Weather is fickle in Antarctica; one hour we had sunny blue skies and the next we'd be in the midst of a thick snowstorm with wild winds. This morning, after departing from Palmer Station, definitely fell in the latter category; indeed, when we entered the Lemaire Channel, a visual highlight when visibility is good, we missed out.
The channel is seven miles long and one mile wide, and on a clear day, towering mountains reach to the sky; whales frolic with abandon; and scenic bits of ice float calmly by. Today, though, two whales surfaced briefly and then dove -- and disappeared.
The falling snow reduced the visibility so that we could only see halfway up the mountains -- if that -- but we still got a sense of the immense scale behind the clouds.
Our first "port of call" today was at Petermann Island. It's claim to fame, so to speak, is its wide and diverse penguin population, and in fact, three researchers from Oceanites, an organization that has been surveying Antarctic flora (lichens, mosses) and fauna (penguins, seabirds, seals) since 1994 to investigate climactic impacts, live on the island. In an interesting twist, two more actually conduct their research studies via N.G. Endeavour. Lindblad has, for the past seven years, furnished one cabin on the ship throughout the Antarctic cruising season to house Oceanites' investigators. This permits them to travel up and down the island to access a much wider sampling of colonies than they could if limited to land-based exposure.
As part of Lindblad's enrichment program, the onboard researchers had already filled us in on the project; specifically, the organization is looking at why some penguin species here are declining dramatically, while others are increasing in equal measure. One scientist told us that there's no doubt that climate change is the major -- if not the only -- cause of such change; as the sea temperature rises, the krill population declines, and the penguin species that can either dive deeper, where the water is colder and more kill live, or eat a larger percentage of non-krill food, thrive. Those that can't -- don't.
We also learned that the Antarctic Peninsula is one of three regions most affected by climate change, and some reports say it is warming up to five times faster than the world average.
Judging by the weather today, however, you wouldn't think climate change is an issue. There were 30-knot winds gusting across the island, and snow was blowing sideways through the air. Even the penguins looked miserable, huddling on the ground, facing the wind and snow, while barely blinking. Visibility was minimal, and as fellow passengers trekked up a hill, they got consumed by the whiteness and disappeared. It was easy to sympathize with Ernest Shackleton, the legendary Antarctic explorer (and others), who endured winters here (and mind you this is summertime!).
Being outside and experiencing such raw conditions in Antarctica may have been difficult, but the whipping wind and snow made it exhilarating as well. We felt we were getting a taste of the true Antarctica and its extreme weather, and like many fellow passengers, I enjoyed the morning so much I ended up considering it to be one of my favorite landings all trip. I did, however, come away convinced that while Antarctica was a great place to visit, not many of us would want to live there.
Returning to N.G. Endeavor, which was anchored in the bay, we endured a bumpy ride aboard the trusty Zodiac. Spray splashed those sitting on the windward side, and as the waves built to a couple of feet tall, we reached a point when many major cruise ships would seriously evaluate whether or not to continue with a tender service. But this is all an accepted part of expedition travel. Passengers, regardless of age and mobility levels, must be able to negotiate the occasionally tricky transfers between ship and Zodiac, as in this instance. Credit is due to the ship's crew. When a Zodiac reached the ship, strong crewmembers on a platform reached out, grasped our arms firmly, and partly steadied us and partly guided us from Zodiac to ship. Despite what could have been a difficult operation, it went smoothly and safely; in fact, the crew made it look (and just as importantly, feel) easy.
As well, the Captain spent the morning on the Bridge, constantly maneuvering the ship in order to provide a good lee (protective shelter) for the offloading of Zodiacs.
As we cruised back out through the Lemaire Channel, the fickle weather changed again, but this time it was in our favor, and there was much better visibility. Beyond the views, we were entertained by another in a series of enrichment lectures; this one was on photography, and Mike Nolan, the ship's naturalist and photographer, and Flip, the National Geographic whale specialist, offered more suggestions on getting more out of our cameras. I'd always heard the terms apertures and f-stops, shutter speed, time priority, and depth of field, but this time, I actually learned and understood what the terms really mean.
What was particularly helpful was the session in which we analyzed photos taken by passengers over the past few days. Since we'd all taken shots of the same stuff (icebergs, penguins, et al.), it was easy to see what we'd done right -- and what went wrong. I was determined to get a perfect shot of a penguin at some point, and thanks to Mike and Flip, I learned I should overexpose the image a bit to get the image I was looking for.
Today's second call was at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island. Originally an anchorage used by whalers and then a British outpost during World War II, Port Lockroy was later used as a scientific center until 1964; it was then abandoned. A decade ago, structures were restored by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust (and research is conducted here on the effect of tourism on penguins) and opened to "summer" visitors as a museum with a gift shop whose revenue supports the effort.
Perhaps I'd become spoiled, but this stop, for me, was anti-climactic. If this had been our first landing, we would have been delighted with the penguins and the old whalebones lying discarded on the ground, but by this time, we'd seen more of them in far more beautiful locations.
After an hour, I headed back onboard for some much-needed downtime; the cozy library, which holds the same cozy appeal of a ski lodge, quickly became one of my favorite spots.
Indeed, by now we'd all found our routines in daily life aboard N.G. Endeavour, which included the nightly Recap before dinner.
Lindblad's undersea specialist went diving again today and brought out a new toy to show us: Instead of the usual video chronicle, he used a video microscope to focus, with breathtaking detail, on a small krill. With the microscope zooming in over 400 times, we could see the numerous lenses on the eyes and the tiny hairs on the leg of the Krill. He also engaged us in the apparently long-running debate about whether krill should be considered plankton (a creature that essentially drifts with the ocean currents), or nekton (it has the ability to propel itself with purpose through the water).
Wrapping up Recap, Tim, our Expedition Leader, had some potentially exciting news about the next day's plans. Tim explained that due to extremely unusual ice conditions this year, the eastern side of the Peninsula was completely blocked by ice, but the western side, where we currently were, was unusually free of ice farther south of us. Apparently where we were already exploring was considered Antarctica's "beaten track," with most passenger ships limiting themselves to the area we'd been the last two days. But Tim and our captain hatched a plan to head south, well away from all the other passenger ships in the area and head for the Antarctic Circle 150 miles away.
As soon as Tim announced that we would be trying to cross the Circle, cheers and clapping went up around the room in support of the plan. I'm not sure why we were so excited about this imaginary line in the water. Perhaps, as with crossing the equator, or the thrill of having visited all seven continents, it had a symbolic pull. We felt like we were being adventurous and daring, even if we were just sitting on the ship, by crossing the Antarctic Circle.
Still, Tim also cautioned us to keep our expectations in check. Whether we made it there or not was still very dependent on the actual ice conditions because at this point, the ship's satellite images only gave a sense of the conditions; we were still too far for a definite picture. Tim also told us that we had already ventured farther south than any of the two previous trips this season -- which just underscores the unpredictability of an Antarctic expedition cruise. It could work in our favor, as we were hoping, or against it. Nothing's guaranteed.
There was one disadvantage to heading farther south, and that was that we had to cruise away from the shelter of the island chain that had kept sea conditions calm over the past few days. Rough seas were predicted. Indeed, the waves and swell had picked up for the first time since our initial landfall, and there was a fair bit of pitching motion. Spray flying past the window in the dining room caused more than a few people to leave the dining room in haste, but the mood was still upbeat.
I ended up enjoying the motion of the ship and went to bed wondering how close we'd be to the Antarctic Circle in the morning.