Sunday, February 26, 2017

Living the Dream: 15 Days in the Southern Ocean

First of all, before I begin, I want to apologize for the infrequency of my posts.  The internet has been a real challenge for the past 2 months, cutting out unexpectedly and being too slow to upload information.  This post took 24 hours to load the images, and another 12 hours just to organize and write the text.  But, it's done!

The poles have held a fascination for me for as long as I can remember.  I was drawn to the extremity of life there, how organisms have adapted to thrive amidst freezing temperatures, strong winds, and heavy snow.  Antarctica held a particular fascination for me, the land of penguins, seals and ice, and I always wanted to go.  I dared not think about it too much, though, because the only programs I had heard of were so very expensive that I could never dream to participate.

I am excited and grateful to say today that I have achieved my #1 bucket list dream!  I just returned from a 15 day passage to Antarctica and South Georgia!  Leading up to the trip, I was full of emotions: excitement, gratitude, and even some nervousness.  I was trying hard to ignore the nagging, what if questions that tend to haunt you when you undertake such a journey.   The unknowns of weather, quality of service, types of passengers, and luck with wildlife, snuck often into my mind, no matter how hard I tried to ignore them.  Looking back now, I can say that it was not at all what I had imagined,... but it was even better.  

On a Friday afternoon, I boarded a ship with 190 passengers and 130 staff, equipped for 15 days in the Southern Ocean that included 3 days of expeditions in South Georgia, 3 days exploring in Antarctica, and lots of sea days in between for lectures, bird and whale watching, and getting to know my fellow passengers.  The boat was huge and quite luxurious for my standards.  We ate very well, and all the time, and the service was top notch.  The vast majority of the passengers were 50+, but I happened to meet a group of other interesting long-term backpackers, and we enjoyed exchanging stories.  The attitude on board was one of great excitement and anticipation.  We chatted about gear, travels, expectations, and eagerly attended lectures and trainings in those early days.

The next 15 days passed like a flash, full of bird sightings, zodiac rides, fascinating lectures, whale sightings, feasts, great conversations, and some of the most remarkable sights I've ever seen.  There is too much to possibly even try to recount it all in one post.  Instead, true to form, I will let the pictures tell you the story.  Here are some of my favorite photographs from my trip.

I made it!  This picture was taken on the actual Antarctic Continent on the last expedition day of the trip!  Behind me is one enormous glacier that was almost constantly calving, sending chunks of ice floating into the bay behind me, the loud cracks reaching our ears too late to see the action.
Passing by the dramatic shoreline of South Georgia
One of our windiest days at sea, you could see mist blowing off the crest of every wave.  We were quite lucky with weather.  Some days with quite calm seas, though the waves averaged 3-4 meters in height.  One particularly rough night, we had only "medium-sized" waves,..... at about 8 meters in height!  On those nights, you would wake up when your stomach dropped out of your body, and your body levitating from the mattress as the hull of the ship crashed downward.  This was still relatively calm, as they have apparently had waves flood the dining room before!
This was the spray on the bow when there were just 4m waves and we were heading into the wind
This is looking up at the ship from the bow.  It's a huge ship!
My first savable photo from the trip!  This is a Wandering Albatross, a truly incredible bird.  I watched them soar behind the boat for hours without flapping.  They have the largest wingspan in the world.  They spend their entire lives at sea, only coming to land during nesting season.

South Georgia: Teeming with Life

I hadn't heard about South Georgia before this trip.  My fascination had always been with the poles specifically, but when I was researching trip options, the agent suggested this itinerary since I mentioned that I was a wildlife photographer.  Thank goodness she did!  South Georgia blew my mind!  I think it actually may have displaced the Galapagos as the most unbelievable place I've ever been!  From far away, the island looks impenetrable, full of jagged mountains and glaciers, but the shores are teeming full of so much life that i's hard to imagine!  The beaches were full of King Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, Skuas, Albatross, gulls, and Petrels, and any other of the seasonal travelers stopping by for the summer.

Look at these turquoise waters!  Glacial run off fills the coastal waters with nutrients
This was our view before an early morning landing in South Georgia!  Isn't it spectacular?!  Dramatic mountains, clouds, glaciers and snow catching the glow of the early light.
This was one of the most dramatic landings in South Georgia.  As you can probably tell, that is the edge of an enormous glacier at the back, with a zodiac in front, piloted by a guide in red, and shuttling 10 passengers in yellow parkas.  All of those little white spots, are actually King penguins, each about 3' tall, and spectacularly gorgeous!
There is no way for a picture to capture what it was like to be here.  Not only can it not capture the scope of the place, but it can't render the smells and the sounds that filled your senses.
This is the Skua, the scavenger of the Southern Seas.  I have seen them try to eat just about everything, dead or alive.  I watched one try to pester a penguin chick away from the others, dive bomb a group of chicks, and even try to eat just about everything laying on the ground.  They aren't as vicious as raptors, but they are hard core.  This one was investigating to see if this unsupervised glove was edible.

We even saw some nesting Wandering Albatross.  It was the first time I had seen one up close.  It was my first chance to look at them really closely, and they were even more amazing than I had realized.  They have the mostly flawless, smooth plumage, and are so much larger than they appeared from afar.  Absolutely beautiful

Macaroni Penguins

This colony of Macaroni Penguins hopped around on the South Georgian shore
These Macaronis nest on a very steep cliff.  They climb up and down that rock face, and then hop in the water to bathe and fish!  It was nerve-wracking to watch!  They could have gone for a tumble at any moment!

Macaroni Penguin
I loved watching penguins swimming!  They leap out of the water like dolphins!

Fur Seals

Fur Seals have a challenging past, having once been coveted for their pelts, and nearly hunted to extinction.  I am so grateful that today their numbers have made a tremendous recovery.
The beaches were all like this!  There were thousands of King Penguins walking around, calling, preening, molting, fighting, and resting.  Then a large number of them hopped in the water to swim and bathe themselves, while the adorable fur seal pups scuttled their way across the beach, whimpering, tussling, and chasing one another.
Look at this troop of adorableness!  The adult males are off on their own, and the females are out fishing, so the pups are left on the shore with a few females to watch over them.  It was basically like watching an early educator with an auditorium full of toddlers.  Madness
Skuas bother everybody!  This fur seal chased this one around for 10 minutes!  The Skua was so cocky that it just ran on foot, not bothering to fly.
I think even a robot would want to scoop this little guy up in their arms!  C'mon!
This fur seal pup chased us out of the beach, nipping at our heals like a rambunctious puppy.  You can see he's actually leaping off the ground with energy!
Look at that face!
And this one.....
One of our landing sites was an extinct whaling station.  It felt strange to be in a site that once held such horrors, the remains of the buildings, machines and whale bones were the only reminders of the past.  But thankfully, nowadays, it is full of life.  The beaches are teeming with penguins and seals, making it hard to imagine how it once looked.

Elephant Seals

One of the largest animals we "met," were the Elephant Seals, which have high levels of sexual dimorphism (where the male and female look very different from one another).  The males are about 10 times the size of the females.

These gals are amazing!  They're huge, and the males can be quite aggressive, so we kept a safe distance away.  These females were very mellow, though, resting on the beach all morning.
It was painful watching this huge female lumber up the beach.  She would shove herself laboriously forward for 30 seconds,  waves of blubber wriggling forward like a worm, then flop down exhaustedly for 2 minutes before trying it again.

You can't tell from here, but those goopey lumps are male elephant seals, weighing about 5 tons, and they can sit up towering to 8'!  They're huge, and dangerous, though they just look like sausages.  All I kept thinking was it looked like someone made the seals out of clay, and then set them down, and they just melted back into the earth.

Look at these guys!  They are one of those creatures that's so strange, it's hard to believe they are real!  They are surprisingly social for a territorial animal.  these 8 males all slept snuggled up together.
The Elephant Seals are so enormous, they make the fur seals look tiny!
It's hard not to anthropomorphize these guys!  Look at this and tell me that you can't imagine he's yelling about something!
This one sort of stole my heart!   Look at those soulful eyes!
Regardless that she is large enough to crush me easily, does she not look like the sweetest thing ever!?

King Penguins

Though lots of species won my heart in South Georgia, the one animal permanently linked in my mind with the island, is the King Penguin.  They live on the beaches in such dense populations, it was overwhelming and humbling.  One of the sites has 50,000 nesting pairs!  That's an unbelievable amount of creatures.  More than once I was moved by the power of the sight, thousands upon thousands of creatures, carrying on as if we weren't there.   Or sometimes, as if you were....

If you stood still enough, they would come right up to you!
I would have given anything to have an idea of what they were thinking when they looked at us
Want to see me smile uncontrollably?  Put me somewhere by myself, full of spectacular wildlife, and give me a camera.
These animals are just so perfect, immaculate really, that they look as if they are some sort of computer generated image.  Flawless. 
What a magical sight:  Penguins: as far as the eye can see!

I watched this guy stretch himself as tall as possible, and then walk through the whole flock, whacking others with flippers as he went!  Who knew that even penguins would have bullies!
This is just one section of a beach, the penguins stretching as far as your eye can see in either direction, filling the valley until the wall of the glacier.  Here, you can see the adults with black and white coloration, and the fuzzy brown pom poms scattered throughout are the chicks!  Their down grows longer and longer until it grows out for their first molt,
Aren't they just the funniest little fuzzballs?  Of course, "little" isn't exactly accurate here, as they are about 2' high.
This group of chicks are going through their first molt.  I always found them quite funny looking.  Each had it's own distinct pattern of fluffy patches as their new feathers grew in.  Some looked like they had hairy chests, hula skirts, or mohawks. Making it even more amusing were their personalities!   Sometimes you could almost imagine what they were saying. 
Doesn't he just look like a moody pre-teen?

The chicks were so curious, sometimes coming right up to us, flapping their wings furiously, as if they were trying to tell us something really important.  At times they flapped so hard, that it looked as if they were trying to learn to fly!

The chicks seem to have insatiable appetites!  Not only does their body weight increase rapidly, but it takes a lot of energy to create a completely new set of feathers!  Our experts said that there are 70-100 feathers per square inch covering their bodies!
We had enough time to really watch these penguins.  And when you really look, you will see some of the strangest and funniest behavior!  Most entertaining to me is the courting behavior of King Penguins!  When a male and female are courting, they go walking together, a synchronized walk.  Often, while this happens, another male will butt in, trying to displace the male.  The two males then stretch themselves as tall as they can to try to intimidate each other.  Then, the males begin slapping each other with their fins!  That may not sound that bad, but the sound is so loud, that you can hear a slap fight from across the beach!  The males end up looking like a stereotypical girl fight, flinging flippers at each other while leaning their heads away from one another.

This pair has set off on their synchronized walk in courtship.
The two closest to the camera are two males competing over a female, each making themselves seem as tall as possible to intimidate the other.
Here, two males are trying to intimidate the other as they follow the female.
Once a pair has chosen each other, then can be seen alone together, sometimes just staring at one another, unmoving for minutes on end.
This gesture is the closing move to solidify the partnership.  The male places his head over the female to seal the bond.
But, if everything goes according to plan, you get to see this!   Look dead center!

 Antarctica:  The Land of Snow and Ice

Our visit to Antarctica was at the end of summer, so it was not the desolate, pure white place I had imagined.  It was cold, windy, cloudy, and snowy most days, though, and it was a real challenge to keep warm enough out on deck.  We spent a lot of time out there, mainly watching the amazing formations of ice pass us by, as well as to be constantly on alert for whale.  The waters were full of them as they were here to fill up on the krill that fill these cold waters.  We left the Macaroni and King Penguins behind in South Georgia, and added a few more types of penguins and seals to the list.

My first Antarctic selfie!

Gentoo Penguins

The most plentiful animal we saw in Antarctica were Gentoo Penguins.  They are smaller than Kings, and nowhere near as colorful, but their personality is completely different.  Kings tend to move more slowly, and you see a lot of courtship conflicts.  Though they too are inquisitive, they tend to seem somehow more serious or mature almost.  Gentoos on the other hand, are more spirited.  They run around with the brazen confidence and energy of a teenager.  Though shorter in stature, they move quite fast, and can be seen running all over the place.  The chicks are particularly lively.  They are of the fuzziest down, and walk around almost constantly calling, chirping for a parent.  They are constantly hungry, and will ambush just about any parent returning from the water to feed them.

I had neglected to include penguin "guano" (poop) into my calculations of the sights down here.  All of that red, is from the penguin colony that inhabits this iceberg.  If you look close enough, you'll see those tiny black specs, that are really penguins!

Penguin guano made come cool contemporary art, though!

  These Gentoos are super playful, curious, and extremely determined!  They are very impressive little guys!
This colony lives with the constant rumbling and cracking of a glacier behind them
Not too bad of a view, huh?
Much like the earlier photo of the Macaronis, Gentoos hike long distances to nest, molt or rest.  These little guys hike up and down this snowy hill so much that there are clear pathways worn into the snow!
It was molting season during our visit.  During this time, unlike most birds, penguins go through a "catastrophic molt," meaning they lose all their feathers at once, replacing them immediately.  This means there is a 3 week period when they are unable to go to sea to fish, and every ounce of their energy is used up on this exhausting process.  During this period, penguins loose a lot of weight, and can be seen usually standing motionless, resting.  Most often, molters gather in a large group, surrounded by clouds of feathers covering the ground.  Other times, they seem to suffer in silence alone.  Looking at it closely, it looks like a really uncomfortable process.

I had to restrain my desire to run over to them and just brush off all those pesky feathers!
This guy stood this way for the duration of my 2 hour land excursion!  All I could think was that he was just so exhausted
I called this rock the Barber Shop.  Clearly this is where they all go to clean up during their molt.
But when all that molting is over, they have beautiful patterning.
At least now that there is ice, I'm able to take the more "expected" photographs of penguins.

As luck would have it, we were also able to bare witness to more parents and chicks.  By now, most of the young had already hatched and many were already fledging.  A few were still very young, though.  At this stage, both parents take turns babysitting, keeping the chick warm while the other is out to sea for days at a time fishing.  When the adult comes back, though, the chick chases them around until they relent, tapping the parent's beak with theirs to trigger the regurgitation reflex.
Neither parent nor young stirred much as I watched them.  It was a very peaceful scene.

This little guy was restless, stretching and moving around.  It would seem that he is just gaining mobility.

Once the chick is old enough, both parents leave to fish, alternating coming back to feed the young one.  In the penguin rookeries could be seen dozens of these fuzzy chicks, just waiting for the parents to come back.
This little guy was toddling around, chirping and flapping.  I suppose that means that one of his parents is due any day to feed him.
Since there are no land-based predators, the chicks learn no fear, often walking right up to these enormous humans just to see what's going on!
This is a common sight in Gentoo colonies.  The poor parents just returned from days at sea, and they are ambushed by thier hungry chicks!
Here the chick is tapping the adult's bill with his beak, triggering its regurgitation.
When I could tear myself away from the animals, the scenery was breathtaking.


We spent a lot of time watching the water, too.  We had lots of luck, having seen 5 species by the end of the trip: Fin, Humpback, Orca, Saddleback Dolphin, Minke and Blue.    Fin Whales were most common through South Georgia, but once we crossed the Antarctic Circle, Humpbacks were the most plentiful.  We came across lots of "logging" (sleeping) whales, and even bubble netting whales.  Whales have held a special place in my heart since I was a little girl, and I never tire of watching them.  
I spent hours out here like this, wrapped up in the fuzziest new jacket I had to buy to keep me warm enough.

The first three pictures were from a pod of Humpbacks we came upon as they were feeding in a narrow channel.
We stopped the ship and watched them for an hour.
I loved watching this pair breech and dive in synchrony for 20 minutes
As they came up, they crossed opposite one another, capturing as much krill as possible in their mouths.

This was one of my favorite moments from the trip.  This Minke Whale breeched repeatedly right in front of me, the rest of the water still and quiet.  It caught my attention with the large whoosh of its blow piercing the surface of the water.  I tracked him as far as I could, hardly breathing the whole time.  Later, we were told that Minkes aren't commonly known to breech.  It was a pretty unique experience.  Photo credit:  Abby.
Though it's hard to tell from this photo, this was one of the most  significant sightings from the trip!  It was one of two separate Blue Whales we saw!  Seeing a Blue Whale is considered really good luck, so the 2 we saw was unheard of!

Other Wildlife

In addition to the predominant Gentoos, there were other neighbors in Antarctica.  

These are called Chinstrap Penguins, for obvious reasons.  They weren't as plentiful as the Gentoos, and every time I saw them, there seemed to be a Leopard seal nearby.  I wonder if they prefer the taste of them, or something?  Maybe they taste like bacon?...

I woke up early one morning, and managed to come up to the top deck while it was still quiet.  Remarkably, even the water reflected a calm stillness.  As I marveled at the scenery, this group of Chinstrap Penguins came leaping out of the water on their way back to their colony.  It was such a spectacular sight, I'm glad I captured it.

This male fur seal had clearly just gotten into some fights recently.  He has a small scratch above his nose, and a gash on his back.  The competition for a harem of females is really stiff, and injuries are not uncommon as the males fight for dominance.

Meet one of the top predators in Antarctica:  the Leopard Seal.  They have a huge, strong mouth with lots of very sharp teeth inside.  They can apparently grip and shake a penguin so hard that its skin will literally peel off before they eat it.  This guy was very curious about us as we zoomed around in our zodiac.  He poked around us for about 15 minutes, popping up for a breath and a look, then slipping back under, and popping up on the other side.  
Now, if none of the earlier images caused you to "Awww" audibly, then I at least hope this one did!  This is the Weddell Seal, by far the most adorable face in the Antarctic.  This guy napped during my entire land excursion and was the only one we saw for the entire visit.  Beautiful


The nice thing about having been immersed in so much wildlife in South Georgia before coming to Antarctica was that I was freed up to really soak up the views in the White Continent.  It was so different from the white nothingness I had imagined.  Instead, there were jagged rocky mountains, huge plates of glacial ice riddled with cracks, crevasses, and caves, the refracted light illuminating them various shades of turquoise.  Surprisingly beautiful to me was the brash ice, which is the small chunks of ice that break off of larger ones and float in the water.  In some places, the water would be perfectly still, creating a perfectly mirrored reflection, littered with brash ice.  It was a dramatic and beautiful scene beyond my wildest dreams.

So many of the views were spectacular as we entered Antarctica, that we spent lots of time outside.   The winds, rough sees, and blowing snow added to the adventure!

This was the site of our last landing, and our proper continental Antarctic visit.  It was a short hike up, but it yielded dramatic views of a beautiful harbor.  The green you can see here, is actually an algae that grows under the snow, only visible in the late summer when most of the snow cover has melted away.
Unfortunately the wide angle lens I had at the time created some odd distortion here, this is my last Antarctic selfie.
This harbor was full of brash ice from the glaciers surrounding it.  It created a really beautiful effect

This is one of my favorite photos from the trip.  I had just sat down to lunch with a full plate of food, when I looked outside and saw this view.  I ran (rudely) out of the dining room and down to my cabin, climbing to the top deck as fast as I could with cameras in hand.  We were traveling very slowly down this narrow and dramatic passage, beautiful mountains surrounding us, perfectly calm water beneath us, littered with icebergs of every size.
Watching for whales, but look at that beautiful iceberg!
Hands down my favorite iceberg!
Just so you have a sense of scale, here's one part of it with a zodiac next to it
I was so interested in all the textures on the ice.  The guides said that as the icebergs melt, they roll.  The lines are formed in a vertical fashion as air escapes, so this gives you a sense of how the ice once stood.

In this case, you can see the different water lines as the iceberg changes position.

Every now and then, one of these icebergs had some fur seals taking a snooze on it
This channel looked so dramatic, with mountains, clouds, the perfect water and the brash ice.  I loved it

The colors of the ice were intoxicating!  Everything from nearly white, to this rich turquoise!

Another image to help with scale.  See that black dot?  Yeah, that's a boat
Another contender for my favorite iceberg.  Between the color and texture, it was a gorgeous piece of ice!

This iceberg caught my eye.  One seal and one penguin, each in their own little corner.
It certainly seems like food for the imagination....

We could not approach the glacier close enough to really render this to scale, but this is one of three large archways carved into the wall.  The deeper the tunnel went, the deeper the blue seemed.  It was so absolutely stunning.  While one's inclination was to want to go inside, it is extremely dangerous.  At any minute, one of these cracks can split, sending tons of ice crashing down, not only crushing anything below, but also creating a dangerous tsunami if you happen to be too close.

Now, I have been back on dry land for a couple days, and am finally starting to not feel like I'm on a rocking ship all the time.  Looking back on the trip, I realize that it all went too fast.  I was so impressed by the expedition staff with such amazing information and experiences to share with us.  I was so thankful for the professionalism and hard work of the ship's crew, who really held themselves to the highest standards of service.  And I'm thankful for the wonderful people that I met, and I hope that we will stay in touch for many years to come!  Thank you to everyone who helped make this experience special!

That's it!  Jess does Antarctica, Part I, complete!   I hope that some day, there will be a part II....?