Day 5, January 23, 2010 Best day yet!
What make my travels so worthwhile are the small memorable moments. Moments, when you look around, and you’ve realized you made a right decision to come here, and confess that there is nowhere else in the world where you’d rather be. One of those moments came for me on Day 5, when Ushuaia slowly navigated through the Isles, and the evening sun emerged through the clouds for the first time on the trip. There was finally a contrast between the sea, land, and sky. I knew right then that the Antarctic Peninsula was the most spectacular landscape I had ever visited. Standing out on the bough, I turned to my new friend Luis, a photographer from Valencia. He stopped shooting for a moment and we shared that “holy shit” grin. After traveling solo for so long, it was nice to share a moment like that with a good companion.
Yosemite-like rock walls emerged from the narrow, ice-filled sea. On each side of these massive cliffs lie blue crevassed glaciers which extend to horn-shaped peaks above. Having climbed in the glaciated Ruth Gorge of Alaska I have seen a similar landscape, but in place of a valley glacier is the wild Antarctic Sea, speckled with deep blue chunks of floating ice. The climber in me (or the one that used to be in me) couldn’t stop admiring the number of first ascents to be completed in this range. If this were a personal expedition, one could easily tackle a dozen virgin peaks in just a few weeks. Perhaps another day…
Day 6, January 24, 2010 “It’s not personality, it’s penguinity.”
Last night during a debrief of our day’s journey, one crewmember suggested that during our landings we pay attention to one penguin, follow it, and observe its humorous “personality.” An elderly Indian woman immediately stood up and made her first public comment of the trip. “They’re penguins. They don’t have personality, they have penguinity!!!” Impressed with her clever comment, I committed today’s landing, and many more, to observing Antarctic penguinity.
We encountered three species of penguins in Antarctica: Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie, all equally beautiful and hilariously entertaining. In Brown Bluff, I watched hundreds of penguins walk together down a beach, stop to call at each other for a minute, and then dive into the sea from a specific stretch of sand. They swam out to the open water ten times as fast as their waddling pace, taking frequent dolphin-like leaps above the ice-cold water to get a breath of fresh air. Within a minute, a flock of a hundred more penguins arrived, only to perform the same ritual from the exact same launching site. In the distant coastline, several more armies of picky penguins were waiting in line for their preferred beach.
I walked inland a bit to find stray penguins, waddling to the beat of their own drums. They walked aimlessly, stared into the sky, carefully climbed rocks, and clumsily leapt from them. They pushed off and land with both legs, as if they were performing a standing long jump, and they frequently face plant, dirtying their bellies, and bruising their precious beaks. Unembarrassed, they pick themselves up, and waddle along in a rush to go nowhere. Free of any responsibility, these were probably the penguins that had failed to have offspring the previous winter.
I walked a bit further to see a circle of some fifty penguin nests. Mothers and Fathers sit in these rock piles, keeping their chicks warm and sheltered from the Antarctic winds, while their partners would venture out to find more pebbles for the nests. Occasionally they would get lazy and steal rocks from unwary neighbors, and if caught, they would be in for a long chase. Some nests were occupied by several chicks, who cuddle together for warmth. These “nurseries” are part of a free Antarctic penguin child-care program, whereby parents can go out to feed at sea while a hungry neighbor sits and watches the local chicks.
Day 7, January 25, 2010 Iceberg Alley
This morning we had the luxury of stopping on Verdanksy, a Ukranian research station, just off of the peninsula. This is where the British used to (and now the Ukrainians) monitor the thinning of the ozone layer, which is considerably more serious here than anywhere else in the world. While not working lab equipment, the thirteen male scientists and support staff are proudly perfecting the distillation of vodka. For a tourist, a shot costs three bucks. But if you are a female, generous enough to donate your bra to the lonely bartender, you can drink the day away, free of charge. You be the judge of whether or not your donation is going to a worthy cause.
And the major highlight of the trip…Iceberg Alley. Today we had remarkably calm and clear weather, perfect for some zodiac exploration of an iceberg-filled bay. Approaching the bergs, we soon realized we weren’t the only ones enjoying the sun. Seven hundred pound Leopard seals were sunbathing on tiny bergs, their heat creating puddles of water beneath them, and the ice melted out to conform to their bodies. We came within inches of these sleeping giants, who, like the penguins, felt no need to respond to our arrival. I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story.
Day 8-11, January 26 – 29, 2010 Cruising Home
Antarctic weather returns!!! Consistent 40 mph winds would alter our itinerary. Instead of viewing wildlife on Day 8, we landed on a more protected bay and hiked to a volcanic crater. Sulfur would be our last whiff of Antarctica and we boarded the Ushuaia for the last time, South America bound.
The heavy winds continued and unlike our first crossing, this one would give us typical conditions of the Drake Passage. The Ushuaia has a shallow, flat-bottomed hull, effective for turning narrow Antarctic channels and navigating icebergs. An unfortunate side-effect is that swells push it around more than any boat I’ve ever been on, even more than a 20-foot sailboat that we sailed up the coast of British Colombia. Thirty-six straight hours of boat rocking kept many in bed for the entire crossing, and I slept more than I had in the last year. The last night we anchored ourselves in the quiet Beagle Channel and the sailors, who normally remain aloof from passengers, invited us down to their meager living quarters to celebrate our return with a night of debauchery. I finally had someone with whom I could share my dollar-boxes of wine.
I’m now heading back to Bariloche, committing myself to 35 consecutive days of work to pay off the trip, and I have no regrets about my decision to head to Antarctica. Perhaps I will be back on another type of expedition, probably to a different place if the wallet permits. Maybe the Vinson Massif, Queen Maud Land, or the Ross Ice Shelf. But if I don’t, at least I can die, knowing that I touched just a small piece of the most beautiful and desperate landscape on Earth. I saw just a tiny fraction of the Antarctic Peninsula, probably the most accessible points on the whole continent, but at the same time it was the most fantastic and untapped landscape I had ever seen. It’s a place that will remind skeptics that the world still has unexplored ranges, unclimbed mountains, and unchartered coastlines…just pack some warm clothes and an ice axe, and hitch a ride on southbound vessel.