Saturday, November 28, 2009

Port Lockroy

A few days ago we arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula.  Yesterday we got up at 4am to watch a scenic transition from open water to mountainous straits.  First we passed through Gerlache Strait.  It was quite foggy and dim, but still nice to see land.  Gerlache Strait transitions into Neumayer Channel, which was much more scenic with mountains on both sides.  The sea is filled with icebergs, while lots of whales and penguins are jumping about.  Once through Neumayer Channel we arrived at Port Lockroy at about 8am. The sun is shining and the weather is perfect for a day ashore.  Port Lockroy is a former British station, which is now a tourist attraction operated by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.  With just one building serving as a museum, gift shop, and as housing quarters, there isn’t much space for the four people that live there. 

We spent yesterday morning and afternoon ashore at Port Lockroy unloading two cargo containers filled with wood, steel, doors, and windows for a new housing building.  We formed a “bucket-brigade” line of about 25 people, along the rocky shore from the container on the shuttle boat to the snowy hill leading to the “hut” known as Port Lockroy.  After spending hours and hours of passing building materials down the line and then carrying them up a hill…. it is very clear that building something in the Antarctic is not an easy task!  Although it was a day filled with hard work, it was quite nice to have my feet on dry (okay, snowy) land again!

Port Lockroy is also home to about 800 pairs of gentoo penguins.  After unloading and a picnic, there was plenty of time to wander among the penguins.  A midst the muddy penguin colony was a female elephant seal, Antarctic gulls, and brown skuas, waiting to steal a penguin egg.  The view from Port Lockroy is beautiful.  I could have spent all evening staring into the harbor watching the penguin’s porpoise and ice float by.  Sun-kissed and tired, we take the shuttle back to the ship. We then pulled up anchor and headed for Lemaire Channel. 

Lemaire Channel is about a 1600m wide gap between the mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula and is known for its scenic views.  As the sun is setting (although setting is a bit deceiving because it never really gets dark now), we get a glimpse of how gorgeous the Antarctic can be.  The sea is so calm you can see the reflection of the mountains in the water.  The channel is full of icebergs and pancake ice, creating an absolutely stunning view.  Pictures do not do the view justice.  So far, this is my favorite view!  Our destination for the night is Verdansky, a Ukrainian base in need of some repair on their weather equipment.  Tonight we leave Verdansky and head for Marguerite Bay and the heavily glaciated Adellaide Island, where Rothera is located.   

Our arrival at Rothera will be later than expected, due to stops along the way and delays because of ice, but when such delays include penguin excursions and scenic views, it’s hard to care about time.               

Monday, November 23, 2009

Crossing the Drake Passage

Today is day six of crossing the Drake Passage.  We have officially entered Antarctic waters, but are still about 100 miles from Elephant Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  It is snowing and very, very cold! I think everyone is very excited to see land again! Once we reach Elephant Island, we have a five day sail down the peninsula to Rothera Station. The crossing is getting a bit monotonous.  Our science collecting doesn’t start until after we reach Rothera, so the days are currently filled with computer work and coffee/tea breaks on the monkey island. After dinner, people gather in the officer’s lounge (code word for bar) or watch a movie. Although the crossing is slow, the weather is definitely decent.  
No whale sightings yet, although hopefully as we get closer to land we’ll start to see some. No icebergs yet either, but there is still a fair amount of pack ice that hasn’t melted yet along the peninsula.  So it looks like we’ll be breaking through ice to get to Rothera! Currently, the only thing keeping us company: birds…. lots of albatrosses and petrels are following along with the course of the ship. 

Happy Birthday Grace!! Hope you have a great princess birthday!

Tidbit: I think an option for breakfast this morning was fried spam!?!? Apparently the British have taken a cue from Alabama!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Last day in Stanley and setting sail…

Today is day four of the cruise across the Drake Passage. Sailing was delayed a day due to bad weather on the Drake. I guess it seems better to weather a storm in the harbor than in the roughest passage in the world. I arose at 6am on Wednesday morning to watch from the Monkey Island (highest deck on the ship) as the James Clark Ross (JCR) left Stanley Harbour. Such a rough, gray, rainy, miserably cold morning, but at least we are on our way. Not many people are up to see us off, but I suppose many on board the ship have made this journey before. As we leave the harbour, two Commerson’s dolphins are porpoising along side the JCR. The ship is now full of people, as this is the first call to Rothera Station since last year. Rothera is verging on summer and I’m sure those that have wintered-over at the station will be glad to see the JCR!

Today the seas are calmer and the sun is shining, but it’s only a matter of time before it gets rough again. We are moving slowly across the Drake, stopping quite often for other scientist to take water samples. We have about a week more until our collecting starts. For now, the days are filled with computer work and reading. In the evening after dinner, everyone gathers in the Officer’s lounge for drinks and board games. I’m looking forward to seeing land again and getting south enough for whale watching.

The last day at Stanley, we spent on the other side of the island searching for penguins and getting a real glimpse of what the Falkland Islands are like. After being met by our tour guide Adriane in a Land Rover, we headed for Kidney Cove. Adriane was quite a character, having lived here since the 70’s. He had many stories to tell and I was eager to listen. There is really something captivating about the Falkland Islands and I feel compelled to know more. Thank goodness we’ve got lots of time, as we start the two hour slow journey over land (no roads!) to see some penguins. After what seems like a blink, filled with tidbits about the geography, rocks, birds, plants, and what life in the Falklands really entails (homegrown veggies, bacon, milk/cheese, homemade bread/jam…basically home-everything), we arrive to the first colony of penguins! Here at the edge of the steep coast, a colony of about 500 rockhopper penguins are curiously watching as we approach. According to Adriane, this breeding colony (on his 20,000 acres of land) is usually off-limits to tourists, but he says since we are “biologists” he decides to take us. Okay, I must remain composed and act like a biologist… don’t get too excited about the penguins! Somehow I manage to remain composed, in awe of these cute and inviting creatures. I crouch down and sit arms distance from a few breeding pairs, just watching and observing them. I can’t believe I’m this close and they don’t even care!! And it’s really cold and windy, but I don’t care. They penguins are so ridiculously cute, slightly clumsy hopping form rock to rock, and so charismatic. But, by the way, they are sooo smelly!

We head to the next colony of rockhoppers, a few minutes down the coastline. Here we witness true nature, as a few skewers (egg stealing birds) attempt to rob a pair of penguins from their eggs. They are unsuccessful, but still maintain a presence, waiting for the next opportunity. After about an hour with the rockhoppers, we head off to find some gentoo penguins and a pair of King’s if we’re lucky. Again we have quite a haul to get to the colony, climbing over rocks and hills, where in some cases, I wasn’t sure the Land Rover would make it. After another history lesson, we arrive at the gentoo colony… sure enough among the hundreds of gentoos, is a pair of King penguins. Just one pair. Apparently, they are slightly lost and find safety in numbers with the gentoos, who don’t seem to notice or mind. It seems funny to see a penguin colony on the green grass, 1000 meters from the sea, but this far up they are safe from sea lions.

After a stop for our packed lunch, we are off to see some Magellanic penguins. There are only a few Magellanics, who are hiding in burrows in the hills. They are the only penguin species that makes burrows. After a bit, we start back to Stanley… two hours later we arrive back in town. What a day!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Arrival in the Falkland Islands

After three days of traveling and stopovers, I arrived yesterday in the Falkland Islands (made-up of two large islands with 740 smaller ones) at the Mount Pleasant airport. After exiting the plane (old movie-style down a ramp and onto the runway) we had about an hour drive to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands where the ship is in port. Here’s there the rundown of what I was seeing and thinking during that drive: First, there is not a single tree in sight! There are no trees naturally in the Falkland Islands. However, there are hills that seem to go on forever covered in grasses and scrubby plants, scattered with sheep and geese. The overall color is drab with hits of tan, gray and dark green. It is quite a cloudy day with spotty rain and it is freezing cold. I am definitely not in Alabama anymore, I hope I adjust soon! We arrive in Stanley, which almost appears out of nowhere. I can now see why this part of the island was settled. It is by far the most picturesque. We head to the James Clark Ross to unpack our things and get acquainted with the ship’s crew. The crew is very welcoming and I feel almost at home already. This is going to be a great cruise.

Today we spent the entire day exploring around. Stanley is such a quaint town, claiming about 2500 people, no atm, and an interesting history. Despite the “there is nothing to do in Stanley” buzz around the ship, we found quite a lot to fill the day. Although it was gray and snowing yesterday, today was gorgeous and sunny… at least for a while. (The weather here apparently changes on a dime). We started the morning off with a two hour stroll to Gypsy Cove in search of penguins, stopping along the way to see the Totem pole, the “Lady Liz” and to do a bit of tide pooling. The Totem pole was first built by British soldiers just after the 1982 Conflict to show the direction and distance to their home town in the UK. Over the years, many other have added their own signs pointing to destinations all over the world.

The Lady Elizabeth Shipwreck (shout-out to my seester!) is at the east end of Stanley Harbour and originally launched form the UK in 1879. She apparently suffered damage while rounding Cape Horn and then limped back into Stanley for repair, where she still remains today unrepaired blown aground. Tide pooling was fantastic! So many limpets, mussels, amphipods and isopods. Next, fighting the rain, we trudged up and over the hill to Gypsy Cove. This area is a natural reserve and is supposed to be the best spot for viewing Magellanic penguins. Although it was breathtakingly gorgeous and sunny again, we only saw two penguins, both far away and brief. This part of the island honestly looks like a tropical beach! One might actually be fooled into the tropical beach part, if it wasn’t for the cold winds as a constant reminder that the Falkland Islands are indeed the gateway to the Antarctic. So we saw just a few penguins, but tallied up so much more to add to the list. So many interesting plants, mosses, and lichens; one sea lion, countless Falkland Island birds and a lighthouse, barely visible far off in the distance.

After some lunch back in Stanley, we headed to the museum to gather a bit of history of the Falkland Islands. This is a town full of history. Stanley was first sighted in 1592 and then colonized by the British in 1690. The British administration remained unbroken from 1833 until the Argentine invasion on April 2, 1982. 1982!! The 1982 Conflict lasted for about one month until the British overtook the Argentineans and regained control. The museum was full of old ship part and artifacts, as well as reconstructions of what it was like to live on the island in the early 1900’s. If there isn’t much to do now, I can’t begin to imagine what it was like then! We then wandered around town for the rest of the afternoon, seeing many of the sights offered by Stanley, strolling along the coast.

Tomorrow will be a day on a guided tour to Kidney Cove on the other side of the island in search of rockhopper, gentoo, Magellanic and king penguins! Can’t wait to see to penguins up close and explore the other side of the island. Tuesday morning we set sail for the Antarctic, entailing approximately a ten day “cruise” to Rothera Station. The internet isn’t the best of the ship, but hopefully I’ll still be able to update a time or two during the cruise.