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 airplanes...to 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,
Greg

Real

Atlanta:
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.
~Jason

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.
~Jason

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,
Greg

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.
~Jason
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 place....sad.....one 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!
~Greg

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.
~Jason

Ice (Nov. 21)

Antarctica, the seventh continent.  Well, actually, it's my fifth, but most people call it the seventh.  It's also called the white continent, and I think I know why.  It's also known as the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and loneliest continent.
When I awoke this morning and looked out the window, I was blinded by the amount of ice outside!  There were huge tabular icebergs everywhere.  For those of you who don't know what those are... a tabular iceberg is a large iceberg that was once a part of an ice shelf.  As glaciers shift down to the sea, ice shelves (tall, flat pieces of ice) break off in long, narrow icebergs about 30x5 miles long.  Those are what I first saw when I looked out the window.  There is simply a lot of ice!  

Tabular ice berg in Antarctic Sound.

Our landing this morning was at an Adelie Penguin colony at Brown Bluff.  These little guys are small and quirky, just as you would imagine a penguin would be.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that it is much colder here.  It snows here a lot and is about 4 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.  No longer Chaco weather out on deck unfortunately.  Not that it really was before either, but Jason and I have kept to the Chacos so far, much to the bemusement of our shipmates!  But we bundled up for this landing and were rewarded with our first continental landing, meaning that we actually set foot on the continent of Antarctica, not just an outlying island.  It's exactly as I imagined Antarctica would be when I was little!  Lots of ice, very cold, and many, many penguins!  

Adelies at Brown Bluff.

We made it to Antarctica!

We had intended on finding some thick ice and running the ship up on it so that we could get out and walk around, but we never found ice that was suitable for this purpose.  So we sailed around looking for seals and ice bergs.  During dinner the captain even rubbed the front of the ship onto a huge berg and pushed it down the channel quite a ways!  Very cool day.  And as we came to find out, it was one of the coldest summer days in the last four years!

Pack ice in Erebus and Terror Gulf.

And right before I was about to post this, we saw killer whales!
Greg

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sea (Nov. 20)

We've spent the past two days at sea, making our way from South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula. They've been relatively uneventful, but I'll catch you up on the highlights.
Days at sea can seem either surprisingly busy or smack of sheer boredom. Yesterday was mostly busy with talks from the staff on Robert Falcon Scott, the second man to reach the South Pole who died in the attempt, and some time working with the photo staff on improving creativity in our next few days at Antarctica. The weather was unusually calm with fog and occasional hard snow.
Scott was a remarkable person and an incredible explorer, but I was surprised to learn that he was a troubled soul at some level. His quest for the Pole seemed to reflect his introspective nature and personal insecurities. It seems that he needed Antarctica as a mirror to show who he really was. He needed the wild and unconquered places to test his limits as an explorer and a leader. In his case, Antarctica proved too much. He succeeded in reaching the Pole, but he could not make the return journey. He and all of his men died getting back to base camp. He made it to within 11 miles of a food cache he had prepared, but neither he nor any of his men had the strength to continue on. He froze to death in his tent after writing letters to his men's families and finally a letter to his ever-supportive wife who was on her way to New Zealand in anticipation of his safe return. His story is a tragic success. It reminds me what the few remaining blank places on the map can mean to us. For some, they are testing grounds, to others, mirrors to the depths of their own souls. Still others look to these places to see their own insignificance, see the power they know exists in something greater. Antarctica can be a place to strive for and strive in and through. It's like a mirror. There are as many Antarcticas as there are people who come here, as many images as there are people who look into the mirror. Scott and Shackleton competed for the same Pole, but each experienced a very different Antarctica.
When I woke this morning, I heard a loud vibrating and shaking noise followed by a sort of small crash. Next I felt a rise that kept rising and rising and finally fell with the same shaking. I eventually put together that we were in a storm and that the shaking was the propeller coming out of the water as we crested a big wave. The gale kept blowing all morning. The waves crested and blew spray through the air. We crashed down wave after wave, and most people stayed in their cabins. At breakfast, we heard metallic crashing and banging from the galley and saw crew people carrying power tools -- not a good sign. By lunch it was starting to calm down and everything was fine, but the weather we had was a reminder of just how tough these seas can be. The twenty-odd feet and 45 knots of wind we had can be much much worse, but it was quite enough.
Now we're only about 50 miles from the Continent, and we're very excited to be getting off the ship tomorrow.
~Jason

BIG (Nov. 18)

Well, this morning we woke up not knowing where we'd be.  There are storms brewing between us and Antarctica, and we are in for a fairly rough crossing, or so we're told... The ship will spend the next two days zig-zagging between storms in an attempt to find the calmest crossing possible.  As a result, we weren't sure when we woke up whether we'd still be in SGI or already on the move to beat the storms.  
We did wake up in SGI, which was always the intended schedule, but we were in the wrong place.  Our intended destination was also going to be rough and therefore wasn't a very hospitable place to anchor overnight, so we awoke in a familiar place: Gold Harbor.  This was the landing earlier in the week where we had beautiful light, thousands of penguins, and elephant seals!  Coming back was always a hope of mine, but typically unusual for these trips.  So for me at least, it was a pleasant surprise!
As we departed from Gold Harbor, we said goodbye to SGI in a spectacular fashion, or perhaps I should say that the island gave us a spectacular farewell!  The view of the mountains was incredible.  All of the peaks were snow covered all the way down to the sea and glaciers surrounded many of the peaks.  The peaks looked like daggers trying to slice the cold sky.  I couldn't believe the number of sharp mountains!  That island is truly a special place! It seemed to be inviting us back to experience all of its hidden wonders!
And that wasn't even the high point of the day!? On our way to Antarctica, we had to take a detour for...whales!  Ahhhh, saying that just seems peaceful!  We turned towards the distant signs of these great creatures to get a closer glimpse.  As we got closer to the numerous whale blows that appeared on the horizon like white trees, we found that we were watching a group of dozens of fin whales feeding on the surface.  This is a new type of whale for me, and it happens to be the second largest whale alive!  We continued to get closer and closer, but some of the whales didn't look quite the same.  Yes, the best thing possible happened, funny how that sometimes happens...!   BLUE WHALE! I can't figure any other way to make it sound more exciting.  Just seeing one has always been a dream of mine, a point on my life-list!  You first see his head break the surface and then the back, and then the back, and then some more of the back, and then finally the tiny little dorsal fin!  It was incredible, but then there was a second!  We were watching two of not only the largest whale in the world, not only the largest animal in the world, but the largest animal that has EVER lived!!!  That's big! 

Fin Whales and Blue Whale.

~Greg

Nescit Cedere! (Nov. 17)


Today was our penultimate day in South Georgia, and it was as action packed as any we've had so far.
The plan for the morning was to use the zodiacs to view several otherwise inaccessible areas. We arrived in a little fjord called Hercules Bay very early this morning. The walls of the bay rise straight from the ocean to form a vertical amphitheater of black rock, unbroken except for a few areas where the hardy tussock grass has been able to colonize the slopes. Our main reasons for visiting this little corner of South Georgia were the other residents of the steep slopes -- Macaroni Penguins. Macaronis, affectionately known as "Macs", are by far the most abundant penguin on South Georgia, but visitors seldom see them because they choose to nest on steep cliffs with heavy surf. We were fortunate enough to visit the colony in Hercules Bay at close range from our zodiacs.
The Macs are a lot of fun to watch. Because they have inaccessible homes, even they have a hard time reaching them. Imagine the last time you got out of a pool. Chances are you weren't especially graceful. Now let's add two feet of swell and make the edge of the pool an algae covered rock with an almost vertical face. Still feeling confident? Just one more thing -- you can't use your arms because you don't have any arms because you're a Macaroni Penguin. That's what your commute home from work is like. The good news is that you can make it to work very quickly. All you have to do is lose your balance, and you'll be at your office as soon as you roll and fall down the rocks and into the icy water.
These amazing animals are just as beautiful as they are crazy. We watched them come and go from the water, swimming straight up through the water to burst out and fly through the air for the briefest of moments before occasionally making a successful landing on the rocky shore and usually slipping hopelessly back into the sea to try again. If that kind of a morning doesn't make it a good day, I don't know what does.

Macaroni Penguins going home.

Oh, the hotel manager decided it was a good idea to serve hot chocolate to us on our boat cruise.  Unfortunately, the gentleman in front of me had a hard time keeping his in the cup.

Hot Chocolate all over my face.  You should've seen my camera!
The plan for the afternoon was to sail to St. Andrews Bay, the site of the largest King Penguin colony on South Georgia. It is home to 250,000 breeding PAIRS of birds - and they have chicks, lots of them, so the conservative count runs near three quarters of a million animals. If that's not enough, there are elephant seals, fur seals, and even a few (introduced) reindeer to watch. This is the sort of amazing place we've come to expect from South Georgia, but the scale of St. Andrews blew me away. I think I scared everyone on the bridge when I spontaneously blurted out, "whoah!" while we were approaching the bay. I had just noticed that the whole coastline was covered with penguins. Surprisingly enough, the penguins were upstaged this afternoon. The weather stole the show as a storm kept trying to blow in over the mountains and down the two glaciers that feed the bay. The storm never came in, but catabatic winds blew a cold wind off the glaciers carrying particles of ice and dust and whipping the sea up into foam and spray. We had to stand into the wind, and after a little while, the captain called us back on board. By this time the wind was blowing a consistent 55 knots and gusted to over 70. The crew and the zodiac drivers (our naturalists and professional photographers) got everyone back on board quickly and safely, but the zodiac ride in was... Energetic.

The St. Andrews king penguin colony with a storm coming in.


Greg, with the rest of the penguin colony.

What struck me as I was riding back in the zodiac while I was soaked by the spray and pelted by the wind were a few little sea birds no bigger than a swallow. The storm-petrels were riding the punishing wind as though it were a gentle breeze. They were truly at home, wheeling just above the waves and plucking tiny bits of food out of the foam as spray blew from the tops of the waves. At that moment, I realized just how out of place I am in the great Southern Ocean and just how tough you have to be to live here. That's why James Edward Oglethorpe was so struck by the persistence of these little seabirds on his crossing from England to found the colony of Georgia long before this island was on the map. His fascination with this bird led my alma mater, Oglethorpe University, to name their mascot the Stormy Petrels. We also use his motto, "Nescit cedere," the Latin for "He doesn't know how to give up," as our motto. It applies to the petrel as it does to the Macaroni Penguin and all who survive in the Antarctic, especially the heroes of Antarctic exploration like Shackleton, as Greg reminded us yesterday. It's an inspiration to all of us to strive hard and never, never give up.
So we braved the weather, entered our comfortable, heated ship for a hot shower, and continued on for the evening to cruise Drygalski Fjord. We're still in the fjord as I write and sit and listen to one of our naturalists and another guest play mellow tunes from Hendrix and the Beatles after dinner. It's all just another day on board the Explorer!

Drygalski Fjord.

Until tomorrow, friends, and nescit cedere.
~Jason