As of breakfast this morning, there was no winner yet in the competition to spot the first iceberg that's 10 times larger than N.G. Endeavor. And then ... I was just about to head to the lounge for that morning's lecture when an announcement came from the Bridge: We had our first iceberg dead ahead only six miles away! The winners ended up sharing credit for the first sighting -- a 12-year-old girl, who'd already acquired a perch on an outside deck and was waiting for it and a sophisticated Lebanese woman watching from the warmth of the Bridge.
Expedition travel is meant to be flexible, and so the lecture was postponed for about 45 minutes while we were all urged to head up on deck to watch the iceberg approach. No one needed any urging, though, and it didn't take long for the forward decks and Bridge to be filled with camera-clad passengers.
Our first glimpse of the iceberg was only an indistinct, grey line on the slightly less metallic-hued horizon. As we grew closer, and it loomed larger, we saw it become more defined. The berg slowly started to take on both shape and a pale blue color. We came to realize this iceberg was much more than ten times the size of the ship -- it was approximately half a mile long and as flat as a table.
Of course, like many, I've long used the term, "the tip of the iceberg" to suggest the existence of a much larger or more complex issue or problem. But the general rule -- only about 1/8th of an iceberg floats above the surface of the water -- gives credence to the expression. As we approached the towering wall of ice, N.G. Endeavour suddenly seemed very small and insignificant, and we were told that "our" iceberg, as we quickly took to calling it, was over 100 feet tall and extended 600 feet below the surface. As we continued to get closer and closer to the iceberg, we started joking, with only a slight hint of nervousness, about whether the officers on the Bridge could see it, too?
We ended up cruising (very slowly) only 500 feet off, which allowed us to gain an appreciation for both its size and the myriad of forms in the ice. It was dramatically harsh, with smooth, sheer faces ripped apart by fissures and cracks. Rich, deep blue shades of ice glowed from within the fissures. Edges jutted out from the smooth face with imposing right angles, and a new geometry appeared before our eyes as we noticed the contrast between its overall regular rectangular shape and the smaller lines, along with the overhangs and forms that are visible on deeper inspection. Waves crashed up in ineffective anger against its cliff-like face; we alternated between silent wonderment, gleeful picture taking and repeated "wows."
It wasn't just visually impressive; I could feel the effects of the iceberg on my exposed skin. The wind whipping off its top cooled considerably, and the temperature lowered and became increasingly frigid the closer we got. Passing over the Antarctic Convergence may have marked our entry into the biological boundary of the continent but there was little that we could visually see to denote our entry. Seeing this mesmerizing and powerful iceberg, however, gave us a far more tangible sense that we've arrived.
We were back on deck only a few hours later anticipating our first sight of land. We were heading towards the South Shetlands, a collection of small islands that lie about 70 miles north of the actual Antarctica Peninsula. It may have been the middle of summer, but the sky and sea were both gray, and snow had started to fall. Visibility was down to a few miles. Our first glimpse of the islands was their dark rock faces; they were in strong contrast to the monotone world around us.
Penguins were soon swimming in the sea around us, porpoising for air, and they seemed to form an unofficial welcoming committee. Soon, another giant iceberg, this one shaped like the bow of a ship towering over 125 feet above the sea, slowly appeared from the mist. The Captain stopped the ship and brought N.G. Endeavor's bow to within 150 feet of the iceberg, with its massive height clearly overwhelming even the top of the ship's funnel.
It didn't matter that we has seen another iceberg only a few hours before; we were still captivated by this object that was so alien in shape, size and composition to anything we'd seen before. Plus, every iceberg's different. This was what we'd come for, and our sense of wonder seemed to have regressed to when we were children -- everything appeared new, fascinating and waiting to be discovered.
After lunch, we anchored off our first landing and were given a mandatory brief on the environmental and conservation guidelines we needed to follow when ashore. The guidelines were fairly simple; nothing gets left behind on shore, and no one is allowed to take anything back onboard the ship. Our boots must be cleaned before and after landing to prevent inadvertently introducing a non-native species.
But for Katie, a 30-year old passenger from New York who'd planned to befriend a penguin and said she would take it back to her apartment like "Mr. Popper's Penguin," there was one rule that was particularly disappointing. We were told to stay 15 feet away from any animal -- but if we were stopped, and the animal flagrantly disregarded the 15-foot rule and approached us, we were allowed to stay put. While of course Katie was joking, I often saw her sitting near the rookeries, hoping to find a penguin that was willing to break the 15 foot rule.
Finally, after having traveled four and a half days and far too many thousands of miles to count, we were ready to land in Antarctica. But first, we had to put on our gear.
Despite current conditions, the temperature was not that cold in summer. Rather, it seemed to hover around freezing, and depending on the wind and weather, only a few layers of clothing were necessary in addition to our complimentary parka. Lindblad provided a pretty comprehensive list before we left of what clothes we would need, and the company has its own online store, called LEXGEAR, which has clothing it recommends for each expedition.
While a red parka was provided free to everyone before the trip, I went ahead and bought the extra "Antarctica Gear Up" kit, which included essentials like wick-dry long underwear, gloves and waterproof pants. A serious looking and substantial set of almost knee high rubber boots was also provided, and like the rest of the equipment I bought from LEXGEAR, they ended up being not only useful, but also comfortable and practical.
Unlike cruising in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, we were in a region where there were, of course, no docks, and once bundled up in our parka, boots and waterproof pants, we made our way to the steps where we boarded the Zodiacs. Sturdy, inflatable rubber boats invented by Jacques Cousteau, they became the key to the expedition, and allowed us to land on a beach and against rocks -- or pretty much anywhere we wanted.
For many people, climbing into the Zodiacs took a bit of getting used to and a certain degree of agility. Three crewmembers stood by and held your arms, and you quickly had to step down into a small, bobbing boat. Getting into the Zodiac was only part of the goal -- you also had to stay in the Zodiac! The rule was to sit down on the inflatable tubes that formed the size of the Zodiac as soon as possible, as standing up subjected you to sudden movements of the boat and could cause even a well-balanced person to fall down.
Soon, however, 10 people were inside the Zodiac, and we were zipping across the bay while shielding our face from the spray and cold wind. As we approached the rocky beach, a quick burst of gas on the throttle put the Zodiac right against the beach. Lindblad guides steadied the Zodiac in the surf while helping us out one by one, and we waded the final few feet until we reached dry land.
At first, I was just focusing on getting out of the Zodiac, taking my lifejacket off and then making sure I didn't step on the numerous, nearby penguins. It took a minute for me to really look around and take it all in. Other than the rocks on the beach, there was no visible ground as several feet of snow blankets everything. A smooth, rounded hill several hundred feet tall formed one boundary of the island, and its top was lost in the low-lying cloud.
Later in the day, a light drizzle from a darkened sky reduced visibility, and the bright red parkas scattered around the half-mile long island became less distinct. Our ship, anchored only a half mile offshore, was temporarily lost in the clouds. A small blue iceberg rested in the bay, and hundreds of penguins and Skua birds slid, waddled and nested all around us.
Our naturalists guided us in groups of 10 or so for the first 20 minutes, but after that, they let us wander on our own for almost three hours. There wasn't too far we could go; walking from one end of the island to the other took less than 30 minutes. Still, my father and I headed off on our own towards small bluffs overlooking the sea and then walked down a rocky beach in hopes of seeing penguins clumsily transition from the sea to the land.
The focus of the afternoon wasn't really wandering around the island, though. One gray and snow covered end of an island looks pretty much like the other end of a gray and snow covered island. What we were really doing was trying to get a sense of place. We felt incredibly isolated and cut off, and the thick clouds just offshore further limited any sense of the outside world. Like watching the iceberg earlier, we had a sense of wonderment as we got used to taking pictures with our gloves on, walking over the thick, crunchy snow and being especially mindful of the 15-foot rule when around penguins.
The naturalists urged us to simply sit on the snow and watch the penguins come and go, observe their action, and try to put in perspective some of what they'd been telling us in lectures over the last few days. On this, our first day, we couldn't get enough of them and almost giggled like schoolchildren we're so delighted with their antics. Some penguins were sitting on their nests keeping their eggs warm; others were building their nests by carrying stones from the beach in their beaks, while lazier penguins did away with the walk to the beach and were simply stealing stones from a neighbor's nest.
The biggest excitement came when our expedition leader spotted a king penguin, which is the second largest of all penguin types and almost a meter tall (that's over three feet). These birds are very unusual on the western side of the Antarctic peninsula where we are, and as word quickly spread that there was a king penguin on the beach, excited clusters of red parkas rushed to join the ever-expanding circle of red parkas and cameras.
I didn't need to be an expert in penguins to see which one was the King penguin. Towering over the smaller penguins and with a colorful patch of yellow feathers set against his black and white plumage, he did indeed look regal. The smaller chinstraps, only half his size, scurried every which way while he stood perfectly still for most of the afternoon. There was a bit of a haughty air about him. I think we indulged his ego a bit too much when everyone took a picture -- or 2 or 3 or 30 -- of him. We estimated that as a group we easily took well over 2,000 photographs of him alone!
With Zodiacs running continuously back and forth to the ship, we were able to return to the ship whenever we wanted. Wanting to soak up as much time ashore as we could, about 10 of us stayed until the very last Zodiac went back to the ship. I couldn't deny that by the end, after three hours on the snow, the prospect of the warm ship waiting for us anchor seemed very appealing.
There was something incongruous about being able to travel with such comfort to an area as harsh as Antarctica. Only moments after sitting on snow looking at penguins, I was back in my cabin taking a warm shower and getting ready for that most typical of cruise ship activities: the Captain's cocktail party.
With so few passengers onboard, the party was not some elaborate production with formal dresses and tuxedos. Instead, I put on a comfortable wool sweater and some khaki pants, and headed up to the lounge to mingle and chat with fellow passengers and a few of the ship's officers. It was loose and friendly. Some passengers hung out by the bar; others retired to tables; and another handful of passengers sought out Captain Oliver Kruess.
It was clear from his speech that the Captain loved his job -- and particularly loved helming expedition vessels. He used to work on ships similar to National Geographic Endeavour when employed by Society Expeditions, but that company's bankruptcy forced him to spend a year on the large German cruise ship Amadea. He didn't like the atmosphere on the larger ship, saying, "You didn't interact with the passengers. You didn't know the crewmembers' birthdays. It wasn't for me," and as quickly as he could, he went back to small expedition ships.
Funny, though, was this anecdote: While piloting an expedition ship, he met up with Amadea in port, and several friends from the big ship came by for a tour. Looking around at his tiny new vessel that could probably fit inside the dining room of the larger ship, they asked him, "You can't be serious? You gave up the Amadea for this? You must be crazy!"
Over dinner, Captain Kruess went on to describe some of the sophisticated equipment that the Endeavour possesses that virtually no other passenger ship does. All ships have an echo sounder, which detects how much water is below the keel but lacks the ability to look forward. Essentially, the echo sounder tells you when you are aground, and not when you are about to run aground.
On the N.G. Endeavour, however, the ship uses an installed retractable sonar that enables the Captain to scan ahead of the ship, looking for underwater obstructions well in advance. It's especially important here. Many of the regions the ship sails have poor charts or are incompletely surveyed, and the charts of Antarctica are striking for their lack of information rather than for the depth of information. The sonar allows the officers to pilot the ship into areas they haven't been before, or where there is poor or no depth markings. In addition, Zodiacs launched from the ship often survey harbors and coves, and then bring back valuable data on depths and underwater obstructions that isn't available on the charts.
Captain Kruess also described that while they have a rough outline of where the ship will go at the start of a trip, the schedule is fluid and can change quickly. Winds and seas can prevent landings in some locations, or ice conditions that change by the hour can hamper the ship from reaching an intended destination. On the last expedition voyage, for instance, the weather conditions were just right to allow them to make a rare, unexpected landing on Elephant Island, where Shackleton and his men sought refuge. I was incredibly jealous at having missed the chance to see Elephant Island, but I was equally eager to see where we would go during our voyage.
A fellow passenger from New Zealand, who told us how she'd been dreaming of this trip for nearly 60 years, told the Captain how thrilled she had been with the first day. She said that if the trip were to finish that day, she had already had such a fantastic experience she'd be happy. The Captain simply looked at her and said, "Believe me that it only gets better from here. We know many places down here, and trust me, you will have so many incredible experiences this week. We have much more to show you."