It continued to be a great trip. Antarctica is amazing. However on our second day, when we reached the entrance of Le Maire Channel, large bergs and strong winds blocked our route through, so we did not get as far south as we had hoped. Nonetheless, the entrance was beautiful and dramatic. We had picked up some people from the 45-person Palmer station, and on the way back there, they gave an interesting talk on life at the station and their scientific research.
Palmer Station is one of three U.S. research stations. The largest is
McMurdo with up to twelve hundred and fifty-eight people. There is also a station at the South Pole. The South Pole is covered by an ice sheet that moves, so each year the marker that indicates the pole’s location is moved to the proper geological spot.
The forty-five people at Palmer Station are engaged in a number of different pursuits sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Each station has its own focus, but generally they pursue studies that are unique to Antarctica, focus on Antarctica’s global effect or serve
as a unique platform for other studies. For an example of the latter, astronomical observatories at the South Pole take advantage of the high altitude and clear dry air.
It was interesting to hear about the science. But it was also interesting to hear the personal dynamics discussed during the talk by the Palmer Station researchers and the talks by an on-board lecturer who first went to Antarctica in 1967 and retired in 2007. The Palmer people said the greatest problem was the lack of privacy. And the old-timers agreed it took a particular type of person
to come back year after year. They said they came the first year for the adventure; they came the second year for the money; and after that, they came because they didn’t fit in anywhere else. I imagine those who did fit somewhere else didn’t return.
Our schedule listed “cruising in the Antarctic Sound” starting at 8:00 a.m. the next day. However, the Captain roused Alie and others from bed at 5:45 (The sun was up before four and I was up not long after.) to say ice was closing in on our route ahead, and a seven-mile long pack-ice drift threatened to trap us if we continued that way too long. He said he would only sail ahead until 8 a.m. and then would turn around.
It was wonderful! The early morning light on the pack ice was unbelievable, and we all tried to get photos of the penguins jumping out the water as they swam by. Alie did get a video but she couldn’t turn it off, so there are also shots of the floor, railing and ceiling – her fingers were too cold to push the button.
Another ship was able to get further into the sound than we were, but we were told that its bow had been reinforced against the ice. In any case, we did not want to end up like the Russian ship. They had only seventy-seven tourists. Imagine trying to take over fourteen hundred off by helicopter.
Early the first morning approaching the continent I was on a treadmill in the gym at the front of the ship when a whale swam by quite close to the ship. Others had seen whales earlier, and we saw them again later, but they were all much further away. Unfortunately, I did not have a camera on the treadmill (Even my tourist instincts have limits.). Although we often only saw a distant spout, we all kept a look-out each day.
Leaving the Sound, we were warming ourselves in a lounge on the top deck as we headed back into a fog. The fire alarm sounded, and the captain came on to say smoke had been detected in the port bow thruster. A fire team was told to report; the rest of us were to “stay alert.” For a few seconds, you could see the concern on people’s faces, but then someone shouted “whale,” and everyone rushed to the window. The fire was forgotten. Subsequently, they gave us regular reports, and despite the old adage, in this case there was no fire where there was smoke. A bearing had just overheated.
After leaving the Antarctic Sound ahead of schedule, we sailed to King George Island where there were numerous whales, some penguins and a few seals. When everyone was looking at a whale bone on shore, Alie was the first to spot a large seal lying on drift ice.
King George Island, named after King George III, is claimed by Great Britain, Chile and Argentina, but like other Antarctic claims, these are not internationally recognized. It is home to many research stations from eleven different countries including the United States. From a distance, some seemed to be no more than freight containers set upon the shore, but most are
permanently staffed. There was lots of summer-time activity, and we saw several groups in zodiacs as well as what we took for supply ships. They could have been research ships.
Logs are kept on the Zaandam each day of the birds and animals spotted by passengers and crew. We know we saw hump-backed whales, but can’t say if we saw other types or not. We saw a crab-eater seal and perhaps some others. We saw penguins, terns, gulls, petrels and an albatross outside our dining room window. But there is no way we could tell which of the 21 types of albatross it was let alone which of the 263
species of seabirds the others were. It is a birder’s paradise. We are not birders, so we were simply pleased to see them no matter what they are called.
Our “Oscar” for our whale experiences goes to Alaska. The “best seals” Oscar would definitely be taken by our 2012 California experience with Oregon getting one for best supporting Actor. This trip gets “best penguins” simply because there are no other competitors. There is no doubt, however, “Best Picture” goes to Antarctica.
We wondered at the mountains, the ice flows, the bergs, the islands and channels no matter what they were called. We were excited to be near the Le Maire Channel and in the Antarctic Sound even if we could not go the entire way through them.
And we were thrilled to have a little drama without any real danger.