland Islands), there are railings next to the toilet and inside the shower and all shelves have rails across them. In the living area, all dresser drawers and cabinet cupboards require an extra push to close them, they have little latches to lock them closer. A couple times on the passage over, we had not sufficiently fastened them all and in the middle of the night, dresser drawers slammed full open as the ship pitched to the side. I personally liked the movement while lying in bed and never felt ill.
The funniest thing was that all the hallways were lined with barf bags stuck into the railings at regular intervals. Sickness, I learned from Erik, can come on extremely swiftly and unexpectedly. A seasickness victim may not have time to run back to their room and may not have the luxury of being discreet in their upchucking. It was like some kind of amusement park fun-house or something trying to walk down the hallways during the Drake Passage. And we were told that we had such mild seas during our crossings that the crew was referring to it as the Drake Lake. I feel slightly disappointed that we didn't get to experience what a ship feels like in rougher seas. I was not alone ... a lot of passengers said the same thing when talking amongst ourselves.
And just in case something unfortunate were to happen ... we had to go through an evacuation drill on the first day. Here I am sporting a life jacket which I have managed to follow the directions and put on properly.
Sixto, the beloved and legendary bartender of the Sea Spirit, whose homeland is Costa Rica, told us a harrowing story of a large cruise ship he was working on in the Straight of Gibraltar that lost all of its power in a storm and therefore had not just no electricity, but no means to steer the ship or keep her upright; it pitched so violently that the slot machines came unplugged and slid from one side of the room to the other. No one could even get to their cabins, they held on to what they could for several hours; Sixto said he held onto a pillar in the bar room. OK, maybe I don't need to experience THAT kind of rough sea.
Here is the bar lounge on the Sea Spirit, which included nightly music at the piano, 4:00 p.m. hot snacks, and 24/7 jars of cookies, tea and coffee. Erik and I sat here sometimes looking through my pics from the day, downloaded onto our laptop. I regret that I didn't take a photo of Sixto. (he's probably on a bunch of other people's blogs, though, haha)
The one part of the ship that was criminally underused by us ... we only got in it on the last day ... was the hot tub on the lunch/grill deck. On the warmer days, lunch was offered outside on this deck. It was also a lovely place to sit and watch the sunset. The peeps in the first pic are a mother and son from Germany with whom we often ate meals.
I enjoyed the warmth of the hot tub water ... but can you guess what Erik did? When we first started the trip, I thought I might do it and Erik said "no way." But it turned out that I thought better of the situation and realized my heart would probably stop and then Erik would be stuck carting my lifeless body home. Erik, on the other hand, spent too much time with Sixto who talked him into participating in the polar plunge! He took a few shots of rum ahead of time for courage and one afterward for congratulations. Our neighbors in the cabin across the hall were a very nice couple, originally hailing from Britain and Sweden but now living in southeast Asia, and she was a brave soul, too! Erik said his technique was to simply walk off the boat edge rather than jump or dive so he'd have less distance to swim through the water back to the ship. I believe he captioned this pic on Facebook something like, "I was just walking along minding my own business when this happened ....." I think his technique looks suspiciously penguine and that he'd been studying the penguins for guidance.
All the plungers got a certificate verifying their deed. Erik said he's going to frame it and put it on the wall of his office ... it was a far greater feat, he said, than acquiring a diploma (which sits somewhere in an unknown box ... presumably). And if he ever has to write a resume, will be sure to include it, haha.
We didn't spend much time in our cabin, primarily only to change into our expedition clothes twice a day and typically nap in the afternoons, then sleep at night -- for which we had thick, black-out curtains to darken our cabin since it never got truly dark at night. But even in the cabin, we were treated to lovely scenes passing by. Actually, the only place we couldn't always see outside was in the dining room below decks. But just outside it in the hallway were porthole windows right at the water level, which I enjoyed watching out of ... you couldn't see the landscape or icebergs so much, but you felt the motion of the ship through the water as it sloshed up and down over the window. But here are some typical views from our cabin window.
The ship had an "open bridge" policy, so that it was basically open all the time for passengers to walk through and hang out in, even to talk to the captain (a hearty Russian fellow) and crew if they wished. The only time it was closed was while traveling through areas of denser icebergs, when the captain and crew were very busy delicately guiding the ship and needed full concentration on the work at hand. There were cameras along the sides of the ship and I saw the engineer walking back and forth along the deck during these iceberg navigation times. It was interesting to hang out in there for awhile just to see how a bridge operates -- the information that various crew gives to the captain, what he does with that info and passes it along to the helm, etc. My favorite scene, for some weird reason, in the 1990s Titanic movie is when the ship first hits the iceberg and the officer runs to flip the switch to close the watertight doors and you see the lights lighting up for each door. In the Titanic museum exhibit that has traveled around the States (I've seen it twice), they have that watertight door indicator panel on display. So I thought it was neat to see that same type of panel on this ship. I really, really wanted to yell, "Close the water tight doors!" But I probably would have been kicked off.
After awhile I felt rather fond of the ship and it felt like a bit of home as it became familiar and the daily routine sank in. Ordinarily I probably wouldn't like a ship crowding into a nice nature landscape, but here it was different, seeing my mobile home in the landscape, knowing it was what brought me there. I liked to take a picture of it in the surroundings of wherever it had brought us -- from one magical spot to another.
Here she is docked in port at Ushuaia, Argentina. This is when we first laid eyes on her from our hotel room the night before boarding. We could not have guessed what amazing sights and adventures she would imminently lead us into! Can't help developing fond feelings for the thing that carries you into your dreams. :)
We had brought some cards and games and books with us, but we had very little down time to engage in any of these. The expedition leader came over the intercom (speakers in every cabin and all common areas) usually about 7:00 a.m. with a wake-up call, "Good morning, good morning dear passengers ..." in her German accent. First breakfast, then preparing for the morning expedition which usually launched by 9:00 a.m. (for kayaking this entailed putting on all our gear as described in the first kayaking post; for zodiac cruises or landings, it was donning snow pants, rubber boots, various layers, life-vest (a smaller one than in the photo above). Then the morning expedition followed shortly thereafter by lunch. Then we usually napped, then prepare for the afternoon expedition which usually launched around 2:00 p.m. Then back to the ship to be met with hot tea in the lobby, and after changing out of expedition wear, it was just in time for happy-hour appetizers and drinks with Sixto. Then before we knew it, dinner at 7:00 p.m. We found various things to do in the evenings, but usually found ourselves tucked into our beds pretty early after an exciting day ... somehow elevated levels of excitement kind of wears you out! Plus if we kayaked or hiked on an island, that was physically tiring to us kids who aren't in very good shape!
Whenever there were particularly spectacular icebergs or whales to be seen, the expedition leader would come over the intercom to notify the passengers of which side of the ship to see them on. I really appreciated these heads-ups, otherwise we would have missed some neat sights. Didn't get any good photos of whales, but we did see them from the ship on a several occasions. Not quite as exciting as seeing them in the kayak, but still pretty neat. Here is a pair leading the ship onward into the sunset.
Of course, these waters, particularly in the South Shetlands, were mined for whales for many years in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was so stunned when the expedition leader pointed out that the whale bones we saw sometimes on the beaches of islands were there from the whaling ship days! They've lain there for decades. It was a sad reminder of the often cruel methods whalers used to capture whales and of the quantity of these magnificent creatures deleted from the oceans by the frivolous desires of humans.
But the worst thing we were told about was related to this rusting cauldron on a beach. This is correction from my first post -- I mixed up some things in my memory, as I know that Antarctic explorers often ate penguin and I was thinking this was a pot for cooking them. And I remember being told here on the beach that "they were thrown in alive." The horror that my little brain blocked out until Erik just reminded me, what the situation was far worse than just throwing the penguins into boiling water to cook. In fact, the cauldron was used to render seal blubber. So they were cooking seal fat, not penguins. Do you know what the penguins were used for? For firewood!! The sealers would throw the penguins on the fire itself like kindling. Because of their own high fat content, they apparently burned very well. As I've explained and shown you in my penguin posts, they have absolutely no fear of humans and they cannot fly or run very fast, so they're easily caught. Literally, on these islands it wasn't, "throw another log on the fire" (there are of course no trees), but "throw another penguin on the fire." I know that it was an era in which animals received little-to-no empathy or recognition as anything beyond a renewable consumer product, whether it be for eating or wearing, or what have you, but geeze, using as kindling is just unfathomable to me.
Some islands sported the reminders of the human history that has touched this region in decaying remains of wooden boats. A seal lies in the middle of the ribs of an old boat still mostly under snow.
The G9 camera that we took kayaking was often used by Erik on land, and we often traded it back and forth. I'm not entirely sure who took the picture below, but I think it's a really good one when you look at all the details captured (such as the seagull and penguin) and the composition and lighting (check it out larger!) .... which leads me to strongly suspect that Erik was the photographer. He took some close-ups of the old boat, as well.
So people have come to this part of the world to explore, to claim bragging rights of being the first to do a number of things on this continent, to hunt whales, and now most commonly to see it as a tourist or to do research in one of the many research stations scattered across the South Shetlands and the continent itself. I forget how many different countries have research stations here. But it's quite a few. Argentina has the most, sort of surreptitiously making the biggest footprint to be able to call the continent its own. You can tell which country each station belongs to by the national flag, often painted on the outside of the buildings. Here are a couple Argentinian ones we ran across:
I had no idea, and it seems to me crazy and terribly short-sighted, that the international treaty banning all military activity and territorial sovereignty claims, which preserves Antarctica as a global treasure and resource for exploration and research expires! In the year 2048. So a lot of countries are kind of staking out footprints under the name of research for if and when the treaty dissolves and the place turns into a potential conflict zone for ownership rights, which could include mineral rights and establishment of military bases. In case you're wondering, for purposes of the treaty, Antarctica is defined as all land and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south latitude. There are currently 53 countries party to the treaty, including some that seem so unlikely to me, such as Papua New Guinea and Monaco.
We visited the inside of the Chinese Great Wall research station. It wasn't a riveting expedition away from the ship, but I thought it was interesting and worth seeing what the inside of these stations looks like. Far more comfortable than I had imagined. The station had a basketball court and the Chinese researchers had ping pong tournaments with other research stations. Lounges, a huge kitchen, lots of rooms with computers and scientific equipment (pretty much none of which were being currently used, strangely). The gigantic snow-cat, however, was surely a regular employee!
There was a traditional Chinese bell outside. A Russian station had an orthodox church. Many countries build facets of their traditional culture into their stations.
Can't really tell where this dilapidated one is from, but I thought it would make a good backdrop for some story about somebody stranded in Antarctica for the winter, haha. Maybe a thriller involving deranged killer penguins.
Penguins do, in fact, take over anything abandoned by humans. These barrels make lovely nesting spots!
Having nothing to compare it to, as this was my only experience on a ship, perhaps my word is less valuable than somebody else's with broader experience. But for what it's worth, I would recommend both the ship, the M/V Sea Spirit, and the expedition company, Poseidon Expeditions, for anyone looking into their own Antarctic cruise. I also did something else for this trip that I have never before, which is book it through a travel agency. I'd also recommend them, Swoop Antarctica -- I was glad for all the advice and information they provided to me, considering I had far less idea what to expect from this trip than I normally do before traveling.
please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
I fashioned a title for the post, but let's be honest, *all* my photos depict spring life in Antarctica since we were there just before summer solstice! A post has to have a title, but once again, it's just kind of a jumble of pictures that I simply like either because of an action scene, an anthropomorphic gesture or expression, or an illustration of something idiosyncratic to penguins, or for any number of other reasons ... which boils down to my original statement: I simply like them. :) And they're fun to share.
But ... let's do consider some unique things about spring in Antarctica. The melting snow and ice is, of course, the primary plot upon which penguin lives evolve all their array of subplots. As soon as there is bare ground, they begin to stake out their little bit of territory and build and repair the nests.
As I was scrolling through thumbnails of my pics, I had to do a double-take on this one, for it looked as if there was a colony of penguins in the sky! This was a common issue in Antarctica -- it could be difficult to tell the difference between clouds and snow. The line where they met on a mountainside was often extremely vague, sometimes you really couldn't discern where snow ended and clouds began. Here, the snow in front looks like the clouds behind.
This fellow says, "I'm the king of the island!"
I don't know what these penguins' behavior looks like in the winter after they've given birth to their chicks. But in springtime, it's dominated by building their nests! As I already explained in my first penguin post, Penguins and Their Busy Little Lives. they are consumed with running to and fro, hither, thither, to the beach, to their neighbor's nest, gathering sticks and stones.
Do they squabble over something else in the winter? Or is the tension in a rookery unique to nest-building season and the great hatching event? (most baby chicks on a given colony hatch at about the same time, and that time varies from colony to colony) I was always amused by the poor nest-sitters who were constantly harangued by their thieving neighbors. So I got a lot of photos of one squawking at another. This one seems to have successfully told off the invader, who looks rather sufficiently chastised with its hung head.
The penguin who's about to get its tail feathers nipped looks so innocent walking by, but I don't know if there's such a thing as an innocent penguin!
Showdown at the O.K. Corral. That's actually a whale vertebrae the penguins are standing in front of. Who will get the disputed stone?
Penguin behavior is endlessly amusing -- the little dramas that play out are sometimes quite lengthy and involved. I guess that's one of the things that makes for the entertainment besides their anthropomorphic characteristics and actions. I watched this chase unfold below. I wish I could put these in a flip-book instead of one on top of another, but here's an excerpt from The Chase that covered significant distance across the beach, cutting through other penguins and their soap operas. Finally the chased penguin flopped onto his belly to try to out-distance his attacker. I think in general they can move more easily across the snow this way, but I'm not sure about on land! Once the chase hit the water, I could no longer keep track of it. But it seemed that the one was fleeing pretty successfully.
Once in awhile it's not another penguin who is thwarting a penguin's business, but a seal. These elephant seals are not in the market for penguin meat, so the penguins aren't in danger, even though this scene looks like the seal is lying at the terminus of a penguin highway, mouth open, just waiting for a careless penguin to stumble too close. But this penguin is too smart -- it's another showdown: penguin v. seal.
Springtime is perhaps the most dynamic time of year in Antarctica as the snow melts, sea ice breaks up, glaciers calve, icebergs are set free to roam the ocean. Although a person keen to get photographs of penguins can see them closer, see their expressions and gestures and little life dramas when on land with them, I think actually the favorite photos of this particular keen person, in the end, are the photos of them on the ice. It just seems somehow more iconic. I've seen penguins in South Africa who obviously are not riding on ice. So to me, the Antarctic penguins are best illustrated on the ice. These are some of my favorite pics. (though other penguin+ice pics are scattered throughout other posts).
I said in my first Kayaking Club post that I failed to capture a shot of the penguins jumping out of the water like dolphins around our kayaks, but it turns out (I didn't even realize it when I published that post) that I managed a couple shots of them from the ship. You may have to look closely to see them in the foreground. This pic is a particularly good candidate for viewing larger (right-click). :)
This gang is just getting ready to dive in. "Geronimo!"
These two completely crack me up. They are sentries or else trying to pretend they are globs of snow like the ones beside them.
Another thing about spring in Antarctica is the arrival of human tourists! The penguins, you may have noticed through my posts by now, have zero fear or wariness about humans. Which is so awesome. They are unconcerned yet often curious. Somebody in our landing party set this camera up and left it, presumably filming whatever walked in front of it. This penguin was first curious, even suspicious, and then I swear, became completely enamored with this camera and tripod. I watched him for several minutes try to tear himself away from it, but he always came back to eye it.
I think this penguin is earning a little cash on the side as a tour guide. "And behind us, we have the stunning Mount Bordenstock." (I don't know for sure what the peak's name is, that's just what the penguin called it.)
And these two are making some spare change as snow performers, with a little bit of ballet and interpretive dance. (their tip jar is just out of view)
This gentoo is entertaining us with the penguin version of a rather rounded Shuttle Tydirium. (Star Wars reference for all you SW nerds like me.) Penguins, especially the chinstraps, definitely have an Imperial quality about them. (like Erik's incarnation of Darth Penguin)
But of course, the primary event in the penguins' lives in the Antarctic spring, as in the world over in all climates and with many critters ... after obsessively building their nests, they welcome into the world new life. New little critters to populate our planet with their special uniqueness. It seemed about half of the penguins in their nests in Yankee Harbour were harboring (heh) chicks beneath them, in a variety of ages from almost half the size of an adult to only just exposed to the light of day. The day we kayaked at Brown Bluff, the rest of the ship passengers got to see baby penguins. And I was a bit bummed that I missed out on that when it started to seem like that had been the sole opportunity. But lo and behold, the last day of the expedition cruise, we landed at Yankee Harbour in the South Shetland Islands, on the way back north to Argentina, and there was a whole colony tending to their babies. I was beside myself. My photos of the chicks lack crisp focus, sadly, but it's a pretty mild disappointment in the face of having seen them with my own eyes, heard their din of little peeps across the island, and captured at least the essence of what they look like.
In this first pic, just one of a set of twins has broken its shell, and the little hatchling is keeping its sibling warm.
Mostly, if a chick was out from underneath its parent's pouch (could be either mom or dad, they both do nest duty), it was crying for food or looking pitiably upward at its parent's beak in obvious hope of an impending meal.
This chick got its wish! Mmmmm ... reach on up there, little chick, into mommy's open mouth to get that yummy half-digested food stored in her throat. Mmmm, making me drool right now. HA. I'm really glad I'm not a bird -- their infant formula seems particularly unappetizing.
This little quiet hatchling is just stretching its wings. Dreaming of being an airplane, haha.
One more post dedicated to penguins to come ... stay tuned. :)