The day we almost became leopard seal bait…
January 4, 2011
Noon location weighing anchor at Cierva Cove
Position 64° 07.2 S, 060° 58.9 W
Air temperature 7º C/45° F
While communing with Humpback Whales was an extraordinary communication experience, visiting Cierva Cove and Mikkelsen Harbor were right up there in the ‘amazing’ category as well. In the morning we anchored off Graham Land in Cierva Cove, named for Juan de la Cierva (1895–1936), Spanish designer of the autogiro, the first successful rotating wing aircraft in 1923.
The Argentine research station – Base Primavera – was our first stop, albeit a short one. According to their official record, they study the continent’s two native vascular plants, the Antarctic hair grass Deschampsia antarctica and a cushion-forming pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis. There was a certain “antsy-ness” to the folks who ran the base. They really didn’t want visitors and we spent maybe 20 minutes ashore.
Which was fine with me. Fortunately, what followed was an extended zodiac cruise of the cove thanks in large part to Joseph, our most excellent zodiac driver (more on him in a bit). Since this was our last day in Antarctica, I made myself like a sponge – absorbing every micro-second of the experience. Temperature was in the low 40’s and with a flat glassy sea and no wind.
As stunning as our time with the whales had been, the immutable nature of the glacier-encased mountains, craggy blue bergs, and crystal-clean waters of Cierva Cove continued to resonate with me on a far deeper level. Whales are extraordinary, no question, but like us, they’re mammals. And while I mourn and rail at the outrageous hunting still performed on these magnificent creatures (oftentimes under the supposed label of ‘research’), the whales’ time on this planet is finite even without the aid of illegal whaling. Like us, whales are born. Like us, whales die.
But glaciers? They’re forever. OK, not really forever — there was most certainly a time when Antarctica wasn’t covered in ice (and wasn’t at the South Pole, either) and if climate change keeps kicking butt on the global environments, they’re might be a time in the future when these glaciers will melt away. But right now, in comparison to pretty much anything else that exists on this planet, Glaciers are forever. They speak of an endurance beyond time’s petty march that makes any flora or fauna seem puny in comparison.
The peninsula wraps around Ciera Cove, creating a feeding ground for the carnivorous beasties. After time ashore talking with the scientists, Josef took us out on a zodiac and we cruised around the bergs, by the glacial cliffs (of which I can never get enough), and then the bergs. We spotted a large gaggle of Gentoo penguins – 8, maybe 10 – and began to follow them as they porposed across the cove. A few minutes later, we weren’t the only ones following the little fellas. A pair of leopard seals began to circle the boat. Both thrilling and a bit daunting, there were times the seals came right up to the zodiac as if hoping that we’d serve as lunch.
I’d taken photos of a leopard seal yesterday, it’s jaws wide, it’s large teeth clearly eager to chomp into something tasty. Still…. it was on an iceberg. I was in a zodiac. Somehow, that made me feel far safer than being circled by these two seals in search of a meal.
And of course there were a few passengers on that zodiac who were so eager to take photos that their hands strayed (repeatedly!) over the sides. Forget Bruce the Shark (aka JAWS). We were just a hair’s breath away from having our own ‘man eaten at sea’ adventure.
We definitely needed a bigger boat.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The seals never hit the zodiac. They were naturally curious. Afterall, we were in THEIR waters. Unprovoked, they would have gone on to eat those penguins (which I suspect they did as that gaggle never resurfaced). They then would have found a nice, chilly berg for an afternoon nap. Kind of like this guy…
Still, I couldn’t help feeling just a smidgen of relief when we headed back to the Polar Star for lunch and to head to our next (and sadly, last) destination.
Lunch: Roasted Sweet Potato Soup and the infamous Cheese Board.
After lunch, the ship pulled anchor and we headed to our last Antarctic destination…
Admiral Richard E Byrd once said, “Little America (Byrd’s Antarctic Research Base) is the most peaceful spot in this world, due to the absence of women.” Nice, huh? And apparently, all Antarctic programs (until the late ’60’s) had an official ban on women venturing onto the continent. There were exceptions, of course, and the most notable was also the first: Caroline Mikkelsen, wife of the Norwegian Whaling Captain Klarius Mikkelsen, stepped foot on Antarctica at Vestfold Hills on February 20, 1935. The first woman to actually winter on Antarctica was Edith ‘Jackie’ Ronne and Jennie Darlington who spent a year (1947) with their husbands on Stonington Island during the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, but it wasn’t really until the late 80’s that women became a significant presence in the region.
Although the Vestfold Hills are on the far other side of the continent, our expedition leader has aptly named the southern side of Trinity Island after Caroline Mikkelsen in large part because the area was discovered by the Nordenskjold expedition and used as a whaling ahcnorage in the early 1900’s. Countless worn-out “mini” icebergs are beached along the shores. In a sense, it’s like an iceberg graveyard as these man-sized bergs are the remains of giant chunks of glaciers which had fallen into the sea only to be worn away by relentless water and weather. A light rain drizzled down on us as we walked the shores and I found it interesting that pretty much everyone – be they expedition staff or passenger – had opted to be alone in their thoughts as they gazed on the Antarctic one last time. Dozens of Weddell Seals and Gentoo Penguins populated the shore, but hardly anyone took notice. It was a time to find a solitary spot, far off from humanity, and sit. Ponder. Soak in the landscape.
A few hours later, it was time to go. Everyone piled back into their zodiacs and headed back to the ship. I was fortunate enough to gain passage again on Josef’s zodiac and this is why…
The two of us had gotten to be smoking buddies through the expedition as there’s only a couple of places on ship to smoke. He’s Swiss, very much a naturist, and has been involved in everything from research projects on sharks and their behavior to underwater archaeology to hydrographical studies. Underneath all the incredible things he’s done, however, Josef is what I would call a kindred soul. We each recognized in the other early-on the joy in simply being in the presence of the continent’s pervasive sincerity. We both took great joy in just the simple opportunity to witness the extraordinary gift that nature had created in those crevasse-riddled glaciers, rippling waters, and ancient chunks of pristine ice.
And so, here we were — heading away from the Antarctic in a rubber boat filled with chilled passengers. The rain was coming down a bit harder, thanks in part to a stiffer wind. Most everyone on the zodiac had zipped up their parkas and huddled their chins down into their mufflers and scarves. The group was quiet, perhaps a bit overtired from the long day, and it was clear from the snatches of conversation that many of them were eager to get back aboard the Polar Star and have a warm drink.
I wasn’t. I didn’t care how cold it was, I didn’t want to leave. I glanced at Josef and couldn’t keep myself from frowning.
Without a word, Josef shut off the zodiac engine. One hand on the tiller, the other at his side, he turned his direction out over the glacial mountains across the harbor.
I did the same.
I felt rather than heard the other passengers shuffle uncomfortably, but that only lasted for a moment. They got the point and for the next 10 minutes, we sat in silence and gazed out over the landscape, each of us saying goodbye.
Then, Josef kicked the motor into gear and we headed back to the Polar Star.
Dinner: Red Wine Braised Beef, Flourless Chocolate Cake
Next up: 2 Days of Level 8 Gale Force Winds, Penguin Poop Ejection Mathematics, and some final thoughts.
And yes. I’d to think that some distant echo of my last moments amongst the snow smothered hills and glaciers of Mikkelsen Harbor remained behind, but like the icebergs worn and washed away with time, my footprints are equally gone from the permenance that is Antarctica.
Which is as it should be.
Gentoo penguins at Port Lockrey
Day One – December 29, 2010
Ushuia, The Beagle Channel
Day Two – December 30, 2010
The Drake Passage & Its Avian Escorts
Day Three – December 31, 2010
Arctowksi Station – Icebergs, Penguins, Seals
Day Four – January 1, 2011
Aitcho & Deception Island – Chinstrap Penguins and Volcanoes
Day Five – January 2, 2011
The Antarctic Peninsula: The Errera Channel, Alimante Brown Station, Port Lockroy
(Blue Bergs & Glaciers. Penguin Squabbles. Crabeater, Weddell & Leopard Seals.)
Day Six – January 3, 2011
Part I: LeMaire Channel, Vernadsky Research Base, Wordie House
(Breaking Ice, Ozone Research and Vodka!)
Day Seven – January 4, 2011
Part I: Humpback Whales Ahoy!
Part II: We Almost Became Leopard Seal Bait
Day Eight – January 5, 2011
More to come…