We spent the evening anchored in a quiet, snug bay within a few hour's steaming time from our afternoon landing. Because we were so far south, the sun barely set, and even when I came out on deck at midnight, there was still a gentle light that illuminated the bay and gave the snow covering the surrounding mountains a soft grayish-blue tint. The only sound was the gentle hum of N.G. Endeavour's generator, and the stillness and desolate surroundings confirmed my profound sense of being somewhere completely remote. Being so far removed from civilization and so completely free of the everyday routines of home was certainly wonderfully liberating. Being so cut off, so clearly at the whim of nature, also felt slightly intimidating.
Yes, we may have had Internet access, but we had definitely left the outside world behind.
Remote or not, the crew on National Geographic Endeavour kept us as busy as possible, and after being awake until midnight, I woke up the next morning at 6:30 a.m. to the expedition leader's morning broadcast through speakers in all our cabins. Tim's calls became a welcome and gentle way to start the day, not nearly as annoying as you might expect. Every morning he started off slowly, giving us time to wake up and process what he was saying, before telling us our position, the weather forecast and the plan for the morning. That day, we were only an hour away from arriving at Deception Island.
If there is a "cruise hub" in Antarctica, that island is it. Virtually every ship coming to the Antarctic peninsula stops here for both Antarctic history and natural beauty. In the early 20th century, whaling factory ships were based in the protected harbor, but the Depression in 1931 caused the industry to die off quickly. Eventually, the island was used as a base for the Chileans, Argentines and British. Today, Argentina and Spain still operate stations here in the summer.
If we needed any proof that tourism to Antarctica was popular, today was it. Antarctica cruising is an industry all to itself, and today four small expeditions ships, all of which primarily cater to non-U.S. cruisers, would arrive. The cruise lines arranged in advance to stagger times of arrivals so that we were never on shore with any other groups of passengers. (In fact, it was all arranged like clock work -- as we sailed out of the bay, another ship sailed in to take our place.)
By 8 a.m., the first Zodiac was had already landed with passengers on a black, sandy beach. Our anchorage was actually in the middle of a flooded caldera that hints at the island's volcanic history, and steep mountains rose behind us with gray ridges bursting up through the snow. Some cruise passengers might be reminded a bit of Santorini if it weren't for the cold, the snow and the occasional penguin.
But Santorini it isn't. On one side of the black, volcanic beach is an abandoned airport landing strip that served the scientific community stationed here in the 1960's. Further along, there are forlorn-looking wooden buildings that were once the living quarters of the scientists; now, the roof sags under the weight of the snow, and the broken-in windows mean piled up snow is the only inhabitant today.
Further down the beach, remains of the whaling days were visible. While hunting was not done at Deception Island itself, whale factory ships would bring the carcasses here for further processing on shore. There was a dry dock for necessary repairs, and large tanks that stored the oil until it was shipped for consumption. Today, my father and I find the rusted remains of the 30-foot tall dry dock and the huge drums abandoned on the beach. We also find an old boat used to stock the ships with water, its wooden frames now bleached from the elements.
Of course, when I was planning my trip to Antarctica, I thought mostly of seeing its natural beauty, and save for Shackleton, I didn't give much thought to man's involvement here. But a couple things I saw added a whole other level of interest to this continent -- the evidence of men living here and working in these remote, cold conditions and the evidence of a thriving industry so unlike today's cruise ships. It was especially poignant to see two barely marked graves; their white crosses that marked the burial spots were hardly visible against the white snow.
Whenever I go somewhere new, I have an urge to get to the highest point or building. It gives me an overall view of where I am. Seeing others at the top of the ridge that marked our one boundary, I decided to climb up there with them. The snow turned slushy, and I sunk several feet with every step into the soft snow, making the long trek slightly wet and very tiring. I'm rewarded, though, with a panoramic view of the entire caldera, and our little ship anchored all alone was dwarfed in the surrounding caldera.
From up there, I saw little red parkas marching across the vast stretches of snow below me, much like a line of ants, as they headed back to the Zodiac landing spot. Beyond the ship, an ice flow over half a mile wide fills up much of the bay, and I can see the incongruous sight of large chunks of ice 20 feet long ringing the beach just a few feet offshore. I've been to black sand beaches before, but this may be the first time I've ever put "beach" and "ice" in the same sentence!
I also realized I was experiencing a sensation I hadn't expected in Antarctica -- I was actually too warm. I took off my jacket and enjoyed the view but finally realized the last Zodiac would leave in only twenty minutes; this prompted a quickened pace back to the beach.
I knew I wouldn't be left behind, but with so few fellow passengers, I was eager not to develop a reputation as always being the last one onboard!
Of course, unlike traditional cruises, there wasn't the option of staying onshore for lunch at a cafe. Having spent a few hours on this stretch of beach already, there wasn't much left to see, and we were off to reposition to the other side of the island before lunch.
We were relocating to partake in another attraction on Deception Island: swimming. Due to the volcanic activity on the island, there is a small section of the beach that is warmed by a hot spring seeping up from below ground. Where the warmer water mixes with the 33-degree sea water, it is possible to -- believe it or not -- bathe and go swimming in Antarctica. Most ships that call here allow their passengers a quick dip in the slightly warmed water to get that "my friends won't believe this" photograph of you in a bathing suit.
As the ship steamed across the few miles to the other side of the flooded caldera, we encountered our first bit of sea ice, and National Geographic Endeavour easily plowed through ice three-feet thick and half a mile wide. Our normal speed was around 14 knots, but we slowed down to around 7 knots or so to avoid hitting the ice too hard. Groups of us stood at the bow, leaned over the railing, and watched as the bow ran straight into the ice. Every time we hit a new patch of ice, the ship shuddered and slowed down, and we watched as cracks started forming ahead in our path before opening up into large swaths of clear water. Used to cruising in warm, azure waters, I found it just a bit bizarre to look over the side and see not Caribbean seas but frigid green waters and ice completely encircling the hull.
Unfortunately, the plan for swimming came up against a bit of an obstacle -- another pack of ice. While Endeavour was able to navigate through the first pack without problem, we found a second pack of ice another half mile ahead clinging to the swimming beach. The ice wasn't too thick for the ship to go through, but it was too thick for the Zodiacs that would be landing us on the shore. Of course, getting in water that is only slightly above freezing is only so appealing, and when I heard that we had to abandon our swimming plans, I joked that I felt disappointed to miss the unique opportunity but also relief at not having to actually brave the cold waters.
Still, this being Antarctica, a disappointing surprise was quickly replaced by an unexpected one. We saw a 10-foot-long Leopard Seal resting on the ice nearby. The gray, spotted body looked sleek and powerful, and a distinctly reptilian-looking elongated face and jaw seemed perfect for penguin chomping. (In fact, they are the only seal that preys on warm blooded animals, and probably being the most vicious of animals we would see all week, they were eagerly anticipated.) We were also eager to get that National Geographic moment and see the Leopard Seal lunge after the nearby penguin, but we were told that since they are relatively clumsy on land (and ice), they really only hunt when they are in the water. Many of us kept our cameras nearby just in case.
The seal was just lying at the edge of an ice pack, sleeping, while a nervous-looking penguin surveyed the scene. Slowly, the ship got closer and closer to the ice and to the seal; we felt like we were stealthily approaching a lion on an African safari. We were tense and excited to see how close we could get without scaring it away. Eventually, we were only 30 feet away, and then the Captain gently drove the bow about 10 feet into the ice; the seal didn't break his nap. Both ship and seal stay like this for an hour while we had a leisurely lunch. Who needs an anchor to hold a ship in position when you have ice?
Following lunch, the expedition leader announced he hadn't given up on swimming. A new plan was quickly formed to go back to the landing where we were only a few hours ago, where there is an even tinier trickle of warm water flowing into the sea. Those who might have felt relieved by the prospect of canceled swimming in the cold water were again faced with an option to go swimming -- in even colder water. About a third of the ship decided to go ashore for a swim, and I, somewhat enthusiastically, am part of that foolhardy third.
You know, before the cruise, when I was reviewing Lindblad's recommended packing list, I was a bit surprised to see "bathing suit" on it. There's no pool onboard, after all (where, there is one, but it was covered over and not in use for the ship's Antarctic season). I slipped on a parka and waterproof pants over the thin shorts. The temperature was hovering just above freezing outside, but perhaps I was so energized by the idea of doing something so foolhardy, I didn't even notice. Or, perhaps I was already numb.
When we landed on the beach, I didn't rush to strip down to my bathing suit. Instead, I was more content to watch others and make sure they actually came out alive. With screams, shrieks and laughter filling the air, everyone seemed to team up with others, for moral support apparently, before running into the water. I noticed it was important not to linger; you run in as fast as you can so that you don't have time to think about what you are doing, become sensible, and get out. I also noticed that once people were in the water, they didn't stay in for more than a few seconds. I decided to follow that model.
Suffice it to say, the water was very, very cold.
I ran in, just as planned, but with everything happening so quickly, I don't think I noticed the cold until I managed to get my head completely submerged. Then, suddenly, all the air seemed to leave my lungs. I gasped -- and then shivered fairly violently. All over. I sort of processed the fact that one of my fellow passengers had climbed up onto one of the many large, floating icepacks all around us, which comforted me momentarily as I realized there are people crazier than I am. He jumped into the water doing a cannonball, and we quickly ran out of the water, exhilarated but freezing.
I may have been in the water a grand total of 20 seconds, but it was probably the longest, and certainly the coldest, 20 seconds of my life. I was glad the crew met us with dry towels and hot chocolate that was enhanced with a shot of Baileys, a cream-whiskey liquor. It was a nice touch, and after several of these hot chocolates with Baileys, I was almost tempted to go in again. Common sense got the better of me, though, and I headed back to the Zodiac.
Back onboard, the sauna and showers were very popular.
Tonight, as with every night, we met before dinner for Recap. The naturalists gave us a little more information about what we saw during the day and allowed us to ask any questions we had. I knew this was a keen crowd when the questions tonight concerned the variability of the pH of the seawater to the similarities in undersea sponges in Antarctica and the Caribbean. One passenger asked when we'd see whales and didn't seem entirely satisfied with the answer that this just couldn't be predicted.
Expedition Leader Tim wound up by revealing our plans for tomorrow, when we would visit Palmer Research Station, one of only three U.S. stations on Antarctica. Visits to Palmer are very strictly controlled with only 12 ships a year given permission to visit.
On our fifth day onboard, we were getting used to the wake-up drill, hosted by Expedition Leader Tim. This morning, the vista was incredible. Out on deck the air was so fresh and pure that I breathed in as deeply and often as I could -- this sure beat coffee as away to wake up. Spectacular, jagged mountain peaks buried under snow dwarfed the ship on either side, and house-sized icebergs of all shapes drifted past only a few yards off. Some had holes eroded through them from the water, which created multi-hued shades of blue in the ice, while others were brilliantly white. Clear, ripple-free water meant we could see the iceberg's underwater shape glowing a translucent green. It was hard to tear ourselves away and go inside for breakfast, especially as the temperature was a balmy 34 degrees!
Today's highlight of course was the visit to Palmer Station. As we approached, it seemed odd to see an American flag flying in Antarctica with a Bahamas flag below it to honor a visit by the Nassau-registered N.G. Endeavour. As we'd learn later, a ship visit is as anticipated by the staffers on the remote station as it is by passengers.
Palmer Station is one of only three bases maintained in Antarctica by the U.S. as part of the National Science Foundation. Completed in 1968, the station holds around 40 scientists and support staff in the summer, and 20 in the winter. The focus of this small base is on studying Antarctica marine biology, as well as some additional studies on the atmosphere.
From the ship, Palmer didn't look too exciting. Three utilitarian-looking buildings appear to be more like garage sheds than anything else, and the station itself is small enough that it appears more like an outpost rather than any large research center. Of course, the buildings all contain the living quarters and science labs for the scientists, and we were eager to actually get ashore and look around.
Because Palmer's relatively small size can only accommodate about a third of the ship's passengers at once, we were divided into three groups. The first group visited Palmer while the second group explored a nearby island with resident penguin colonies and the third group relaxed on the ship. Then, we rotated around, so that each group got approximately an hour and a half in each of the locations.
While the science would be fascinating to hear about, I suspected most of it would be so far above my head that I'd be more interested in what it was like to live down there. Who chooses to come to Antarctica for a job? Our guide at Palmer ended up being a graphic designer from the Great Lakes who decided a few years ago that he wanted to spend a large part of the year in Antarctica. I'm not in the slightest bit surprised by his large, handlebar moustache that seemed perfectly reasonable after wintering here.
He loves the sense of camaraderie and excitement of living somewhere so remote, as this is his third season in Antarctica. While traveling in New Zealand a few years ago, he met a fellow traveler who had just come from working in Antarctica and asked about working there. Finding out that they were looking for people of all backgrounds to help run the stations and support the scientists with the day-to-day job of running the base, he applied and hoped someone would find a job for him. I'm not quite sure how the government decided his skills as a graphics designer made him a natural to manage all the waste generated at the plant, but he landed the job and eagerly took it.
Normally, you'd think living in Antarctica wouldn't be so good for your social life. Our guide, however, told us a different story, as he met his girlfriend during his first season in Antarctica when they were based at McMurdo station on the other side of the continent. The two of them decided to come back the following year to work at Scott station, and when he was offered the chance to work at Palmer this summer and thereby lay bragging rights to having worked at all three U.S. bases, he couldn't resist.
It makes the relationship with his girlfriend a bit awkward, though. He arranges telephone calls with her once a week, and while they may be only a matter of a few hundred miles apart, she is, in effect, on the opposite side of the world and in a completely different time zone!
In the end, I was a bit disappointed we didn't get to see too much inside the station itself other than a peak inside the dining mess, which looked like a standard cafeteria. We were taken around the outside of the buildings only and given a little bit of information about how the buildings are constructed to endure the cold winter. We saw numerous pipes, for instance, located several feet above the ground, which makes them much more accessible than if they were buried underground.
About the only actual science work we saw was a small lab where there are large, several-hundred-gallon tanks of krill and an aquarium holding some typical local marine life. We saw multi-legged creatures that look like starfish on steroids, and ghostly gray fish that looked as if they had been cold for far too long and lost all their color. Otherwise, we weren't given much chance to actually get inside the buildings and see their living quarters, labs or the one recreation room with a pool table and a bar.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing we did see was a small gift shop! I certainly didn't think there would be much of a tourist trade here, but the supply of Palmer Station sweatshirts, magnets and mugs are eagerly sought after by passengers on the other visiting cruise ships and the crew of the supply ship that visits a few times a year.
Interestingly, I saw some parallels between working on Palmer and working on a ship. Safety is such a concern and the ability to carry out rescue operations is so limited that they are permitted to travel no more than two miles from the base. It might be a bit roomier than the dimensions of a ship, but that still struck me as pretty confining. Like a ship, they are also their own fire department and regularly practice emergency drills.
A Zodiac then whipped my group over to the other side of the bay for another hour of mingling, watching and sitting with penguins. When they were sitting down, peacefully resting on their nests, they appeared so soft, cute and fluffy; they initially reminded me of docile, purring cats. Apparently, they aren't as friendly, and we heard about their three-pronged attack using their claws, their beaks, and their surprisingly powerful wings. Cuddling or even petting them is not an option.
There were also two other things that would deter most people from snuggling with penguins: the smell and the noise. I can now say with certainty that penguin guano smells, and that that on a penguin rookery, there is lots of guano on the ground and, occasionally, on the penguins. It was never unpleasant or strong enough to make you gasp (or worse).
Penguins also make a lot of noise, especially when in a large group. If there is ever a time when at least one penguin isn't screeching, even for a moment, some penguin will decide he can't stand the silence anymore and throw his head back to the sky, hold his wings out and let loose a furious cacophony of noise.
It is a high-pitched sound with quite a bit of vocal force behind it and is somewhat like a cross between a crow and an animal being strangled. Soon, others join in, either wonderfully happy that someone decided to break the annoying silence or, more likely, shouting for the other penguin to be quiet.
Back onboard, we discovered that we had guests. The Captain invited half of Palmer Station to join us for an evening onboard since we planned to remain at anchor overnight off Palmer. Their sweatshirts, long hair and beards made for an obvious contrast from our fairly well groomed crowd, and I imagined everyone was pleased to know that the government requires a psychological profile before anyone is allowed to spend the winter here. It didn't take too much imagination to think that a winter in darkness with only 20 other people could easily affect your mood.
Getting the chance to meet fresh new faces was an obvious pleasure for those from Palmer, as they stay well past dinner, and the bar does, by far, more business than it has all trip. There may not have been evening shows or a casino onboard, but this seemed to be one of the happiest and most friendly evenings I've ever enjoyed at sea.
This was one night when few were eager to head off to bed early. Even at midnight when I finally departed, the lingering twilight, still visible, made me feel like I was leaving the party way too early.