An expedition to the polar circle
09.03.2013 - 20.03.2013 0 °C
I've been looking forward to write this post about what I consider the greatest adventure of my life. Yes, even better than the Galapagos. I had the luck to embark on a 12-days cruise to Antarctica, the white continent. The only problem is that I just got back to Ushuaia 1 hour ago, and I am still a bit under shock... and kind of sad. So I apologize if I'll be a bit emotional with the descriptions... but let's start:
What is Antarctica?
Many know "it" as the South Pole, even though that is only a geographical point in which all the longitude lines converge, and the latitude is 90 degrees South. However, this point is placed in the middle of a pretty big continent, which offers more than just ice and... ice. However, reaching this unique place has been proven to be a one of the greatest adventures in the last century, with the first man ever to reach it in 1911, namely Mr. Amundsen. Another fellow named Scott reached it after a few weeks later (it was almost a race between the two), but this last got more famous as he died on his way back. In the following decades many other expeditions tried to reach the remotest place on this inaccessible continent, that doubles it size during winter given the sea freezing along its coastline. Scientific bases were founded in strategic places across Antarctica, which up to now still remains a nobody's-land, meaning that no country is allowed to claim any squared meter of this land. Many research stations are operative today, scattered around, in which projects about climate, ice and wildlife take place. We got the chance to visit the Vernadsky Ukrainian station that focuses on the Ozone hole, and we were warmly greated with a shot of Vodka! People can stay segregated the whole winter in these stations, accessible only during summer months when the pack ice melts. Weather conditions can get extreme - Antarctica is the coldest (min -89 C at Vostok base), the windiest (351 Kmh at Belgrano II base), the driest (it never rains at the georgraphic South Pole), and, funnily enough, also the most intelligent continent, as its population is about 1000-2000 people mainly composed by scientists. Researchers say that the first time they go to Antarctica to overwinter and conduct research is for the adventure, the second for the money, and from the third year on is simply beacuse they do not socially fit anywhere else anymore! They might be considered crazy, but having had the opportunity to talk to a few of them that were our guides throughout the whole cruise, I need to add that they are just some of the most interesting and funny persons I've met. Great guys. You could sit for hours listening to their stories and adventures, and never get bored.
Apparently, all of them got the "polar bug", and once it infects you... you have to return to one of the two polar regions! I think I might have been infected myself on some level, beacuse I am already planning a trip to the Arctic!!! If you keep on reading, you'll get some reasons for why everybody that was on board of our ship loved every second of it, even when the sea was rough, even when the snow storm hit us, even when you walk in penguins' poop for hours - Antarctica is amazing.
SO, why is that? I will give you my three reasons:
1 - The landscapes.
Breath-taking. When people imagine Antarctica they think about snow, wind and ice. And in fact, that is the typical Antarctica. 80% of the days you get a grey sky, a strong wind and some snow flying around, like this:
However, there are days that are simply surreal, days in which the water is calm and reflects the surrounding peaks and glaciers like a perfect mirror, days in which the wind decides not to blow if not to clear the sky from every cloud, days in which the sun is the king. And those days are like a diamond, something so precious that you simply cannot believe your eyes - it's TOO beautuful to be true. If you think I am exaggerating, look at these pictures:
2 - The wildlife.
Exciting. The wildlife of Antarctica is unique, and the fact that these animals are some of the most spectacular worldwide makes every encounter special. The first category goes to the seals - big and goofy out of the water, a mass of fat that however gets extremely gracious when underwater. The most common to be found on land is the fur seal, which is big enough to scare you with an angry look even at 20m of distance. However, they look friendly enough when juveniles:
Even though the majority of the seals have a fish-based diet, there is one - the Leopard Seal - that is a whole other story. It can get to 3m long, it's extremely agile underwater and has a huge mouth that makes it look like the Joker or a snake. It's the typical animal that when diving in Antarctica you don't want to come across, as they could be aggresive enough to bite you. And for sure, they hold the power underwater, so if they want to, they will. The characteristic that set it apart from the other seals is that they also hunt penguins. They swim by the coast where penguins enter the water, and these poor fellas might not have an easy swim as they planned:
The next category is obviously whales. I will honestly say that there are other places worldwide where the same whales can be seen (as they migrate for long distances, sometimes even between the two polar regions), even closer than what we experienced. However, it was the first time for me. And we saw many - fin whales, minke whales and humpback whales. This last specie is the most fascinating as they are the ones that pull the tail out of the water when they dive, as in this picture:
However, the most exciting encounter was with a dolphin. Actually, a group of dolphins. Mmmh, better put a group of large dolphins. The Orcas. Yes, they are not whales but part of the dolphins family instead! They are also called Killer Whales, and the name might be confusing, but what is really meant is Killer of Whales. And that is what we experienced in open sea, a group of Orcas killing a Arnoux's beaked whale by drowning it (pushing it underwater for more than 1 hour and prevent it to breathe). According to our expedition leader and seasoned expert in whales, it was one of the first time anyone ever heard of orcas killing that particular whale, so our excitment was doubled! This picture is them swimming away after the snack:
3 - The Penguins
Extremely funny. With them, I had the best moments in the whole trip. Penguins, penguins everywhere!!! Chinstrap penguins, Gentoo penguins, and Adelie penguins... not the usual King/Emperor that you see as main character in the movies or the cartoons, but the funny smaller ones! Every landing we had on the coast was welcomed by hundreds of penguins. And believe me, they are way more curious than shy - you can sit on a rock, and they'll come at you, tilting they head as they think "what's this weird-looking big thing?". They might peck your boots and jacket, and when they lose interest in you they just walk away. And the way the walk away is absolutely hilarious, with their open wings and goofy walk!
They just look funny.
When together, they look great. It's extremely interesting to watch a large colony of penguins, in which a lot of interactions take place. You have those that just stay still. Those that are agitated and start flap their wings like crazy. Those that start shouting for unknown reasons. Those that are molting their feathers, and stay hidden between the rocks because embarassed to walk around (not true but it looks like it sometimes). The juveniles that for the first time enter the cold water and get all excited and start jumping around. Those that chase their mother running, so that she can be sure that the chick she is gonna feed is her own. Those pooping all around in circles. Those taking masures to jump between two rocks, and then falling in between as it was broader than expected. Those sledging down a snowy hill. Those that think they are king of the world, and those that feel different (on the right there is a lonely Macaroni penguin, alone in a Chinstrap penguin colony):
When they swim however, they make up for their goofiness and might even look elegant:
I think that more than 50% of my pictures is of penguins, in all the possible posistions and perspectives! I even have pictures of me taking pictures of penguins... yeah, I love them. Sometimes I just stopped taking pictures and sat watching them for an hour or more, and had so much fun I had to laugh out loud most of the times!
Now, I have given you 3 distinct reasons of why Antarctica is awesome. However, to have the real picture, you should put all 3 together - landscapes, wildlife and penguins. That is Antarctica. It's a whole another world, don't you think?
Besides what written above, I would like to mention two additional things.
The first is that we were able to cross the antarctic polar circle (66*44'33'' South), and even land on Detaille Island, something that due to the extreme weather condition or frozen sea is rarely possible! I did not care about it that much, but now that I have done it I feel like I need to cross the northern one!!! Someday (anyone wanna join?)
Second, is the polar plunge - take a swim in <2*C cold water!!! We did it in beautiful Niko Harbour - you strip, jump into the water and quickly get out, to suddenly realize you are not that cold. So a polar plunge is well worth the try! However, something that is not good is a second polar plunge. I was not happy with the picture they took of me the first time, and since I was feeling fiiiiiine, I decided to jump back in and swim to a small iceberg in front - bad idea. Entering such cold water when your body temperature is already lower than normal causes... extreme shivering and feet so cold that they hurt for half an hour!!! But hey, at least I got a better picture:
So... this was my polar experience. I think the following caption that simply captures the essence of the bad and the good of Antarctica:
An expedition to Antarctica is the worst way to have the best time of your life.
(Apsley Cherry-Garrard from his book "The Worst Jurney in the World" - obviously his was a real historic expedition compared to ours, but still!)
I hope I was able to share a bit of my enthusiasm for this great adventure I just had. People told me that it did not make any sense to go to Antarctica when you can just have the same conditions by putting your head in a refrigerator - I hope that with this post I could prove them wrong, and maybe even make them interested in this remote paradise =)
Cheers from Ushuaia, a place that 2 weeks ago was the end of the world, and that by coming back from Antarctica this morning was more like the beginning of it!
Jack & the penguins