By Wendy Wood-Prince
We travel to experience many things, warmth, cold, the sea, sports such as skiing or surfing, the need to lounge and recharge, the need for adventure, and so on. Travel crosses over to true adventure when the climate itself is part of the attraction. My nephew, Bill Collins, recently returned from a true adventure when he visited Antarctica. Bill showed his true explorer’s spirit on this trip. He shared the trip with Chicago Classic and has written fitting photojournalistic captions for his stunning photographs.
The fifth largest continent, Antarctica, is practically uninhabited, with a summer population of 5000 that whittles down to 1000 during the winter months. It is completely surrounded by the Southern Ocean.
“A convoy of Gentoo penguins waddle about near the shoreline on Danco Island. Near penguin colonies there are shallow trenches, usually stained with orange-red guano, that are referred to as “penguin highways”. These are exactly what they sound like – paths by which penguins can reach their nests, the shoreline, and various other areas of interest. If any visitor is not paying attention and standing in such a highway, the penguins will patiently wait a respectful distance away for them to move, and then will continue on their way. It’s a bit of Antarctic gridlock” Bill Collins
Bill took his two week journey with Lindblad Expeditions. After flying into Buenos Aires and meeting with his fellow travelers, the group toured Buenos Aires for the day and spent the night. The following day, they all flew to Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost major city in the world. The morning Bill was to board the ship, Lindblad took the group on a catamaran tour around the waters of Ushuaia and then headed over to the dock. Lindblad is coordinated with National Geographic for the 10 day cruise and the National Geographic Explorer was boarded by all. The Explorer is fitted with a reinforced hull for ice breaking and can accommodate up to 148 passengers.
“Our ship the National Geographic Explorer, in the Weddell Sea with a massive tabular iceberg behind it. Tabular bergs are huge, flat topped islands of ice that occur where pieces of the Antarctic ice sheet break off and float upon the water. They can be the size of boats, buildings, or even US states. We cruised around these and smaller bergs in Zodiacs, seeing many amazing ice formations and abundant wildlife.” Bill Collins
As night fell, the ship embarked on its 10 day journey heading straight into the Southern Ocean and Drake’s Passage. The crossing of the Southern Ocean in Drake’s passage is the primary reason only the heartiest of souls choose to visit this beautiful and barren destination. The water became rough as soon as the ship entered the passage and stayed extremely so for about a day and a half. Just before the waters became roughest, the ship’s staff announced that it was a good time to be taking Dramamine or applying seasickness patches. All of the furniture was bolted down and the ship rocked and rolled continuously. People fell down, and most became very seasick.
“A whaling dinghy on Half-Moon Island in the South Shetlands. These ruins are protected just as rigorously as the wildlife. At many of the stations, even whale bones still lie around the ground submerged in shallow water.” Bill Collins
Everyone was relieved when the Shetland Islands came into view and the water became calm. The ship anchored in Half Moon Bay and Bill joined the other passengers in Zodiacs to head off to dry land and for a hike on Half Moon Island. A group of naturalists who travel aboard the ship led hikes to educate and inform the guests of the many animals and birds that are seen on the trip. On the Half Moon Bay hike, Bill encountered Skua’s, large, predatory birds that scavenge penguin eggs and chicks, chinstrap penguins, and Adélie penguins, which are only found in the Antarctic.
“Adélie penguins on a chunk of sea ice in the Weddell Sea. Adélie’s are one of the true Antarctic penguins, in that they do not exist anywhere but around the continent, and look the most ‘penguin like’ of all the species found there. They spend much of their lives far out at sea, taking breaks from feeding upon krill by hauling out onto ice bergs and sea ice sheets.” Bill Collins
Every morning, the ship moved and the passengers went on various hikes in different environments. Every day brought new animals and experiences. One day, Bill got to see pods of Orcas around the boat. The Orcas, or technically “Type B” killer whales, were very curious, swimming around the boat. Another day, dozens of humpback whales surrounded the ship creating bubble nets and hunting krill in the water. It was thrilling for the guests and even caused the captain to wait until the whales moved away to turn the engines on and move off. A hugely entertaining show for all to experience.
“A pair of male killer whales. We had extraordinary luck with wildlife on our trip. We were told that not only did they not see killer whales every trip, they did not see them every season. We stayed with this pod for hours as they slowly cruised around the Weddell Sea. They were quite curious about us, coming right under the bow and rolling on their side to look at us. This species, often called “little type B” killer whales, feed almost exclusively on penguins.” Bill Collins
One notable stop was in Port Lockroy, location of the southernmost post office in the world, affectionately nicknamed the penguin post office – and the subject of a BBC Documentary. The main building is now a museum although it still functions as a post office. Anyone of any nationality can apply to work at this post office. When Bill visited, it was being run by two Brits and a Norwegian, all three of whom committed to spending the Antarctic summer manning the post office and sleeping in a Quonset hut located directly behind the main building.
“Port Lockroy, also called “the penguin post office”, is the southernmost post office in the world. It also might have the southernmost museum in the world, and the southernmost gift shop. It was originally a whaling station from 1911 until 1931, but during World War II it was established as a British Base under Operation Tabarin, a military plan to establish permanent British presence in Antarctica. From there it was a research base with the Falkland Island Dependency, which later became the British Antarctic Survey, until it was abandoned in 1962. Between then and when it was re-opened in 1996 as a museum, a colony of Gentoo penguins moved in. Today, the small staff who maintains the museum and staffs the post office and gift shop live comfortably alongside the penguins” Bill Collins
Another highlight of the trip was in the Weddell Sea. The icebergs were so dense they did not use the Zodiacs. They explored up close and around the icebergs, although not too close, because icebergs can roll unexpectedly as they melt and float throughout the sea. Some of them were the size of large apartment buildings and awesome to look at with their deep blue colors, which occurred from ancient compression pushing most of the oxygen out of the ice, making the blue more intense where the pressure was greatest.
“Broken sea ice in Whilhemina Bay. Here we actually cut into the ice using the ship’s icebreaker, lowered a ramp, and walked out onto the ice itself. I was one of five people who managed to walk a 5k round-trip across the bay to see a glacier near the shore line. When we returned we enjoyed the Polar Plunge, diving off the sea ice into water that was about 28 degrees. The ice began to break up underneath us, some of us broke through up to our knees or, in my case, up to our hips, so we quickly got back on the boat, later watching the ice with our footprints drift away.” Bill Collins
Bill and the other passengers had an opportunity to walk across the sea ice and even take a polar plunge, which Bill thoroughly enjoyed. A quick dive into that freezing water and out again, was about all anyone could handle. Although there are strict rules about how close one could get to the wildlife, lots of the animals also hang out on the sea ice. The Adélie penguins seem nonchalant about these foreign beings in their large, red parkas, walking across the ice, staring at them and taking pictures. Many seals did not raise an eyebrow at the people either.
“A sleepy female elephant seal relaxing on a small rocky spit near Danco Island. Elephant seals breed extensively in the South Georgia Islands, but they range very far off during the season to feed. Like most of the wildlife in Antarctica, this seal was quite uninterested in us, and only lifted her head to lazily yawn as we happily took pictures of her. All the wildlife is protected, and they see quite a lot of tourists each year, so they have figured out that we won’t disturb them.” Bill Collins
According to Bill, the food was delicious and the camaraderie that built up within the ship and guests was contagious, many evenings were spent discussing the exciting happenings of each day. The sun set for only about an hour a night so there was a lot of time to experience different types of light and vistas.
“Chinstrap penguins in their colony among the rocks of Half-Moon Island in the South Shetlands. Like most Antarctic birds, most penguins require bare rock upon which to lay their eggs. Thus you often find them climbing to the sharpest, most windswept peaks to seek areas where the wind has cleared away the snow and ice. Emperor penguins are the only ones adapted to breed on sea ice, and are also the only ones who nest in the winter rather than the summer. ” Bill Collins
After about eight days, it was time to head north, and back through the dreaded Drake’s Passage, which actually took a bit longer on their return. Definitely worth the minor discomfort, the fantastic, untouched beauty and animal life was breathtaking to experience up close and in person.
“As we headed back out to sea towards South America once more, the area around us was misty for the first time on the journey. Waterfalls of fog fell in slow motion off the glaciers and mountains. It was fitting that our very last sight of the Antarctic continent was soon lost behind us in silvery mist” Bill Collins.
Thank you to Bill Collins for sharing this experience with Classic Chicago!