Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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.

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