Antarctica Tour: Splashing Among Adelies and Icebergs

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

17 January 2012

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Paulet Island lies just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. (Image sourced online at http://mapsof.net/paulet-island)

Jim’s View: A look out the porthole window this morning gave the impression of a potentially good morning of Zodiac cruising. However, I knew that conditions can and do quickly and drastically deteriorate in the Antarctic. I was to drive a Zodiac for cruising between the icebergs today – a very popular activity on these trips. 

Cruising usually delivers excellent blue ice and “penguins on ice” photo opportunities. Unfortunately, nature’s fury would win today and, although I delivered folks from ship to shore, conditions were becoming more challenging. I picked up Ann and three others from shore and started towards a few close ice floes.

 Very few Adelies were on the ice, which was disappointing but there wasn’t anything that I could have done to improve it. Forty-five minutes into the cruise, we were all pretty wet and tired of battling the blowing ice and wind. The landing site was changed and, as fate would have it, we had to round a corner of the island to get out of the wind and offload in safer conditions. That was an interesting passage – the swells and chop had built in less than an hour. There’s nothing like Zodiac surfing – not recommended though! 

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A Zodiac-eye view. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

We photographed throngs of Adelies walking along the shore – all very businesslike. These penguins had seemingly pre-chosen their surf entry spots and bottlenecks often occurred as they anxiously awaited the proper moment. They never know where Leopard Seals might be lurking – Adelie is a favorite meal for these three-meter-long seals, so choosing a time and location wisely is key. 

Eventually, the call came for all Zodiacs to return to the ship due to large swells and wind so I complied. Going up “the hook” aka, the process of bringing the Zodiac back on board can be interesting. After offloading passengers at the gangway, I line up the Zodiac with a dangling hook that has a bow line attached. Engine in neutral, I place the center loop with attached floor straps on the hook and clip the bow line to the front of the Zodiac. Then, the motor is turned off and raised. The Zodiac is then raised onto the ship via a complex crane which maneuvers in an incredibly narrow space. It sounds easy – except on blustery days and days with a swell. 

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Jim and his Zodiac "on the hook." (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

After leaving Paulette, nature’s fury was in full display with penguins porpoising through and over a white frothy sea. Clouds were being whipped above and around snow-capped mountains and iceberg edges were being pummeled by an angry sea. We journeyed through the Antarctic Sound and turned westward into the Bransfield Strait to points further south on the west side of the peninsula. Swells made more room in the dining hall for dinner…

Ann's View: This morning’s schedule consisted of a two-part visit to Paulet Island and surrounding waters. For two hours, we could choose a landing and for the other two, we could Zodiac-cruise among the icebergs for photo ops with penguins on ice. For those seeking a more physical adventure, a hike to the top of the island was planned. The landing was a bit more treacherous today, with rounded volcanic rocks interspersed with ice, resulting in a very artistic shoreline at the landing site. We all got off the Zodiacs at this location to sort out who was going where. 

Having landed last evening, I opted to start the day with a Zodiac cruise. It turned out to be more of a white-water trip. The winds and the rains came up and instead of enjoying a leisurely tour of the icebergs, we were hanging on tightly as we and our camera gear were splashed with saltwater. Still, the icebergs were beautiful, and the antics of the Adelie Penguins were entertaining. Yesterday, a penguin had landed in one of the Zodiacs right at a spot where a group of the birds porpoised through the water. We were hoping for a repeat today, but they all managed to figure out the difference between the boats and the icebergs. I had hoped to get some photos of porpoising penguins, but that wasn’t going to happen today. We all just had to be satisfied with mental images this morning.  

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Adelie Penguins are always engaging and popular photographic subjects. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

The penguins weren’t the only things in the water, though. Strings of gelatinous salps were common on the surface. These colonial animals drift around the oceans eating plankton and in turn being eaten by other creatures. When I first saw them, I have to admit that I thought they were feces of some aquatic creature. We were surprised to see tropical fruits and salad greens floating in our path, apparently tossed from another visiting ship. Despite the precautions visitors must take—we’re not even allowed to eat on shore—it is still legal to dump certain kinds of waste a prescribed distance from the shore. One of our team played a game of “Fruit Ninja”, Antarctic style, and managed to pluck a grapefruit and orange from the agitated waters. Due to the increasing winds, the landing site on the island had to be relocated, and ultimately, the landing was called off mid-morning.  

A fact of life on these expeditions is that the plans can be changed on a moment’s notice, depending on the weather and other circumstances beyond our control. We came dangerously close to the latter today when one of the staff barely escaped serious injury when his Zodiac was caught by the wind as it was being winched to the fifth deck. The boat went vertical, with the motor above his head, leaving him dangling from the harness while everything loose in the boat fell to the sea below. Fortunately, his grip held until the boat was horizontal again, and another Zodiac in the water below was able to collect almost everything that fell, including the driver’s dry bag containing some very valuable camera equipment. 

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Just to let you know I am really enjoying your trip from my warm place. Most interesting. Thanks for doing it.

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