Fire and ice: Glaciers, volcanoes shape Antarctic landscape
April 4, 2009
After watching orcas glide between icebergs, and fur seals play king of the mountain on the rocky beach of Paulet Island, the M/V Professor Molchanov sails west toward the Antarctic Peninsula.
“How can it get any better,” says Leigh. We open the porthole to get a closer look at the flotilla of icebergs. Some of them loom above us like tilting skyscrapers while others barely rise above the surface of the sea. The water is blue-black and smooth as oil, but shelves of ice just below the surface catch the sun and gleam in flashy shades of turquoise and aquamarine. I scroll through a mental list of adjectives but come up far short. Instead, we reach for our cameras.
We land at Petrel Cove near a defunct base built by Argentina to bolster its territorial claim to this part of Antarctica. Although a treaty limits human presence on the continent to science and tourism, Argentina looks at the peninsula as being part of its southernmost territory, a natural extension of Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America.
“It’s a political station,” expedition leader Jan Belgers says when we ask what kind of research was conducted at the site.
The black and gray cobbled beach is flecked with bright red seaweed and hundreds of remnant icebergs melting in the late-summer sun. As we jump out of the Zodiacs, Belgers tells us that we’re near the airstrip where American pilot Lincoln Ellsworth started the first successful trans-Antarctic flight in 1935.
Despite the rusty orange buildings and bits of debris, the area feels remote and deserted. Records maintained by an Antarctic tourism watchdog group indicate that only a few hundred people have set foot here in the last 15 years.
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Hundreds of fur seals watch curiously as we wander the broad strand. The pinnipeds can be territorial and when I accidentally wander into one of the big bull’s personal space, he picks himself up and blusters toward me, barking, snuffing and wheezing like a beach-bound Aqualung.
“Look out,” Leigh warns from behind, laughing and snapping a picture of the seal hot on my tail. It’s mostly a bluff, according to our guides, but every once in a long while one of the animals manages to bite an errant tourist.
Our next stop is Brown Bluff on the Antarctic mainland. Several passengers fulfill their dream of visiting all seven continents when they step ashore. Leigh flashes seven fingers as she jumps out of the Zodiac. Then the magic of the moment captures her attention.
It’s warm and sunny, probably close to 40 degrees, and the gentle breeze barely ruffles the water. I have to look at the 150-foot face of the nearby ice sheet and the jumbled mass of floating bergs in the bay to remind myself that I’m in one of the coldest places on Earth.
A rookery of Gentoo Penguins, operating under a truce with dozens of fur seals, seems to be in charge of the beach and the nearby uplands. As one of the mammals lazily uses a flipper to scratch an itchy spot, a half-dozen of the funky little birds waddle into the water for a swim. I lean back against a sun-warmed boulder of basalt to watch and listen to their clicks, squawks and drawn-out trilling sounds.
The scene resembles a frozen version of a Serengeti watering hole, with different critters peacefully sharing the rich habitat. Two of the penguins lean in and start to chatter at each other, their stubby wings spread wide for balance. I can’t help but chuckle, thinking of the bossy penguins in the movie, Madagascar. The people who created the personalities for those cartoon birds must have spent time at a place like Brown Bluff, because they got it right.
As we sail out of the bay, our Malaysian cooks set up a barbecue on the deck of the Molchanov. They dish up shrimp and pork skewers, drumsticks and tasty salads. Leigh breaks out the bottle of Grappa we bought in Ushuaia and pours shots for our new friends from Israel and South Africa. Everyone oohs and aahs as we sail past a double ice arch under a setting sun.
The Russian crew cranks up a portable CD player, blaring what sounds like a blend of Bulgarian folk music and French techno-pop. All of a sudden, the rear deck of the Molchanov is an outdoor disco, and the evening ends with a Dutch-led Conga line snaking through the ship. We fall asleep with visions of penguins dancing in our heads.
We knew we’d see plenty of ice during our Antarctic travels, but didn’t realize that we’d also be treated to volcanic formations like Deception Island, which looks like a donut with a tiny bite taken out of it. It was formed when the sea rushed in to fill the collapsed crater of a giant volcano.
We sail through the narrow strait called Neptune’s Bellows and anchor near the the ruins of an old whaling station. The island is quiet right now, but the volcano erupted as recently as 1969, destroying some of the buildings and coating the glaciers with ash and lava.
In the afternoon, we hike up toward Bailey Head to visit one of the largest Chinstrap Penguin colonies in the world. At first, it’s like a dry and dusty moonscape. After crossing the rim of the crater to the seaward side, we pick our way over a sooty glacier, carefully helping each other cross rivulets of ash-laden water while scanning the sea for spouting whales.
The mossy-green headland is a few hundred vertical feet above sea level, but thousands of penguins struggled up the steep, rocky slopes to build pebble nests in the most unlikely spots.
The chinstraps look like bowling pins with webbed feet, and we’re amazed they can reach these steep-sided crags. But here they are, thousands and thousands of tuxedoed birds, all with their backs to the wind. They’re trying to molt a few last bits of fluff before heading back to the water to feed. In places, the ground is thick with feathers that blow away in the breeze like a dusting of Colorado powder snow.
If you go
The season for Antarctic visits is over, but it’s never to soon to start planning ahead. Voyages from Ushuaia, the main port on Tierra del Fuego, will start up again in November, with the season running through April 2010.
Leigh and I arranged our voyage with Expedition Trips, whose staff provided us with timely and useful information. The company is currently offering some great half-price deals on Arctic voyages this summer, with seven-day cruises from Norway starting at about $2.250 per person. Antarctic trips starting in November are also on sale. Check http://www.expeditiontrips.com for details.
The Dutch company that runs the trips is called Oceanwide Expeditions, and their web site also offers good information on Arctic and Antarctic trips at http://www.oceanwide-expeditions.com/.
Texas-based Rannoch Adventures is working with Oceanwide Expeditions to develop Arctic and Antarctic trips geared toward photographers. The company is also developing an entire series of programs for photography enthusiasts. Check the web site at http://www.rannochadventures.com/ for information on equestrian, sailing and railroad adventures.
The main starting point for Antarctic journeys is Ushuaia, Argentina. The town is also a great base for exploring nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park and the puzzle of islands and waterways around the tip of South America. In the winter (our spring and summer) you can try lift-served skiing just a few miles from town at the Martial Glacier.
We highly recommend the Posada del Fin del Mundo as a home-away-from home in that bustling seaside city. Ana, the owner, Marcello, and the rest of the staff will take great care of you and make sure you leave the inn well-fed after a fantastic breakfast buffet with fresh-squeezed orange juice and all the Media Lunas (sweet Argentine crescent rolls) you can eat. There’s also free Wi-Fi and a great dog and cat to keep you company. Check it out at http://www.posadafindelmundo.com.ar/.
Finally, check out the daily newspaper published for Antarctic researchers at http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/.