Antarctica: Warm memories of ice

By Jim Eagles

After two centuries of exploration, Antarctica is still a place where human visitors are rare, writes Jim Eagles

A dramatic arch of ice at Cuverville Island in Antarctica dwarfs the Aleksey Maryshev. Photo / Jim Eagles
A dramatic arch of ice at Cuverville Island in Antarctica dwarfs the Aleksey Maryshev. Photo / Jim Eagles

The Antarctic was in a rare good mood the morning we landed for the first time on its frozen shores.

This loneliest, coldest, emptiest, least-hospitable place on earth has many moods, few of them amiable, and we sampled most during our cruise on the former Russian polar research vessel, Aleksey Maryshev.

But on this first day, the skies were sunny and the waters of the Weddell Sea were relatively calm as the zodiacs took us from the ship to a landing site on Brown Bluff at the north-eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

It was quite warm by Antarctic standards so I was only wearing a thermal top, polar fleece and parka, woollen gloves, thermal long johns, heavy trousers and waterproof pants, two pairs of socks, gumboots with fleecy inner soles, a buff round my neck and a thermal beanie.

The amiable reception continued on shore where thousands of adelie penguins in their natty black and white dinner jackets lined up to welcome us.

They had even laid out what looked like a red carpet, though on closer inspection it turned out to be a pathway of evil-smelling red guano, coloured by the shrimp-like krill which is their main food.

As we splashed ashore over the pebbles, the penguin chicks set up an enthusiastic yowling, seemingly hoping we might be their parents, back from the sea with bellies full of food, while the adults stood incuriously to attention, like a bored guard of honour.

When I sat on a boulder to survey the scene, one particularly adventurous chick sidled up to investigate my gumboots, gave a hopeful peck, then extended his flippers and performed a strange little dance of greeting.

Penguins are the dominant life form on the Antarctic Peninsula and in summer, when the ice recedes a little leaving patches of rock on which they can build nests and allowing easier access to the sea, the coastline is thronged with colonies of adelies, red-beaked gentoos, perpetually smiling chinstraps and the occasional yellow headed macaroni, all frantically raising chicks.

Day-to-day activity in these communities is reminiscent of Coronation Street - non-stop emotional dramas - except the actors are (a little bit) shorter and (a lot) better dressed than the ones on television.

On this initial visit to a rookery I sat entranced watching the scenes of penguin domesticity: down-covered chicks calling anxiously for their parents or being fed regurgitated krill, larger youngsters getting pecks of reprimand for getting too close to someone else's nest, eager homebuilders surreptitiously sneaking pebbles from their neighbours, harassed parents being chased by screaming chicks demanding more food and other adults staring blankly ahead as though trying not to notice what was going on around them.

There were indications of a darker side, with chicks huddling together in panic whenever the ominous dark brown shape of a skua appeared overhead, but for now even the predators seemed to share the sunny atmosphere.

A young Weddell seal dozing in the sun did not deign to notice our arrival, but a couple of snoozing fur seals stuck their heads up, barked and bared their teeth to warn us not to come too close, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

If this was Antarctica it seemed a rather pleasant place, not at all the deadly wilderness that has lured countless explorers, whalers, scientists and the odd tourist to premature deaths.

But we saw a different side to the polar region just a day later when we motored up the Antarctic Sound en route to Argentina's Esperanza Station, in Hope Bay, where a small village, complete with school and chapel, has been built alongside a big gentoo rookery.

Out of nowhere a ferocious storm blew up and suddenly our ship was being lashed by hurricane strength winds - gusts of 130km - which whipped the sea into a frothing white mass, filled the air with spray and tossed the blocks of ice floating in the water like a giant cocktail shaker.

These katabatic winds, caused by dense cold air spilling from the frozen central plateau down to the warmer coast, have been recorded at an incredible 327 km/h.

Even our vessel with its specially strengthened hull had to retreat to calmer waters, along the way passing three humpback whales and a squadron of penguins which popped out of the giant waves like so many corks.

That evening, we saw another scary side to the Antarctic when we did a zodiac tour of the huge rocks standing like Dragon's Teeth - their name - at the north-eastern end of Astrolabe Island.

In one bay hundreds of hungry chinstrap penguins chattered anxiously at the water's edge, each trying to persuade the other to go in first, while two leopard seals performed a deadly patrol offshore.

We watched with horrified fascination, half-hoping to see a kill and half wanting the penguins to get away, but the stalemate persisted so Sergey, our madly impatient Russian zodiac driver, zoomed impatiently off into the next bay.

There in front of us were two more leopard seals, around 3m long, weighing about 400kg and sleekly dangerous, sleeping on a small iceberg.

"Leepard zeal! Leepard zeal!" shouted Sergey excitedly and gunned the motor.

As we raced alongside the iceberg, one of the seals ignored us - as befits a predator which is pretty much top of the Antarctic food chain - but the second raised its evil, serpentine head and gave a very effective warning to keep away.

On the other hand, the biggest animals we saw during our explorations of the land seemed extremely amiable.

At Hannah Pt, on Livingston Island, we found giant sea elephants (weighing in at 4.5m and 4 tonnes) existing in harmony with little chinstraps and gentoos (75cm and 4-5kg).

Groups of young male sea elephants, not yet big enough to compete on the breeding beaches on the sea elephant capital of South Georgia, but still enormous, lie nestled together in wet, fetid wallows, where they seem to spend their time snoozing, farting and belching, occasionally waking up long enough to open a bloodshot eye, stretch and yawn, before dozing off again.

At several landing points on our trip we came across reminders of how unfriendly Antarctica is to humans.

Just around the corner from Paradise Bay is Argentina's Almirante Brown Station, which was abandoned 20 years ago after the leader burned down the main accommodation block so he wouldn't have to spend another year there. Today it houses an emergency shelter and a colony of gentoo penguins.

On Paulet Island are the remains of the stone hut built by a 1902-03 Swedish Antarctic Expedition whose boat was crushed by ice, and the lonely grave of one member who didn't make it home.

They are now little more than tumbled piles of stone on which the adelie penguins nest.

And on Deception Island are the giant steel tanks and sturdily crafted wooden buildings which from 1910-1930 serviced a huge Norwegian whaling operation and for a few years in the 1960s was a base for the British Antarctic Survey.

The buildings are collapsing, wooden boats and old whale bones lie equally dead on the beach and the only sign of life was a fur seal sheltering in the remains of an old floating dock.

It reminded me that the Antarctic is a fabulous place to visit - in summer - but despite two centuries of exploration and 50 years of tourism it is still a place where human visitors are rare and hectares of ice and millions of penguins dominate.

That's what makes it so unique.

Jim Eagles made his own way to Ushuaia but travelled to Antarctica as a guest of World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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