Inclement Weather on the White Continent

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Antarctica  ,
Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Maybe we had found our sea legs, or were just lucky with the weather, but the thirty-hour crossing of the dreaded Drake Passage presented no problems, and early on Jan 3rd we awoke to our first glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula. Expecting brilliant sunshine reflecting off of mammoth icebergs, we were somewhat disappointed to be confronted with a veil of grey, low-lying clouds and wind-driven, drizzly sleet. Never mind, there would be plenty of time for the sun to come out in the next three days! Not that it wasn't light - with sunset at 11:52 pm and sunrise at 2:49 am as we nudged just below 65S latitude, the days of the austral summer were plenty long enough - just lacking the dazzling sun in a deep azure sky, and the stunning reflections of pristine ice in frigid waters.

We had been forewarned that "our exact itinerary would depend on ice and weather conditions". It was not a total surprise, therefore, when our Captain announced that the late break up of the ice and high winds would not allow us to enter the Lemaire Channel as planned. We would miss the beauty of those spectacular sheer cliffs, but instead head back to the protected anchorage of Port Lockroy and a landing on Wiencke Island. Later that day, after a wild and wet crossing in spray-soaked inflatable zodiacs, we found ourselves sharing a bleak rock promontory with a colony of Gentoo penguins. Slipping and sliding on their tummies down the slushy ice, or waddling to the beach to painstakingly collect pebbles for their rocky nests, they soon had everyone laughing at their comic antics. But when they slipped into the bitterly cold water, effortlessly chasing and diving for fish, it was immediately obvious how well adapted they were to this formidable environment. Their main concern seemed to be protecting themselves and their chicks against the constant raids of the marauding skuas looking for easy prey. Above us the majestic snow-laden jagged peaks of the Seven Sisters guarded the small British base, maintained now only as a heritage site but still flying a Union Jack hoisted in defiance of the elements.

In the following two days the inclement weather persisted, and prevented a landing in Paradise Harbour in the Neumayer Channel, with a visit to the Chilean research station there. Instead, we headed on to Deception Island, hoping that the volcano wouldn't suddenly become active again during our visit. The immense caldera of the volcanic cone provided another protected anchorage for the Marco Polo, while we headed off in the zodiacs again, bundled up in weatherproof gear and life jackets. We were greeted on arrival by a friendly elephant seal pup, but the main attraction here was checking out the remains of three research stations that were destroyed by volcanic eruptions in the late 1960s. There is still an active hotspot - monitored by seismic equipment - which is also the source of thermal hotsprings flowing into the bay. A few hardy (or should that be crazy) souls doffed their many layers of warm protective clothing to go for a quick dip, including.... yes, you guessed who!! Well, who could give up the chance for bragging rights on going swimming in Antarctica!

In all, we made three landings - carefully orchestrated and controlled affairs, and quite a logistical challenge with six zodiacs plying back and forth carrying fourteen people at a time. The Marco Polo follows the guidelines of IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) and allows only 100 people on shore for an hour at a time, with one naturalist guide for every 20 visitors. There is a mandatory briefing for everyone on the strict rules for behaviour, and areas that can be visited are well defined in advance. The interaction with wildlife is kept to a minimum (no closer than 15 ft), and great care is taken not to go into areas with the only two existing species of higher plant life. Ideally, nothing is left behind beside footprints, and absolutely nothing taken out except photographs and memories. It is to be hoped that human impact on this pristine environment continues to be kept to an absolute minimum, and is not jeopardized by excessive activities at the huge US base at McMurdo Bay, or their proposal to build a road to the newly proposed base at the South Pole.

Besides detailed lectures during the week on a variety of topics - including seabirds, penguins, marine mammals, history of exploration, ecology, geology, fisheries, and scuba diving under ice - there was also some discussion of the current issues of antarctic research and management. This continent is unique in having no indigenous human habitation, no territorial ownership and no recognised government. The Antarctic Treaty of 1957 has now been signed by over forty countries, and all individual sovereignty claims are now held in abeyance. Since the Madrid Protocol of 1991 there is now a fifty year moratorium on any kind of mining, commercial or military operations. The isolation and extremely severe climatic conditions make monitoring and enforcement very difficult, but it does appear that there is good cooperation in research activities in many disciplines.

The continent is being particularly affected by the depletion of the protective ozone layer due to the concentrating polar effect, and research results indicate that global warming is now starting to affect the immense icecap. For the moment the circumpolar current still keeps the area largely isolated from the warming influences of other oceans, and it continues to plays a major role in regulating global temperatures. Believe it or not, some forty million years ago this area enjoyed a temperate climate and fossil evidence suggests a profusion of ferns and plants. Even further back in the mists of time, about 200 million years ago, antarctica and all the southern continents formed the huge Gondwana landmass, which over time gradually separated at the dizzying rate of up to five cm per year into the geographic order that we are familiar with today.

There was still plenty of time between lectures and landings to continue enjoying our luxuriously comfortable surroundings, good company, impeccable service and gourmet meals. We read about the amazing accomplishments and hardships endured on expeditions led by Scott, Amundsen and a myriad of other explorers, especially during early part of the 20th century - the "heroic age" of exploration. One afternoon, after watching the "Shackleton" movie - starring Kenneth Braghnagh (and brilliantly depicting the work of Hurley, the expedition photographer), it was surrealistic to emerge from the comfort of the auditorium into the same unforgiving conditions that they faced. Even more bizarre, a few cruise passengers around us appeared to be curiously oblivious to their surroundings and seemed to spend most of their time in the casino or at the bingo table!

As we sailed cautiously back through the Antarctic Archipelago there was often a flurry of excitement as a pod of Killer Whales was sighted in the distance, or a pair of Humpbacked Whales spouted nearby. We were often accompanied by a group of Cape Petrels (their Spanish name 'Pintados' better conjures up their black and white paint-splotched appearance), or by a Wandering Albatross or some Terns skimming the waves or plunging for fish. Our final landing was on Half-Moon Island in the South Shetlands, where we delighted in spending some more time with the penguins - this time the distinctive Chinstraps - to the backdrop of spectacular blue-tinted icebergs in the channel off Livingston Island.

Before we left antarctic waters, we were determined to take another dip, despite the continuing inclement weather. But this time we were a little smarter, and opted for a quick visit to the steaming jacuzzis on the top deck of the Marco Polo!

We are still receiving poems. This one is from our niece Darlene Fros in Port Rowan, written in response to Ed Sayer's December 22nd entry on Mike's website -

There's a lion on the runway
and he doesn't want to move
I need to land my plane, tell me
what, what am I to do?

Shall I circle up above him?
or detour down the strip.
Do I throw my hands up in the air
...never take another trip?

No, I think that I will land my plane
the best that I know how.
I'll work around my obstacle
as best my fate allow.

And when at last my feet touch ground
my lion I shall meet,
Not with anger, questioning or hate
but with respect I greet.

For my foe is not the lion
who stands in front of me
It was the fear unknowing
and in knowing now I'm free.
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dorisjacob on

Tour to Antarctica?
My wife and I are planning an Antarctic tour as part of our RTW trip and were wondering which tour operator you used and what you thought of them. Thanks.

essexman on

Anywhere on tour information

Im researching tour costs to Antartica, did you find anything relating to what tour companies go there?

Many thanks


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