"Bing Bong"... That's pretty much how every day started, and this was no exception. I hadn't slept overly well, as the boat had been swaying all night as we passed from the South Shetlands through the Bransfield Straight toward the Antarctic Peninsula. I must be getting some sea legs though, as I was actually feeling decent this morning. In his announcement, Stephen mentioned it was minus 8 degrees Celsius outside, with a strong wind blowing around 40-50 knots. Sweetness. We're done with that pansy one degree weather from yesterday. This was Antarctica weather! He also recommended we check out the bow of the ship, which due to the rough waters and cold temperatures this morning and last night, was completely covered in rime (frozen sea water - yeah I don't really know why it has a special name either), apparently something even the crew of the Explorer hadn't seen in over eight years.
I threw on my warm clothes and went to look for myself. Well, he was right - it was damn cold. The wind was fierce, dry and biting. My eyes started watering in about 20 seconds. My coat did a good job of keeping me warm, but the frigid air could still find the smallest of gaps in the armor.
The view, however, was something I'll never forget. The colors of the sunset were just fading as the sun continued to rise in the east and long, low clouds stretched across the light blue sky. Everyone's attention though, was on the water. All around us - port, bow and starboard - were immense icebergs as far as the eye could see.
It was an awesome sight. Like something right out of a film. A true "ice field" we were later told. Nearer to the ship, the blue water was filled with smaller, chunky pieces of white ice which looked like mounds of floating Styrofoam. Individual chunks ranged in size from minute pieces which would easily fit in the palm of your hand, to some which were much bigger than a house. Each was different than the next - some jagged and rough, looking like floating white rock, while others were smooth and curved, eroded by wind and water to form the most interesting of shapes.
And then there were the colors. You might think the Antarctic palate would be limited to the white of snow and ice and the gray of rock and stone. I even had that idea for a while. Fortunately the artist had a few more options. The majority of the icebergs near the ship were completely and perfectly white - gleaming in the morning sun. Others were a beautiful, striking cobalt blue. Still others were nearly perfectly clear and almost crystalline, like giant floating diamonds. Some were marred with patches of brown and black - rock and dirt clinging to the ice from the glacier they belonged to some time ago.
The pristine, unpolluted sea water in the Antarctic is a deep, deep blue. And, of course, the majority of the floating ice is under the surface of the water. When the light of the sun was shining as it was today, the white of the ice and the blue of the water played together beautifully, creating an iridescent blue glow underneath each iceberg. It was absolutely breathtaking - and something a photo will never, ever do justice.
And those were just the small chunks near the ship. A few hundred meters away were the real monsters. Big, tabular icebergs - the ones you see on postcards and in documentaries - were silently lumbering by us.
They were absolutely massive. I don't know how you could have measured them, but it appeared to me some of them might have been over a kilometer in size or more. Simply enormous. They lined the horizon - some long and low, others high and narrow. If you narrowed your eyes, it almost looked like a city skyline. We passed relatively close to a huge block layered from top to bottom with strips of blue and white. Our glaciologist told us later they were annual snow falls frozen in time. Cool stuff.
We passed one fairly large collection of ice which was long and flat, only a meter off the water's surface. Like the island it appeared to be, it had inhabitants a colony of fur seals had climbed up to rest for a while - their dark, serpentine forms contrasting sharply against the brilliance of the ice.
The announcement for breakfast came over the intercom, reminding me it was only 8:00, and the day was just beginning. I ate quickly, and even despite the cold, I wanted to feel the sun and wind on my face. I went back up to the top deck, just to lean against the white railings and to watch. Every picture was a little painful. The cold wind was extremely effective on the exposed fingers, especially when kept in the same position for taking pictures. It was irresistible though.
According to the daily program posted on the message board each day, we were to make a landing this morning on the Antarctic Peninsula itself to visit a research base. However, with the winds being as strong as they were, Stephen made the call go to plan "B" and move on to the next landing site. Bummer, but what can you do? An announcement was made promoting some lectures to fill the time before our next proposed landing. Fortunately, nature had other ideas.
As I was on deck, I heard some commotion to my right. I looked out towards the area being pointed out by the people on deck. About 200 meters out in a patch of clear water were the curved black backs of two humpback whales. Awesome. Everyone was excited - snapping off pictures and wishing we could move closer. We were informed later that a lot of ship captains really couldn't' give a damn about whales. They've been sailing long enough to have seen plenty in their lives, and didn't want to waste time chasing a couple "boring" fish. However, ol' captain Ingmar was pretty cool about it. Apparently he was nearly as interested in this stuff as we were.
Accordingly, an announcement came over the intercom from one of the staffers pointing out the whales, while the boat deviated from its course toward the black spots. We were all really excited. I'd never seen a whale in my life - we were now going to "drive" right by a couple.
The humpbacks would surface, letting out a big spout of mist from their blowholes as soon as they hit the air. It was quite loud - most of the time we'd hear the blow before seeing them. They'd coast along the surface with their shiny black backs above the water for a few seconds, then submerge silently into the blue. When they disappeared, they left a "footprint" or a little spot in the water which was glassy and smooth amongst the untouched surface of the sea, which would stay visible for a minute or so. The whales would be gone for a few seconds, then re-appear somewhere nearby, announcing their arrival with a tall misty blow.
After staying near the surface for a minute or two, submerging and blowing three or four times, they'd decide to dive a little deeper in hopes of finding some krill a bit further down. This dive preceded a "fluke", the prize for all the photographers. There was little warning other than a higher arch of their backs, so some anticipation and a watchful eye was important. As they dived, their glossy backs would rise, then roll over and disappear. Their tails, or "flukes", would then flip up out of the water and quickly slip below the surface. The under-side of their fluke was white, and many times dotted with barnacles or scars. It was beautiful. As soon as it became apparent it was about to happen, everyone on board would set their cameras in motion while ooh-ing and ahh-ing. In one of the lectures we found out that each whale's fluke is unique - photos of them are how whales are tracked and monitored. See - all sorts of educational stuff here.
There were three in this group, and we saw another pair along the way. Apparently they are fairly social animals. They really didn't move too fast. A few times we'd pull up along side them, getting close enough to see them turn over underwater, showing the sides of their white bellies and long white pectoral fins - the white glowing eerie neon blue just like the icebergs.
It was fascinating. They'd dive below the surface for a minute or so at a time, and we'd all try to guess where they'd surface next. We spent about an hour following them - the boat making wide turns amongst the small icebergs in the water. To be honest, I was glad when we decided to leave them alone and continue on. I didn't want to leave this once-in a lifetime opportunity, but as a quick reminder, it was minus eight outside! Cold is not kind to either hands or batteries. My fingers were about to fall off, and I was on my second set of Duracell's already.
After a good lecture on penguins and another on ice shelves, we had lunch. Around 1:30, we got the call to assemble in the lecture hall for a briefing on the afternoon's landing - Deception Island. I was excited - if for nothing else than the name is cool.
The briefing was good - our glaciologist and historian informed us the island is actually the top of a large volcano which is still fairly active. Only a narrow entrance to the south called "Neptune's Bellows" allows ships into the caldera. We were informed we'd be able to walk around the remnants of Hektor Whaling Station, abandoned in 1931. We'd also have the opportunity to walk up to a little gap in the high rock wall of the caldera - a spot called "Neptune's Window". (How could you not love this landing - the names of everything are sweet).
If you look at a map of the Antarctic Peninsula, Deception Island is pretty easy to spot - nearly a perfect ring with a small outlet facing the mainland. Apparently it got its name because most early explorers sailed around nearly the entire island never to find the opening, and when they did, many of them ran aground in the shallow left side of the entrance. Apparently even just this year a tourist ship ran aground. Cool.
I went outside as we approached the island and passed into the Bellows. The right-hand side of the opening was guarded by a massive black/brown rock face, dusted with the snow that had begun to whirl around the sky. True to form, we pretty much hugged the cliff face, staying way to right of the narrow entrance, and steamed into Whaler's Bay. The wind and the water were noticeably calmer inside the bay - obviously ideal for the whaling station.
As per the briefing, we landed in the middle of the snow-covered shore and had the option to go right, towards Neptune's Window, or head left toward the remnants of the whaling station and an old airplane hangar. Wanting to of course see it all, and seeing that many people were headed to the right or directly to the derelict station, I headed toward the hangar along the shore. I was making fresh tracks in the snow on Deception Island. A very cool feeling. My steps revealed the coarse black and red stones of the volcanic lava rock. I was reminded of my trip up Pacaya volcano in Guatemala. Wow - that seems like a long time ago.
As I of course stopped to take about a thousand pictures, Liam, our resident glaciologist eventually caught up with me and we chatted for a bit while walking to the hangar. A very young guy, but he knows his stuff. It was an interesting sight to see an airplane hangar here. Apparently (and unsurprisingly) it was home to the first Antarctic flight in history. It had long been abandoned, but was in surprisingly good shape.
One of the staff was leading a group of people up to the top of a ridge, a good distance up behind the hangar. I went about half way, then thought better of it. There's a lot to see here, and the hike looked to be taking the better part of thirty minutes one-way. Besides, I really wanted to get to Neptune's Window. I headed down, moving past the hangar and back onto the beach.
En route to the landing site, I ran across on a pair of Gentoo penguins who had found their way into the bay. I thought about it then - there were no other penguins around. Our first landing without penguins covering the entire area. Apparently there's not much food for them in here, and it's a little more difficult to get in and out of than the myriad of other islands around the peninsula. Anyway, these rogues were walking around the beach - seemingly sight-seeing like we were. At one point they found a little low spot in the beach which was filled with fluffy white snow. They jumped in it belly first, and went swimming in it. It was comical. When they stood up, they had white flakes all over.
I turned around and spotted a seal sitting on the shore by himself. I wandered towards him, just to take a look. It was fun to just watch him lay there looking lazy - he'd occasionally roll over, then get up and yawn, then lie back down. He eventually got bored and jumped back into the water.
I walked through the snow towards the station, passing the remnants of an old grave yard. Only two markers were visible now - we found out later a recent eruption here wiped out the other 40+ gravesites. Seeing the crosses made me wonder what the funeral services were like here. How did these guys die? What it was like to die in a place like this?
I passed our landing site and soon found two old whaling boats. They were broad and flat, now broken and grey from years and years of harsh Antarctic weather. About 200 feet further up I found a colony of about 12-15 fur seals. They took very little interest in me - they were busy barking at each other, chasing one another around, jumping in and out of the water, etc.
Neptune's Window is about 50-75 feet up off the shore and required a little climb.
Once at the base of the window, I was greeted by one of the staff members, our resident ornithologist, Rich Pagen. He was keeping watch and looking for signs of other birds in the area. I talked to him for quite a bit, finding out he'd actually done some of his graduate work at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Small world. He was a very cool guy.
The view from the window was tremendous. The black caldera walls were jagged and rocky, looming over us menacingly. There was pretty much a straight drop-off on the other side of the window. About a 75-100 foot drop to the cold sea water breaking on the rocks below. About the time I got there, the grey sky had started to dissolve, revealing some blue patches in the late afternoon. At one point it cleared enough to allow us to see all the way across the strait to the mainland peninsula. It was a good moment.
I was up on the window taking pictures until Rich got the call to start herding us back toward the landing site. Begrudgingly, I headed back, taking my time until I again was on the last Zodiac off the island.
Once back on the boat, I stayed up on deck to watch the sun go down as we steamed out of Whaler's Bay. The clouds allowed the sun to peek through just enough to illuminate the land of the peninsula in front of us. It was absolutely beautiful.
After dinner I went to the evening's entertainment - a game of "Call my Antarctic bluff" with the staff members. It was actually a really good time. They would show us a word, then three of them would come up with definitions. Only one of them was telling the truth, and we had to guess which one it was. With words like "degomble", "bliz line" and "bog chisel", none of us did very well, but it was pretty fun.
All in all, an excellent day.