The other half of the story...

An adventure at the bottom of the Earth, Part 3

To read Parts 1 and 2, click here and here.

After lunch the following day, our ship arrived at Cierva Cove.  I was one of the first in line for the Zodiac ride because the cove was stunningly gorgeous.  We were surrounded by enormous icebergs that seemed like skyscrapers, compared to our little inflatable Zodiac.  The bergs in the distance looked like a mountain range.

As we craned our necks to look at the beautiful scenery, our Zodiac driver told us to take our photos while we drove, because there was so much sea ice floating in Cierva Cove that we had no choice but to get dangerously close to the towering icebergs.  If an iceberg had broken off or flipped over, our Zodiac would have been easily crushed—and yet, I was so distracted by the incredible sights that it never even occurred to me to be nervous of the dangers.

Iceberg in Cierva Cove, Antarctica (Photo credit: Lawrence M. Krauss)

Frequently, we heard the dull grinding noise as “brash ice” was chopped up by the Zodiac’s propellers, but we were able to push through and explore deeper into the cove.  We were lucky enough to catch some Weddell Seals, hauled out on ice floes.  The seals were resting, and paid little attention to us—even when our Zodiac got several feet from them.  I asked our driver how we’d be able to tell if we were bothering the seal.  He told me that seals normally breathe out of only one nostril at a time, but when agitated they flare both nostrils simultaneously.  As he pointed out, this seal was breathing normally.

As we approached the entrance to Cierva Cove, we saw a few small wooden buildings.  Our driver informed us that this was Argentina’s Base Primavera.  We were also told that the Argentineans who work there actually do scientific research, as opposed to many of their bases on the Antarctic Peninsula—apparently those exist for the purpose of maintaining an Argentinean presence, due to various nations’ land claims on the frozen continent.  Above the buildings, the hill was stained pink with guano, as a large colony of Gentoo Penguins also calls Cierva Cove its home.  At one point we saw a pair of humpback whales surface for air.

Humback whales, Cierva Cove, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

In addition to the whales, the base base and the penguins, we saw a bit of a rarity for Antarctica: the color green.  Various mosses grew on the ice-free slopes, and for me, it was a reminder of how tenacious life can be.  Even in Antarctica, plants were growing.  As Dr. Ian Malcolm said, “Life finds a way.”  In the rock cracks we saw an abundance of Antarctic hair grass—a pretty sight, but also a visible effect of climate change, as warming temperatures increase the range and lifespan of the grass.

As we headed back towards the ship, the crew had a surprise in store for us.  Among the seemingly endless expanse of icebergs, we saw a Zodiac that was stopped.  Everyone onboard was wearing a blue winter parka (the crew wore blue, while we passengers wore red), and we approached them without any explanation from our driver.  As we pulled up alongside the crew’s Zodiac, ropes were tossed to us.  As we tied up, crates were passed over to our boat.  We saw that one of the crates contained glasses of champagne, while the others had various cookies and pastries.  It was an amazing, completely unexpected treat and it reminded me of just how hard the crew members worked.

Decadence in Cierva Cove, Antarctica (Photo credit: Michelle Iwen)

Earlier in the trip, Lawrence had mentioned to our group that his wife Nancy had met some climate change deniers onboard the ship, and he told us that his last lecture would be about climate change.  He asked us if we’d mind if he made this available for everyone onboard the ship.  Unanimously, we agreed that it’s too important an issue to not try to take an opportunity to present deniers with evidence so that they might change their minds.

Over the course of the cruise, Lawrence and Nancy had dinner with everyone in the Origins Project group.  After we returned from Cierva Cove, he asked me and my dad if we wanted to join them that night, and we accepted, along with a couple who also were part of our group.  At dinnertime, we arrived a few minutes before Lawrence and Nancy.  While we waited, a man at the next table asked me how I was enjoying the lectures, and asked if there were any more.  I replied that the final one was the next morning and that it was about climate change.  He said that he wasn’t sold on whether climate change is caused by humans, and that he thought it was too political.  As anyone who knows me can attest, subtlety is not one of my strengths—but I didn’t want to be too aggressive because it seemed like he and his wife might be open to attending the lecture.  I replied, “It’s being politicized but it’s not political.  It’s not a subjective thing.”  I asked if they would go, so they would have the opportunity to see the evidence for themselves, and they agreed.  Then, Lawrence showed up and overheard our conversation.  He told the couple, “Oh, it’s absolutely manmade, there’s no doubt!” and I hoped that they would still be open to attending the lecture.

The following morning, we awoke to find ourselves back in the South Shetland Islands, just off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.  It was our final day before we headed back to Argentina.  After a quick breakfast, we boarded the Zodiacs for our first stop: Half Moon Island.  Home to 2,000 pairs of Chinstrap Penguins and various other birds, it is a small but very interesting island.

Chinstrap Penguins, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Once ashore, we were free to wander around Half Moon Island at our own pace.  I ended up spending the morning with Nancy (Lawrence left early to finish the lecture that was scheduled for later in the morning).  About six inches of snow had fallen overnight, so we stuck to the path while also being careful not to step in the tracks that penguins use to get to and from the sea.

Chinstrap Penguins, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

People told us that further ahead a pair of Weddell Seals was napping in the sunlight.  We started down the path but happened to look downhill towards the water, just as a juvenile Elephant Seal emerged onto the snow.

Everyone else seemed to be unaware of the Elephant Seal, and continued down the path.  Nancy and I stood and watched as the seal galumphed (at the time, I thought she had invented that word) up the hill.  As is the case with penguins, it’s difficult to appreciate how agile these animals are in the water because they look so clumsy on land.  We stood and watched for a long time as it made its way towards us.

Chinstrap Penguins, a juvenile Elephant Seal, and a Gentoo Penguin to the left at Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

As the young seal got closer to us, other people began to notice it.  They crowded around to take photos, unintentionally impeding its ability to continue moving uphill.  While it is understandable that people wanted to take photos of such an unusual animal—particularly in its natural habitat—almost everyone ignored the “Five meter rule”, as well as the instructions from an Expedition Crew member to leave a path back down the hill for the seal.  I looked and both of its nostrils were flaring noticeably, but people didn’t seem to notice or care.

Juvenile Elephant Seal, with its path blocked by humans, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Juvenile Elephant Seal, with its path blocked by humans, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

We continued down the trail until some Chinstrap Penguins cut across our path, so we sat down to watch them pass.

Chinstrap Penguin, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Chinstrap Penguin, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

It was an incredibly serene experience, sitting in the snow in Antarctica while we yielded to penguins’ right of way.

A Chinstrap Penguin and unforgettable scenery, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

A Chinstrap Penguin and unforgettable scenery, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

At the far end of the island we saw the two Weddell Seals that were enjoying their opportunity to sunbathe.  They appeared relaxed, and only moved in order to scratch themselves and/or yawn widely.

Weddell Seal yawning, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Weddell Seal yawning, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

After we took some pictures of the two seals, we went up a small hill and saw a colony of Chinstrap Penguins.  The females sat on their eggs while the males fetched rocks to use for nest building.  Sometimes the penguins would throw their heads back, wave their flippers, and seem to yell at each other.  I asked Danae (an Expedition Crew ornithologist) what this behavior was, and she explained that sometimes the male wants to switch places with its mate, and incubate the egg for a while while the female fetches rocks.  As Danae told us, the female often doesn’t want to leave her egg, and mentioned that it can be difficult to actually see the “changing of the guard”.  Although we watched for a while as the male repeatedly left and then returned with more rocks for the nest (followed by more penguin bickering), we didn’t actually get to witness her relinquish control over their egg.

Chinstrap Penguins arguing over whose turn it is to watch their egg, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Chinstrap Penguins arguing over whose turn it is to watch their egg, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Finally, it was time to head back to the ship.  In a trip full of incredible locations, Half Moon Island truly stands out for me as one of my favorites.  It was relaxing to be able to wander most of the island at my own leisure, and to have a large variety of wildlife in such a small area.  I loved the time spent watching the Elephant Seal slowly make its way uphill, while nobody else noticed it because they were too busy heading towards the other side of the island, due to word having spread of the two Weddell Seals that were very close to the path.  Sitting in the snow while stared at spectacular snow-capped mountains and let penguins waddle past us is an experience that I’ll never forget.

As we walked, we had to stop yet again for penguin traffic.

Nancy Dahl and a Chinstrap Penguin, Half Moon Island, Antarctica

Nancy Dahl and a Chinstrap Penguin, Half Moon Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to Half Moon Island, and we headed back for the ship.  After the Zodiac groups had all returned, it was time for Lawrence’s final lecture, “Climate Change From This End of the Earth as Seen by a Physicist”.

A few minutes before the lecture began, I told Lawrence, “I hope the couple from the next table last night still shows up.  To be honest, I don’t remember what they look like.”  He smiled, leaned over, and whispered, “They’re sitting right behind you.”  I glanced over my shoulder and he was right, but fortunately they didn’t appear to have heard me.

The lecture was brilliant.  Lawrence spoke about the carbon cycle and the effect of greenhouse gases in trapping heat in our atmosphere.  He showed that humans emit billions of tons of CO2 annually, and that because the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for an average of a thousand years, the effects are cumulative.  He explained that scientists use things like ice cores to know that the CO2 levels are far higher than at any other time in Earth’s history.  This is one of many graphs that he used to illustrate his point:

Image credit: NOAA

In addition, Lawrence said that even if we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it won’t be enough because we’d still be adding more CO2 to an atmosphere that is already overloaded with it (he had told me a few days earlier that he thinks we need to use solar power instead).  He explained that when carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid.  The shells of many marine animals are made of calcium carbonate—and calcium carbonates dissolve in carbonic acid.  Several times during the lecture, Lawrence told the audience, “This is all data.  You can argue with opinions, but you can’t argue with data.”

After the lecture ended, I turned around and was happy to see that the theater was full.  It looked like everyone on the ship had attended.  I spoke to the couple behind me (who I’d met the previous night) and asked them what they thought.  Both of them said that they were very impressed, and that they now accepted that climate change is caused by humans.  It was really nice to see people actually change their minds.  However, when I walked into the Observation Lounge, Lawrence was talking to some people and it was clear that they were arguing with him.  I told Nancy about the people whose minds had been changed during the lecture.  Unfortunately she told me that the small group arguing with her husband were the same people she had met earlier on the cruise, and that they remained unconvinced.  It was great to see some people accepting the evidence, but also discouraging to see others still blindly refusing to accept the obvious.

A few hours later, we arrived at our last destination before it was time to head back home.  Our ship sailed through a beautiful narrow channel called Neptune’s Bellows.

Looking at the open sea after passing through "Neptune's Bellows", Deception Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

Looking at the open sea after passing through “Neptune’s Bellows”, Deception Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Brian Druker)

After we passed through this channel, we were at Deception Island, a collapsed but active volcano caldera that once was home to a whaling station.  While the ship anchored off a place called Whalers Bay, the weather quickly changed.  It became noticeably colder, more windy, and it began to snow pretty hard.  We were told that the crew was determining whether to take people onto the Zodiacs, due to the fact that the water was now very choppy.  After at least an hour, it was announced that they would be shuttling people back and forth, but that because many people chose to stay onboard the ship, the crew would not bother to call individual Zodiac groups—instead, everyone would be free to board any of the Zodiacs ferrying passengers to and from land.

While Deception Island has some dilapidated remains of the whaling station, including some whale bones still open to the elements, I ultimately chose to remain on the ship.  The big draw was the “Polar Plunge”, an opportunity to dive into geothermally-warmed water.  However, we had been advised that there was no place to change, so the options were to either wrap yourself in a bathrobe after exiting the water, or put clothes on top of your bathing suit.  Neither of those appealed to me, so I sat this excursion out, as did many others.  I decided that I was perfectly happy to have that morning’s time on Half Moon Island be my final experience in Antarctica.  A friend who I’d met on the trip did go onto Deception Island, and even hiked up to a gap in the rocks called Neptune’s Window.  From his vantage point above the beach, he took this photo:

Whalers Bay, Deception Island, Antarctica (Photo credit: Gaurav Parmar)

After all the Zodiacs had returned to the ship, it was time to head back into the Drake Passage.  An ominous announcement over the ship’s PA system didn’t bother to sugarcoat what lay ahead of us: “We have received the weather report, and on our first day we are expecting eight-meter swells.  We advise you to take any seasickness medication now, and to remove anything from your shelves that might fall and break.  Fortunately, it looks like it will get better for our second day at sea.”

I made sure to put a fresh Scopolamine patch behind my ear and hoped that it, plus my seasickness wrist bands, would be enough to prevent me from becoming nauseous.  We left our sheltered position at Deception Island behind, and the water got progressively worse.  After a few hours, we found ourselves back in the Drake Passage.  The eight-meter swells (26.2′) were very difficult, and for the first time on the entire cruise I took a Dramamine.  I recorded this video from my cabin on Deck 4, and had to sit in a chair because the ship was rolling so much side-to-side that it was impossible to get a clear video while standing:

Dinner was mostly uneventful that night, with only the occasional drink tipping over.  However, when we stood up to leave at the end of the meal, everything on the table suddenly slid off and shattered on the carpet.  It looked like this, but with a smaller table.  Needless to say, people went to bed early that night.  It was difficult to sleep because my bed kept sliding around, and at one point I heard something crash to the floor (it turned out to be the alarm clock, after a particularly large swell had caused it to move so much that it pulled the cord from the outlet).

The next day was uneventful, and the sea was very rough.  However, our second day was much calmer.  It was also the day that I would be interviewing Lawrence.  Last May, I attended an event that he hosted in NYC.  Afterwards I introduced myself, told him that I would be going to Antarctica through the Origins Project, and asked if I could interview him during the cruise.  He said yes without hesitation.  So now it was finally time to sit down with him.

We met in the Observation Lounge at the front of the ship.  I had my brother’s GoPro and the questions that I had worked on for the past few months.  I was a bit nervous, as it was my first time interviewing anyone, but it helped that it was towards the end of the cruise and I had had many opportunities to speak to him in the previous week and a half.  I tried to keep in mind that he might give answers that would lead the conversation in unexpected directions, and if that happened I shouldn’t ask the next question on my list if it was a non-sequitur.  A good amount of my prepared questions went unasked, and several of the things that I asked him over the following half hour were ad-libbed in response to what he said.  To watch the interview, click here.  Fortunately, a friend let me use her digital voice recorder because the layout of the Observation Lounge didn’t allow me to position the camera close enough to get good audio.

Lawrence Krauss during my interview with him (Photo credit: Michelle Iwen)

Lawrence Krauss during my interview with him as we crossed the Drake Passage (Photo credit: Michelle Iwen)

Later that afternoon, it was announced that we had made such good time that we would be arriving in Ushuaia that evening, rather than the following day.  In addition, the Argentinean authorities had granted permission for us to go into Ushuaia.

After dinner that night, our group ventured back into civilization for the first time in nearly two weeks.  It was jarring to hear traffic, see buildings, and have paved roads.  We went to an Irish pub called “Dublin Bar” for a while but it was hot and crowded in there, so we headed towards the big casino.  After it was discovered that I was the only member of our group who knows a fair amount of Spanish, I became the appointed translator and drink-orderer.  Apparently the locals were having a karaoke night and before long, one of our group members was onstage doing a hilarious rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.  Afterwards, Nancy asked me to go with her so that I could ask if they had the song that she wanted to sing (“Late in the Evening” by Paul Simon).  Unfortunately they didn’t have that song, so we walked back to the table.  At one point, I asked Lawrence if he is able to “turn it off” or if he constantly thinks of things in terms of physics.  His response was interesting.  As he took some ice cubes from a small metal bucket and placed them into his glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, he said, “Well, if I’m interested in something—for example, I might think about how long it’ll take for this ice to melt.  But otherwise, yeah, usually.”

Eventually, it was time to head back to the ship.  It was difficult to accept that the trip was finally over, because it was the best vacation I’ve ever taken.  The next day we flew back to Buenos Aires and after a flurry of hugs, we parted ways.

Antarctica is a fascinating place, but it is also a continent that I feel somewhat conflicted about.  There is incredible scenery and a surprising diversity of wildlife, but it’s also the one place on this planet that humans haven’t totally ruined (yet).  While Antarctica is certainly feeling the effects of climate change, at least we haven’t visibly polluted it.  The night before we arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula, the evening briefing by Kara (the Expedition Leader) had included a reminder of how important it is to be careful not to contaminate anything.  An example she used is that when it’s cold and windy, our noses tend to run.  It might seem instinctive to pull a tissue from our coats, but—particularly while wearing gloves—it’s very easy for a gust of wind to take the tissue out of our hands, and to pollute the environment.  It’s things like this that make me think that too many people shouldn’t visit Antarctica, because we would somehow manage to tarnish its pristine beauty and endanger the wildlife.  I do think that every politician should take a trip to Antarctica, so that they could see firsthand how beautiful it is and how important it is to take meaningful action to preserve it before it’s too late.

This was an amazing trip that I’ll never forget.

The Author

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  • Great article, man..

    • Thanks! It was a lot of fun to get to re-live the trip by writing about it.

      • Yeah, and you give us a little bit of the experience as well 😛

        • Cool, that’s what I was trying to do! I’m glad it worked.

  • Boops

    Nawwww aren’t penguins the cutest animals alive? 🐧 *yeah yeah.. boops does get mushy on occasion*

    I’ve been away from the net for a couple of weeks and am yet to read this… will do soon, mate!

    • Thanks, I hope you like it! Yeah, penguins are adorable—and also very funny. The fact that they’re so little somehow makes it even funnier when they waddle around and slide on their bellies.

      • Boops

        Somewhat topic but I thought of you when I heard about this… 🙂 have you heard Tim Minchin’s new song about getting Cardinal George Pell (Aust cardinal at the Vatican) to come home and face the Royal Commission looking into sexual abuse and the church?


        It is being played several times a day on several radio stations over here.

        • Yeah, I heard it a couple of days ago. It’s a great song, as expected from Minchin, and very powerful. Before this I didn’t know about that Pell had covered up abuse—all I knew about him is that he’s the idiot who Richard Dawkins debated on Q&A.

          • Boops

            Wow, a Q&A clip. A generally respectable program… nice find

            A coverup by Pell hasn’t been proven, nor is entirely accurate at this stage. The investigation is into the institutional (Church) response to abuse over decades. What they knew, what they did, why senior people failed to notify authorities etc. It seems that the clergy’s belief that upholding the privacy of a confidential disclosure between man and God, in the form of confession etc ranks higher than breaking it under man’s law.

            Basically, what the world already knows.

            I think Pell is more a case of conforming to the church’s system (moving offending priests to other parishes with less contact with children in an attempt to stop further abuse, for example) than all out malicious cover up. But yeah, hats off to Tim Minchin and his protest. The Australian people just really want to know what he knows and “confess” before the Royal Commission.

            It makes me wonder about the extent of child abuse (sexual or otherwise) in the church 250 years, our 500 years ago. Surely this isn’t only a problem of the last century…?

          • Yeah, Q&A’s guests have included Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Dawkins. Those are the only episodes I’ve seen, but I liked them.

            As for Pell, he lived with Gerald Ridsdale while the abuse was taking place. In addition, Ridsdale’s nephew claims to have told Pell that Gerald began abusing him when he was only eleven, and that Pell covered it up:


            As far as I’m concerned, moving a priest to a new parish is covering it up because the priests are entirely shielded from any prosecution. In addition, the new congregations aren’t warned “Watch out for your new priest, he rapes kids”. As a result, these priests continue to abuse children while the church turns a blind eye.

            I highly recommend a documentary (by Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney) called Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. It does an excellent job of detailing the church’s institutional policy of shielding priests, and the filmmakers found Vatican documents showing that accusations of priests abusing children date back two thousand years—basically, the entire time the Church has been around. Interestingly, the documentary was released only a few days before Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation. The film shows how Ratzinger (before he was Pope) and Pope John Paul II shielded predatory priests at the expense of the actual victims:


          • Boops

            I do agree with your cover up comments, too… but I’m more hoping that the entire investigation extracts as much information as possible from the church establishment, and exposes everything, so that change might actually happen. I would rather see that than just a politicized legal witchhunt for criminal persecution… although over 900 referrals have already been made to police.

            I’ll look into that documentary, thanks!

          • Agreed, that would be the best outcome. Get all the info from him, then prosecute him and everyone else who abused children and/or covered it up. The more the public becomes aware of what’s happening, the harder it’ll be for this sort of thing to happen again.

            I recently saw the movie “Spotlight”– also highly recommended.

      • Boops

        Happy Feet *chuckle*

        It would be amazing to see the King and Emperor penguins in person…

        I think the idea of politicians (certainly top level) taking a trip down to Antarctica has merit on its own, if for nothing more than giving them a basic Earth science education (!), but it also highlights the many other fields in which all politicians should spend a few weeks off the grid with experts.

        BUT, can you imagine Trump in Antarctica? Hahahaha

        Altogether great posts and photos, thanks ☺

        • Thanks! And yeah, King and Emperor penguins would be very different, if for no other reason than the fact that they’re so much bigger. But they’re also beautiful.

          A few of us down there had the idea about sending the politicians down there, and you’re right that it would just be good alone to educate them. But I really think that if anything can change the hardcore deniers’ minds, it’d be taking them down there to show them the raw beauty, and to show them firsthand that it is changing because of us.

          I wouldn’t mind sending Trump to Antarctica if we could leave him there.

          • Boops

            Hahaha yes, leave him there with only a tent. That’ll take care of him!

            I like Benedict ☺

          • Just a penguin costume and a promise that “If you can dodge all the Leopard seals and swim the Drake Passage, we’ll let you back into the U.S.”

            I also like Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s funny in interviews and is great as Sherlock Holmes. He also was excellent in The Imitation Game as Alan Turing.

          • Boops

            Yes! I’ve only discovered Sherlock in the last few months. Love it!

            Do ya reckon Trump could even figure out how to find drinking water on Antarctica? Hahaha… “Survivor: Trump in Antarctica”.

            A few of us still hope the Trump thing is all a joke… the secret filming of his next hit TV show – “The Trump Card”, where he exposes how he manipulated the masses. Co-hosted with Pauly Shore!

          • Hahaha, I doubt that he’d find drinking water. Unfortunately it’s not an intentional joke, lots people are really just that dumb and ignorant. George Carlin summed it up very well.

          • Boops

            Andrew Scott plays a great villain!

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