Antarctica - Part 3

...Landings and More Lectures

Kay McCarte

We made our first and second landings on the 6th day and met the penguins up close and personal. But, first, an "Important Antarctic Landing Briefing" was led by the Expedition Leader, Nigel Sitwell, who discussed the logistics of making a landing.  

We had all been assigned to a specific color group. When our color was called, we would don our waterproof pants, the parka we had received after we boarded the ship, and waterproof boots. We were instructed on how to get in and out of the zodiak, what to do when we landed, how to act around the penguins--do not approach closer than 15 feet, no loud talking or laughing that might startle them--take only pictures and leave only footprints. We would stay only about a half hour and then return to the zodiak for the return trip to the ship.

The next morning landings began around 7:00 a.m. We were in the "Blue" group and were the last to be called, around 10:00 a.m. At least we had time for breakfast. All went according to plan, with crew members there to help with the life vests, get you down to the landing stage and into the zodiak. More crew members were at the shoreline to help you off the zodiak into about 8 inches of water and ice and onto Half Moon Island, in the South Shetland Islands, which has a rather small Chinstrap Penguin rookery. Half Moon Island is very stony and hilly and the penguins nest away from the shoreline, up on the hills.

Chinstraps are white from just above the eyes all the way down the front with a narrow black line just under the beak all the way across. It does indeed look like a chinstrap. They were just about what we expected. They skimmed along the water, flew onto the ice or ground, waddled toward their nests and looked over these odd creatures that had invaded their territory pointing little black boxes at them. However, no one told the penguins about the 15-foot rule and, as my sister took a picture of me, one walked by me within a couple of feet.

As soon as we were back on board, the ship sailed to Yankee Harbor, on Greenwich Island, where a second landing was to be made that day. This time we were the third group to be called and around 2 p.m. we set off to make the acquaintance of the Gentoo Penguins. Their heads are all black with a white patch over each eye. Along with the penguins, there were three elephant seals and one crabeater seal sunning themselves on the shore.

When we were waiting for the zodiaks to return we realized that the skies had darkened and seas were getting choppy. It seems that Katabatic winds (powerful winds blowing downhill off the glaciers become denser with cooling) had arisen. The ship was in water so deep they could not anchor and the Katabatics (don't you just love that word?) were blowing it around making it difficult to maneuver the zodiaks to the landing platform of the ship. They lowered one of the tenders, a covered lifeboat which holds about 90 people, and sent that out to get us.

A passenger aboard the ship took this picture of the tender crashing through the waves.

While we were in a fairly sheltered area and seas were not too high, we had no trouble transferring from the zodiaks to the tender. When everyone was on the tender, we headed back to the ship through 20-25 foot swells. Needless to say it was a bumpy ride, rising to the top of the swells and then crashing down. One man hurt his back and several people got drenched as the seas frothed over the top.  At the ship's landing platform, four zodiaks did their best to hold the tender against it and the strong arms of the crew on the tender and landing platform got everyone safely on board. After shedding our wet clothes, we headed straight for the lounge--it had been an exciting day.  

The next day's landing was in Paradise Harbor where there is a small Chilean weather station and a large Gentoo rookery. The shore line here consists of large rocks that have to be clambered over with the help of the crew members stationed every few feet. There is a wooden walkway part of the way past the rocks.  Here it is impossible to stay 15 feet from the penguins as many nests are within a few feet of the walkway, in fact, one nest is right under it. It was easier to see the chicks being fed and trying to burrow under the flaps of the parent. They were larger than the ones we had seen before and it was rather comical to see them bury their heads with the rest of their bodies and rear ends sticking out over the edge of the nest.

The smell of the guano was overpowering and there was no way to avoid walking in it, but the scenery was spectacular. It was a bright, sunny day and the sunlight was glistening on the glaciers surrounding the harbor.

Penguins surround the Grotto of Our Lady at the Chilean Station.

The Chilean meteorologists invited us in to see their living quarters and laboratory, but first you must stop outside at a large container of water and a large scrub brush to remove the guano from your boots. The meteorologists are only there in the summer - December through February - but they are happy to see other visitors besides the penguins which surround the whole area.

Another landing at Port Lockeroy that afternoon was uneventful--lots of penguins, Gentoos again, but the weather had turned cold and windy and nobody stayed too long.  

Until this time we had stayed in the same time zone. For the next eight days we were at sea, passing through a time zone every day, resulting in eight 25-hour days.  During the course of this time we sailed across the International Date Line losing Tuesday entirely.

What did we do during these long days at sea? We attended lectures and talks, some took line dancing, played Bingo, Scrabble and Bridge, Team Trivia, Slots and Blackjack in the Casino, read and relaxed, took classes in Origami, Poetry and Short Story Writing and joined the Chorus, there was something for everyone, if you wanted it. And, of course, there were three excellent meals and tea everyday.  

The lecturers and speakers imparted their knowledge in laymen's terms and, once your ear was accustomed to their accent (they were mostly British and Australian) we became well-informed on life in the Antarctic.

Sir Edmund Hillary agreed to have his picture taken with everyone who wanted to (for a price) and sign them all, with the proceeds going to a school and hospital that he and his wife have established in Nepal.

Sir Edmund Hillary gave five talks, ranging from "The First Ascent of Mount Everest," "First Journey to the South Pole with Tractors" and "Establishing base camps for Sir Vivien Fuchs' Trans-Antarctic Expedition."  

He was at his best and most humorous when he described his trip from "Sea to Sky", by jet boat from the Indian Ocean up the Ganges River to its source at 19,500 feet. He had everyone laughing as he told about receiving the Order of the Garter from Queen Elizabeth, with all the pomp and ceremony, which is not really his thing.

Another speaker, Jackie Ronne, was the wife of the late Antarctic explorer, Finn Ronne. She told us how she worked with him to make plans, get financing and prepare for his Research Expedition. She decided to accompany him to Panama where the Expedition was to start.

On the way down, he told her he wished that she would go with him on this expedition as she knew as much about what he hoped to accomplish as he did.  She is the only woman she knows who started off for Antarctica in a business suit, with only a dressy dress and high heeled shoes in a carry-on bag.

She was very funny as she told how she was the first woman to set foot on Antarctica and she and the wife of another member of the expedition were the first women to winter over. Her experiences of sharing close quarters with the other members during the long, dark Antarctic winter, the personality conflicts and few comforts of home, including no inside facilities at -60 degrees, had us all laughing. I'm sure it wasn't so funny in 1946, but we all enjoyed it at the time.

May 5, 2000

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