BWPS News Archive
Antarctica - The Last Pristine Continent
Copyright © 2008 Donna Salett
‘Imagine a place as big as the U.S. and Europe combined. Sunnier than California, yet colder than the freezing compartment of your refrigerator. Drier than Arabia and higher than mountainous Switzerland. Emptier than the Sahara. Only one place fits this description. It’s Antarctica. The strange but beautiful continent at the bottom of the Earth’.
-Joseph Durant, This is Antarctica
Antarctica is the iconic 20 day “trip of a lifetime” destination that for us included the Falklands and South Georgia Island. It is costly and has an element of danger that should not be minimized. Many of the waters here are uncharted. Our captain draws up his own charts each time he enters a new bay by sending out a Zodiac with equipment to take soundings. The ship is equipped with stabilizers. However, when we entered the minefields of “bergy bits and growlers” (the small pieces that break free from icebergs), the captain disengaged them so as not to make contact. The rolling seas then made their presence known and it became clear to us why every piece of furniture was chained to the floor and walls.
The South Pole on Antarctica is located at 90 degrees south, with the Antarctic Circle at 67 degrees. The most southerly latitude we reached during our December voyage was 65 degrees, where we experienced the Antarctic summertime with 20 to 30 degree (F) temperatures and intermittent hurricane-force winds. At 55 degrees south, we boarded our ship in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southern most city in the world. The itinerary brought us first to the Falkland Islands, where the ship refueled. We learned about the history of the island, most notably Argentina’s ill-fated claim. Then we trekked over the rocky terrain to see our first Gentoo Penguin rookery. I sat quietly, off by myself, delighted to see that the penguins seemed unaffected by my presence. A Snowy Sheathbill circled a few feet above a penguin’s nest, scouting for its next egg or chick dinner. The mother assertively defended her young with squeals of displeasure and the pecking of her beak. I was captivated by their behaviors that illustrate their tale of daily survival.
Our next landfall was at South Georgia Island at 54 degrees south, where one of the most admired explorers of all time, Sir Ernest Shackleton (“The Boss”) is buried. The island is a paradise setting of snow-capped mountain peaks and is covered with a quarter of a million King Penguins. They stand 3 feet tall and the sight of their black and white bodies stretched as far as my eyes could see. They incubate their eggs beneath a fold of skin called a brood pouch. The juveniles, called “oakum boys” due to their brown, wind-swirled downy fur, take over a year to fledge and during that time grow fatter than their mothers. The exchange of high-pitched whistling sounds helps to reunite the chicks with their mothers, who have returned from fishing krill and squid from the sea. Meanwhile, along the shoreline we were treated to the sights and sounds of sparring and belching elephant seals and tiny, nursing fur seal pups. We had to keep our eyes to the ground so as not to trip over sleeping and VERY cranky fur seal bulls. Here, as we visited the sight of the former Grytviken Whaling Station, we were sadly reminded of the magnitude of the slaughter of thousands of whales that nearly caused their extinction during the 50 years of whaling.
After a few days at sea, as we grew closer to our final destination, we experienced 24 hours of daylight along with varied weather patterns of fog, wind, snow squalls, and rain. We frequently saw the blows of the Orca, Fin, Humpback and Minke whales at sea. An abundance of sea birds followed us on our journey. We were fortunate to see many species of Petrels: Cape, Snow, Wilson’s Storm, Black bellied, Southern Giant, Northern Giant and White-chinned. We also saw Skuas, Cormorants, Arctic and Antarctic Terns, Prions, South Georgian Shags, and the varied Albatross species: the Light-mantled Sooty, Northern Royal, Southern Royal, Black-browed, and of course the gigantic Wandering Albatross with it’s wing span of up to 11 feet.
Icebergs provided us with blue-tinged white vistas everywhere we looked. Approximately 98 percent of Antarctica is ice which accounts for about 75 percent of the earth’s fresh water (in frozen form). No land mammals can live here due to the hostile environment. Limited species of mosses, lichens and algae grow on rocks and display their varied yellow and orange colors which accent the white-gray backdrop of the barren scenery. Sea ice forms from the frozen ocean surface, and grows and melts annually. Icebergs originate from the many glaciers that are the product of millions of years of packed snow accumulation. As the freshwater glacier slides towards the sea, ice shelves form. These calve (break free) to form tabular icebergs which are flat-topped floating islands. We sailed past one such iceberg that was thought to measure 20 miles long by 15 miles wide! A surprising 70-90 percent of the iceberg is hidden beneath the surface of the water. When the ice is dense and devoid of bubbles, the iceberg’s color is an intense blue, a welcomed sight in the monochromatic setting.
In the late 1950s, the Antarctic Treaty was formed, with 50 nations participating and 12 of them establishing scientific research stations. The United States of course, has a station in a key position right at the South Pole. Several other countries lay claim to pie shaped areas of the continent based on exploration and geographic proximity. However, the rest of the world does not recognize these claims. There are annual meetings where resolutions and long range plans for the protection of Antarctica are discussed. Currently, there is a 50 year moratorium on mining, and it is prohibited to introduce any non-native species (including dogs) to the area. The impact of tourism is of great concern. The first tourists visited Antarctica in 1958, and by the late 1980s, tourism was booming. In 1991 the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was founded. The association developed guidelines to protect the area’s pristine beauty and delicate ecosystems. For example, we were required to vacuum our backpacks and wash our boots and tripods in disinfectant before and after every landing. This procedure helps prevent virus and spore contamination, via clothing or soil, from one colony to the next.
On Antarctica, we were immersed in the sights and antics of King, Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins; and fur and elephant seals, but that was not all we were immersed in! We hiked through the foul smelling, boot-sucking, black mud and guano mixed with glacier melt. It oozed up the sides of our boots and we hoped not to be one of the few that fell in it. Knee pads are strongly advised! The Gentoo penguins make their nests by aligning small stones in an oval-shaped ring on the ground. We chuckled as we watched a tuxedo-clad body waddle over to another’s nest, tripping over its big flat feet, to steal stones for its own nest. As we stood admiring the mothers nurturing their chicks, we noticed an abandoned egg as it rolled down a knoll and landed at our feet. Within a few seconds, a Skua swooped down to claim its breakfast filled with protein. As we reminded ourselves of the “Circle of Life,” and that the Skua (although not as cute as the penguin) needs to eat too, he cracked the egg open and devoured the tissue and fluid from inside. The Chinstraps are the silliest birds of all with an identifiable black line under their chin. We navigated through the muck and back to the beach where we were once again amused to see four toddling black and white bodies following us in a row. Pictures do paint a thousand words!
Though I had anticipated many amazing experiences during this expedition, the encounter with the leopard seal made my entire adventure complete. They are streamlined, sleek, aggressive seals and do not possess the endearing facial features of other popular seals. They sit at the top of the food chain in Antarctica and eat mostly krill, squid, fish and Crabeater seals. The larger leopard seals do eat penguins (think “Circle of Life” again). I positioned myself on my belly in the sand, about 20 feet from where one lay dozing. As I waited for that gaped-mouth, sharp-tooth shot that I dreamed of, it dawned on me that I was facing a formidable hunter. The guide assured me that he only hunts in the water and that I would be safe should he awaken from HIS dream of eating dinner!
Every day we were observers in a world so far from our own. The images are etched in my memory forever (with the help of thousands and thousands of photos). The experience was much more than the penguins, seals and spectacular scenery. “What happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica” does not apply. The ecological and environmental events that we contribute to, from around the world, do have a negative impact on Antarctica and its inhabitants. Should you be fortunate enough to take this trip, there are many tour operators to choose from. Be sure the one you select is a member of IAATO. Be sure to bring rubber boots, Bonine, Scopolomine and mittens with glove inserts. Take care not to litter, and most importantly, be sure to bring lots and lots of memory space, in your head as well as for your camera!
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