Blizzards, Ice Sculpture, The Slide and Penguins
11/25/2012 22 °F
After much thought, I’ve decided I’m a struggling as a writer. I don’t know what adjectives to use when trying to describe the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. My thesaurus has run dry. It’s hard to find words that illustrate supreme beauty-except those very words. Antarctica IS supremely beautiful, and that is all I have to say about it.
The Antarctic Peninsula is essentially made of six elements. These are: ice, rock, water, atmosphere, snow, and wildlife (which includes humans). The interplay of these six simple elements makes Antarctic landscapes magnificent.
Here is my proof.
Blizzard on Deception Island
There is nothing like walking around in a blizzard in Antarctica to make you feel alive. I landed on Deception Island in the midst of a fierce gale. The snow wasn’t really falling so much as it was whipping horizontally over the ground. It never really had a chance to hit the ice. The wind grabbed those flakes and used them to scour the land and the people who walked upon it. It was awesome.
It was a great day for photography. The wind and driving snow obscured the details of the landscape. I shot these photos in sepia to give an “olde tyme” feel to them. They are some of my favorites of the trip.
My compatriots and I took a hike to a high point called Neptune’s Window. I love how these lines of people look in the heavy wind and snow.
I found a pond with interesting patterns made of slush.
Natural Ice Sculpture
A beautiful collection of natural ice art surrounds Cuverville Island. What I really love about these sculptures is not only are they completely natural, but they are only momentary. You have to appreciate them as they are in this moment, because a day from now they might be completely different. In the Antarctic, the flow of change is constant.
Seals spend much of their time sacked out on the ice floes.
Gentoo Penguin Colony
Gentoo penguins have a colony on Cuverville Island. It’s interesting to watch gentoos during this time of year, because they are beginning their mating season. All over Cuverville, the penguins gather about in groups on the highest points of the land. They choose high ground because the snow will melt the quickest on top, and it is here where they will make their nests made of rocks.
In the colony, the penguins consisted of two groups: those that are still looking for a mate, or those that have found one. The courting of penguins is quite elegant. After a good sit, the penguins will slowly walk in a circle. Together, they will bow down very low to the ground and open their beaks while looking at one another. Then the birds will return to a neutral pose and continue sitting around for a few hours.
The penguins that haven’t found a mate yet spend their days wandering from one group to the next. Often they will stand in trios and call out in a loud “purr.” These calls are announcements of their availability and fine genetics.
Penguin watching is a fascinating pastime.
Neko Harbour Shenanigans
I took my first footsteps on the Antarctic Continent on a cold beach at Neko Harbour. I started my afternoon off by hiking high up on a massive bluff. I passed the ever-present gentoo colonies as I sweated my way to the top. It overlooked the massive glacier that was just across the small cove from where we landed. The glacier had a huge piece of ice poised to fall into the sea below. It would have made a tremendous wave had it fallen. The glacier did sheave off some ice, but the giant piece stayed in place.
Since I was on top of a very steep hill, it only made sense to slide down to the bottom on my rain pants. I managed to talk two of my friends into joining me. At first, it didn’t look like we were going to have any luck. The snow was too soft; the slope not steep enough. We tried a few different techniques, before the snow and slope cooperated. We were soon sliding easily along the snow, laughing, giggling, and whooping with joy. We picked up speed. The joy turned into sheer terror as we reached the lip of the true slope. At this point, there was no way to slow down, and we went into a free fall down the side of the cliff.
I tried to dig my fingers, boots, and arms into the snow, but it was no use. I was at the mercy of gravity, speed, and friction. I finally managed to dig my feet into the slope, but that only caused me to summersault heels over head. I body slammed into the ground and lost all control of descent. Finally, I began to slow and gradually slid to a stop. I laughed. It was exhilarating. I looked over to see how Amy was doing and she was fine. Then we both watched to see the giggling Tiffany fly down the last slope to where we were sitting in the snow. We compared notes, laughed some more, and finally got up to collect our things.
After the slide, I watched penguins for the rest of the afternoon. They were up to their usual antics: Waddling around, bowing to one another, making nests, and looking cute. I had several of them bob right up to where I was sitting in the snow. I had a good look at their fine lines and remarkable feet.
Lemaire Channel and Booth Island
Lemaire Channel is one of the most beautiful stretches of water I’ve passed through. It is bound on both sides by steep, snow-laden mountains. Icy fields descend the mountain and form tidal glaciers at the waterline. I ventured through a corridor of blue glaciers. I felt like I was in a hallway of the Gods.
After passing through the channel, I rounded the south side of Booth Island. It is in this area that the big icebergs have gathered. There size is immense. Only about ten percent of an iceberg is above the waterline. Keep that in mind as you look at some of the photos of these icebergs.
This is a male leopard seal. The leopard seal is a fierce predator that eats penguins as its main source of food. Their lithe, sinewy bodies are ideal for slipping through narrow openings in the ice. Leopard seals are territorial, claiming a patch of water as their own.
The heavy weight of the dense glacier compresses oxygen out of the ice, which is why it is so clear. The clearer the piece of ice is, the less oxygen is in it. You can see this same process for yourself if you take a small scoop of snow and begin working it and squeezing it with your fingers. As it melts, it becomes easier to form, try to keep it in the shape of a cube as you compress it. You will notice that it becomes clearer. Now you won’t be able to make it as clear as this piece, but the concept is still the same.
It was an odd experience to be moving through pack ice on a ship. I have read about pack ice in countless books about Polar exploration. In my mind, I always wondered what it was like to be bashing one’s way through an endless plain of moving ice. As with everything, it’s one thing to read about it; it’s quite another to actually experience it.
First, some science. Essentially, pack ice forms when a large flat piece of new ice breaks up in smaller chunks and collects en masse by wind and currents. Most pack ice looks like a large collection of giant snow pancakes, with smaller chunks of ice in between.
Our ship is an ice class vessel, which means it can push its way through pack ice with relative ease. After the days activities, with dinner firmly lodged in our stomachs, everyone on board went outside to enjoy this unique experience. I bundled up against the cold, grabbed my camera, and went out to the bow of the ship.
The lighting was incredible. Photographers and painters dream about this light. It was low angled light from a golden sunset, diffused through bands of thin clouds. The sunset seemingly lasts forever in the Antarctic during the summer months, and this was no exception. In the background were heavily clouded mountains that contrasted beautifully in the sunlit foreground. The photographers on board were in ecstasy, shooting hundreds and hundreds of pictures in a couple of hours. They ran around singing Paul Simon’s “Kodakchrome.” They talked to the icebergs, complimenting them on their beauty as they snapped their shutters. It sounded like machine gun fire.
I loved every part of it. The ice pancakes were beautiful. Hell, everything was beautiful. It was an amazing evening in a unique landscape.
This is the classic Antarctic scene: A small group of adelie penguins popped out of the water onto a flat sheet of ice right in front of me. They shook and rolled around on the floe, which helps them shed water from their dive. They were curious, yet cautious. They kept one eye on me as they rested. I halfway expected them to start tap dancing, but they didn’t.
Then one of the penguins took the lead and readied itself to jump back in the water. The other penguins followed it, and they all lined up before diving back into the frigid water.
Antarctica is supremely beautiful… Yep.