The other half of the story...

An adventure at the bottom of the Earth, Part 1

At the start of December, I traveled to Buenos Aires to begin the first leg of a journey following Arizona State University’s Origins Project on a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula.  I had booked the trip in order to participate in their event “Science and Adventure in Antarctica“, and ended up dragging my dad with me for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The Origins Project group for this cruise was led by Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss, a world-renowned theoretical physicist who is the founder and director of the program.  The nineteen of us in the group were to be attending lectures, given by Lawrence onboard the ship, with wide-ranging topics from cosmology to climate change.

I first met up with the group on a chartered flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the capital of the Argentinean province of Tierra del Fuego.  Ushuaia is a charming city surrounded by a forest that yields to the jagged, beautiful Andes peaks.

Ushuaia, Argentina (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Ushuaia, Argentina (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

After we got our luggage, the group was directed to several buses that would take us to a restaurant in Ushuaia and then to our ship.  Lunch was a nice opportunity to meet the other participants, and it was clear that we were a diverse group who had traveled from all around the world in order to share this adventure with one another.  After we ate, we were taken to our ship, the Silver Explorer.  It was a small ship (122 passengers, 121 crew) with a cozy feel.

Once settled in, the passengers and crew gathered on the rear deck for drinks and Hors-d’oeuvre. As the engines fired up we looked out at Ushuiaia while the cruise prepared to sail through the Beagle Channel before hitting the notoriously rough waters of the six hundred miles of open ocean called the Drake Passage.  That night, the Expedition Leader announced during our nightly briefing in the theater that the forecast for the Drake Passage was “Good, not great”—six-meter swells were expected.

We awoke in the morning, excited about the possibilities of seeing exotic wildlife, such as the Wandering Albatross.  The sea was angry that day and we all did our best to adjust to the side-to-side rocking of the ship.  Soon, the air temperature noticeably dropped by several degrees as we crossed the Antarctic Convergence and we started seeing an increasing number of birds, as the cold Southern Ocean mixed with the warmer Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, pushing nutrients closer to the sea surface.  We realized that it was worth the rough water, as soon as we spotted our first iceberg:

(Photo credit: Brian Druker)

(Photo credit: Brian Druker)

While the cruise got further south, the icebergs became much more abundant, until it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing dozens of them.  It was even more impressive to realize that 90% of the mass of every iceberg is underwater.  We were already seeing staggeringly beautiful scenery, and still had another day in the Drake Passage before we would even reach Antarctica.

After a second full day in the Drake, the ship arrived at our first stop: Brown Bluff.  The area is dominated by a million year-old basalt tuya, a volcano formed when lava erupts through a glacier.  Before we disembarked the ship, our clothing underwent a “seed check” to make sure that we were not carrying anything that might contaminate the pristine continent that we were about to set foot on.  As we prepared to get into one of the inflatable rubber Zodiacs that would take us ashore, we were required to step into a chemical footbath in order to further ensure that we would not inadvertently pollute Antarctica.

Brown Bluff, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Brown Bluff, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Brown Bluff is home to roughly 20,000 pairs of Adélie penguins and 500 pairs of Gentoo penguins.  When I stepped off the Zodiac, I was surprised to see that the penguins didn’t seem to care about our presence.  We had been instructed to remain at least five meters from all wildlife during the cruise, but the penguins often walked right past us.  About twenty inches tall, the Adélies and Gentoos looked comically awkward on land.  However, I spoke with Danae, an ornithologist who was part of the expedition crew.  She told me that in water, penguins can accelerate to fifteen miles per hour in less than a second, and that they can perform a 180° turn in only a fifth of a second.

A group of Adélie penguins walks along the beach at Brown Bluff (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

A group of Adélie penguins walks along the beach at Brown Bluff (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

After we spent a while onshore, it was time to get back onto the Zodiacs and head towards the ship.  After we had a chance to shower and change our clothes, our group met in the ship’s theater at 10:15 am for the first of Lawrence’s lectures, titled “The Accelerating Universe: A Story of the Development of Cosmology”.  As we trickled into the theater, Monty Python’s Galaxy Song played over the speakers.

Lawrence Krauss, discussing neutrino detectors (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Lawrence Krauss, discussing neutrino detectors (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

The lecture covered topics ranging from the history of modern cosmology, to the mysterious “Dark Energy” and “Dark Matter” that are so important to the evolution of our Universe.  Lawrence spoke about the experiments that have dramatically expanded our knowledge of our Universe.  Especially when onstage, his energy and enthusiasm are infectious as he talks about complex subjects (and without the use of any notes).

After the lecture ended, the remaining Zodiac groups returned to the ship and we set sail for our second destination of the day: Hope Bay, further south down the Antarctic Peninsula.  In the afternoon, the ship anchored at Hope Bay and we waited for our Zodiac group to be called (only a hundred people are allowed onshore at any given time, so there were four Zodiac groups).  When it was our turn, we were taken on a 90-minute cruise around Hope Bay and its incredibly calm waters.  One thing that is difficult to describe is the fact that everything in Antarctica is huge.  When looking at sheer glacier faces that are miles wide, there’s nothing to give a sense of scale.  There are no trees, buildings, or anything else to help our brains put the scale of the scenery into perspective.

Penguins on an iceberg in Hope Bay, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Adélie penguins on an iceberg in Hope Bay, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

We were driven around Hope Bay for an hour and a half, and we saw the diversity of wildlife in Antarctica.  We saw a Weddell seal taking a nap on top of an ice floe, Giant Southern Petrels, and more Adélie penguins.

Adélie penguins, leaping through the water in Hope Bay (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Adélie penguins, leaping through the water in Hope Bay (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

In addition to the wildlife, calm water, and enormous glaciers, we got our first close look at a spectacularly gorgeous blue iceberg.

Hope Bay, Antarctica (Photo credit: Michelle Iwen)

Hope Bay, Antarctica (Photo credit: Michelle Iwen)

After our Zodiac ride ended, we returned to our ship and prepared for the next day’s stops: Cuverville Island and Paradise Bay.

Click here to read Part 2, with more on the next destinations—including a twenty-mile long tabular iceberg.

The Author

  • Looks good 🙂

  • Steve Bowden

    This is Great! Looking forward to part two!

    • Haha, I hyperlinked to that in the blog post!

    • Haha– I hyperlinked to that video in the blog post!

  • Don’t ever whore your site out on our site again, you rube.

  • Boops

    Excellent post Brian, as always. Your photos on FB are also awesome, thanks for making them public!

    I look forward to your next installment.

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  • AnOilMan

    Hey. I just got around to watching your video today. I thought it was interesting, and distinctly American in outlook.

    In Canada we don’t have such a strong religious contingent. So there’s really no strong opposition to science. What counter messaging we see is mostly free market zealotry, pure greed, and ignorance. (Don’t laugh… we elected Harper.)

    I came across this comment by Andy Skuce. Its worth a read;
    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/consensus-messaging/#comment-72768

    • Thanks, that’s an interesting observation. I never even thought about it as an American perspective, but I guess you’re right. It’s sort of weird that this country was founded with the world’s first secular Constitution, and that most of our Founding Fathers were deists at best—and yet, today we have so many religious nuts who are vehemently opposed to science.

      Stephen Harper was scary, but I’m glad that Canada voted him out. After his reign, Trudeau seems much better. It’s interesting that so many scientists said that under Harper’s leadership, they were restricted from doing their jobs due to his denial of reality. Hopefully the U.S. will learn from cases like that, and won’t elect Donald Trump, because that is a terrifying thought.

      That’s a great comment by Andy Skuce. Katharine Hayhoe is interesting, I first heard about her a year or so ago when she was on the excellent show “Years of Living Dangerously”. While I think it’s a paradox that she’s a scientist and also an Evangelical, that doesn’t matter to me because she does great work trying to educate people about climate change. If the true fundies need someone with shared beliefs to hold their hands and help them accept that AGW is real, that’s great if she can properly educate them about reality. She really does an excellent job of getting through to Christians who would probably not listen to her if she weren’t also Evangelical.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nY1HweENTeU

      • AnOilMan

        The issue with Harper was that he was stupidly moronically ham-fisted about everything he did. It was as though we elected an ignorant forum troll.

        Even if you want to oppose something, there are subtle ways to do it without standing up and announcing your ignorance. Time and time again, Conservatives wanted to cut back on namby pamby aid policies, and have more international military policies. (No difference between them and republicans.) Only, they’d do it, and sure enough, lose UN office jobs, and our vote on the security council. But we are in the running to buy some stealth planes we don’t need. Arctic military ships were canceled when they figured out how much they’d cost.
        http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/security-council-rejection-a-deep-embarrassment-for-harper/article1370239/

        They cut a tiny bit of funding for desertification research… and were resoundingly insulted internationally for it.
        http://www.desmog.ca/2014/04/17/democracy-pits-part-2-canada-uses-aid-pr-mining-companies

        I’m expecting the Liberals to say one thing, while quietly doing another. The nature of our world is such that we can’t instantly switch from one thing to another. So, while Obama talks about Climate Change, Hillary is happily selling out to oil interests. I don’t really see a problem with this, but I’d like to see more progress.

        Thanks for that video… if I ever get to meet Don Cheadle, I’m going to say, “I finally got to meet someone who met Katherine Hayhoe!”

        • I didn’t know that, about the Arctic ships or the desertification research funding. While things still aren’t ideal, maybe Trudeau knows that he can get away with a little more because after Harper, anyone would look like a genius at his/her job when compared to his predecessor, who is an imbecile. Sort of like how after George W. Bush, Obama seemed to be doing a good job as POTUS.

          I do think Obama has been good for climate change, and has probably accomplished as much as any President can at the moment, due to all the partisanship (we can’t even get decent gun laws passed, which is embarrassing). It’s just disgraceful that we can’t/won’t do more, because too many of our politicians either genuinely think we aren’t affecting our climate, or because they’ve taken so many donations from oil companies that they pretend to deny climate change. So it’s either corruption, ignorance, or both. But at least he has been talking about it a lot, and raising awareness that way. It’s a start.

          If you ever meet Katharine Hayhoe, you can also say, “I finally got to meet someone who met Don Cheadle!” I really do like her, because she’s doing the right thing and that’s what matters.

    • Boops

      Good point.

      You would love spending time in the other English-speaking countries, Brian!

      • I’ve had a great time in the ones I’ve been to (Canada, Ireland, Scotland, N. Ireland, and England). Would definitely love to see more– especially Oz and NZ.

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