Tag Archives: Southern Ocean

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.

 

Gearing Up for Antarctica

It seems crazy that several weeks have gone by since I got home from my last contract in Indo and Australia.  That whole time I’ve been packing.  And by that I mean literally packing my stuff for this next adventure, but also packing in as much time with friends, family, and favorite places as I possibly can.

Packing

Most of my gear for three months in the way, way South ready to be packed!

Spending time with my new nephew Parker and my beautiful, smart nieces has been high on my list, as well as:

– Surfing Rhode Island’s amazing waves

– Celebrating my birthday at a best friend’s wedding with great people

– Living and feasting on the beach in Newport for a few weeks, despite the cold digs

– Reading everything I could get my hands on about the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”

– Visiting my dear friends in the Florida Keys where I was in, or on, the water every day

– Running and yoga

– Spoiling and exercising my dog

Vega_Snow

Playing with Vega in the fresh snow-filled woods of New Hampshire

And now, as 2013 comes to a close, I’m getting my fill of smart, provocative, and hopeful stories that seem to sum up a positive direction in our world.  I realize that it’s not all Yahtzee and Mai Tais out there in the sea of humanity, but I’m seeing some great and inspiring stuff happen.  If you have some time to be amazed (and who doesn’t?), then I recommend the following videos and websites and I’m sure there are many more out there:

Hugs Hammocks:  Handmade Hammocks from the, Philippines to Benefit Those Affected by Typhoon Yolanda

TED Rachel Botsman: The Currency of the New Economy is Trust

Ken ‘Skindog’ Collins Responds to Laird Hamilton  (Laird had a condescending and negative reaction to a female surfer charging the biggest waves of the year in Portugal)

One Time A Guy Gave A Homeless Man A Computer And The Recipient Did Exactly What the Giver Expected

TED Hans Rosling: The Good News of the Decade?

TED Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Aaron’s Last Wish in Newport, RI

Happy holidays everyone!

I’ll send out my next Travel Logs from New Zealand, the Sub-Antarctic Islands, and the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

Cheers.

~~ Kit

The Antarctic Summer of 2013-2014 will find me exploring the Ross Sea.

The Antarctic Summer of 2013-2014 will find me exploring the Ross Sea.