Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Officially on Antarctica

After two plus days of crossing the Drake Passage we awoke excited to be deep into the Weddell Sea and close to Snow Island.  Snow Island was the focal point of this trip, the Emperor Penguin Rookery where the penguins would have just had their chicks and we would be able to wander amongst these southern giants and their newly hatched babies.

So the whole ship was excited about this and we talked about the day at breakfast while we also discussed the fact that the ship was fully driven into some serious pack ice.  We were stopped and it wasn't until later in the day that we realized exactly where we were in relation to Snow Island.  Turns out we weren't anywhere near it...

So during the night we turned the corner of the Antarctic Peninsula and immediately ran into a sea completely covered in ice.  Snow Island was 60+ miles to the south and although we were on an ice pushing ship you can't push ice into ice, so we were stopped.  The captain back up a few times and tried other routes, the helicopters went up to scout for openings, and nothing was available.  The trip to Snow Island was not going to happen on this tour.

The lecture that Delphine had to give explaining this was a bit of a let down, Tina called it a "come to Jesus" meeting,  and it left people with all sorts of mixed emotions.  You could tell that the crew wasn't happy about it - most ice seen this late in the season in more then seven years - and they were in full scramble mode to try and placate those of us that were not exactly excited about the fact that we were not going to be able to meet the objective of our tour.

Let me take this moment to talk about the passengers on this cruise - there were a total of 87 of us and Tina and I were in the minority in being that this was our first Antarctic trip.  There were a majority of professional photographers on this trip and several groups of people of that had been on several Arctic and Antarctic trips.  This trip was/is one of those 'once in a lifetime' opportunities that do not come up that often, and the Emperor Penguin is at the top of the list of least accessible.  As much as every itinerary states that conditions change and the whole trip plan may need to be scrapped nobody really want's to believe any of that, so when something as simple as ice gets in the way of everyone's dreams calling it a disappointment is a bit of an understatement.

The first step in trying to determine what to do was to take us passengers and put us into the helicopters and fly us to the continent, over to View Point.  The thing about the trip to View Point is that it is solid land on Antarctica as our original itinerary did not have us ever actually touching the continent.  One of the expedition leaders, Pablo (the 'token Argentinian' as he put it) explained in one of his lectures that getting to Snow Island, Devils Island, and Deception Island are the same as being on the continent the same as you can say that you've been to the North American continent when you've been to Manhattan.  This did bring up a lot of discussion as to if you really were going to be able to say "I've been to Antarctica" - England doesn't count as Europe, islands don't count and the like - and the trip to View Point essentially ended all of those discussions.

I like to think that we were in the better group on the cruise, although we were disappointed we knew this could happen and we were glad in general to just be on a nice 2 week holiday.  So far up to this point, and I'm including how bad we felt with the seasickness, we had been fully impressed with and enjoying the trip.  So following now are the photos of our awaking to a solid ice sheet and the trip to View Point, Antarctica.

 Early morning, looking off the back of the ship at open waters and the eastern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, and then looking forward as a complete sheet of pack ice that we just could not break through.
 Adelie penguins making the long trek across the ice to get to the water.

There were a good amount of Adelie penguins that we got to see, but one of the more exciting moments came later that evening when Emperor Penguins were spotted -
 There were two of them followed by an Adelie and I'll swear that the ship listed to the side when everyone ran up to watch and snap documentation of their memories.  This was cute and funny and a great insight into what we later dubbed the 'comical mindset of the penguin.'  The Adelie was following the two Emperors as they walked across the ice, and at one point they stopped to let him lead the way.  He looked back at them and they stepped in his direction but as soon as he continued on again they turned and made a straight run for the water.  Photo two there shows the Emperors heading away from him, the poor little Adelie turned to see the second one about to dive in and immediately set out in a full penguin run catch up to them.  Penguins, be design, do not run well at all, and what with their speed in the water we doubt that he managed to find the emperor's again...

Okay sorry, didn't mean to get distracted with penguin stuff - let's go back to photos of the trip to the continent.
Helicopters on their way out and back again with other passengers.  The ship was broken down into 10 groups and we were in group 7 so this first day of helicoptering we were in one of the later groups to head out.  But soon we were off on Tina's first ever helicopter ride and with having to climb up over a mountain ridge and some good winds it made sure to be exciting for her...


And then there we were safely on land, on the land of Antarctica, and looking out over those damned sheets of solid ice that had stopped our ship.
 We returned to see out ship surrounded by ice - one of the guides stated that he thought the captain was 'getting twitchy' about the ice closing in and so he backed it out to more open waters so that we could head off to yet another adventure the next day.
Another good dinner around 20:00 and we retired to the bar to enjoy to company of others and watch the sunset.  The above sunset photo was taken just minutes before 22:00 and was then followed by a spectacular rising of a full moon before we headed off to bed.

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