To get to Antarctica, we flew from Santiago in Chile, to Ushuaia, via Buenos Aires in Argentina. Ushuaia in in the Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of Argentina and is, according to the Argentines, the southernmost city in the world.
A lovely embarkation spot for the Antarctic continent. We hopped on the Sea Explorer I as part of an Antarctic “expedition” as part of 109 passengers and 96 crew, heading out for two days across the Drake Passage to land on one of the South Shetland Islands and on to the Antarctic Peninsula itself.
The Drake Passage is where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans merge and is a turbulent piece of water notorious for sea sickness, so if you go, take your pills and eat the glace ginger offered by the ship’s crew. One just has to suck it up for this couple of days to be part of an amazing journey.
There is a line in the ocean called the Antarctic Convergence which is where the Southern Ocean starts and it is where the sea temperature drops dramatically. This is the point at which many ocean creatures turn back north. Not so for some whales, certain seals and some penguins.
It is also the point at which you can begin to spot icebergs. I need to remind you to look at the ice cube in your next drink to see that the ice is one tenth above the surface and nine tenths below it. So when I talk about icebergs later you will see the immensity of it.
The South Shetland Islands are on the northern tip of the peninsula, which is really an extension of the Andes mountain chain bordering Chile and Argentina. Cruising around the islands were a number of “tabular” icebergs, which were utterly amazing. Flat topped and massive.
We were on the edge of the Weddell Sea and spotted an iceberg floating along with a group of Adelie penguins catching a ride. Cute as!
The iceberg in the photo above was 12 nautical miles long by 2 nautical miles wide. That’s about equal to a trip from Tuggeranong to Woden by three kilometres wide. It has “calved”, or split off, from a larger on which was 200 nautical miles by two nautical miles long. It has fallen off an ice shelf in the Ross Sea in 2005 and was making its way via the currents, around the Antarctic continent when we spotted that smaller bit — and remember that nine tenths of it is underwater.
When we set foot on land, we saw a group of penguins doing cute penguin things, but the bonus was that we were able to go within 5 metres of them without stressing them out. Interestingly, we saw Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins waddling along together. Nearby was a basking Weddell Seal. All in the one afternoon!
What happens is that the trip around Antarctica is part tourist activity and part research. There was a program called Citizen Science, where the passengers partnered with the expedition leaders who were scientists of a specific discipline like ornithology, aquatic mammals, oceanography, geology etc. We recorded our observations and these were transmitted to research institutions around the world.
We recorded sea birds, like four types of albatross, two terns, cormorants, fulmars, skuas, sheathbills, and four types of petrels. Not to mention three types of penguins, who “porpoised” along with the boat. These were Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins. We recorded two types of seals – Elephant Seals and Weddell Seals. Interestingly, the natural predator of the penguin is the leopard seal but this animal doesn’t come that far south. We recorded sea temperature showing where the Convergence occurred and how the sea temperature had risen over the recent decades.
We stepped onto the Antarctic Peninsula itself. Amazing! The quiet (except for the penguins) was deafening. The colour of white has never been so stark.
One of the landing spots was Livingstone Island, where we mingled with Elephant Seals and penguins. I couldn’t resist this photo of a group of juveniles lying together whilst moulting. Note the disdain the guy on the right has for photographers and the photo-bombing young fella at the back.
The trip included six days wandering around the western tip of the peninsula and we encountered abundant but location-specific wildlife, actually set foot on the continent and were able to take part in scientific work contributing to our global knowledge of this amazing place.
Interestingly, whilst countries have laid claim to bits of the continent, there is in place the Antarctic Treaty which doesn’t have all that long to run but I would think would just be renewed. This treaty recognises sovereignty but preserves the continent and protects the continent from mining, exploitation and inhabitation. It is preserved for research only. Tours like ours are encouraged because they add to scientific knowledge without the financial burden of countries having to send ships and scientists with all that that entails to do the research.
For example, there is a whale watch. We saw Sperm and Humpback whales. The Minkie whale, targeted by the Japanese who don’t go below the Antarctic Convergence, are numerous and yet to be an endangered species. We saw many Humpback whales and indeed one only a few metres away when it stuck its head out and had a good look at us. We saw one breach eleven times only about 100 metres away and this left the whole boat gasping.
Back to Ushuaia after the trip of a lifetime and Buenos Aires bound. See my next post for a snapshot of the capital of Argentina.
Oh, on the political front, the Argentines still don’t recognise the occupation of the Falklands Islands saying that the Las Malvinas are Argentine and will always be Argentine. So says the sign bidding farewell and welcome back to Ushuaia. After hearing the history of the ownership of these islands, I’m with the Argentines.