Saturday, January 3, 2009

Despite the seas, breakfast was almost completely full. It seems most everybody is finally getting their sea legs, just as we are about to leave the ship. The mood was a little odd - everyone just wanted the day over, even though it was just beginning.

At 9:30, Anja gave a talk on East Antarctica (roughly the part south of New Zealand and Australia). Anja had worked there for 5 months one year. It takes 7 days both going and coming - since New Zealand is much further away from Antarctica than South America is. The seas are quite rough, similar to the Drake Passage. Anja wasn't selling the area very well - talking about waiting two days for a landing at one point, spending half the days on open seas. The westerlies flow around the Antarctic continent, closer to South America. The easterlies flow the other direction, closer to Antarctica itself. She showed satellite images showing how the westerlies and easterlies work, and why this creates so much havoc in the Southern Ocean.

Several of the sub-antarctic islands sounded similar to what we had seen. The Snares Island area is a haven for Albatross. The Savins Albatross (which we didn't see) are found in that area. The Auckland Sea Lions sounded similar to the fur seals, both in terms of appearance but also temperment. During mating season, the males are hyper-aggressive - Anja saw several fights. The yellow-eyed penguin is very shy, even more shy than the Magellanic penguin we saw in the Falklands. Campbell Island is a sub-Antarctic island, similar to the Falklands. Royal Albatrosses nest there. Macquarie Island is an Australian sub-Antarctic island. There are a lot of King Penguins, Sea Lions, Elephant Seals. Macquarie has the Royal Penguins - this is the only place they live. They resemble the Rockhoppers and Macaroni penguins - they have a yellow crest as well. They are very aggressive towards one another, apparently that is just their nature.

Getting to the continent, and the excursions there, didn't exactly sound fun. Cape Dennison, at Commonwealth Bay, is the windiest spot on the earth. Mawson came on a rare good day, started a camp there, and only later figured out what a horrible place it is. Inside the hut (which has been preserved), ice is everywhere. There are still some artifacts that have been left behind. Once the katabatic winds stop, the area looks very nice. Sometimes there are Adelies, Emperor Penguins, and Snow Petrels. A little east of Cape Dennison, there is the french station Dumont d'Urville. In the area there are some snow petrels. They are used to humans, and don't mind people coming up close.

Approaching the Ross Ice Shelf is dicey - normally you have to wait until January or February, and even then sometimes you won't be able to penetrate it. There are a lot of bases on Ross Island, where the race to South Pole started. The tabular icebergs move around in the Ross Sea from the currents, and some are enormous. Anja had gone by one that 25 to 30 nautical miles long. Terra Nova is an Italian station, and like Orcadas is built on a raised platform. Proper footings go well into the ground, and heating ducts stay away from the ground, as to avoid melting the top portion of the permafrost. Mt. Erebus is nearby - it is around 12,000 feet, and is an active volcano. The Ross Sea Orcas have yellow patches instead of white. This is due to algae and diatoms in the water. They will "spy hop" for Emperor Penguins.

There are several historical spots in the area. On Ross Island, there is the Shackleton Hut (from the Nimrod expedition), Cape Evans, and McMurdo Station. Shackleton's Hut is being maintained, and many of the artifacts from nearly 100 years ago are still in the hut. Shackleton in 1907-09 got very close, but he realized he didn't have enough provisions, so he turned back. Cape Evans was a base for Scott, Shackleton (the other half of the Endurance party), and others. The hut is packed with artifacts - nothing had been removed. The table where Scott had meetings with his team is still there, as are the beds, the meteorological equipment, and many other items. There are stables - Scott brought ponies (which didn't work out at all) - attached to the hut. When the sea starts to freeze over, there is a heat exchange from the sea up into the air - it's like a mist in reverse.

The Ross Sea trips are 29-30 days. The Commonwealth Bay trips are 24 days. The sub-antarctic trips are about 21 days. There are 3 poles - geographic, geomagnetic (near Commonwealth Bay), the pole of relative inaccesability (the area farthest from the Antarctic shore). Vostok is supposedly the coldest place on earth, and the Russians keep a base there to take weather readings.

At 11, we saw a documentary comparing the Arctic region with the Antarctic region. There was a scene where a polar bear was hunting beluga whales in a small breathing hole - it just jumped in the hole after them. When it caught one, gulls came in from all over the place to help the polar bear feed. Arctic foxes are like jackals, and also rely on Polar Bears to hunt for them. It was interesting to see how many animals rely on Polar Bears. As they decline, it would seem many of the other animals would as well.

A male hooded seal has a sack that inflates, similar to the frigate birds we saw in the Galapagos. Ringed seals give birth to their pups underground, in little caves, to keep them safe from the weather and from polar bears. The polar bears can detect the smell of underground seals from 2 kilometers away, but since several caves are made, but only one is used, polar bear hunts are successful only about 5% of the time. Polar bears can swim 100 miles at a time if need be - it was surprising to find out that they are such good swimmers.

Penguins can live on Antarctica because there are no land predators (such as Polar Bears). Safodovski (sp?) island has the world's largest penguin colony - 2 million chinstrap penguins. Minke whales are the most abundant in the Southern ocean. This may be due in part to the fact that they are the smallest in the area, and accordingly were not hunted.

Just before 6pm, Anja gave us a recap. She mentioned that we had about as good as possible a Falklands trip, that we hit every single excursion on South Georgia (which is extremely rare), and that we had good weather in Antarctica. This is all true - aside from some rough sea days (which probably weren't even that rough, comparatively) - this was a really good trip. She told us, apparently honestly, that this was her "second best" trip. We covered over 6500 kilometers (4000 miles) in the Southern Ocean, without major incident. Lex and Christoph made for us a logbook, complete with description and pictures of everywhere we went, plus a map. There was also a staff list and email addresses. We also got a certificate telling us that we made a continental landing, and the coordinates of where we were. The two kids also got a certificate for driving the ship and the zodiacs, which they did a little bit of in Antarctica.

After the briefing we all went outside or into the bridge to check out Cape Horn. Again, we were very lucky - it was clear as day, and we didn't get yelled at by the Chilean authorities for coming so close. It was incredibly windy, but the fresh air was good, and Justin even managed to finally get a decent picture of a flying seabird, a Giant Petrel.

We skipped dinner (didn't look so good). We were the first in the bar because of this. It was full most all of the evening, with everyone celebrating, showing off photos, running up their bar tabs, and being boisterous. Lex helped us figure out what some of the birds we had pictures of were, and Christoph marveled at the South Georgian Pintail that we told him about. We had read about it in a couple of books, but he hadn't seen it, and was incredulous. It is the world's only carnivorous duck. It feeds on, among other things, seal carcasses in South Georgia.