Tag Archives: expedition ship

Antarctic Inspirations

Breakdown the word ‘inspiration.’

I’ve come to understand in the early days of 2018, that this capacious word embodies the simple act of inhaling, the source of creativity, and ultimately guidance from a divine power.

In the literal sense ‘inspiration’ means to breathe in – an inspiration and an expiration occurring in each cycle of breath. In the modern figurative sense it refers to someone or something that inspires us. But Merriam Webster says, “before inspiration was used to refer to breath it had a distinctly theological meaning…referring to a divine influence upon a person, from a divine entity….” This is the original meaning of the word from the early 14th century.

The word ‘inspiration’ strikes me as significant.

Its definitions ricochet from my right brain to my left and back again leaving me wondering how a word that I’ve been offhandedly tossing around all these years could hold such gravitas.

One solid year of dedicated meditation since my dad was diagnosed with incurable cancer has imbedded in me a profound respect for the simple necessity of inspirations and the rhythm of breathing.

My analytical, science-attuned left-brain understands ‘inspiration’ and breath as a life force. In particular, the need to uptake air, to draw in a cocktail of chemicals including oxygen that literally feeds our bodies and sustains life.

And the cleanest air on earth to imbibe? I’ve just returned from the Circumpolar Current-insulated continent that is Antarctica. Surely that southern air is the most nourishing I’ve been lucky enough to sample thus far. Its purity is unmistakable and it’s salty, chilled aftertaste smacks of vitality.

Turn to the artistic right-brain and ‘inspiration’ becomes something that cultivates our creative spirit. The ice, mountain peaks, profusion of wildlife, kindred spirit of fellow travelers, and encounters with ghosts of intrepid heroic explorers who long ago dressed in scratchy wool and frozen leather to trek the length and breath of Terra Australis – those too are ‘inspirations.’

In the Lemaire Channel with fellow traveler and dear friend Di Patterson. It was a joy to voyage together again!

The features of Antarctica are at once legendary and legends of geography, geology, biology and history that viscerally inspire me to keep reading and learning and teaching. It becomes obvious at the bottom of the world that there is always more to know and share.

Breaking ground with the Silversea Expeditions Training Academy.

I want to dole out the best bits of knowledge like bait on so many hooks, string them into a lifetime of study and exploration, and keep my audiences hooked as I reel in the line. 

Tiny penguins in the foreground are engulfed by their ‘berg in the distance.

I am also inspired to write, to paint, to create, and sing the praises of one of the most threatened places on the planet. The beauty I have been lucky enough to see over the last nine weeks is ephemeral, and changing in front of my generation’s eyes.

Deviations in climate, like trusses, now build a long tunnel with the clear light of finality shinning at the far end.

People and penguins in red, black and white stretch along the beach.

Finally, together let’s ponder the oldest meaning of the word ‘inspiration’ and come to understand independently how critically important it is to respect our differences in comprehension of the third and distinctly godly definition of the word.

For the divine definition of inspiration:

How does one discover and know divine influence?

Where does each person’s divine entity reside?

How profoundly does the divine influence each of us?

What form does your divinity take?

Are the steep, jagged, black, snow blasted slopes of Antarctic shores and the steel-blues of continental icebergs celestial enough for this brand of inspiration?

For me they are.

 

Sending everyone much love and hopes for an inspirational 2018.

Polar Ice

Ice in all its forms – whether briny frozen sea or sapphire blue compacted snow flakes from a glacier – is one of the highlights of the Arctic landscape.

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This incredibly dynamic crust is ever changing and ever satisfying to the eye thanks to its transient and shifting nature. Whether I’m watching the bow of the ship split salty pans of ice, or staring back at the path we have just cleared through the solid horizontal plane, I’m aware of the novelty of being in the less than one percent of humanity existing this far north, at this very point in time.

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The ice is timeless, and temporal at once. It is home to polar bears wandering each year for thousands of miles as if on a massive tread mill. Their very habitat and environment is in constant flux as the ice thins, piles up on top of itself, splits, drifts away, or anchors itself to the shore.

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If we are lucky, we stumble upon a bear in the ice and spend as much time as we can watching, learning, gob-smacked and in awe. There is nothing on earth like these bears; these lumbering lipovores single-mindedly in search of chubby seals upon which to feast.

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The glaciers exhibit a different side of the ice. Vertical faces of blue and white that are actively calving and exposing their cerulean hearts as they melt and recede back into alpine valleys worn smooth by their decent.

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Zodiac cruising amongst the newly birthed icebergs is a snapshot in time. These chunks of ice will melt and roll and will never look the same again.

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Timeless and temporal, like life itself.

 

Bear Island

Bear Island is the first stop on the way north from Tromso to Svalbard, an archipelago well above the Arctic Circle governed by Norway. The southern end of Bear Island is a paradise for breeding birds like the Common Guillemot and the Kittiwake, a small and elegant looking gull that screeches its own name in an incessant cacophony.

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On approach to Bear Island in the summer months you would hear thousands of birds screaming, “Kittiwake! Kittiwake!” in unison. When they fly off the steep cliffs of the island in great white waves, their opaque wings catch the bright sunlight and give you the impression of being trapped, in miniature, in the center of a snow globe that’s been shaken vigorously by a small child.

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In addition to supporting about one million nesting seabirds, the island fools me into thinking that some higher power designed the landscape specifically for Zodiacs. It is one of the most incredible places to cruise in a small inflatable boat that I have encountered anywhere on the planet.

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With a sea cave 150 meters long and massive rock arches; the thrill of driving around this island leaves a permanent grin on my face. And not only is the stone architecture impressive, but the narrow rocky ledges are the ideal nooks and crannies for all the seabirds and the strata of the island are literally covered in birds fussing over their eggs.

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In the case of the Common Guillemot, the birds lay a single egg on a narrow shelf of bare rock. The egg is pear-shaped and will spin on a small axis in the event that it is disturbed. Evolution has ensured that it won’t crash down into the sea below. The kittiwakes however construct solid nests woven with bits of vegetation and seaweed and year after year the beehive-shaped nests grow a little higher.

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In early June, the island was sprinkled with a powdered sugar layer of snow, but visiting again now in July, I see the green of the tundra taking hold and thriving in the rich guano-fed soil. I look forward to visiting again in a few weeks time when the chicks of all these hundreds of thousands of seabirds will be joining the throng.

IMG_9527 IMG_9537(Thanks to Prof. James Floyd for snapping these shots for me during our Zodiac cruise!)

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Alaska – North to the Future!

I usually write my travel posts when I’m still away on a journey, while my senses are overflowing with stimuli and my mind is oddly out of joint thanks to the distance – both physical and psychic – between my destination and the familiar territory of home.   But while I was away most recently, I kept chewing on the sum total of “ALASKA” and trying to decide how to boil down this epic landscape punctuated with glaciers and rough wilderness experience into a single bit of contemplative writing. It’s not an easy task.

Near Geographic Harbor

Our ship at anchor near Geographic Harbor on a spectacular day.

Holgate Glacier in the sunshine

Holgate Glacier in the sunshine

I could begin by describing some of the native people encountered at a small settlement named, Wales – the westernmost settlement on mainland Alaska with a population of less than 150 individuals.

The main landing beach for the community of Wales, Alaska.  Population ~145

The main landing beach for the community of Wales, Alaska. Population ~145

Thanks to a last minute change of plan, the ship found herself heading into Alaska with 80 guests and another 10-15 staff and crew wanting to come ashore. The day before our landing I used the satellite phone on the ship and literally called the general store to find out if there was anyone in the community who could help us arrange some kind of welcome and/or activities for the guests.

This hand-written sign was posted in the community store letting everyone know we were arriving the next day.

This hand-written sign was posted in the community store letting everyone know we were arriving the next day.

The people of Wales exhibited generosity and their accommodation of us was astounding. We didn’t arrive until close to 10 am, but the whole community was out on the beach waiting for us from 8:30 am onwards.

Local guides for our visitors to Wales, Alaska

Local guides waiting on the beach for our visit to Wales, Alaska

The local dance group rallied to give us a performance using traditional drums and a few items of clothing handed down from previous generations like reindeer boots and wolf skin gloves. It was a wonderful welcome to an isolated homestead on the fringes of Alaska’s great wilderness.

The leader of the Wales dance troupe shows me the reindeer skin boots he inherited from his dad (who is Vice-Mayor and Post Master for the community).

The leader of the Wales dance troupe shows me the reindeer skin boots he inherited from his dad (who is Vice-Mayor and Post Master for the community).

It also occurred to me to write about the bears. This summer of 2014, will always be the “Summer of the Bear” to me; whether in reference to the great Russian bear lifting it’s might head and growling after a long political hibernation, or in regards to the scores of bears we saw from Zodiacs (and landside) in Far Eastern Russia and Alaska.

Seeing a female with three new cubs is a treat.  They can have up to four in a litter, but it's way more common to see one or two at a time.

Seeing a female with three new cubs is a treat. They can have up to four in a litter, but it’s way more common to see one or two at a time.

A bear down near the water's edge scavenging on a falling tide.

A bear down near the water’s edge scavenging on a falling tide.

I hate to say it, but the bears I saw looked hungry – eating grass like grazing cows, tearing at pieces of kelp, mashing colonies of barnacles with their paws and lapping up the salty gruel right off the intertidal rocks, gnawing on whale vertebrae like a dog with a mighty bone. Locals say the salmon run was poor last summer and late this summer – not much to go on without real data, but I’d be interested know if it’s true.

This young bear was showing ribs and tearing at kelp -- not much of a menu item...

This young bear was showing ribs and tearing at kelp — not much of a menu item…

Bears exhibit such personalities and such a range of emotions that watching their wordless interactions, it is perfectly clear what dynamics they are encountering, exchanging, absorbing and reacting to amongst the individual animals. I enjoyed watching them in moments of careful concern between relatives, as well as in flashes of aggression and competition for food. The safety of a Zodiac bobbing just offshore is the perfect place to watch these ursid goliath brown bears.

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One grumpy old bear charges another younger one in a dispute over a carcass washed up on the beach in Geographic Harbor.

Finally, I wanted to paint a picture of the awe-inspiring landscapes of the volcanic Aleutian Islands, shrouded in fog and the indelible scent of thousands of breeding auklets creating a tangerine flavored haze around the islands. Yes, the air smelled like orange blossoms when enough of these birds were around – and I promise this is real!

An Auklet haze fills the air with the ribbons of black seabirds and the smell of tangerines in the air.

An Auklet haze fills the air with the ribbons of black seabirds and the smell of tangerines in the air.

Not to neglect the backdrops of places like St. Paul, St. Matthew and Hall Islands in the Pribilof Islands – these are mysterious, private places that share just a taste of their spectacular wildlife in the form of Northern Fur Seals, mosaics of brilliant wildflowers and bog plants, and thousands upon thousands of sea birds on steep, cliff coasts.

St. Matthew, Pribilof Islands

St. Matthew Island’s bird cliffs, Pribilof Islands

Hall Island, Pribilof Islands

Hall Island, Pribilof Islands

A highlight wildlife encounter for me was a split second when two of our Zodiacs drifted near a huge flock of frenzied gulls and kittiwakes feeding on a dense bait ball of pinky-finger sized minnows. I was listening to the splashing of birds and fish near the surface and the squawking of the kittiwakes announcing their presence with that piercing shriek of “Kitti-wake!” when the entire school of fish ever-so-slyly slipped under our boats to find life-sustaining shelter from the barrage of beaks above. It was brilliant to see all those tiny fish outsmart the seabirds, if only for a moment until our wakes left them behind and out in the open and vulnerable again.

A feeding frenzy of seabirds over a bait ball.

A feeding frenzy of seabirds over a bait ball.

There is so much more I could say about Alaska, but that will have to do for now. It’s more than a single state belonging to the United States of America, it’s a mind-set, a tapestry of mountains, rivers, plains, and home to some of the most outlandish riches in terms of wildlife that a person can imagine. Viva the 49th State of the Union.

Chiswell Islands, one of my favorite Zodiac cruises of the season.

Chiswell Islands, one of my favorite Zodiac cruises of the season.

Unga Village in the Aleutians -- the remains of a gold mining community overgrown with fireweed.

Unga Village in the Aleutians — the remains of a gold mining community overgrown with fireweed.

 

Expedition Running

Living aboard an expedition ship never gets tiring.  I don’t get stir crazy or feel trapped, even after long stretches at sea.  If I need a change of scenery I step out onto the open deck and watch the shifting sea surface as waves peak, crest and fall.  I savor the fresh breeze on my skin and in my hair.

At Sea

The scenery is always changing at sea. Found these rainbows off the UK coast.

There is however one land-based passion that I indulge at every possible opportunity when living on the ship, and that is to RUN.

When I have the chance, there is nothing as gratifying as a good run. With my headphones pumping energetic tunes, I hit the pavement and go for it.  I am incognito as I truck along; looking like a local in a distant land.  Really though, it’s a fantastic way to explore and I keep notes on the routes I discover.  I never know what will be around the next corner, and it’s usually hard to rip myself away from the adventure of it all and turn back to the ship.

So far this spring, I have been able to sneak three runs into my busy schedule.  The first was along the Garonne River running right through the city of Bordeaux in southwestern France.  With elegant 18th century white limestone buildings facing the streets, I set off on along the park-lined waterfront passing families strolling along, riverboats moored on the banks, and bustling shopping plazas.  The highlight of that run had to be the wonderful water fountain – really a shallow manmade lake – spanning the river for a short distance.  Automatic jets emit either a fine spray like sea fog over the water feature, or spurt water up in fountains that the kids run through screaming, while tourists kick off shoes and roll up pant legs to sooth their museum-fatigued feet.  I finished that run in a burst of speed, pushing myself for the last half mile to the high voltage dance music in my earphones.

Children playing in the fountain after school along the River Garonne.

Children playing in the fountain after school along the River Garonne.

The next run was a week or so later in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland – a small seaside town just outside of Dublin.  I ran the length of the mile-long seawall that protects the harbor, and from up on the jetty I could see out to the Irish Sea and back into the quayside at once.  It seemed the whole of suburban Dublin was out to enjoy an evening stroll on the breakwater.  Teenagers walked by in gangs and gaggles, individuals walked their dogs of all varieties, and the occasional jogger exchanged a nod or smile as we passed.

Dun Laoghaire Harbour.  I neglected to snap a photo, so borrowed this aerial from the web.

Dun Laoghaire Harbour. I neglected to snap a photo, so borrowed this aerial from the web.

After tackling the seawall out and back I wasn’t quite ready to call it quits, so I kept running along the shore in front of the row houses, cozy restaurants and sidewalk ice cream shops.  Eventually I came to a small rocky headland adjacent to a posh neighborhood and I turned left towards the water and down to the point of land.  Down amongst the rocks of the point was a fantastic swimming hole.  A little bit of concrete to even out rough rocky surfaces and a couple of steel ladders affixed to the rock face and presto; a perfectly sheltered cove for swimming in the sea.  A few people were doing just that and I stopped for a minute to take it all in, laughing when I noticed the “Togs Must Be Worn” sign nearby.  Clearly there’s been an issue with skinny-dipping here in the past!

Evidently there are fans of skinny-dipping in Ireland...

Evidently there are quite a few fans of skinny-dipping in Ireland…

The great thing about running in Ireland is that you can treat yourself to a GuinnessGuinness afterwards.  Sweet as a nut!

Most recently I went for a run in Oban, Scotland.  It was a clear, bright day with just the right level of coolness in the air to make a run comfortable.  Following the sidewalk along the waterfront I ran past the old stone hotels and guesthouses, and out into the countryside.  It was surprisingly rural just outside of the town and I passed backpackers exploring castle ruins and the ubiquitous dog-walkers.  To my surprise, the sidewalk kept going as well, which was a good thing given that the road is narrow and windy.  I ran much longer than I meant to, purely because I wanted to see where the sidewalk ended.  Turns out it’s a good 2 miles out of Oban.  Finally, I had to turn around because there’s always a nagging feeling in my mind that I could miss the ship. If plans changed last minute, (as they often do thanks to an antsy pilot, or an incoming vessel needing the berth) and the gangway somehow neglected to register me as being off the ship, then there’s a real possibility I could be stranded.  Just in case, I always bring a credit card, ID and cash with me when I head out.

Oban

The local Cal-Mac Ferry running into Oban. Running along the coast here is spectacular.

My next run may well be today in Stornoway, the capital of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.  Adjacent to the port there’s a beautiful old castle set on a massive plot of land and it’s riddled with 25 miles of wooded trails and tracks that are perfect for expedition running.  Now, I just need to find the motivation to get out there…wish me luck!

Northbound

The end of a voyage is always bittersweet.  As I write, we are anchored off Macquarie Island and hordes of kings penguins are diving around the ship flashing their golden yellow neck feathers and bright white bellies at us in a froth of wind-whipped, clear aqua blue water.

A King Penguin sizes me up.

A King Penguin sizes me up.

While I love this moment, I struggle to stay in it as my thoughts are drawn from the three months I’ve spent in New Zealand, the Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Antarctica, to my friends and family back at home.  It’s hard not to look forward to laughter, hugs, home cooking, cuddles with my chubby new nephew and beautiful nieces, and slobbering kisses from the hound.

A snow petrel perches on the railing of the bridge one snowy morning.

A snow petrel perches on the railing of the bridge one snowy morning.

In the meantime, memories of countless days spent on remote islands in the southernmost latitudes of our planet are nestling down into the coils of my grey matter.

Cape Evans, home of Scott's hut from the early 1900s and his Antarctic Expeditions.

Cape Evans, home of Scott’s hut from the early 1900s and his Antarctic Expeditions. Mt. Erebus is in the distance.

I will always remember watching the wildlife here through the broad spectrum of moments that guarantee their survival.  And while all the scenery I have encountered throughout this southern season is stunning, it is the wildlife that animates it in a cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells.  The animals embody the spirit of the place, illustrate the grit and determination of survival, and enlighten us all in our voyage of discovery.

A New Zealand Falcon studies our group as we pass through the rata forest on Enderby Island.

A New Zealand Falcon studies our group as we pass through the rata forest on Enderby Island.

A Buller's Albatross buzzes my Zodiac at the Snares.

A Buller’s Albatross buzzes my Zodiac at the Snares.

Thinking back, I recollect scenes as varied as the tender feedings of mother penguins, cormorants and pipits – to their young beak-to-beak – and a newly born sea lion on the beach; to the violence of skuas picking apart another sea lion just meters away while it’s still breathing, or the frenzy of giant fiordland bottlenose dolphins beating a white-water track across glassy inlets to feed on a school of fish.

A young New Zealand Fur Seal checks us out.

A young New Zealand Fur Seal checks us out.

I will always recall following a huge pod of jet-black orca harboring their young between the stout bodies of the adults flying along between waves and using their centerboard-like dorsal fins for stability.

A group of Orca young and old travel with the ship.

A group of Orca young and old travel with the ship.

In the Ross Sea I watched those same slivers of dorsal fins ply the water along the ice edge searching for seals and penguins perched up on the floes, ready for the taking.

An iceberg catches the glow of one incredible midnight Ross Sea sunset.

An iceberg catches the glow of one incredible midnight Ross Sea sunset.

Friends, family, smiling baby, and smelly dog – I’ll see you very soon.  To the wild places and wild things down here, I bid you farewell and hope that I have a chance to return some day.  Until that time I will treasure these new memories and promise to serve them up again, through photos, stories, and words, at opportune moments throughout my life.

Hiking around the Enderby Island coastline.

Hiking around the Enderby Island coastline.

Ross Sea sunset.

Ross Sea sunset.

Mahalo.

A Weddell Seal enjoys the early morning quiet behind Scott's hut at Cape Evans.

A Weddell Seal enjoys the early morning quiet behind Scott’s hut at Cape Evans.

Antarctic Reflections

Ok, first impressions of the southern-most continent and the Ross Sea: besides the biting, bitter cold even now in the “warm” summer months, the biggest impression I come away with is the absolute, stark contrast of the bleak, black volcanic landscape and the bright, white of the snow and panorama of cascading glaciers.

Cape Royd's the home of Shackleton's Hut.
Cape Royd’s the home of Shackleton’s Hut.

This is a place of white upon black in an infinity of patterns – a gigantic empty and convoluted chessboard devoid of vegetation – I’ve yet to see a single lichen.  The lack of greenery, grasses or moss is startling to the eye and verges on disturbing.  I can only suppose this is what the surface of the moon would look like with snow.

Thousands of years of Antarctic snow and ice.

Thousands of years of Antarctic snow and ice.

We passed Mt Erebus on our way to McMurdo Station and the furthest south this ship has ever sailed.  The top of the colossal volcano was sheathed in clouds at first, and I underestimated its size judging purely by a few glaciers and bare black rock patches revealed through the cloud cover.  When the atmosphere finally lifted and the top of the mountain came into view it undeniably trumped the already impressive landscape around it and nestled at its foot the imposing infrastructure of McMurdo Station housing over 1000 people each year.

McMurdo Station, the US Antarctic research base with an imposing Mt. Erebus volcano in the distance.

McMurdo Station, the US Antarctic research base with an imposing Mt. Erebus volcano in the distance.

Dressing up to go ashore to visit historic huts, or out in Zodiacs to look for wildlife, is an adventure in and of itself.  I give myself about 30 minutes to get ready to go outside for a few hours at a time.

From the feet up I put on:

–         tall merino wool liner socks

–         brushed wool ski socks

–         two pairs of polypropylene long underwear bottoms

–         warm fleece pants

–         polypropylene top

–         merino wool top

–         thick pile turtleneck shirt

–         fleece vest

–         down jacket

–         foul weather bib overalls

–         foul weather jacket with an extra high fleece-lined collar

–         merino wool glove liners

–         insulated rubber waterproof outer gloves

–         balaclava

–         fleece neck warmer

–         wool and fleece-lined ski hat

–         insulated muck boots

And to top it off I use adhesive toe and hand warmers inside my boots and gloves for a little bit of externally generated warmth – insurance against my poor circulatory system.

All geared up and standing above Scott's Hut at Cape Evans.

All geared up and standing above Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans.

The effort is well worth it because our excursions have been fantastic insights into the history and wildlife of this isolated land.  The huts we have visited were built roughly 100 years ago during the heroic age of exploration by characters including Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.  To stand in a small wooden building full of artifacts used by these early explorers and imagine what it must have been like to live shoulder-to-shoulder with 15 men in the heart of a brutal Antarctic winter is tremendous.

The inside of Shackleton's Hut at Cape Royd's.  The contents have been preserved and restored with great care.

The inside of Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royd’s. The contents have been preserved and restored with great care.

I paint a portrait in my mind of the ruthless and never-ending strains on human physiology, biology and mental balance.  I imagine the colors of the hut’s provisions must have been a comfort.  Blue and orange biscuit tins, green glass spice jars, a yellow Coleman’s mustard tin, mulligatawny soup in a red can – all a balm for the eye in contrast to the wicked and wild, white world outside, the rough brown woolen clothes and spare wooden floorboards and tabletops, the black cast-iron stove and opaque blubber smoke.

An assortment of provisions inside Shackleton's hut.  The shelves are made from packing crates for his 1907 expedition.

An assortment of provisions inside Shackleton’s hut. The shelves are made from packing crates for his 1907 expedition.

In terms of wildlife, we have walked amongst thousands of Adelie penguins in their raucous colonies, come across about a dozen tall Emperor penguins molting miserably on floating chunks of ice often sharing the floe with crabeater, Weddell, and elephant seals, and have crossed paths with whales including humpbacks, Minkes, fins and orca.  While the diversity of species is low – our only seabird companions for days have been Antarctic and Snow Petrels – the biomass is great, and the sheer numbers of animals are hugely impressive.

A massive colony of Adelie penguins with chicks on Franklin Island.

A massive colony of Adelie penguins with chicks on Franklin Island.

It’s been a joy to wake each day and greet the Southern Ocean in all of its different moods.  Days have been blue-gray and speckled with white foam from wind and low clouds.  Mornings have hailed us with fat snowflakes and chunks of sea ice forming in the rounded corners of porthole windows.  Evenings have inspired me with mirror-flat glassy seas, the wake of the ship cutting ribbons of shadow into the velvet waters reflecting imposing mountainous shorelines.

An Adelie penguin chick eyes me and my camera on Franklin Island.

An Adelie penguin chick eyes me and my camera on Franklin Island.

Life is simple down here.  The mantra is stay warm, eat your fill, do your job, sleep when you can – generally cat naps through the night between peaking waves – and above all stay alert and absorb like a sponge this chance of a lifetime to sail through the Ross Sea.

Albatross

SubAntarctic Islands

Distance is relative.  Spending a day – or three – at sea to reach a remote island in the Southern Ocean has become my normal commute over the past month spent exploring the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia.  These far-flung ancient rock formations jut up a few hundred meters from the shallow surrounding continental shelf, often perched right on an abyssal precipice.

A glacially carved Campbell Island in the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands.

A glacially carved Campbell Island in the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands.

A couple of the larger, higher islands like Auckland and Campbell Island were covered in glacial ice during the last ice age, and so are graced with gently sloping U-shaped valleys and rounded hilltops.  Nestled down in the fog, and in the moss and lichen-soft greens and muted golden browns of both these substantial islands, are paper-white nesting albatrosses like origami cranes perched in a sea salt-pruned bonsai landscape.  Friendly pipits hop and flit around your feet with insect laden beaks, and sweeping views peppered with blooming red rata flowers reward the committed hiker.

A pipit feeds its near-grown chick on Campbell Island.

A pipit feeds its near-grown chick on Campbell Island.

But, nothing compares to Macquarie Island.  It is the only place on the planet where the sea floor rises above sea level.  By some incongruous feat of tectonic geology, two oceanic plates collided and rose upwards together instead of subducting one below the other, as is the usual decorum of molten seabed rock.  Massive fields of pillow lava that once bubbled up from the red-hot Earth’s mantle under miles of water, lie like overlapping and inflated fish scales on terra firma.  But the beaches…the beaches are thick with busy penguins commuting back and forth from the dunes to the salty shores, or stand precariously balancing behemoth eggs on their webbed feet.

Regal king penguins are thick on the shores of Macquarie Island.

Regal king penguins are thick on the shores of Macquarie Island.

Mammoth, lazy elephant seals seem to melt into the sand on the beach thanks to the sheer weight of their hulking bodies.  Some are grumpy and irritated as they clearly suffer painfully through a catastrophic molting event and it’s wise to stay clear of them and the shreds of fur peeling slowly off of their hulking bodies.  Others are young and curious, and will shuffle up towards you while you kneel in the sand meters away, and then watch you intently with their moon-pie black eyes, trying to figure out if you are friend or foe, or simply a speed bump on their way back to the ocean.

A young elephant seal rests on the shores of Macquarie Island.

A young elephant seal rests on the shores of Macquarie Island.

In other places, penguins stand shoulder-to-shoulder in massive colonies struggling in the mud to find their chicks and feed them a hot, regurgitated seafood slaw.  The penguins rocking back and forth on their heels, or scurrying along the outskirts of the colony in a straight line, look a bit like the hippies at Woodstock on day three – dazed and confused, exhausted and hungry, covered in sticky, smelly brown mud, and hustling along to get to the next good thing.  The bedlam is mesmerizing, smelly, and astounding.

 

Surrounded by a royal penguin colony -- like Woodstock on day three...

Surrounded by a royal penguin colony — like Woodstock on day three…

Now the ship heads south to Antarctica and distance becomes even more relative.  We have been at sea for 5 days already, and will probably be out for a couple more until we reach the sea ice and then the continent at long last.  I saw my first real iceberg today and felt born again – christened by its shades of blue and gray – and by the spires of ice and the age and the size and the flurry of birds all around.  There are no words.  I will try to write again when we are closer to the great southern continent.

My first Antarctic iceberg, deep in the Southern Ocean.

My first Antarctic iceberg, deep in the Southern Ocean.