20 November 2009

Antarctica Proper

This morning started with passage through the Neumayer Channel. A
stretch of fjord with spectacular mountains and glaciers on both sides.
Some of us even skipped breakfast to see this. For the first time we
also met another tourist ship. A vessel larger than ours, somewhere
between luxury yacht and full-blown cruiseliner. Very sobering
correction to our sense of proportions, making the nature experience all
the more humbling.

Just after this encounter I sneaked into the kitchen and begged some
food. As I was just finishing a bowl of cereals, our guides announced
arrival at Port Lockroy in a few minutes. No rest for the busy tourist.

Port Lockroy is a small British station where they run only one
scientific experiment. The station is build on a small island that hosts
a Gentoo Penguin colony. Half the island has been fenced off; allowing
the station crew to study the effect of tourism on the penguins.

To lure the tourists into this experiment (ie. a genuine Tourist Trap!),
the British Antarctic Survey has made a museum of the whole station,
restored into a snapshot of what it was like in its heyday in the
nineteen-fifties. It is also possible to have one's passport stamped,
and buy a variety of souvernirs. All major credit cards accepted.

In total, the station attracts around 30.000 tourists every season. And
though nobody explicitly told me so, I got a distinct feeling that this
little business is doing a good job of funding other research activities
for the British Antarctic Survey.

The penguins seemed quite satisfied with the arrangement too. According
to the staff, the breeding success is slightly higher in the tourist
zone. The suspected cause is that skuas are more intimidated by tourists
than are the penguins, and so leave the eggs and chicks in the tourist
zone alone. This sounds quite puzzling to us, because skuas have been
quite ignorant of our presence at other landings.

Our second outing for the day took place in "Paradise Bay". It's a name
I have been unable to locate on any online map, but it refers to the
fjords around the Argentinian Brown base. There are several glaciers
feeding into this bay, leaving the waters full of little icebergs.
Apparently the sea ice had recently broken up too, because there were
also thousands of small and larger flakes of sheet ice floating around.

Into these waters we were taken on a "zodiac-cruise". Zig-zagging
between the icebergs was amazing. There was no wind and only partly
clouded. Excellent weather for shooting ice in water. With a
polarisation filter it was amazing how much submerged detail we could
discern through the crystal-clear water. And what colours. The shades of
blue and green were almost otherworldly.

In fact, a thought about these colours have nagged me ever since this
morning in the Neumayer Channel. It is said that many people who travel
the polar regions are infected with a sort of "polar bug" that makes
them go back time after time. Today's visual impressions has made me
wonder if it isn't the colours themselves that are infectious. Some
imperative quality of the light itself. I already fear I may have caught
that bug.

But I digress. The landing at Brown base was the first touch of the
Antarctic continent itself. The Argentinians were not at home, but a
host of Gentoo penguins played caretakers. By now, I feel more or less
saturated on penguin photography, but I still think they are some of the
funniest animals in the world to watch. How they come swimming like
little torpedoes between the ice flakes, and use their swimming speed to
get out of the water in their stride, running for the first couple of
steps to brake down. And then the clumsy looking walk with
characteristic swing of the head and wings straight out to the sides to
keep their balance. If you sit still, they will ignore you unless you
are in a straight path between the penguin and its destination. If you
are, it will stop at two meters' distance and consider. What exactly
their bird brains do consider is a mystery, but apparently it takes a
long time to figure out the options. In most cases the bird will just
walk around. However in deep snow they make regular paths, or "highways"
as our guide calls them, that they do not lightly abandon. We had to
take care not to trample all over such paths at times. Fortunately they
are easily distinguishable by the pink remnants of digested krill...

Tomorrow we will rise at 05:00 for another landing on the Peninsula, so
I better get this posted and hit the pillow. It's 21:15 ship time, and
I'm just about finished taking backup of the afternoon's 700 images.


Frank M. said...

It is somehow humorous that your photography blog has become an exercise in "mental visualization" based on your text posts!

Another interesting exercise will be to compare our mental pictures to your actual photos, once you post them.

Alunfoto said...

Hi Frank,

Hope my pics will live up to expectations.