Monday, January 11, 2010


Monday, Jan. 4, 2010

A View From the Bridge – The best view of the Antarctic peninsula this week is from the bridge of the M/V Ushuaia. The captain has an open bridge policy, which both students and chaperones alike have frequently taken advantage of during the trip.

In the evening, after dinner, students gather along the 180-degree picture windows equipped with stools, binoculars and plastic laminated wildlife identification cards. There's even a row of plastic toy whales, the better to identify the humpbacks, minke, and fin whales we see spouting within close proximity of the ship.Suddenly, someone shouts "blow hole" and a half-dozen binoculars sweep the starboard horizon.

As classical music plays softly and the bridge is cast in the glow of red lights, the captain sits monitoring the autopilot, occasionally using a pair of binoculars to visually plot a course through the ice field. From the Palmer coast to Livingston Island, just off the continent of Antarctica, the visibility is an astounding 38 miles.

The green radar screen is dotted with hundreds of blips. There are icebergs shaped like aircraft carriers, giant mesas big enough to land a small plane, icebergs that look like ski jumps, skyscrapers, and scenes from Doctor Seuss.Some have small colonies of penguins - are they gentoos? adelies? Hard to tell. Others are occupied by a resident crabeater, Weddell, elephant seal, or sea lion.

Antarctica is nothing like the photos.It's so much more. It's the cleanest air one can possibly breathe. It's the boom of a glacier calving in the distance. It's the incessant braying of penguins when we come ashore, penguins that have no fear of humans and will approach within four or five feet, giving us all the once over.

There's an absence of green here, of course, but it doesn't matter with the whitest whites and the bluest blues you've ever seen. We're a self-contained community of about 90 people at least a two-day sail from civilization, one focused on giving the future environmental leaders on board the tools they need to keep Antarctica just the way it is.

Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010

FOMO – "Fear of Missing Out" - From a pod of three humpback whales on the port side side of the ship, and two to starboard, to sightings of elephant seals, cape petrels, and minke whales, you can hardly take a moment to eat, sleep or shower, otherwise you might miss yet another spectacular sight here along the Antarctic peninsula.

Leave your camera in your room and you might miss a massive arched iceberg, bigger than the ship itself, about to crack apart with a thunderous roar.

Or as happened today, roll over before our eyes. Each day seems to top the previous one as the group dons heavy rubber boots, ski jackets, pants, and gloves, and ventures to shore in Zodiacs under bright skies and temperatures ranging from 30 to 50 degrees F.

Yesterday we visited Port Lockroy, a restored British research stattion now staffed by four hardy women who run a museum, gift shop and post office. Fifteen thousand tourists are expected to visit this austral summer.

They study the impact of humans on breeding gentoo penguins. There are penguins everywhere, some within a few feet of the main entranceway. Seems the gentoos do better on the inhabited side of the island than the remote and off-limit uninhabited side. The humans tend to scare off the skuas, a predatory sea bird that feeds on penguin chicks.

Today after observing nesting gentoos penguins on Pleneau Island, we cruised in Zodes through an iceberg-choked lagoon, awed by the white and turquoise colors, the porpoising penguins, and the mountainous Antarctic peninsula in the background. The students in my Zode got to kiss an iceberg as we slowed to examine it closely.

Next stop was the Vernadskiy station, the Ukrainian research station that marks our southernmost point on the trip, about 100 miles north of the Antarctic circle. The all male staff greeted us warmly and gave us a tour, including their bar and recreation room with its collection of donated bras, periodically added to by visitors.

We're headed north now, back to Ushuaia 700 miles away, for arrival on Saturday.The sun shines brightly until midnight, then sets until sunrise three hours later. I better log off now lest I miss something.

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