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Antarctica on Lindblad's National Geographic Endeavour
Day 8: Thursday, The Circle, Tropical Kayaking & Lots of Seals
It was 8:30 a.m., and we were on our way to the Antarctic Circle.
One of the major geographic designators in the world -- like the Equator or the Prime Meridian -- is the Antarctic Circle, which defines the southern polar region the way the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn informally define the Tropics. Still, a significance a bit more tangible existed for us; everywhere south of the Antarctic Circle experiences at least one day a year when the sun doesn't set and one day a year when the sun doesn't rise. Because we were attempting to go south of the Circle very near the Southern Hemisphere's longest day of the year, December 21, we might not see the sun set for the next few days.
And it looked like we were going to make it. Large, tabular icebergs half a mile long passed by on either side, and we could see the snow blowing off the tops in beautiful iceberg-blue spindrift. Icicles hung from the stairs on deck; the wind buffeted the ship so that it took on a steady list away from the wind. When the announcement came from the Bridge that we had crossed the Antarctic Circle, everyone was out on deck, snuggly wrapped in red parkas, to celebrate. Couples hugged and kissed as if it were New Year's. For such a silly, imaginary line, we had our hearts set on this milestone, and even though we passengers could take no credit for it, we somehow felt really proud of crossing the Circle.
Only a few miles beyond the Circle lay a wide swath of pack ice. Here, the ship shuddered, shook and shoved its way through the ice. Large chunks were pushed aside by the ship's rough bow. Up ahead, we saw four crabeater seals resting on a piece of ice, and we approached until we were within a hundred feet of them. It seemed an awfully lonely life they must lead amidst nothing but cold and ice, without another group of seals anywhere to be seen, but apparently they didn't think so. As excited as we were to find these animals out in the middle of nothing but ice, they didn't seem to care about us at all! Apparently, they didn't find it very impressive that we'd gone beyond the Antarctic Circle.
The Bridge, being much warmer, was actually a more comfortable viewing spot.
On this ship, the Bridge was simply another public room for the passengers; there was even a bench for us to sit on. We were welcome anytime to visit and most anytime could chat with the officers -- though not just now. The Captain was intently scanning the ice ahead, looking for small, raised bumps in the pack ice that could indicate patches of older, more dangerous ice that we should avoid. The only sounds were his clipped rudder commands to the helmsman of "port ten" followed five seconds later by "midship," followed again by "right ten." He adjusted the engine and rudder almost continuously while finding open water or softer ice that we could push through.
We were sailing in an area where the charts have almost no data, and we navigated by following the exact track taken by N.G. Endeavour two years ago. As the Captain said earlier: "We are alone out here. Very few ships come down this far, except a few research vessels. We have a few days now to really explore and have fun."
Uncertainty still had a hold on today's plan. While we had managed our first goal of crossing the Antarctic Circle, we still didn't know where the pack ice would end and whether it would allow us to reach our planned landing south of the Circle. I was glad when after about 45 minutes of weaving and pushing through the ice, the ice cleared and the Captain increased the speed to 10 knots as we continued to a landing on Detaille Island. As we approached the anchorage, the hotel manager and bartender invited us out to the foredeck for some mulled wine to celebrate our good fortune of being able to set foot south of the Circle.
As the Zodiac came to a stop against our landing spot on Detaille Island, we realized there was a wall of snow in front of us. We'd have to climb over it in order to do any walking today, and the naturalists had carved steep steps into the snow and tied a long rope up top that we could use to help pull ourselves up.
Once on top of the snow, we looked around the island and saw a long, wooden building with a partly collapsed roof and broken windows that used to be a British research base. In 1959, the scientists had to abandon the station without any prior warning. They were running dangerously low on food, but a supply ship was offshore attempting to restock them. When the weather changed and the sea ice closed in, the supplying efforts were halted. The scientists had little choice but to abandon their base, as otherwise they wouldn't have had enough food to last through the winter, and today, it is a veritable time capsule.
Cans and cans of food and paint filled the storerooms; magazines were left open on the table; coats were hanging up in the closets; and telegrams from the government (and from researchers' families filling them in on the latest news from the past few months at home) were discarded in the bedroom. It was both spooky and compelling, and far more authentic and meaningful than the restored museum of Port Lockroy yesterday.
Outdoors, there were jagged mountains that reminded me of the Himalayas in every direction we looked, and the unbelievably crisp, clean air made them seem vivid and close. The harbor was dotted with large icebergs, sculpted by the wind and seas into unusual shapes and forms, and the now shining sun illuminated a myriad of shades of blue within.
The pure snow and the wide-open spaces brought out the child in all of us. I felt like starting a snowball fight, but instead, a fellow passenger and I built a snow penguin. All across the island, passengers of all ages were sliding down hills, making snow angels or just enjoying the beautiful, remote setting.
On our trip back to the ship, our Zodiac drivers took us on tours of the icebergs in the bay, and we slowly encircled them. A gentle swell caused torrents of water to flow in and out of small crevices in the iceberg, and through large arches in the ice, we could see the mountains perfectly framed. It was a spectacular end to an already amazing landing.
Once again, our plans for tomorrow, and even the rest of the day, were unknown. The Captain and Expedition Leader decided to keep heading south as far as we could in hopes of reaching a particularly beautiful channel not too far away. We would stop either when we got there -- or when the ice stopped us! It didn't take long before I felt the first shuddering and crunching that signaled we were in a thick pack of ice. White, snowy ice stretched to the shore beyond. Nonetheless, the Captain steadily punched on through, weaving and pushing the ship within the ice flow, and his experienced eye saw passages that mine couldn't.
Almost immediately, we saw a leopard seal and her cub resting on the ice, two little elongated specks of gray standing out against the white. Again, the Captain maneuvered the ship very close to the seals, but they barely lifted a head for the approach of our almost 300-foot long ship. The naturalists were ecstatic at this rare sighting of a seal and its cub. Again, 110 red parkas flooded onto the foredecks, and after fifteen minutes of watching (and an awful lot of camera clicking), we kept going further into the ice.
As we inched ever further south, our progress was reduced to less than five knots by the thick ice. And we spotted more and more seals. First is a weddel seal and then a crabeater seal, and then more leopard seals appear. We were getting a veritable textbook lesson in identifying the different types of seals. In the end, we counted close to 20 seals that were just floating on the ice as we passed at close range.
Not surprisingly, the Expedition Leader told us tonight at Recap that he simply couldn't tell us what we'd be doing tomorrow. At this point, the captain didn't know how much further south we would be able to go or if we'd find impenetrable ice that would make us turn around.
Expedition cruising is definitely not for the fastidious soul who needs every minute of his day planned out well in advance. Except for breakfast, lunch, tea, cocktail hour and dinner, the only activity listed on the daily program tomorrow was "Expedition Day in the Grandidier Channel."
At dinner, light still streamed in through the windows, and we were finally defeated by ice that was too hard and thick for us to pass through. We would be going no further south on this expedition. Rather than simply turn around, however, the Captain again headed the ship directly into the ice to test whether or not we could disembark to take a late night walk on the surface. It was an odd sensation to be supping on warm goat cheese camembert, accompanied by the sound of a quick crunch that was followed by a soft whooshing sound. The ship was being driven as far as possible into ice.
Cracks developed in the ice around the ship, and he backed off before building up even more speed and cutting back into the ice. We were wedged further in, but with cracks spreading out from the ship, we already figured out that we wouldn't be getting off and onto the ice tonight.
But yet again, a disappointment begot a bright moment in our expedition. A naturalist came by our table and suggested we head outside -- there were two emperor penguins on the ice pack.
Our table emptied within seconds, and moments later, the announcement was made in the entire dining room. While cruising along the edge of the ice pack, our naturalists had spotted the emperor, the largest of all the penguin species. We thought the lone king penguin we saw on our first landing was big, but this guy -- he's huge. He can grow up to four feet tall! There were two of them (plus three smaller, more run-of-the-mill Adelie penguins).
Slowly, the Adelies on our starboard side started walking towards the ship, perhaps coming to look at us or perhaps deciding to pay attention to their huge sibling species. They all crossed right in front of our bow, causing another wave of excited gasps and hundreds of photographs. It was a magical scene as the penguins found each other and began to interact, these big black spots against the otherwise vast whiteness. The emperor penguins towered over the smaller Adelie penguins, and they looked like a family with two large, stern parents keeping an eye on the smaller, more mischievous kids.
The naturalists told us that while emperor penguins were common on the eastern side of the Antarctica Peninsula, they were not common on the western side where we were now. In addition, they weren't really found further north where we had spent the last few days, and it was only because we had come so far south that we had any chance at all to be able to see them.
Even though it was 9:30 p.m., it was still quite light out. We all stayed out on deck watching the penguins. And then: leopard seals were spotted in the water next to the bow, cruising the icepack looking for penguins (and, alas, dinners of their own). In the distance, we caught a fleeting glance of whales spouting, and the slowly falling sun cast a golden glow over the mountains. We started to back out and turn around to head north, when someone spotted a third emperor penguin nearby.
There seemed to be no end to our entertainment tonight. Who needed casinos and show lounges when there were penguins and ice?
By midnight, we were on the move again. N. G. Endeavour was heading north, again cutting through the pack ice up to six feet thick that was speckled with large icebergs surging with the waves, and our speed was again reduced to five knots for the ice. The sun created a soft, white glow to the mountains, and the pack ice surrounded us and moved in a powerful undulation with the swell coming in from offshore. It crackled and whispered with the motion. I went to bed listening to the sound of ice scraping and running down the hull, not knowing where in Antarctica I'd be when I woke up.
Usually, an announcement from the Bridge before 8 a.m. on traditional cruise ships saying that "you're going to feel a bump in a minute" is a bad sign. Onboard National Geographic Endeavour, however, it was just what I'd been hoping for. For the third time, the Captain was going to try to wedge the ship in some thick ice and let us disembark directly onto a vast ice floe for a walk.
From my cabin, I could see ice rushing past the porthole and listen to a steady crunching sound outside the hull, and as the seconds ticked by, I saw the ship slowly losing speed as it drove itself further into the ice. We stopped with the ship driven into and surrounded by ice for three-quarters of its length, and by 8:30 a.m., we got the call that the gangway was ready and we could disembark.
I wondered how you could begin to describe this in a brochure? It would be hard to list "Stop in Ice Field" as a port of call, for one thing. We were not in this spot for any reason other than that the Captain saw an ice flow that he thought would be strong enough to hold both the ship and the passengers, and we were not expecting to see any wildlife, climb any hills or see any piece of Antarctica history here. We were just going for a walk on some ice. So, why were we so excited?
It must have been the prospect of doing something novel. It was an incongruous sight to see a ship completely surrounded by ice. It was even more unusual to be able to walk alongside your ship, atop the ice, without a pier anywhere for hundreds of miles.
The ice we were walking on was about a mile and a half wide and totally flat. Winds whipped down from the mountains beyond and caused the snow to be sprayed and swirled over the ground. Faint penguin tracks disturbed the otherwise untouched snow, and we were completely surrounded by the color white, save for the startlingly blue sky.
We giddily spent the hour on the ice, wandering and walking on this unique terrain. In many ways, it wasn't too different from walking on a frozen pond when you were a kid, but in this case, the pond was huge; there was a ship docked nearby; and the conditions were so extreme that the pleasure was somehow more intense.
Too soon, the ship's whistle blew, and we had to climb back onboard. The ice floe was not fastened to the shore anywhere, and it was just drifting with the wind and currents. Even though we had just been standing on the ice for the last hour, both we and the ship had drifted over a mile, and the Captain was eager to not get any further away from our destination.
So far, all of the landings we had made have only been on islands just off the coast of the Antarctica Peninsula and not on the actual continental mainland. Some passengers would not be satisfied to claim they had actually been to Antarctica until they had actually stepped foot on the mainland itself. After calling at Prospect Point, we'd finally be able to say, without reservation, we had been on the continent.
To mark our triumphant landing, a Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic flag had been planted in the snow right where we landed. We reached the shore in a virtual blizzard, with winds rushing down the mountain and carrying accumulated snow. We felt victorious, as if we were the first to discover and claim this land, and were photographed next to the flags stretched taught due to the wind.
During the early afternoon, the ship inched its way north, pushing pack ice away and making slow but steady progress. The bumps and sounds of going through the ice were now familiar to us, and hardly anyone looked up, even when occasionally large bumps made you lose your footing.
By 2 p.m., we'd cleared the ice; the wind had died; the sun was still shining; and we were anchoring in a protected cove. With the water still and completely devoid of any waves, we were told that, for the first time this trip, we would be going kayaking.
There are undeniable risks in kayaking in Antarctica, where the water temperature is so cold you have only a matter of minutes to be saved before hypothermia sets in, and the weather has to be perfect before the Expedition Leader will even consider it.
In addition to a steady fleet of Zodiacs patrolling the generous, several square miles that we were allowed to paddle in, everyone was given a personal EPIRB, or Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon. Should anyone go in the water, this would automatically activate, and a directional indicating alarm would sound on the patrolling Zodiacs and in the Bridge of the N.G. Endeavour; this alarm would allow the patrollers to pinpoint the person in distress and have him or her out of the water within minutes.
Lindblad has also invented its own way of launching the kayaks. Rather than launching them from shore, where passengers might get wet and have to paddle a long way to get to the best scenery, the company has devised a metal launching platform that is suspended between two Zodiacs. Standing on this platform in only about one foot of water, the naturalists are able to steady the kayaks while the passengers slide off the Zodiacs safely and dryly into the kayaks.
The launching platform can be used anywhere, and on N.G. Endeavour's Atlantic crossings, kayaking has even been offered in the middle of the ocean.
While we had been out in the true wilderness for the last several days, it felt altogether even more remote and intimate to be out on the water in a kayak. We paddled along the shoreline, passing resting penguins along the way. Huge walls of ice and snow towered over us, and we were told to not get too close to them in case any parts were to cave and fall into the sea, or worse, on us. We paddled around icebergs the size of small buildings and got a true sense of their texture and many shades of color.
We had spent a total of five and a half days exploring Antarctica, and before I even left on this journey, I wondered: Would I be bored by the last day?
But I woke up this morning not ready to leave at all. As well, after the absolutely wonderful days we'd spent kayaking, sledding and walking on the ice field, I realized that it would be very hard to top the experiences.
I was completely wrong about thinking I may be bored -- today was just as fresh, exciting and exhilarating as other days.
Tim woke us up at 7:30 a.m. and announced that the intended site of our morning landing was too windy for us to land. A new location only an hour away was quickly chosen; the ship was repositioned; and before long, we were at anchor on another spectacular Antarctic day, with bright blue skies and a warming sun. Kayaks were once again being launched.
As strange as it sounds, the scene reminded me of some combination of the rocky Maine coast and the sparkling water of the Caribbean. Throw a few rather large icebergs and some playful penguins in, and you get a sense of what we were enjoying. We poked into coves, circled around 40-foot-tall icebergs and paddled alongside penguins jumping next to us in the water.
At one spot, we discovered a slumbering seal and nosed our kayak against the shore only 15 feet away. At first, we whispered. We don't want to wake him up. Ultimately, it wasn't hard to figure out that it would take a lot more than a normal conversational volume to wake up this sleepy seal; numerous penguins leapt onto the rocks nearby, then waddled past him.
As my dad and I paddled away, the ship's hotel manager swung by on a Zodiac, proffering hot chocolate (offered with or without a tot of Bailey's). There was something particularly decadent about sitting in a kayak off Antarctica, watching penguins swim through the clear sea beneath you while sipping hot chocolate. Lindblad may not have room service onboard N.G. Endeavour, but I'd take in-kayak hot chocolate delivery any day.
After our kayak ride, many of us chose to go ashore on one of Useful Islands cluster -- this would be our last landing on our journey. And there the view was all about the penguins. I was certainly not bored with them, but they didn't hold the same fascination and beauty for me that I found in the massive icebergs. I could look at the ice, though, which had unique forms and colors in every viewing everywhere, for weeks on end.
We capped our last landing with a climb to the top of a 650-foot hill and admired the view of mountain ranges, all crisply framed by startling turquoise skies. What we saw down below was equally memorable; the place was a hive of activity. Passengers were kayaking, photographing penguins or hiking the hills. Zodiacs zipped around, transferring people from shore to ship and vice versa, while another Zodiac took the Oceanites researchers to their landing site to count yet another penguin colony. One Zodiac was being used to launch the ship's ROV, or Remote Operated Vehicle, which would record video footage of the seabed 500 feet beneath the surface for us to watch tonight at Recap.
Despite the activity below, we sat with a few other passengers on the top of the hill in utter relaxation. Rustin, a 34-year-old traveling by himself from Arizona, came up to me and said, "So many times, the actual trip doesn't live up to the brochure. With this trip, it is the brochure that doesn't live up to actual trip."
The sun and the morning hiking and kayaking, combined with the early morning wake-up calls, had again tired me out enough that I felt compelled to take a short afternoon nap. I am, after all, on a cruise.
Or, perhaps not. This trip was, after all, an expedition. My nap lasted a scant 15 minutes before Expedition Leader Tim's voice came booming through the squawk box to tell us that whales had been sighted in Dalmann Bay.
For the next hour, we enjoyed the company of two creatures as they surfaced at regular intervals every five minutes. We heard their deep guttural breathing, saw the mist exhaled from their blowholes and watched them rest on the surface. At times, they came so close to us and so much of their body was on the surface that I could see their mouths and the barnacles on their heads. A few times, they lobbed their tails about, got half their bodies out of the water, and waved their long white fins to us as if saying hello. Or perhaps they were saying goodbye?
After dinner, we started on our course for South America, and Tim urged us to go on deck to say goodbye to Antarctica. Just about everyone went up for a last look, and we reacted in different ways; some stood in solitude at the rail, pondering the week, while others joined the Captain on the stern and drank Champagne. The wind picked up; the ship started to pitch.
As we got further away, the mountains slowly receded and were swallowed by the ocean. We had said our goodbye to Antarctica, and now had two days of the Drake Passage between civilization and us.