Antarctica: The Epic Journey Continues

Antarctic Peninsula: Day 4 and 5

Day 4. We woke up still under the influence of the previous day’s high.  We had already seen a plethora of wildlife and were still in awe of the magnificent scenery.   We had to continue to remind ourselves what a special opportunity it was for us to visit Antarctica so that we didn’t begin to take our surroundings for granted.  Just when we thought we’d seen everything we could on an expedition like this one, the theme of our trip began to shift.  This day, our third full day, was our first experience with human habitation on the white continent.  

 Our morning excursion took us to Petermann Island.  You would think after seeing thousands of penguins everywhere we went that the novelty would wear off, but it never did.  After a hike through a Gentoo colony, and to the far side of the island, we met a new species of penguin.  Here, we saw a small colony of beautiful Adelies.  These birds were not nearly as curious as the Gentoos we had grown accustomed too.  Instead, they were shy, quiet and at this time of year, stationary as they remained on land,  malting on the rocks near their nests.  They did show signs of life, a temporary sort of temper tantrum, however, if a Gentoo got too close.

Adelie Penguin on Petermann Island

It was on Petermann Island where Dale became the object of Gentoo interest.  Sitting with his back to the majority of the birds, a good distance away, he waited.  After twenty minutes of being very still, consequently non-threatening, one youngster took a liking to him.  First, she approached him from behind, taking small steps, very slowly.  Then, after she was reassured there was no danger about, she continued to get a closer look as she waddled her way and stopped a  foot away, face on.  The next 20 minutes was an entertaining show, watching how the Gentoo familiarized herself with the strange, stone-like, yellow-jacketed creature.  The penguin pecked at his sleeves, nipped at his gloves, and even momentarily rested her beak on his lap.  One thing was certain, Dale had made a new friend.  Any other penguin that came close was greeted with a deafening squawk with wings flailing as she protected her new found love from competition.  It’s one thing when a domesticated animal (like a cat or a dog, that’s used to people) or one in captivity (like at a zoo) comes in for a close look or sniff, but when it’s in the middle of nowhere, where few humans go – it is indeed very special.   For this 3 month old gentoo chick, Dale was most likely her first human physical contact.  Too bad we couldn’t bring her home.

Dale's new friend

That afternoon, we anchored in the Argentine Islands, in order to visit Wardie House and a fully operational Ukranian base.   Wardie House is a circa 1950s British station which serves solely as a historical site and unattended museum.  Everything had been left exactly the way it was.   It was a well preserved time capsule, with a jar of marmite (likely still edible), and empty tins of Quaker oats and coffee rusted on the shelves.   The scenery engulfing the site, again was an overwhelming backdrop.  We navigated through a very shallow and narrow channel, dodging icebergs in the zodiac to get there, to see the ice covered islands to our west, and to our the east, a massive glacier overhanging the ocean.  

The glacier to the west of Wardie House

Wardie House

Vernadksy Station (Ukranian), better known as the world’s southern most vodka bar, was the furthest south we ventured in our expedition.  We were so blessed with the weather, that it was the furthest south that any Quark trip had been this season.  On all previous trips, the sea ice had been too thick to sail through.  Needless to say, we needed to announce our arrival to the base commander to be sure we were welcome.  We were, of course, welcomed with open arms.    The team working at the station, who are studying the weather, had been there since April of 2011.  With less than 2 months left before they  were to return home, they had long run out of cigarettes and had only one previous boat of visitors, two days earlier.  There was just one disappointing note, they weren’t allowed to sell us their home-made vodka.  They were, however, very happy to give it to us.  Our crew made a trade; 20 cartons of cigarettes in exchange for an open bar.   After an informative tour, mailing some postcards and countless vodka shots, we were all smiling, as we stumbled back to our zodiac. The party that night started early, as our captain turned the boat around.  We were now sailing North, through the Lemarie Channel.

Vernadsky Station

 Latitude 65°06.3’S Longitude 64° 02.2’W

The next morning, we were already anchored at Paradise Bay when we woke up.  First up, was a steep hike to the peak of a rocky promontory beside the Argentine base “Brown”.   Following a spectacular view of the ice blue surroundings, we hopped back into our zodiac for a cruise around the bay with Nathan.  After admiring some unique rock formations that made up the island, and turning into the bay, Nathan pointed “look there.”  We had spotted Hotel Bravo (a.k.a.  Hump Backs) in the middle of the bay.  We were quite a distance away, but these massive graceful creatures are pretty easy to catch when you have 40HP behind you.  We stayed still and watched them play.  At times, I closed my eyes, just to listen to the familiar music of their blowholes.  We all sensed that this would be the last whales we’d get up close and personal with for a long time.  It was our last chance to really admire their beauty.

The climb up overlooking Paradise Bay

Humb Back Whale (this is its head)

As we pulled away from the whales, we got in for a closer look to what was the most jaw-dropping glacier we’d seen the entire trip.   We were surrounded by snow, ice, crystalline water and sky, each carrying its own shade of blue.  The glacial crevasses in the were deep and sharp, making them appear a deep blue or almost black among the aqua colour of the old ice.  It was colossal, making it very difficult to judge distances.  The edge of the bay, where the glacier separated the water from the land seemed to be merely an arm’s length away.  It wasn’t until we spotted another boat at the edge that we could judge the true size of what we were looking at.  Perspective is a beautiful thing.   It took us 20 minutes to get to where the other boat had been.  The water in the bay was like glass, and even with a few clouds in the sky, it still managed to cast a crisp reflection.   This was the bluest ice yet, showing it’s age.

The blue-est ice we've ever seen - Paradise bay

Our afternoon was spent at Port Lockroy, and nearby Jougla Point.  Port Lockroy, an old British base, is now a museum, post office and home of a penguin reproduction study.  The study was fascinating to me.  The island had been sectioned off, separating colonies of Gentoos.  On one side, people roamed around the nests, on the other no tourists were allowed.  Which colonies do you think have higher reproduction success rates?  It may surprise you, that the colonies which have contact with humans have been shown to be more successful in breeding.   Very cool.  Since they’re used to having people around, I took my turn to have physical contact with the animals, a similar experience to Dale’s from the previous day.  Although, my penguin took a particular interest in my rubber boots.

Penguin encounter - Port Lockroy

At Jougla point, the extensive cloud cover gave us our first bit of snow south of 60.  The snowfall added even more magic, another piece to our almost complete Antarctic Experience.    We were free to roam the point around the penguins and whale bones.

Hump Back whale skeleton

 We went to bed again with full bellies, as our captain continued us Northward.  The next day, was to be our last in the Antarctic Peninsula and in 36 hours, we would be back in the Drake Channel.

Latitude 64°53.9’S Longitude 63° 03.9’W

 

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