For Part 1, click here.
Excited at the end of our first day in Antarctica, we set sail through the Gerlache Strait, a channel that separates the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula. We were lucky enough to see stunning scenery in the form of dozens of enormous tabular icebergs. Tabular icebergs are slabs of ice that once were part of ice shelves, and as a result they tend to be rectangular and have flat tops. One of the crew members told me that these icebergs extended about forty meters above the water’s surface.
While looking in awe at these huge icebergs that were taller than the ship, I remembered that 90% of every iceberg is underwater. Then, when I thought things couldn’t get any more amazing, there was an announcement that we would be passing part of an iceberg that broke off the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000. That original iceberg fragmented in 2005, and the 25th piece was named B-15Y. It had traveled halfway around Antarctica in only ten years, a remarkable feat for an iceberg that is twenty miles long—so big, in fact, that it can be seen from space.
The next morning, we awoke to find that our planned stop at Cuverville Island had been canceled because the Zodiacs were unable to pass through the dense pack ice. As a result, we headed towards that afternoon’s destination: Paradise Harbour.
Once the ship anchored, the Zodiacs were lowered and we prepared for a 90-minute cruise around the calm waters of the bay. The sky was overcast, but the scenery was beautiful enough that the weather didn’t matter.
I got into a Zodiac driven by Anjali, a marine biologist from New Zealand. The water was choppy and it sprayed onto some of us. At one point, Anjali said that her hands were cold and asked if anyone minded if she changed into a fresh pair of gloves. Nobody objected, so she stopped the Zodiac. As Anjali changed her gloves, we heard the telltale blow from a whale’s spout and looked at the water. About twenty yards away from us, a humpback had surfaced for air and on its way back underwater it fluked its tail. It was absolutely incredible to be able to see such a large, beautiful animal in its natural habitat—and if Anjali hadn’t decided to change her gloves, our Zodiac would have passed by without any of us ever knowing that it was there. Paradise Harbor had truly lived up to its lofty name.
On our third morning in Antarctica, we woke up to find the ship anchored off the shore of Danco Island, home to a colony of Gentoo Penguins. During an uphill hike, the smells told us that we were approaching the colony. Finally, we were able to look out over the water and observe the penguins—who didn’t seem even slightly interested in us. It was snowing, and as a result, pebbles (for building nests) were in even higher demand than usual. We saw several instances of pebble thievery as penguins competed for the prized nesting materials. We were able to spend a nice amount of time there, with some people opting to hike further up the hill. I decided to sit, watch the penguins, and enjoy the peaceful calm of nature.
That afternoon, we anchored at our second stop for the day: Port Lockroy, a small research station that doubles as a museum. We had been given postcards because Port Lockroy also has a post office, albeit a very slow one—as we were told, mail can take several months to be delivered from the world’s southernmost post office. Ships pick up mail when passing through Port Lockroy en route to the Falkland Islands. From there it is sent to the U.K. and then goes to its intended recipient(s) via the Royal Mail.
Port Lockroy is a fascinating spot, if for no other reason than it featured some of the very few buildings that we saw in Antarctica. The four UK Antarctic Heritage Trust staff who are stationed there were very knowledgeable and willing to answer any questions that we had. Just outside the main building, there was a colony of Gentoo Penguins. Due to their proximity, we had been told that Port Lockroy was the one place where we didn’t need to stay a minimum of five meters from wildlife—in fact, one penguin tried to make its nest directly outside the door, so observing that rule would have been impossible.
After we returned to the ship, those of us who were traveling with the Origins Project were treated to our second lecture. Titled “Journeying to the Beginning of Time in Antarctica”, it focused on cosmology and the enormous amount that scientists have learned from studying in Antarctica. Lawrence discussed a variety of topics, ranging from gravitational waves (and the theory of inflation) to the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (including the rumor that gravitational waves have been detected at last).
After the lecture, I was talking to Lawrence when a friend whom I’d met on the trip approached us with a camera. Lawrence and I both instinctively turned to look at her before she could snap a picture, so he decided to pretend to be giving an animated answer to my question in order to get some funny photos:
When everyone had returned to the ship, the anchor was reeled in and we set sail for Mikkelsen
Harbour and Cierva Cove.
Click here for Part 3, with more on our next destinations—including Elephant Seals, Weddell Seals, and Chinstrap Penguins.