It is going to be a FANTASTIC DAY. "Kinnee Po Po, Mawa Sawa Sawa", blared the exuberant voice of Doug Cheeseman over the ship's PA system. The Hawaiian and Swahili terms, which translate roughly to right on and very good, that Doug used at the end of his brief announcement seemed quite incongruous for where we were: at the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Icy Continent.
It was the 17th day of our journey so far. We had just gotten our morning wakeup call for the last day we expected to be at sea on our journey from South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula. Doug Cheeseman, originally from Hawaii, is the founder of Cheesmans' Ecology Safaris, the company leading our expedition journey. His trademark upbeat Hawaiian and Swahili terms had set the tone for what had been a super journey so far.
We had been at sea for several days since departing South Georgia. One of the things that struck me on this leg of our journey was how very far away Antarctica is from the rest of the world and how much effort it is to get there. It is truly a major commitment to visit Antarctica.
First, any trip to Antarctica is usually expensive, and can be really expensive. Then there is the time commitment. There is no easy way to get to Antarctica. One pretty much has to go by water (some limited air choices exist, but these usually are for specialty types of activities), which can entail days at sea. In addition, all Antarctic trips leave from places that are very remote to most Antarctic visitors—either from Southern Argentina, Southern Australia or New Zealand. Finally, the sea passages to Antarctica pass through some of the roughest waters in the world. The majority of Antarctic visitors take the closest and most direct route, which starts from Argentina. It's only a 2 day passage--through the Drake Passage--considered by maritime professionals to be the roughest seas in the world.
Antarctica is not just far from much of the rest of the world; it is very different from almost any other place. It is even quite different than the Arctic. Most obviously, there are no indigenous people living in the Antarctic as in the Arctic, and there never was. The environment is just too harsh; and perhaps, Antarctica was far too remote for prehistoric humans to ever get there. Real exploration of the Antarctic by humans did not get truly comprehensive until the early parts of the last century.
The next thing is that there are no land animals (except tiny insects, which are technically animals). All wildlife in Antarctica ultimately lives from the sea. The little plant life found at the edges of the continent is not enough to support even small animals. In the Arctic, even well north of the arctic circle, where there is lots of plant life, there is also an abundance of rodents, mainly the arctic ground squirrels, and other small animals, such as the arctic hare, which provide staple food sources for larger animals. There is nothing like an Antarctic ground squirrel or any type of Antarctic rabbits, though. Perhaps penguins play this role. But for penguins that have reached full grown status, almost all of their predators are water based.
Finally the thing I felt the most though, that makes the Antarctic seem so far away, is how it is so absolutely natural. More than any other place of such great size on the planet, Antarctica is the truly most pristine and natural large-scale region on the planet. Pretty much everything that is seen there is exactly how nature has made it, and how it has been for eons. (The most insidious effect of humans on the Antarctic, global warming, is something that is not so readily apparent on a day to day level to the average visitor).
Our first target in Antarctic in the Antarctic Peninsula was Paulet Island. This is a tiny little rocky place that juts out of the water at the far northeastern point of the Antarctic Peninsula. Paulet Island has a large Adelie Penguin colony along with a fair amount of seals along its shores, and what became the familiar cast of predator birds we would see in the Peninsula. However, Paulet Island is not on the normal route for most Antarctic trips, and so does not get many visitors. All of us on the ship were pretty excited to be there and wasted no time getting onshore the first evening of our arrival at Paulet Island.
Paulet Island has a colorful history in early Antarctic exploration. One of the great survival stories, on par with the more famous Shackleton Expedition epic, was played out in part on Paulet Island. In early 1903, 22 men were marooned on Paulet Island for almost a year. They had been part of the Swedish Nordenskjold Expedition, whose ship had broken up. Ultimately, all the men survived and were rescued, with the exception of one that died during the ordeal. The men built a tiny rock house, living and sleeping in it for the entire time. They mostly ate penguin meat and bird eggs, since there was virtually nothing else, save an occasional seal they chanced to catch. Remnants of their tiny rock house are still there, with a photo included here in this story.
We made two separate landings on Paulet Island, the second one by the site of the old rock house described above. Here, one of the highlight for me was watching the drama of a Southern Giant Petrel steal a meal from two Brown Skuas. The two moderate sizes Skuas were feasting away on a freshly dead Adelie penguin, when a Giant Southern Petrel whooshed in and chased off the Skuas. The two denied Skuas, squawked indignantly for a while at the Petrel, to no avail. The scene was kind of sad though as another Adelie Penguin sat next to the dead one and looked forlornly on as it was eaten by the Giant Petrel.
I was lucky in that I saw several scenes of the harsh reality of survival in this environment during our Antarctic Peninsula trip. In another situation, this time a place called Cuverville Island, I watched on as two Brown Skuas coordinated to steal a baby Gentoo Penguin from its parents nest right under its parent's nose. Penguins may look cute and cuddly, but they can be very tough and tenacious in defending themselves and their young.
As shown in the accompanying photo, one Skua, in plain sight approached a Gentoo Penguin adult with its chick resting in a nest on an elevated rocky point. A second Skua appeared to be stealthily coming from the opposite direction. It appeared the goal was for the first one to be the distraction and the second one to snatch the small chick in the nest. In this case the parent Gentoo Penguin was able to fend off the attackers.
The further we progressed down the Antarctic Peninsula, the feeling of being far away from the world naturally increases. There is literally just a tiny amount of people in the entire huge region and no one almost everywhere one looks or visits. So, one of the incongruous places we stopped at was at Port Lockroy, where they actually have a functioning Post Office!
Port Lockroy is a popular place for tourist visits. It was originally established by the British in WW2, under Operation Tabarin, This British war effort was to report on supposed German activities in the Antarctic Peninsula (the Germans did not, in fact, have any operations in the area). After the war, Port Lockroy became a British scientific station for ionospheric science and other research until 1962. It now has a small museum with a gift shop, and the only functioning Post Office in all of Antarctica. Port Lockroy is staffed by a few people during the summer months who also conduct various types of research in the area. It also has a small nesting Gentoo Penguin colony. The penguins have made their nests all around the small buildings that make Port Lockroy. Humans and penguins go about their daily lives, side by side each other, paying no heed to the other.
The highlight for me at Port Lockroy was writing out and sending postcards to family and friends. The postal service though is understandably rather slow, of course. I was visiting a family member back in the US to whom I'd sent a card, a month later, and my postcard had not yet arrived. But the chance to send a postcard from somewhere about as far away from the rest of the world as I had ever been was too hard to resist.