Quick update… we are filming today, our last in Antarctica – studying the effects of global warming on Adélie Penguins with the American scientists at Palmer Station.
Like the condemmed we are also waiting and watching weather forecasts as we’re about to head back to South America, this time on the sailing boat. The rock and roll factor is noticeable even on the quiet waters around Antarctica – who knows how we will fare on the Drakes Passage. That’s the notorious stretch of water where 3 currents meet, high winds + massive waves that whip up off the undersea mountains! Named after the famous explorer/pirate Sir Francis Drake. We plan to leave tomorrow very early – 3 days later we hope to sight Cape Horn. Wowee! Will try and get the cameras running between barf bags…
So we’ve made it, and set foot on the world’s coldest, driest, and windiest 5th largest continent. It’s just as impressive as I imagined. The part we’re visiting – the Antarctic Peninsula – is packed high with mountains stacked with snow, and all around massive glaciers reach down into the sea. That’s what we look at from our boat at a safe enough distance to allow for glaciers falling and not onto our heads!
Apparently, behind the mountains are more mountains. And more ice. It feels a little odd only because we are so used to arriving somewhere and really getting a good look around. Here there are barriers at every turn, first the floating ice, now the mountains of ice. There are definitely no shopping opportunities (excepting at a few of the Antarctic bases), and scant opportunity to stay overnight. This place is impenetrable not like any other country or continent I have visited before.
But we do get ashore and slowly we start to get a feel for what Antarctic is like. I’ll never forget the sight of penguins zipping in to shore like torpedoes. First you see a lump on the water hurtling towards you then a rushing sound and the penguins comes flying out of the water, now they’re waddling up the hill with maximum intent. It’s a bit like watching penguins materialise already running into thin air. The light is surreal, we shoot a time lapse of icebergs moving around a bay.
Occasionally, when us humans can bear it, you get to experience the incredible silence you’ve only dreamed about – punctuated by sharp noises, distant whale calls, and loud booms as huge chunks of ice fall off into the sea.
We’ve now left our big boat – The Akademic Ioffe – carrying 100 passengers and downsized to a yacht – The Spirit of Sydney – carrying 6. As we get smaller Antarctica feels even bigger. More to come…
We saw all these penguins today, 25,000 pairs very cool. How to film them is a tricky one! I’m not saying they all look the same but to the untrained observer it is pretty tough to follow central characters. The camera-shy penguin has plenty of opportunities to fade into the crowd. Maybe that is why there are gaping holes in the study of penguin behaviour. Like what attracts one penguin to another?
Try following one to find out and I would say it is pretty close to impossible. Still, penguins do find a mate and more miraculously manage to re-find the same mate when they return from lengthy trips out at sea. They achieve that by having a very finely tuned sense of sound frequencies. Even when there are 50,000 other penguins making noise – penguins exhibit a remarkable sensory ability to differentiate the unique sound of their partner or chicks, that is known as the “cocktail party” effect. In fact there are lots of amazing things about penguins. Like how they managed to evolve from the sea into birds, then into flightless birds that swim, and why they can’t go back to the sea full time – where they look a lot more in their element – because they still need to lay eggs.
Or how are baby penguins brave enough to fend for themselves after less than a year of their 25-40 year lives? That is not very long to learn the ways of the world. We are pretty sentimental creatures really us humans, that is why I am glad I am not a penguin living in the freezing cold sub-Antarctic with giant skuas swooping overhead and massive leopard seals hulking about. It is a wonder they still manage to have such a great time. You only need to follow one for ten minutes (best to pick one on the outskirts of a colony!) playing in the surf with some friends, and you will have a great time too.
We passed our first icebergs at sea yesterday and – in the words of one other passenger – ‘everything changed’, the trip felt like it was getting serious all of a sudden. The berg itself was colossal, many times bigger than the ship we are on. Around it floats lots of little bits of ice in the sea the smashed off bits. Still the iceberg looks very solid with waves breaking up against it, you could even forget that like us it is moving. But it definitely has its own path. ‘Where is it going?’ asks one other passenger.
While we are now headed south, the basic trajectory of Antarctic icebergs is to drift north until the water gets too warm and they eventually break up and melt into the sea. And yes the sea level does rise. Look out New York, London, Sydney, Tokyo… And look out Antarctica we are definitely now headed your way.
Our first pre-Antarctic wildlife encounter was at West Point Island. After trekking up a steep slope into 40 knot head-winds we arrived at the top of cliffs, looking out to the ocean and beyond. The cliffs were covered in tussocks of high green grass swaying wildly in the wind. In the midst of it all were our group, dotted evenly about the tussocks of grass. But something had changed – no-one was chatting or making jokes – the mood was different now, what was it? As we got closer we were drawn right in. The group was experiencing a kind of communal euphoria, brought on by close encounters with wildlife. Right in front of us and all around were baby albatrosses, fluffy big baby birds nesting on top of round peat mounds. In amongst them, nesting rockhopper penguins. There must have been thousands of birds across the cliffs and in the air. We were a dot on their otherwise busy day but I could have sat for hours watching the adult black-browed albatrosses fly up into gale force winds, crash land into their nests carrying fish for the chicks, or watch the fluffy baby albatrosses stretch their gangly wings. Tiny rockhopper penguins with mohican yellow hairstyles in the distance hop, hop, hop hopping up a hill like someone had tied their legs together! The bird watchers were truly in heaven.
We also met and filmed Patrick Watts – an ex-Falklands radio announcer – up on the old battlefields which were littered with lots of guns and stuff left behind by the Argentine soldiers – cans of food, toothpaste, etc. Then we visited the radio station in Port Stanley and listened to Patrick’s actual announcements when the Argentinean soldiers arrived. It obviously brought it all back for him.
This morning we got up early with the ‘birders’ to film the sunrise and got swooped by an albatross! Very excited to have left dry land if a little unsure of what to expect next.
We’re now out on the open sea, having left the Beagle Channel behind and are now entering the South Atlantic, motoring towards the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas. We’re pleased with ourselves because no one threw up (yet), despite eating double dessert portions!
I’ve just found out that on a scale of 1 – 10 we are at .001 = very calm seas. Our boat – the Akademic Ioffe – seems to be heaving from side to side already.
They say that if you travel to Antarctica you have to be prepared to become an ‘Antarcticist’, and that generates serious responsibilities and obligations. I think I am ready, bring it on!
In 1961 the Antarctic Treaty entered into force, a testament to humankind’s best instincts. In a nutshell, the treaty:
– stipulates that Antarctica should forever be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and not become the scene of international discord
– prohibits nuclear explosions, the disposal of nuclear waste and any measures of a military nature
– guarantees freedom of science and promotes the exchange of scientists and research results
It’s all laid succinctly in 14 articles.
47 countries, or 75% of the world’s population subscribe to it
It covers all the area of the world south of 60oS.
When are we going to roll it out to the rest of the world that’s what I would like to know?