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May 25

Antarctica – Life in the Polar Circle

by Tony in Antarctica

Ringing in the Polar Circle

One of the key factors in our decision to pick the Plancius for our Antarctic Expedition was that it would bring us south of the South Polar Circle. This can only be done late in the season once the ice has melted sufficiently for a boat to sail beyond the circle, but even then, ice conditions have been known to block the seas, so nothing could be taken for granted.

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South of 66 deg 33 min 44 sec - in the Polar Circle

Icebergs are big down there

So we were quite excited when we woke up on the morning of the 21st of March to great weather and relatively clear seas, even though on all sides we could see icebergs as big as islands dotting the horizon. Shortly after breakfast, we were summoned by our Expedition Leader to join his team on the bow of the ship, where they were busy passing out glasses of champagne to the passengers. A few minutes later, the captain confirmed our position and the ship’s horn was blown and the bell was rung in celebration of our passage south of latitude 66° 33′ 44″ South. This was a completely new sensation for Ninfa and I, although more than a few of our fellow passengers chose this moment to proudly declare that they were “bi-polar” having also been north of the Arctic Polar Circle. It was a happy moment for all on board. We had stocked up on quite a bit of bubbly in Mendoza so we ended up celebrating most of the day.

Us on Detaille Island in the Polar Circle

Having crossed the circle, we all now wanted to set foot on land south of the circle. Just as our passage south could not be guaranteed, a landing was even less likely. We anchored close to a small island called Detaille Island, and our expedition leader set off to inspect the landing site. We were so close, it was going to be very frustrating if we were not allowed to land. Fortunately, Rinie returned with good news. The ice-clogged bay could be navigated and we were going to land. Shortly afterwards, we were all on Detaille Island with the Adelie penguins and the fur seals, admiring the amazing views of icebergs crowded everywhere in the spectacular bays around us. Everyone was in high spirits and we had a few snowball fights in our short time on the island. Ninfa and I were on the last zodiac to leave the island, and we stopped for a quick look at some Weddell Seals before heading across the open water to the boat. And what a surprise was in store for us.

Adelie Penguins on Detaille Island

As we approached the ship, a pair of humpback whales, seemingly a parent and child, began surfacing right in front of us between our zodiac and the ship. We were even closer than our day on Cuverville Island, and the entire ship’s attention was on the show. It seemed like there was a better view from the deck, so we boarded again, and ran out to watch the rest of the spectacle. Check it out for yourself in the video below. The humpbacks, known as the species of whale with perhaps the greatest curiosity, took it in turns to surface beside our ship, and “spyhop” , a manoeuvre where the whale stands vertical in the water and raises its head above the surface to see above the water. The whales took a long time to have a look at us looking right back at them. The whole thing lasted around 20 minutes – absolutely amazing!

Humpbacks spyhopping off Detaille Island

We bid farewell to the humpbacks and started sailing north again – going home. Going below the Polar Circle had turned out to be far beyond what we expected, and there was more to come. As we glided back north past the huge icebergs, a pod of 15-20 Killer Whales swam past us, their huge long dorsal fins cutting through the water like a knife and their trademark black and white heads surfacing against the backdrop of a huge berg. Just watching them, you could imagine their dominance in the oceans. Along with the leopard seal, they are the kings of the Antarctic jungle, the masters of this icy realm.

Huge Humpback Whale and zodiacs off Detaille Island

Our final stops in Antarctica struggled to live up to our previous experiences. But our last landing, on Damoy Point in Wiencke Island, made a fine attempt. We donned snow-shoes for a trek up the hill to the point of the peninsula. We were almost completely surrounded by a white landscape of sea, ice and mountain. We had been seeing these landscapes for over a week now, but it was still breathtaking. We continued on our trek along a wide icy slope, which actually serves as a runway for planes which land with supplies for the nearby British research station below us at Port Lockroy. And here we turned to nature for inspiration for our descent back to the shore. Penguins have a technique of climbing hills in zigzags, but prefer to descend by sliding on their bellies – there’s a very rich penguin somewhere who owns the patent for toboggans. We followed suit and slid the whole way down, a couple of hundred metres distance, on our bums. It really was seat of your pants stuff, and brought out the inner juvenile in a lot of us as we raced back up just to slide back down again. Penguins have it good!

Weddell Seal on Detaille Island

The next day, our last in Antarctica did not have any landings, just a short zodiac cruise around the bays around the Melchior Islands. It was a wild, blizzardy day, and great to experience another extreme of the icy weather conditions. As luck would have it, we ended up on our last excursion with some of our greatest friends from the trip – John (Jack Nicholson’s double!), Will, Lance and Marja. And we all congratulated each other on a great trip, far exceeding even our wildest expectations.

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Snowshoeing on Damoy Point, Wiencke Island

Our journey back through the Drake Passage proved a little less smooth than our trip down. Expecting the worst, the ship’s doctor was dispensing free travel sickness medication to the whole boat. Waoh – this was promising to be fun! And what die we get this time? Two or three hours of waves and then calm seas and fine sunshine. At least I thought so, but our short Drake introduction had loads of people engaging in inappropriate dinner conversation of how sick they’d been. Ninfa spent more or less the whole return journey hibernating in the cabin while the expedition team kept reminding us that being this lucky both ways on the Drake Passage is almost unheard of. And we ended up arriving back to Argentina ahead of schedule, giving us an opportunity to witness the Beagle Channel in all its glory, and even spotting Cape Horn, the southernmost point of the Americas, in the distance.

Land Ahoy!

So how to summarise a trip to Antarctica – it’s difficult to close to find the words appropriate to close our story. One of the things we hadn’t expected was to meet such great people on board – in addition to John, Will, Lance and Marja, a big thanks has to go to Doug, Scottish Nicholas, Kathy, Cindy, Andrew and everyone on board for making our trip so great on board and off. But, the last words have to belong to Rinie, our expedition leader, who in our last ship’s meeting told us about his Antarctica bug, and what the polar regions mean to him. I’ll relate it as best as I can remember. Rinie has been working on Antarctic expeditions for over 20 years, and told us that when you are in Antarctica, you can be surrounded by thousands of penguins and yet your presence is felt, you are significant. He compared this to how he felt when he returned home to Amsterdam after his first voyage, and stood for a moment in a central city square. Here again, he was surrounded by thousands of people, and yet he felt insignificant. And since then, he has never stopped returning to the poles. It was a poignant and heartfelt story, and a fitting end to a voyage which we will always remember as something, indeed, very significant.

Killer Whales in the Polar Circle

Fur Seal on Petermann Island

Maps on the Bridge

Port Lockroy

Wave byebye to Antarctica

Farewell Antarctica

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One Response to “Antarctica – Life in the Polar Circle”

  1. From Cal:

    Absolutely unreal. It is a dream of mine to go on one of these expeditions. Incredible photos!

    Posted on 27. Sep, 2011 at 5:05 am #

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