Tuesday, December 30, 2008
This morning we got our first view of Antarctic peninsula. The weather (and the wind) were still good, and we were well ahead of schedule. The colors were few, but they were vivid. The water was deep blue, the sky was light blue, and the mountains and the icebergs were brilliant white. The scenery was spectacular, but unfortunately impossible to capture. We took hundreds of photos, but they don't come close to conveying what we saw. There is nothing to show the scale, or give perspective, to the magnitude of the glaciers, mountains, icebergs, and so on. We could not even guess how tall some of the ice walls we saw were. (Later we checked and saw that many of the mountains near the coast were well over 2000 feet high) The water was still as could be - the only motion was from the many Cape Petrels flying alongside the ship.
We were off the west coast of the Antarctic peninsula, and headed by Astrolabe Island (to our left) and Tower Island (to our right). There were thousands of icebergs, many with interesting colors and shapes. There were several whale sightings, although none of them were that close to the ship. The guides' best guess was that they were Humpback whales.
At lunch we were told that we were so far ahead of schedule that we would be able to do an evening excursion on a zodiac - this made everyone happy. After lunch, we had passed Astrolabe Island, and were passing by Tower Island when we hit a patch of chunky ice in the sea. We kept hearing clunking sounds against the ship, but the ship was designed to pass through this type of material. After passing through the chunky ice, nearly everyone took a break from ice watching and came into the bar. The Christmas decorations had been taken down, and we started putting together New Year's decorations. Everyone seemed to be in great spirits - much better than the past few days.
We passed by Trinity Island around 6pm or so. It had very smooth, wind-blown edges, a nice contrast with the sharp and rocky continent. During dinner, people kept looking out the window to see if we were missing anything. At dessert time, Christoph came on the intercom and announced that there were whales. The restaurant cleared out as if someone had pulled the fire alarm. While we had been eating, Lachland had been whale-watching, and he found some humpbacks that were very near the ship. We watched them come up and down a couple of times, until we were well-past them.
A little after 9pm, we got on the zodiacs for a cruise around Cierva Cove (West of the Arctowski Peninsula). We were on a zodiac with Christoph. We cruised around many of the icebergs, checking them out up close for contours, crevices, and color. One very much resembled the MGM Lion. We broke off some iceberg popsicles from one of them - there was no salt taste whatsoever. One advantage this trip had to viewing the same icebergs from the ship is that we now had more perspective - not only were we much closer, and closer to sea level, but the other zodiacs gave some perspective on the size of the icebergs (zodiac is in bottom right of picture).
We noticed two other zodiacs over near a small iceberg, and went over as they were leaving. On the iceberg was a leopard seal, just hanging out. We went round and round the iceberg to give everyone an opportunity for pictures from various vantage points. Leopard seals look far different from the other seals we had seen (and saw thereafter). Their body is much more sleek, and their head is very serpentine. They look almost like a giant anaconda (albeit shorter). Basically, they look creepy - not something you'd want to encounter in the water. (Crystal is intrigued by them, and did a ton of follow-up research after we got home)
The sunset was nice - the sun finally went below the horizon about 11pm. Between the calm water, the icebergs, the leopard seal sighting, and the great weather, Christoph told those of us on the zodiac "It's a beautiful day." Instantaneously thereafter, the motor blades hit an iceberg and the engine died. Fortunately, he was able to start it up immediately, and we had no more incidents. But we also had no more quotes about how nice it was outside. We wanted to go closer to the giant glacier (note how small the zodiac looks).
Overall, it was an excellent first day in Antarctica. It exceeded expectations, not that we had any, if that makes any sense. People always asked why we wanted to go to Antarctica, and what we expected to see. With the obvious exception of seeing penguins and seals, most everything else is difficult to describe and quantify. As we realized from our pictures, they are not worth 1000 words for describing Antarctica. But neither is 1000 words.