Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

February 11, 2014

DAY THREE AT SEA

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 2:09 am

Sunrise. Three-thirty A.M.

We’ve been steaming all nite, passing thousands of icebergs, and are only now entering Antarctic Sound at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.  We’re still over 1,000 Km. from the mainland.

Off Starboard are black mountains smothered in snow. To Port, is a very large chunk of ice: either Joinville Island or Dundee Island. When closer, I see that it is flat on top. Like a landing strip. And its edges are straight as the walls in a house. Looks like a perfectly sawed-off rectangle of ice, floating leisurely.

3 Tabularberg wide

A scientist, up as early as I, says that it’s a Tabular iceberg, some of which can be several kilometers long, and several more wide.  Snapped from – not a glacier – but from one of Antarctica’s gigantic ice sheets.  From my reading,  I realize that what we see – a berg as massive as a small city – is only the 20% that is above the water line.

Unlike the traditional glacier-spawned bergs, this one will live for years, perhaps decades. It will float free until the 80% below waterline snags on the bottom, and remains stuck there. It’ll be a place of refuge for penguins, other birds, and seals.

On the Bridge, I check the digital charts. We are now south of 63 degrees, well inside the area designated “Antarctica,” but still 400 Km. from the Antarctic Circle. I go outside on this Summer morning to photograph the tabular berg, and the wind slices me like razors. Colder than a doctor’s stethoscope. Minus 8 degrees Celsius. I don’t stay out long.

The enormity of this continent is beginning to sink in. We’d have to steam another two days to reach the edge of the circular ice cap that encases the round mainland.

3 Tabular berg

As for Life, from the ship I see no birds, no mammals this morning. Just low grey clouds, rocks, snow and water. Feels like certain death from freezing, even in Summer.

And in the early morning:   silence.   Mystical, spiritual silence.

Here’s an interesting way to look at the difference between the two Polar regions:

Antarctica is a continent surrounded by water; the Arctic is water (frozen) surrounded by continents.

Entirely different ecosystems. The Arctic has over 700 vascular plants, including forests. Antarctica has two. Maximum height here is under three inches. No Polar Bears here, No land mammals, really. All the life here is dependent on the sea.

First trip ashore.  We dress to stay warm and to stay dry. Funny-looking Pillsbury dough-persons, all in red parkas. The penguins will, no doubt, laugh at us. Into the inflatable Zodiacs, trying to cling to both the boat and our cameras, we bounce over the waves to a beach for which the adjective “desolate” would be an absurd understatement. We dis-embark into the water, and wade onto the pebbles. Into the penguins. This place is their breeding colony. Several hundred of the birds waddle about. The majority are moulting fledglings, chasing adults, yammering for food. That yummy regurgitated half-digested puke of fish and krill which they eat directly from their parents’ mouths.

3 Adeile Penguins

It’s been nearly 50 days since the eggs hatched, and now the remaining down of the chicks is nearly all plucked out, replaced by their waterproof feathers (unique among birds) and it’s time to hit the 3 degree water. To learn how to swim, catch their own food, and avoid leopard seals.

They already have other predators, as a skeleton of a chick on the pebbled beach attests. Skuas. A species of sea bird known to drool over penguin chicks and who can even hold a stolen egg in its beak.

You who hear the word “penguin,” and think of either Nat’l Geo documentaries or cartoons entitled “Happy Feet” have not had the full experience. You missed the smell. Penguin feces come in two colors: red means eating a lot of krill. White reflects a fish diet. There’s a carpet of it here.

They scamper back and forth at the water’s edge, unsure who to follow, but always following someone: clumps of several dozen birds waddling back and forth, stumbling, face-planting, flailing comically with their flippers, testing the water, then scampering back to shore. Finally someone wades in, ducks his head into the surf, and becomes one of the most powerful, aerodynamic, and fastest swimmers among birds. Like a SCUBA diver, their cute clumsiness evaporates at the water. (Now I’m anthropomorphizing, too. Drat!)

All the other chicks in his gang follow. Twenty yards or so from shore, one of them has his first (and last) encounter with a leopard seal. But the gang is large, and penguins are one of the most successful species here. Mother Nature likes the sheer numbers approach.

We steam into another bay. “Whale!” someone spots a blow. I put down the camera, watch, and see at least a dozen separate whale blows. Seals frolic off our bow. The density of seabirds has increased tenfold.

Then this day morphs into a display of the Life here. Life I couldn’t see in the early morning. Seals, birds, two kinds of whales. And the ocean-based critters which sustain, in pretty robust fashion, everything up to 50 ton whales.

Next time: Killers and Humpbacks.

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