Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Home Again

Well guys, we've now been home for a few days, and this will be my final blog entry. I hope that you enjoyed following along with us as we journeyed through the rich waters and icy landscapes of Antarctica. I know for Jason and I that having so many of you following this blog from back home gave us a structured feel to our days, and knowing that you all were following gave us comfort for being so far away from anything we've ever known before. To prepare y'all, this entry will be a little different as I will vary from the more typical story form used previously. No one really wants to know about the airport and traveling back, that's why so many people take drugs on sleep through it!
For me this trip had its ups and downs, but it leaves a truly sweet taste in my memory.
My favorite sighting: of course the killer whales on Thanksgiving! Seeing something like a killer whale amongst the icebergs with the backdrop of the mountains was amazing. Then the fact that we saw them up close, performing such a rarely documented behavior made it something that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Honorable mentions: penguins and elephant seals at Gold Harbor, blue whales/fin whales, and the Lemaire Channel.
Things I'll miss:
The people: Thank you so much to the Lindblad and National Geographic staff aboard for providing the natural information, photographic expertise, and in general, guiding our voyage. Thank you especially to the crew for putting up with us for three weeks, keeping the ship impeccable, and providing us all with food. I'll also miss all of the friends we made aboard the ship as they are also returning home.
The sights: Antarctica and South Georgia Island are two of the most special places I can think of. The animals, the mountains, and of course icebergs and glaciers make them truly majestic in nature. For me, it was truly a time to see God through His magnificent creation. How great is our God! This trip really gave me time to think about that, and is one of the more memorable points for me.
What I won't miss:
The sounds: Penguins and seals can be kinda annoying. It's that simple.
The smells: It's more simple; they STINK! Penguins on their own do not smell, but thousands upon thousands in one place and their obligatory waste makes a penguin colony have a very bad odor. I hear though that they are much worse later in the season?! And finally, there are few things that I have smelled that are worse than a fur seal!
While I'm at it....
Fur seals: They deserve their own section. They STINK! They make annoying sounds, and they possess one of those smells that you can smell over distance. Days later you can even catch a whiff of them, making your nose cringe. They're also aggressive toward humans, even the little ones! That's three strikes.
The trip is over, and I miss waking up to mountains and glaciers, but I am really glad to be home and see friends and family. Also, I'm sure you can understand the comforts of home: your own bed, your own shower, driving yourself, and being able to find someplace to be alone (no offense to my other 148 shipmates or the staff/crew). There's only so long that I can live aboard a ship. And then there's food, not that the food aboard the ship wasn't tasty, but....I love Mexican food and cornbread! I've had Mexican once and fresh cornbread twice since I've been home....
So once again, thank you for following along with us through our travels. Thank you for giving us the thoughtful support while we've been gone. I'm sad that I can't continue to see those sights, but I am glad to be home with you all. Thank you!
From Atlanta at last,


It’s been almost a week since I returned from Antarctica, and I think that this week has given me some time to process what was one of the most incredible journeys I’ll ever take. In some ways, it seems like Antarctica belongs to a dream world, totally separate from the world where I drive a car and work in an office. It seems so far away from the traffic, the buildings, and the streets that I see on a daily basis, but I know that it’s real. When someone asked me this week where I had been and I told him, he jokingly asked, “So it’s a real place? There’s actually something down there at the bottom of the world?” Yes, Antarctica is a very real place. Yes, there are quite a lot of things at the bottom of the world. We all know this to be true, but experiencing it puts it in a very new light.
Antarctica may be even more real than the world most of us live in. The cities and towns we call home, the important places on the map are the ones that humans have made. We’ve created our own homes. We’ve created these dots we call cities and these all-important lines we call borders. They seem so concrete and real, but cities have importance because we’ve given it. Borders are imaginary lines in the sand we’ve created. In Antarctica, the imaginary lines lose their meaning, and the dots simply don’t exist. There are only mountains, glaciers, islands, straits, bays, and peninsulas. It’s a world we have not made. The penguins come to their breeding grounds. The whales patrol their favorite waters. The sea birds roam the globe, and it all goes on all the time whether we’re there to see it or not.
Here at home, I returned to my office to find the sounds of heavy equipment running and trees shaking and falling by the hundreds as a road crew clears room for a widening highway. The wheels of industry turn, and progress goes on back here in our artificial world. It pains me to watch this happen, but I know that by driving on this highway every day to go to work, I’ve spurred it on.
I don’t have a solution or some eloquent resolution. I only know that everyone I know who has been to Antarctica and experienced really wild places knows that we need them. None of us may be able to tell you precisely why, but we all know the wilds are precious and that there’s something there that calls us back.

Round the Horn (Nov. 27)

Tonight, I'm writing from a very different world. A container ship is alongside, and trucks and forklifts go back and forth along the pier. The city of Ushuaia splays up the mountainside, and the city lights shine in the delayed dusk.
We've spent the past two days sailing from the white continent back to the civilized world. As we left Antarctica behind, it was hard to believe that we were leaving the world of snow and ice and mountains to return to the real world. It still is really.
The first day at sea we were in the realm of the albatross. The giant birds once again joined our ship to wish us a safe voyage home. They reminded us once again that they are the masters of the sea and sky and that we are but visitors.
Today, we woke with the call of our landfall at Cape Horn. It was interesting to see the site of so many legendary sea stories. Rounding the Horn used to be a very dangerous task of the mariner, but now we motor along regardless of the wind and gaze on the monument commemorating the mariners' sacrifice.

Cape Horn.

The rest of the day we spent packing and settling our affairs here on our temporary floating home. The National Geographic Explorer really has come to feel like a second home. We know the hallways and the best places to be at each time of the day. We say good morning and greet the crew by name. Saying goodbye to the ship is bittersweet, but saying goodbye to our shipmates is more difficult. We've become very fond of our fellow travelers, and we've experienced some amazing things together. Tonight, we had a farewell dinner with a big table of friends knowing that we'd never all be together again. As we finished the meal, our port came into view, and the reality of going home hit us. We talked about how much of a shock civilization will be after the great white emptiness of Antarctica.

Ushuaia harbor.

Tomorrow is a travel day. We'll move from the city at the bottom of the world to Buenos Aires, and then, we'll be home the following morning. It's been quite the adventure, and I want to thank all of you for following us. Keep taking a look at this journal as we post pictures from home where the internet is more readily available.

C-C-C-OLD!!! (Nov. 25)

Well, this is both a sad and exciting day!  It was the last time we landed in Antarctica.  The next time we will disembark the National Geographic Explorer will be in Ushuaia, Argentina!  Tonight we begin our journey to once again cross the tumultuous waters of the Drake Passage.  We're hoping and praying for a safe and speedy voyage home!  We should arrive in Atlanta early on Tuesday!  We're also very excited to be back home and see friends and family!
Today we visited a British base here on the Antarctic Peninsula named Port
Lockroy.  It was significantly smaller than the seemingly small American base at Palmer.  Lockroy is home to only five people that do various jobs from managing the southernmost post office in the world to restoring and preserving the old expeditionary and whaling sites in the area.

Port Lockroy.

The Post Office.

The base itself is only operates in the summer because the entire area is inaccessible in the colder months due to ice, but even during the summer, the members of the base have a very hard time traveling around.  It's not that the walking here is much harder than other places on the Peninsula.  It's more that they possess no boats or vessels of any kind.  Everywhere they go must be on foot, and it's on an island.  As I heard it explained, it is a matter of keeping the base small and inexpensive.  If they had one boat, they'd have to have a back-up boat.  If they had more than one boat, they'd have to have a technician to maintain and fix them.  If they had more staff they'd have to have a doctor.  With all the new personnel, they'd have to build extra lodging quarters, and then more personnel to build and maintain those.  And it goes on and on... What I can't figure out is if they currently operate without a boat, why they couldn't operate it without a back-up boat? If the first one broke, then they'd be back to status quo until next season right?

Penguin on the menu?

Anyone have a can opener?

Standard issue back in the day.

Do these penguins speak with a British accent?

Anyway, after the morning landing, the captain pushed the ship up on to some long awaited fast ice where we got out and ran around and threw snowballs.  Afterwards many from the ship chose to take a "polar plunge!" Yes, I partook, and no Jason did not.  As I found out from the scientific staff aboard, there are apparently five oceans not four! Our education system has not caught up to the scientific community.  So I completed my quest of swimming in all the worlds oceans.  The Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic, and now the Southern Ocean!  It was COLD! The captain said it was somewhere between 28 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit, which was much colder than the Arctic Ocean at 34 degrees.

Out on the ice.

The National Geographic Explorer.

Well folks, this will either be my last or next to the last entry before we do any kind of recap when we return!  Jason should be covering our next two days at sea.  Thank you very much for following so far.  It's meant a lot that so many of you at home have decided to keep up with us while we've been traveling these last three weeks!
Thanks again,
And for the final time from the bottom of the world,

Thanksgiving (Nov. 24)

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home! Our Thanksgiving has been anything but conventional, but I have even more than usual to be thankful for.
I woke to very first thing I'm thankful for today -- the sun. It seems to circle endlessly here. It shines its light, and by its light, I see the ice and the snow and the sea and sharp mountain peaks. Its light is the reason for all the life I see and have seen, which today especially was incredible.
I'm also thankful for phytoplankton and Antarctic krill today, and by the time you've read the rest, you'll understand why I care about microscopic and very tiny oceanic organisms.
We're right at the end of our time in Antarctica, and my mood was a little mellow and contemplative. I felt as though I've seen so many amazing things that I wouldn't see anything new today. I was kind of hoping for a leopard seal, which I'd already seen but wanted a little better look.
So with that great level of expectation, I boarded a zodiac for a little cruise in the bay. I was content to wonder at the mountains and see the icebergs, and I was beginning to say goodbye to this special place.
As so often happens, I was completely wrong in my attitude. My expectations were far too low. I heard and blowing sound and then saw one of the naturalists point, and he yelled, "KILLER WHALE!" I saw the ripples and then a sharp, black spike materialized out of the sea ice and crested several feet out of the water. The whale disappeared, but I sensed that I needed to look down in the water. The sleek, black shape became clear through the darkness of the water and sped straight toward our zodiac. The whale swam right under us! It was probably close to twice the length of the zodiac. That alone would have made the day, but it wasn't about to end.

Orcinus orca

We soon located the rest of the pod and followed them down the bay as quickly as we could through the thick ice. We caught up and saw one of the whales poke its head above the water to look at the top of the ice floes. The others soon joined in and found a seal on top of one of the large pieces of ice. The next thing I knew, a huge wave crashed against the seal's ice. The whales appeared on the other side as the wave passed through. They coordinated and rushed toward the ice together and dove to make a wave to knock the seal into the sea. As all this coordination and intelligence struck me, another wave struck the seal, and it struggled to keep its place on the ice. The pod turned to look at the seal, and each individual took a look at what they discovered to be a leopard seal. In that moment, I think they decided that the leopard would put up more fight than he was worth. They moved off down the bay again.

Killer whales seal hunting.

It was absolutely amazing to see such teamwork, creativity, and cunning in animals. The knowledge of the physics of making wave and the collaboration to make it happen seems beyond the capabilities of mere animals. This behavior has only been documented in killer whales a handful of times before. Apparently, it's one of the key groundbreaking scenes in the as yet unreleased in the US BBC nature series.
As a friend of mine would say, today was all time.
In the afternoon, our ship was invited to visit the Palmer research station. Palmer is one of only three American research stations in Antarctica. Suffice it to say that some really incredible people endure some really crazy conditions for some really good science. The scientists joined us for our evening recap, and that brings us back to krill. The scientists at Palmer are studying krill as the keystone species in Antarctica. The sun provides the energy for the phytoplankton, and the krill eat the phytoplankton. Everything from penguins to seals eats krill, and the killer whales eat both. Without the sun and krill and phytoplankton, I would have no killer whales to be thankful for.

Palmer Station.

Believe it or not, this was the only sign with Antarctica on it on the whole trip!

We were very at home in Zodiacs.

It all comes full circle. As I write, the sun hangs just above the horizon, and it seems like it's been there for a hour. The glacier next to Palmer is orange, and the ice has choked the harbor so that it looks like white, rocky land. It's the sort of unearthly scene that seems normal in Antarctica.
An Antarctic sunset.

Of Overlooks and Kayaks (Nov. 23)

Alright guys, one more day until Thanksgiving!  This morning we anchored the ship in a place called Neko Harbor, which is named after an early twentieth century Belgian whaling vessel.  Our group was able to  take zodiacs around the area to examine all of the floating pieces of ice and look for wildlife among them.  We were able to find numerous groups of Gentoo penguins porpoising through the water looking for fish and a few birds perched on ice bergs, but unfortunately no seals.  The harbor itself was simply breathtaking though!  Glaciers covered the mountains around the harbor and some of the vistas looked too perfect to be real; it was like a dream!  

Neko Harbor.

When our zodiac cruise ended, we landed where the rest of the ship's company were at the Gentoo colony.  Nothing against the Gentoos (except for the fact that they smelled horrible!), but the real highlight of the morning was walking up the steep, snow covered hill to overlook the bay!  The hill really tempted me to slide down, but they warned us against it at this particular of the ship's crew brought his snowboard and went down the hill that way!  We hung out at the top of the hill overlooking the colony, the mountains and the glaciers, waiting for ice to calve in spectacular fashion.  

Overlooking the glacier.

Not much ice fell, but we were rewarded with a particularly odd sight.  Four penguins decided to walk up the hill and join us.  Penguins seem to be very curious and often hair-brained.   It was simply as if they said, "I wonder what's up there," and just kept walking.  I don't know what was in their heads.  It's like they wondered what those funny colored penguins were doing up there and didn't want to miss anything.  Our resident ornithologist has told us repeatedly he doesn't think penguins are the brightest birds in the world.  I'm starting to understand why, but they're still funny, awkward, and pretty lovable.  

Silly penguins!

We're spending the afternoon in Paradise Harbor.  Which if you like ice, then I suppose this fits the bill pretty well.  Similar to most of the places that we've been, this is yet again surrounded by glaciers, mountains, and filled with icebergs.  I'm not complaining in the least! I'm just trying to convey how much of this place is absolutely covered in glaciers and mountains!  It's mind boggling!  
This afternoon there was no stepping ashore, but we did get to paddle around the harbor in kayaks, which was more exciting for the trouble of it rather than the kayaking itself!  The scene was gorgeous, but the ice kept closing in on us until the point that we got stuck in a small open hole surrounded by brash ice and larger icebergs...  As this was happening to everyone, they picked up all the kayakers and took us back to the ship.  
And as I just found out, our expedition leader, Lisa, and the geologist, Jason, are getting married today.  Best wishes to you both, and may you have a very happy marriage! Congratulations!

A Day in the Life (Nov. 22)

I'm watching the extinct volcano of Deception Island as we sail south. It looks like the sun will be setting soon, but I know that the soft, orange light will stay on the clouds for the next several hours as the sun skirts the horizon. Days are reluctant to end here, and they seem eager to start.
Ours began this morning by moving from the famed Weddell Sea to King George Island in the South Shetland archipelago. The ship pulled into the shallow bay ringed by low hills covered in snow, interrupted only by the occasional black cliff. Orange, red, and blue roofs dotted the hillsides, and an old, gaudy, red and yellow freighter was anchored in the harbor with us and a lone iceberg.

The Harbor at King George Island.

King George Island is home to more research stations than any other area in Antarctica. We made an unplanned stop at the Chilean base because they have an airstrip, and our chief engineer likely broke his leg in the bad weather we had. He's fine, but as an aging gentleman and a veteran sailor, he's upset at himself that he didn't take more care moving around the ship. The sailor's motto is after all, "One hand for you.  One hand for the ship."
As we waited for his flight to arrive, we took time to stroll around the Chilean and nearby Russian bases. The researchers went about their daily tasks, painting, carrying garbage, or suiting up for a very cold dive as need be. It was a reminder of what life is like here. There is little room for luxury, and utility is the chief priority. The Russian Bellingshausen Station struck an odd contrast between rusting boxed buildings and the log built Russian Orthodox church on the hill. The Russians were beyond utilitarian in the work buildings but built a beautiful church with ornate iconography on the inside. The whole setting was so out of place. The sounds of working tractors and diesel generators just didn't seem to belong here in Antarctica, yet this is the experience of the only people who live here, even for a brief time.

The Chilean Station.

Hello from "Russia"!

A typical building at the Russian station.

The southernmost Russian Orthodox Church in the world.

The inside of the church, beautiful.

For me, it was a dismal scene and a reminder that I am a stranger here. Life goes on without a single human every day and every year as it always has. The penguins come and go, and whales cruise the deep whether we know it or not. It seems we can only get in the way.
In the afternoon, we called on the Chinstrap penguin colony at Half Moon Island. They didn't seem to mind visitors, and I don't blame them. If my home was half as spectacular as theirs, I would welcome uninvited guests as well. Half Moon is a tiny speck of land in a bay between two much larger islands. Mountains covered in snow and glaciers ring the bay and rise for thousands of feet into the clouds. Deep blue icebergs sit in the bay, and today the weather was beautiful with some sun and very little wind. The penguins nest at several rock outcroppings on top of the island so that they have one of the best views I have ever seen.

An iceberg in Half Moon Bay.

The view from the penguins' doorstep.

Life at the colony is busy these days. It is breeding season. Pairs are seeing each other for the first time after months apart at sea. They dance and call together, (I definitely can't call it singing.) and the males bring pebbles and small stones to the females at the chosen nesting spot. The constant gift giving, noisy displays, and territorial disputes contrast sharply with the lifeless, silent mountain peaks behind them. It was a truly beautiful day. Two humpback whales even decided to leap for joy at the entrance to the bay. Seeing then launch themselves, all 40 feet of themselves, into the air never ceases to amaze me.
This place has so many incredible corners to explore. I'm told that our destination for tomorrow is spectacular even by Antarctic standards, so I'd better get a good night's rest.