In this journal…
- I peek inside an Antarctic research station
- an iceberg larger than Rhode Island
- a penguin trips and falls
- also: a baby seal so cute that I died
“People do not decide to be extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.”
—Sir Edmund Hillary
8 knots east wind, -1°C/30°F, cloudy/snowy/hail
Howling winds, vehement rocking, and endless view characterized the long, cold days at sea. It was days upon days of nothingness, and there was nothing outside our windows except a flat line of horizon. Some may say it is the beginning of the boring part of this journal, yet I think it is the calm before the storm: so tranquil, yet ominous nonetheless.
South Orkney Islands
24 knots southwest wind, -5°C/23°F, -19°C/-5°F w/wind chill, ice pallets/hail
After almost 2 full days of being tossed around in the Southern Ocean, we finally approached South Orkney Islands, a lonely group of archipelago in the middle of nowhere. We began to prepare for a landing on Laurie Island at the Argentinean Station called Orcadas.
This place is so remote that google still does not have a marker for it, and that is definitely saying something. Everyone in the station was ecstatic to see our zodiac approaching, probably because of the Antarctic hospitality, or probably because they were 16 young men who had been trapped in a snowy hell and were seeing girls for the first time in 200 days. On second thought, probably the second one.
This station is no ordinary Antarctic research station. This is actually the very first research facility ever established in Antarctica. The Scottish National Expedition in 1902 brought about the Omond House, the first permanent research structure in Antarctica. Yes, it was neither the Argentinean nor the English, or Russian or Norwegian who founded the first research station, but the Scots.
In 1904 the base was transferred to Argentinean government because the Scots found out there was no rebellion to be fought there and lost interest. (okay, okay that is a joke) In 1905, the first wooden house was made there, and it had been in the possession of the Argentines ever since.
The wooden house is now the museum, probably one of the most isolated in the world. It showcased the life of the first people here in Orcadas. The display of local fauna consisted of fish and penguins, along with more birds and crustaceans.
Also, they have connection to the outside world, including TV, ethernet, and WIFI!!!! WIFI!!! YES, WIFI!!! However, it was so slow that I only managed to send out 1 message, but sadly its sole content was “HOLY FUCK THERE IS WIFI IN ANTARCTICA”.
Before we went on, a tiny Adelie penguin waddled right by us, as if we were not there. I was so excited because it is rather rare to see them this far north, since they are, together with Emperor penguins, the southernmost distributed seabird on this planet.
They are characterized by their tiny white ring around the eyes, and cute little pink webbing on the feet. Their color pattern is the closest to tuxedo, and you can see it with your own eyes!
We were then invited into the main building of the base. It was a series of large blocks connected together, standing 2m above the frozen ground. We were offered tea, coffee, and a lot of other treats.
We payed a hefty price to post our postcards there, as they were not regular posts but rather military. Because this place is still stationed by military naval officers, the postages are processed differently, and would not depart the station until February the next year! They only get supplies twice a year, so that was the only window for anything to leave the base.
We were grateful to be received so warmly (literally), and it appeared that the stationed scientists were even more grateful. I later learned that we gave them 2 cabbages, and it was their first fresh vegetable in 3 months. Also on our way there, the first radio they sent to our ship Ushuaia was “yo, got any cigarettes?”
We left in a hurry, as I was the last person searching for a stable wifi signal. And we began another long, long leg towards Antarctica mainland proper. Many tabular icebergs started to emerge from the horizons: we were in the Weddell Sea, where a large gyre traps thousands of icebergs for decades…
When I say they are big, I am not joking. The ones we passed took us almost half an hour to circle around, and our barista claimed he had seen one that took Ushuaia a day to get around! Indeed, the largest icebergs are actually named by NASA because they are visible in orbit and do not melt in 20 years! They can get hundreds of kilometers in diameter, and over 20 stories tall above the water! And as everyone knows, there are 9 times more underneath the water.
30 knots northwest wind, -2°C/29°F, sunny/overcast
Another long day at sea. We just passed by multiple icebergs, one after another, one bigger than another.
In the afternoon, we finally made it to Elephant Island. It felt almost like forever, and I still wonder if that sail was a challenge for us in Ushuaia, what did Shackleton and his men feel? Yes, this is the legendary island where Shackleton started his unimaginable feat. (you do not know what it is? check out my last journal!)
Where Shackleton and his men stayed on the island was a hostile beach, and the strong Antarctic waves had already eroded over half of it. Thus we were unable to make landfall on Elephant Island. The bad weather coupled with insanely strong wind made just standing on top deck impossible.
As we continued on south, I stared into the stormy distance. Looking at the gloomy horizon, filled me with determination.
South Shetland Islands
30 knots southwest wind, -2°C/29°F, sunny/snowy
We approached the island group called South Shetland Islands in the morning, and we were finally officially in the Antarctic Peninsula area. What welcomed us in the morning was an enormous iceberg towering right in front of us.
We circled around Lettuce for a few times, admiring its irregular shape, fully absorbing the calm sea and gentle sunshine. A few penguins were even chilling on a flat surface!
The wind was still howling, and we were unable to land anywhere this morning. Luckily, after lunch, the wind died down and quickly the clouds moved back in, as Antarctica was not particularly famous for its hospitable climate. A tiny snow squall ensued, covering everyone with tiny flakes of hexagonal whiteness.
Where we were landing this afternoon was a place called Robert Point on Robert Island. I have to admit, those sealers that came here in 1820s were not particularly creative when it comes to names. Robert is one of those sealers.
We quickly found out we were able to see another type of penguin: the chinstrap penguins! Quiz time: this is the last type of penguin we will see on this voyage, do you know how many kinds we have encountered?
And yes, they were not too creative when it comes to naming the penguins, either. They have a strap on their chin. End of story. Also to me, they seem to be the most aloof as well, standing there looking into the distance all the time.
As we were admiring the colony, a penguin walking (or should I say, waddling) as usual suddenly tripped a tiny pebble. It felt onto the ground yet it quickly pretended like it never happened, casually belly flopping forwards.
Of course, other animals tend to congregate around penguin colonies as well. Because Antarctica is like downtown Manhattan: it is always about location, location, location.
What caught me off guard was a handful of newborn baby elephant seals. Okay let me admit that I have a soft spot for fluffy fat things, like Sophie’s cat Chipie. But these baby seals take it to a next level, just look at them!
But most importantly
He has no necc
They were round, fluffy, fat, and had big eyes, what else could I want???? I stood there and looked at them for hours, and hours.
Seriously, they are so cute that I was considering taking one home. But after realizing they were already over 250kg/550lb in weight, I had to give up my dream. I guess my affection just will never be recognized… But hey, at least they get my SEAL OF APPROVAL.
There was also a large chinstrap colony on top of a rubble mountain. Hundreds of them congregated around the highgrounds, as if they were fulfilling their dream to fly.
They seem to have a severe addiction to heights, as they would take anything higher that they were currently standing. A penguin took over a large rock that was a bit taller than the others, and it had to fend of multiple intruders in order to protect its holy land.
The large amount of ice also created katabatic winds howling like crazy. Katabatic wind is basically cold air rushing off the higher icy plateau, and it gets colder because it gets more contact with ice and snow; this makes the wind denser and rushes towards the ocean even faster. In some parts of Antarctica, it gets so windy near the shore because of katabatic winds that rocks can fly.
We eventually bid farewell to this beautiful place, and started our cruise further down Antarctic Peninsula. The wind was dying down on the ocean, and we finally would be able to have a meal without our forks flying into the opposite side of the room.
24 knots southwest wind, -2°C/29°F, sunny/cloudy
For day 15’s morning, we started with a landing at a place called Hydrurga Rocks. Another completely white place on a calm bay, it was apparent this kind of life had become a routine, and I will never ever complain about it!
In the tiny bay, there was a beached iceberg, and the waves had caused it to tip over, revealing its underside, completely eroded out into frozen daggers. We landed in knee-deep snow, and yet was determined to see it all.
Of course, as any other Antarctic day, penguins were the main players of the land. Now I bet you do not want me to talk about them anymore, and you just want to enjoy those strange cute creatures make their way through this page, so I will leave you in peace, and here are all the penguins…
Of course, there were other animals for the penguin crowd. Two rare weddell seals were resting on a flat iceberg nearby, and the beautiful blue eyed cormorant were making their ways around the air as well. They build their nests on top of a cliff, using mud and rocks to form round cylinders.
We had to continue further south, in order to do a proper continental landing, so we headed back to Ushuaia. All these landings had been on the islands around the continent, so there was an incentive for the planners to take us for a landing on the continent proper, so we could finally officially say we had set foot on the final continent.
We set sail for our afternoon destination, heading more and more south. Meanwhile, we were treated with a different kind of lunch. The sailors started a fire in the parilla, and the chef moved mountains of meat onto the open-air grill: WE WERE GONNA HAVE AN ANTARCTIC BARBEQUE.
Quickly, the entire squad ditched Charlie, who we all knew made a bad decision to become a vegetarian, and congregated around the chef, stealing pieces of meat he set aside. We were then dispersed by other sailors, who had decided to steal the meat themselves, and had to retreat back to the lounge. Within minutes, delicious choripan was ready. It is basically grilled sausages in french bread, otherwise known as concentrated happiness.
We enjoyed our food so much that we did not care that our original plan to land at Portal Point was cancelled due to severe ice-packing. We ended up doing a zodiac cruise within a bay called Foyn Harbor. It was okay, just let me swallow another choripan first before I detail it.
We cruised around the calm bay on the cloudy afternoon. Being this far south, it was quite pointless to keep time, because the sun virtually hovers around the horizon all the time.
The water was so clear that we could see the pebbles under us. They were grounded by the southern waves into perfect ovals with red, blue, green, brown and pink colors, as if mother nature decided to decorate this place with a mosaic tile floor.
Another interesting phenomenon is that the tides erode the snowpack adjacent to the water, forming beautiful lines like a master’s carving. The curves on the ice stretches from one end to the other, leaving dangerously hollow space underneath.
While the passengers were admiring the unbelievably intriguing coasts, I found a strange island sitting on the other side. I quickly realized it was not an island, but a sunken ship! She is called Governøren, a whaling supply ship that was originally a UK cargo ship.
On January 15th, 1915, she caught fire. The barrels of whale oil on board fueled the tiny fire, and turned it into a full-blown firework. Captain quickly decided to ground the ship, and everyone evacuated. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
We circled around her a few times, her submerged part clearly visible underwater. Antarctic terns had already taken over this 100-year-old wreckage, and nests were lined up in the cabins. Nature always has its way, ALWAYS.
We slowly made our way back to Ushuaia, thinking that we had seen the best Antarctica has to offer, yet we were wrong. We had absolutely no idea…
As we were preparing to turn to bed after dinner, the north was suddenly a bit different. What was originally a gold-splashed horizon slowly turned red…
and even redder…
It was the best sunset I had seen in my life. The snowy mountain even blocked out a part of the sun rays, casting a shadow on the clouds. Even the captain was taking pictures, and that meant a lot when I realized he had over 20 years of experiences in the poles…
Ahhh, my Antarctic life. I wish that I can be forever in this moment, and simultaneously at the moment when I saw the pretty Adelie penguin in a research station, and at the moment when I experienced ultimate cuteness with a baby seal… I just want to be real, live real lives, with real people. We now have too many facades, too many tools, too many barriers, that we separate ourselves with each other because we can.
Well, after this kind of sunset, I bet there was nothing that could top it anymore. Yet, I was proven wrong again, the very next day. We would be so amazed by Antarctica that we unanimously agreed that it was no doubt, the best place on Earth…