In spring, the Antarctic sun lays low in the sky over the Southern Ocean. The sea ice is breaking up with the arrival of warmer temperatures. At this time of year in Antarctica the sun never really sets so there is about 23 hours of daylight and 1 hour of twilight. It makes it difficult to sleep, but who would want to with views like this?
A chinstrap penguin flapping his way up on to a rocky beach in the Aitcho Islands archipelago, part of the South Shetland Islands near the Antarctic Pensinula. For more photos from our visit to the Aitcho Islands, click here.
Just back from Antarctica and was inspired to see this story of passion and purpose in my news feed this morning —
In a nutshell – British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes aims to be the first to walk across the Antarctic continent during the winter. As part of his effort, he hopes to raise US$ million to to fight avoidable blindness in low-income countries. The money will be donated to UK charity Seeing is Believing and donations will be matched dollar for dollar by Standard Chartered Bank for a potential total of US$10 million.
In the world’s poorest countries, lack of access to basic eye care, Vitamin A deficiency and vulnerability to water-related eye infections can cause blindness, and this is often preventable. For example, corneal scarring – the most common cause of childhood blindness – can be prevented with two drops of Vitamin A which costs just US$0.05. (Facts sourced from Kids with Vision and World Health Organization.)
The journey will not be easy. It has been completed during the summer season, when the extent of sea ice is much reduced, temperatures are warmer and weather conditions are not as harsh. But during the Southern Hemisphere winter (which starts in March), temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-73 degrees Celsius) and there is near 24 hour darkness. Starting on the first day of next year’s winter season – March 21 2013 – Sir Ranulph and his team plan to walk some 2500-3000 miles over the course of their six month adventure. No one has ever done this before.
Just in case you thought there weren’t any adventures left to be had, guys like this with balls the size of coconuts come along and show us that there is always a record waiting to be broken. And kudos to him for doing it for a good cause!
Watch Sir Ranulph’s recent interview with CNN, below. You can also read more about the initiative on Seeing is Believing’s website.
Today we landed on the continent of Antarctica by disembarking at Neko Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula. If you’ve been following my posts, you’re probably wondering, “Huh? Didn’t you already do that a few days ago?” Well, actually no, we didn’t.
It is true that on the third day of our expedition we made landfall on Barrientos Island. But Barrientos Island is part of the Aitcho Islands archipelago and is not contiguous to the continent itself. One might compare that to visiting Hawaii and making the claim that you’ve been to North America (although Hawaii is much further removed).
Neko Harbour is named for the whale factory ship “Neko” which operated along the Antarctic Peninsula during the whaling season of 1911-1912 and 1923-1924. It is situated on the Gerlache Strait.
After six days in the close quarters of a ship, we have been due for a bit of exercise. Our landing today at Neko Harbour did not leave us disappointed. We woke up early to a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed voice over the ship’s PA system announcing that weather conditions were cooperating and we would finally get to try sea kayaking. We have been looking forward to this for two days but due to strong wind and / or heavy ice “traffic” our expedition leaders had decided to postpone the activity.
The sea kayaks we used are a bit different from those I have seen and used before in at least three ways. First, our sea kayaks have multiple inflatable compartments to protect them from being punctured in a collision with an ice floe (our ship’s 12 Zodiacs are also designed this way). Second, instead of the lower half of our bodies being tucked away inside the kayak, our legs and feet lie open to the air. Third, these kayaks have a rudder, which is controlled by a wire attached to two foot-operated pedals – one to turn left and the other to turn right. My mother asks that I sit in the back to steer the boat. :) We spent a good 45 minutes navigating the cove, getting close to bergy-bits and penguins playing in the water. Awesome work-out for the arms and back!
We have had little time for rest during our expedition; today is no different. Immediately following our kayak excursion, my mother and I are bundled on to a Zodiac which takes us to the shore of Neko Harbour. Upon landing we are informed that we are on the continent. :)
We now have the opportunity to climb up the side of a snow-covered peak. It is not high – perhaps just 1000-1500 feet, but a good hike is just what we need to get the legs working – dressed in three layers of winter clothing we are not complaining about the height of the climb! On the way up, penguins and skuas accompany us for part of the way.
At the summit, we are greeted by an incredible view. Other hikers from our expedition report having seen avalanches in the mountains on the horizon. We can see the evidence of it but don’t get to see an avalanche ourselves.
Swirling around us is a fine mist of snow which we later learn is called diamond dust, leading some people to call it the “Crystal Desert” (there is a book of the same name by David Campbell). The more elevated parts of Antarctica receive very little precipitation – only an average of 2 inches a year. (In my last blog post, I wrote that glaciers are created by accumulated snow over many years, which gradually turns into ice.)
Until next time…
On the fifth day of our expedition, we are getting deeper into the Antarctic Peninsula region. There are islands all around us, both large and small. Snow, rock and ice blends together. It is often difficult to tell things apart. It’s a land of black, white and grey, and lots of shades of blue. Our expedition leaders have said we have been very lucky with bright sun, blue skies and relatively balmy weather for most of our trip – making touring conditions quite pleasant. But the weather can get very nasty here, very quickly. Imagine those early explorers who may have been stranded here if their ships were wrecked or stuck frozen into the pack ice. The chances for survival must have looked bleak.
During the day we visited four key sites: Port Lockroy, Lemaire Channel, Pleneau Island and an Ice Field.
Port Lockroy is the first permanent base in Antarctica set up by the British after many decades of exploration and scientific research expeditions by well-known adventurers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Established in 1944 during World War II, the original purpose of the base was to spy on German shipping movements. The site is now a museum, tour shop and post office – all managed by the British government! There are also several penguin colonies around the two buildings there and these little guys seem quite used to the human presence as they walked within feet of me several times. Port Lockroy is one of the most visited places in Antarctica. (Congratulations to Terry for winning the contest – your postcard from Port Lockroy, complete with an Antarctica postmark, is on its way!)
In the afternoon, our ship navigated the Lemaire Channel, a narrow stretch of water flanked by mountains on both sides. The most remarkable thing about the passage was the proximity of the boat to the sides of the channel, which allowed me to have a closer view of a cross-section of the glaciers. Glaciers are formed through the accumulation of snow over millions of years. As the snow accumulates, the snow on the bottom becomes more and more compacted, and eventually turns to ice, as I described in my blog post from a couple of days ago. When ice has accumulated to a sufficient mass and volume, the glacier begins to move, over and around mountains (photo 1). When it reaches the sea, pieces begin to break off into the ocean and you can see the layers of ice and snow that have accumulated over time (photo 2). The pieces that break off are called icebergs. (photo 3).
After the Lemaire Channel, our ship anchored near Pleneau Island. Below are four photographs I have stitched together in an attempt at making my own panoramic shot (I will see if I can find some software to improve it once our trip has concluded). From my vista about halfway up the mountain, I was able to see for miles. It was simply spectacular. The fifth photo (which you can click on and enlarge) provides some perspective – our ship is in the centre of the photo. The black squiggly line starting from just below our ship and running down and off to the right is a crack in the ice and approximately delineates where land ends and the sea begins, of which a large section is covered in sea ice. In the foreground you can see a Gentoo penguin colony. For about 45 minutes, I sat on those rocks and watched the penguins interact.
Then, in the evening, we navigated an incredible field of icebergs, floes of pack ice and glaciers which stretched to the horizon in every direction. The purpose of the visit was to take advantage of the sunny conditions and see an amazing sunset over this seascape (see photo below). We also had an opportunity to see killer whales hunting seals. As summer rolls in, the sea ice is slowly breaking up into pieces as the temperature warms to a balmy 32 deg F, 0 deg C or higher during the day (saltwater freezes at a slightly lower temperature). This creates ideal conditions for killer whales to hunt seals by “wave-washing” them from their perch on an ice floe into the water where they are quickly gobbled up. (Watch this video on YouTube.) During this time of year, the sun “sets” at about 11pm at night and rises again at 2:30am. But it never really goes away and darkness never really sets in – instead you’ll have a glow of pink and orange light cast over magnificent seascapes.
There are two main “types” of ice in Antarctica. The first is glacial ice, which I described briefly above. The second is pack ice or sea ice, which forms when sea water freezes together. There are several steps to the freezing process – the process is analogy to a “reverse snowfall”. First, as seawater cools down to its freezing temperature, crystals form in the water and rise to the surface. As they collect, this layer is called “grease ice”. It looks like an oil slick, and it tends to bump up against each other. As it starts to stick together, it is called “pancake ice”. At this point it begins to look like a slurry, or soup-like (thick and bumpy, and opaque in colour). You wouldn’t be able to walk on it, but soon it will begin to solidify. During this entire time, crystals are continuing to rise beneath the surface. Over time it gets thicker and thicker. Depending on how cold the weather is year round, pack ice can build up over a period of years and become very thick and difficult for ships to break.
In the first and second photo below, you can see the difference between glacial ice (the large, tall pieces which break off of glaciers and are also known as tabular ice) and the pack ice which forms when seawater freezes and which breaks up in springtime. Often times, the largest part of an iceberg is underneath the water. This is the type of ice that can easily sink ships (and has!) . Note the difference in the colours of photos 2 and 3. They were both taken around the same time of day but I was playing with the white balance setting on the photo to add warm or cold colours as I wanted.
Here are some other commonly-cited fast and fun facts about ice:
- More than 99.4% of the Antarctic continent is covered by ice
- Antarctica’s ice cap contains more than 70% of the world’s fresh water, and comprises 90% of the world’s ice, in some places it is 2-3 miles thick
- If the Antarctic ice cap melted, it is estimated that the world sea level could rise by an average of 180 feet (55 metres) – that is almost as high as a 20 story building!
If you have any questions about what you read here, please feel free to leave a comment on this blog post! Later today, I am going to post a link to some slides from a presentation given by Jason Kelley, a geologist on board the National Geographic Explorer, who discussed with us the different types of ice. Thanks also go to Jason for a lot of what I learned and have summarised here. Please check back if you are interested in getting access to his slides later on.
Antarctica in late spring. The sea ice is slowly breaking up into pieces as the temperature warms to a balmy 32 deg F, 0 deg C or higher during the day (saltwater freezes at a slightly lower temperature). This creates ideal conditions for killer whales to hunt seals by wave-washing them from their perch on an ice floe into the water where they are quickly gobbled up. During this time of year, the sun “sets” at about 11pm at night and rises again at 2:30am. But it never really goes away and darkness never really sets in – instead you’ll have a glow of pink and orange light cast over magnificent seascapes.
This is a Weddell Seal, one of the largest mammal species found in the Antarctic region. To get this shot I lay down on the snow on my stomach, set up my camera, took a few test shots and settled in for about 30 minutes, waiting for the perfect snap. The waiting period is the best of all as you have time to observe and become acquainted with the animal you are photographing. Intimacy with nature! This seal is a female – we can tell because her mammary glands are two black lines about 1/4 of the way along her boddy starting from her flippers. These animals can weigh up to 600kg. The best part is that National Geographic photographer Kim Heacox was nearby, coaching me on how to set up the camera for the shot… an unforgettable moment. :)
This blog post is written by my mother. She and I are currently on an expedition to visit Antarctica. Our ship’s name is the National Geographic Explorer and during our ten-day journey, we will visit the southern tip of Argentina and various parts of the Antarctic peninsula.
Yesterday we were offered the opportunity to take a plunge into the Antarctic polar waters. We are 148 passengers on board and over 90 of us participated! Amazing statistic! Ryan and put on our bathing suits and bathrobes with some warm shoes and we walked over the ice from our ship to the edge of the ice. From there we jumped off a couple of Zodiac boats that were moored on the sea. Gosh, it was wired. Having Ryan there gave me courage. If he can do it, so can I! In we went and I’ll tell you, the cold water was soul-grabbing. I could hardly breathe or catch my breath when I surfaced. It was bone-chillingly cold. Like a torture almost. But it was a challenge to face my fear and I did it.
You can see our photos below ( no captions).
In the afternoon, Ryan and I went on a Zodiac tour of the waters surrounding our ship. It was like a land out of time. At certain points, the water was a brilliant turquoise blue, the kind you would typically associate with the Caribbean. Our driver explained that when the rays of the sun hit the ice, of the entire spectrum of colours, the colour blue is the only one that does not get absorbed and is in fact reflected to our eyes. Also, as snow accumulates over millions of years, the accumulated weight becomes so heavy that the snow on the bottom becomes ice. Over time, the oxygen is squeezed out and this further enhances the bluish tone. During our Zodiac cruise, we also saw the remains of a Norwegian whaling ship that had been grounded nearly 100 years ago by its crew after a huge fire started on board. The wreck sits on the rocky beach of a cove which is protected from the wear and tear of the open sea and glacial movement. So the wreck remains, fairly well-preserved, a rusty hulk deteriorating very slowly in the cold Antarctic air.