“Difficulties are just things to overcome” –Sir Ernest Shackleton
To those familiar with the trials and misfortunes met by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and the men of the Trans-Antarctic Imperial Expedition, this quote by “the Boss” will likely bring a brief chuckle, then perhaps a nod of respect or a contemplative stare filled with the thoughts of just how much credence those few words hold. Those less familiar with their difficulties may wish to read Endurance, by Alfred Lansing. It’s an exciting piece of Antarctic history at the very least.
We, the Earth Vision Trust/Extreme Ice Survey team, are gently rocking in the moderately turbulent seas off the southern tip of South Georgia Island—both the launching point and fateful end for Shackleton’s journey. We’ve just completed the 780 nautical mile crossing of the Scotia Sea, starting from Elephant Island on the far northeastern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula and ending here, in a little less than two days. In comparison, the same crossing took Shackleton and his team of five, 17 days of suffering and a bit of dead-reckoning-luck to complete.
It’s late afternoon and long crepuscular rays of sunlight are breaking through the clouds hovering over sharp peaks that climb out of the sea directly in front of us. We’re on a scouting trip into the six mile-long Drygalski Fjord, a narrow slit that splits the southern end of the island nearly in half. Tomorrow we hope to install two cameras on Risting Glacier, sitting at the fjord’s head, but the strong katabatic winds ripping off the glacier, combined with the abundant sea spray, are certainly foreboding. We play around on the top deck of the ship, leaning into the wind, which is blowing hard enough to nearly support our weight—it feels as if we are flying. However, it’s not exactly the type of gusts in which we particularly care to install delicate electronics. The volatile weather of the sub-Antarctic climate looks to be putting an end to the sunny and comfortable installations we’ve experienced over the past two weeks. Thinking about the historical difficulties associated with this wild island, it can only be expected that things won’t come so easily.
South Georgia has been a hub for whaling, Antarctic exploration, and as of late, adventure tourism, but driving the purpose for our visit here are the island’s glaciers and wildlife. Glaciers pour off the Alaska-esque 9,000+ foot peaks that line the center of the island, which are met along the shores by thriving populations of fur seals, healthy colonies of king penguins, nesting albatross, bright green mosses, and gorgeous lichens. However, where the biodiversity is succeeding, the glaciers of South Georgia are struggling to maintain their presence in the warming climate.
The glaciers today pale in comparison to when Shackleton and his men traversed the island nearly 100 years ago. Take for example Bertrab Glacier at the stunning Gold Harbor. Images from Shackleton’s expedition show a robust glacier extending from high up, all the way down to the ocean. The glacier retained this appearance until the mid-1980s, when it began a dramatic retreat. It still provides a dramatic backdrop to the king penguins, but it’s barely the glacier it was 30 years ago. Since the 1950’s, the air temperature on South Georgia has warmed by nearly 3˚F. This is driving the vast majority of glaciers across the island to retreat, including the treacherous slopes that gave the rundown party of explorers endless grief. Our cameras will be there to watch, capturing these changes frame-by-frame, day-by-day.
Turning back into Drygalski Fjord in the late afternoon of the next day, our hopes for calm winds are squashed by the telling whitecaps running down the fjord. The wind is steady at 40 knots. Captain Oliver turns the National Geographic Explorer sideways to the wind, providing a brief lull to load the Zodiac without getting completely drenched, a luxury that won’t last long.
Our eyes search the fjord wall for a relatively safe spot to install the cameras and we come to agree that a small rock perch about 200 feet up from the water and just over one mile from the terminus will work (it also happens to coincide with the terminus location as recently as 1993). Eric Guth, our newest honorary EIS team member and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic photo instructor extraordinaire, navigates a small kelp-filled bay and lands us ashore on a wind protected beach covered by a few dozen, ridiculously cute, fur seal pups. After unloading the equipment, Dan and I heave the horribly unbalanced battery packs over our shoulders and sneak our way past a few sleeping seals and continue up the slippery slope to our install site. At this point I’d say our clothes are manageably wet, but now that we’re exposed to the full force of the wind and sideways rain, that quickly begins to change. The drilling begins, wires are tightened, and the housings go up as quickly as our wet and frozen fingers allow. The wind is making even small tasks incredibly difficult, but we manage to get two of the cameras running without too much rain soaking the housings. By now, our Gore-Tex outerwear appears as if we took a casual swim in the fjord. Just as the chill really starts to set in, we finish up and scramble back to our wind-protected beach.
The seals stare curiously as each of us instinctively break into silly dances and jumping jacks, perhaps interpreted as a celebration after installing cameras eight and nine, but in reality, a feeble attempt to warm our core until the Explorer returns for us in about an hour. A difficult installation no doubt, but the warmth and comfort of the Explorer quickly changes our fortune. We’re left thinking about the real hardships of the great explorers of the past, knowing we probably had that coming.
The Antarctic Peninsula separates the warm maritime climate of the Bellingshausen Sea to the west and the cold, dry continental climate of the Weddell Sea to the east. Thus far, we have been traveling and working along the western edge, but this morning, we crossed the tip and passed into a different world. For one, there is a notable nip to the air and a jacket is requisite for even a quick foray to the ship deck. Second, our idea of icebergs now takes on a whole new meaning, as enormous tabular icebergs now dominate the landscape. These floating fortresses often dwarf our ship and come in beautiful, strange shapes, sculpted by the interplay of water and air.
Our first stop, Brown Bluff, on the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is a penguin paradise. Slick rounded stones and a gentle grade allow the penguins easy access to the ocean and their abundant food supply. As we pull up to the shore, beautiful blue-white icebergs rock gently in the relatively calm, shallow waters of the bay. Gentoo penguins surround us as we walk down the beach. These gentle, docile creatures waddle to and fro, enjoying the fading moments of the Antarctic summer. The penguins here are in various stages of molting, pushing out their down feathers in preparation for the long, cold, Antarctic winter ahead. For the first time in the history of the Extreme Ice Survey, we will be installing a camera, not to photograph a calving face of a glacier, but to photograph another face, or to be precise, many, many faces. These cameras will watch a large Adélie penguin colony, or at least we hope it will. For now, we must be happy with a few stragglers and an odorous landscape of guano and rocks.
The Adélies, who are now out at sea, will return around September, filling this landscape with thousands of nesting pairs. Adélie penguins are feeling the impacts of the warming climate acutely. Increased temperatures, coupled with decreased sea ice and increased snowfall are acting in concert to drive these penguins further south along the peninsula. Over the next few years, these cameras will capture so much: the land, the sea, the wildlife, the ice as well as the coming and going of seasons, the colony as it grows and shrinks then grows again. No doubt there will be many other surprises that will reveal themselves with time, but until then, we must wait. This marks the sixth and seventh cameras deployed since leaving Ushuaia, and from our standpoint, one of the more aesthetically pleasing installation sites.
The cameras at Brown Bluff come on the heels of another successful camera installation at Cierva Cove. The jaw-dropping beauty of Cierva is hard to translate into words. Here, skua birds, numbering in the hundreds soar overhead, sometimes diving and swooping close when we cross some unseen boundary around their nests. We respect their claim and find alternate routes to get to our final destination, which is a rock outcropping overlooking the glacier and the sea. From our perch high on the cliffs overlooking the calving face of the Cierva Cove glacier, these cameras will record time and movement of this dramatic scene; in the process creating a visual preservation of what this glacier is now, and what it will transform into in the future.
The weather on the peninsula has been forgiving to us and it’s hard to believe we made it through the last few days without a dark sky or stiff breeze. Tonight we turn our attention further north to South Georgia Island, again faced with the potentially volatile waters of the southern ocean. The Captain says it’s looking a bit gusty.
Visit EarthVisionTrust.org to discover how the images gathered by the Extreme Ice Survey network of time-lapse cameras clearly demonstrate the effects of Climate Change.
Photos Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey ©Earth Vision Trust
by Dan McGrath, Resident Scientist, Earth Vision Trust.
The faint glow of the soon to be rising sun welcomes our arrival as we nose into Andvord Bay on the western Antarctic Peninsula. We passed unscathed through the Drake Passage thanks to calm conditions and quickly motored south to 64˚ 50’. Here, the glaciers literally fall off the mountains around us, with cascading icefalls and crumbling seracs lining the mirror calm waters of the un-charted inner Neko Harbor. Adélie penguins playfully wander around on a small iceberg near the ship and in the distance, ripples emanate from the minke whale that just surfaced. The Captain wakes us from our near-dream state to notify us that the Zodiac is being lowered on the starboard side and it’s time to load our equipment.
As we pull ashore, the sun peeks out from behind the spine of the peninsula, with golden rays bathing the highest peaks down to the ice-choked bays. Gentoo penguin chicks encased in their fluffy down jackets chase their sleek ocean worthy parents around, hoping for another krill meal. We know we only have a few hours to deploy our first two cameras, but it’s hard to pull ourselves away from this shoreline and the nearly overwhelming sensory overload it presents. When we finally manage to, we steadily trudge up the snow slope with heavily laden packs, the batteries seemingly gaining weight by the step. Odd shaped aluminum towers, tripod arms, and camera housings awkwardly protrude from our loads. We reach the first crest and in the distance, silhouetted against the glacier’s calving front is a narrow rock rib. The team agrees that this is our spot and starts a rising track to reach this point. The main structure is quickly bolted into place; taut guy wires quickly follow, ensuring that our cameras survive the brutal wind and snow that will soon punish them. Next up are the solar panels and batteries, quickly followed by the two camera housings. James intuitively arranges the housings, aligning the Nikon D3200’s point of view to match our envisioned expectations. The crackle of the VHF radio brings a reminder that the ship will be pulling anchor in 45 minutes and well, we better be there! With a final push of the “Test” button, Matt waits for the reassuring “Click” of the shutter before snapping the cases closed. We snap a few final photos of the installation, quickly repack our tools and scamper down the slippery slope towards the landing. We board the Zodiac and push through the thick brash ice towards the National Geographic Explorer with barely a few minutes to spare.
Back on board, we frantically charge our drill and camera batteries, while simultaneously scarfing down lunch. In what seems like ten minutes, Lisa, the Expedition Leader, announces that we’ll be dropping anchor in Orne Harbor shortly, where we hope to install an additional camera this afternoon. We repack our bags and rush down to the loading hatch, where the Zodiac already awaits us. We pile the gear high and head to shore. The local welcoming committee, a rather gregarious group of fur seals, momentarily squabbles about our presence before resuming their afternoon nap. Up the hill we go again, with the late afternoon sun pouring down on us. We reach a rocky ridge 500 feet above the bay, where we turn left up a steep ridgeline. The glacier pours down the valley in the near distance, full of deep blue shades, sharp cracks, and wonderful shapes. This site is a bit trickier—an exposed perch precipitously hanging over what feels to be the ocean. Matt and I establish an anchor and quickly get to work. The wall mount goes up, the guy wires go out, the solar panels get bolted on; our patient eyes quickly begin to take shape. Matt runs through the final checks again and before long, we’re latching the case closed.
Walking down to the boat, with the sun just starting to dip low in the sky, it’s hard to believe that the alarm at 4:30 a.m. was actually earlier today—it truly feels like it could have been a week ago. The past 14 hours have been incredible; a day filled with alpenglow light, breaching whales, warm mid-day sun, curious penguins, and cascading glaciers—all capped by three cameras now capturing a visual record of the world around them. There’s no time to rest though, tomorrow is another opportunity and we’re currently organizing our equipment and charging our batteries for two more installations. Fingers crossed that the good weather continues!
Photos Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey ©Earth Vision Trust
By The Extreme Ice Survey, aboard National Geographic Explorer
Before you can install time-lapse cameras in Antarctica, you have to get there, which is no small task coming from our home base of Boulder, CO. Getting to the small port town of Ushuaia, Argentina (the southern-most town in the world), you must take three flights stretched out over two sleep-deprived days. Then there is the luggage which is basically a heaping pile of overstuffed duffle bags bursting at the zippers with fragile cameras and timers, as well as, heavy climbing equipment and warm clothes. We ruminate constantly about delayed flights and lost baggage–forever an expedition’s beginning hurdle.
Driving down the cruise ship-lined wharf in Ushuaia, we are met by the friendly Lindblad Expeditions crew, collect our coveted and complete bags, and walk aboard the National Geographic Explorer–our home for the next 21 days. The Explorer, as it’s commonly referred to, stretches over 300 feet long and dons the familiar golden rectangle signifying Lindblad Expeditions alliance with National Geographic. She is an impressive ship, meticulously maintained, and at a glance appears to be the most seaworthy vessel at the dock. Lindblad Expeditions has been generous enough to support our ambitious goal to deploy 12 time-lapse cameras all along the Antarctic Peninsula and on South Georgia Island.
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions of our planet. The ongoing changes here are a likely precursor to future changes that may occur throughout the continent if warming continues as predicted. Over the next three weeks we will use the Explorer as home base and install our time-lapse cameras as conditions allow. The goal is to let the cameras take a photo every hour for at least the next five years, and in the process, amass a visual record of these dramatic changes on the Peninsula. Zodiacs will transport us from the ship to our landings, we will have a short 3-hour window to hike to our site, deploy the cameras, and return to the ship. Conditions on the ground can range from sunny and 30˚F to biting cold, with gusty winds and sideways snow or sleet. We hold high hopes for the former, but come prepared for the latter. Either way, by sunburnt noses, frost nipped fingers, or soaked feet, we will have our first Nikon D3200 time-lapse camera installed within the next 36-48 hours.
The sun is now setting behind the mountains of Tierra del Fuego National Park, and the ship is moving smoothly through the benign waters of the Beagle Channel en route for the Drake Passage, 580 nautical miles of open water that separates us from Antarctica and home to some of the most unpredictable and rough seas in the world. Our crates of time-lapse equipment, which we had last seen back at a University of Colorado shipping yard this past November, are patiently waiting for us on the back deck of the Explorer. This could be our last chance to take advantage of calm seas and mild temperatures to pre-assemble as much equipment as possible, so we are building camera mounts, preparing our battery cases and wiring solar panels, all to quicken our deployments on the other side of the Drake. We’ll fasten our crates down tight tonight–who knows what the sea will bring tomorrow.
The leopard seal is the Antarctic’s apex predator, a creature that has no reason to fear anything in its environment, so they’ll often show curiosity towards humans and try to determine just what these strange interlopers are doing in their domain.
This week as our guests explored South Georgia Island, a rare opportunity presented itself. A weather window opened that could allow us to land at South Orkney Island, a place we haven’t visited in three years. While on a routine dive, our undersea specialist Justin Hofman saw a leopard seal. He sent this video from the ship. (And this is only a few weeks after he was approached by a southern right whale while diving off Patagonia.)
A Dispatch from the Galápagos Islands
by Ralph Lee Hopkins, Director of Expedition Photography at Lindblad Expedition-National Geographic
Here in the new Galápagos airport on Baltra Island I’m reminded just how remote the Galápagos Islands really are. I’m returning from a series of photography expeditions with Lindblad Expeditions on board the National Geographic Endeavour. Even in this modern age it takes time and effort to travel this far off the beaten path—a pilgrimage to one of the last places on Earth that is totally wild and pristine.
Straddling the Equator, it’s hard to imagine a place on earth with a higher percentage of endemic species, including the famous Darwin’s finches, playful Galápagos sea lions, and the world’s only marine iguanas. What separates the Galápagos Islands from other places in the world is that 97% of the land is protected within the Galápagos Island National Park, and the islands are surrounded by one of the largest and most successful marine protected areas in the world. My hope is that it will always be this way.
Guests exploring Galápagos aboard National Geographic Islander had a rare encounter last month. While hiking on Santa Fe Island they found a small rat that managed to get its teeth caught in the mesh of a backpack a guest had left sitting on the beach. The tiny animal turned out to be the seldom-seen Santa Fe rice rat, one of the few mammal species endemic to the archipelago. The rat was released back into the wild with a handy bit of pocketknife work.
“The Santa Fe rice rat is eminently vegetarian. It is a fearless creature that normally comes out at dusk or at night. This afternoon was a rather gloomy one, therefore some rats were seen. This was a fantastic and unforgettable sighting of one the least known animal species of the archipelago. The picture that Walter Perez took today is the first ever published in our daily expedition reports!”
Guests aboard National Geographic Explorer in Arctic Svalbard enjoyed a rare sighting yesterday: a polar bear feasting on a beluga whale. How did this bear manage to catch a whale nearly twice its weight? Perhaps the whale was killed by ice calving off the glacier, though the bear would still have to drag the dead beluga onto the ice—no small task. In any case, it is impossible to know since we arrived just in time to see the bear over its kill. It is indeed a rare sighting; in our 30+ years exploring Svalbard only one of our naturalists has ever seen a polar bear feasting on a beluga whale.
by Ralph Lee Hopkins, Director of Expedition Photography, Lindblad Expeditions
Stepping ashore in eastern Greenland I realize immediately I’m way overdressed. My expectation this far north of the Arctic Circle was for an ice-cloaked landscape. Instead, it’s sunny and 65ºF (18ºC) today, quite amazing for an area that remains frozen for almost 9 months with an average temperature of 34ºF (1ºC) this time of year.
At over 70º north of the Equator, I’m standing at ground zero for climate change. Nowhere else on Earth is it warming as quickly as in Greenland, the world’s largest island. Scientists tell us there is melting over 100% of the Greenland Ice Cap this summer, a rare event in recorded history. If Greenland’s glaciers totally melt, worldwide sea level is expected to rise over 20 feet. This would flood most of Florida, New York’s Manhattan island, and other densely populated low-lying areas around the globe. A daunting thought on such a beautiful day.
This epic voyage aboard the expedition ship National Geographic Explorer follows in the wake of the Vikings, who over 1,000 years ago used islands as stepping stones across the North Sea. From the fjords of Norway, we marvel at the jagged peaks and painted houses in sleepy fishing villages in the Lofoten Islands, cruise below towering cliffs filled with northern gannets, encounter stone age ruins and ponies in the Shetlands, comical puffins in the Faroes, and waterfalls and more puffins in Iceland. But it was reaching the remote eastern shores of Greenland that was the primary goal for many of us, and to see the Greenland Ice Cap and the world’s longest fjords systems of Scoresby Sound and King Oscar Fjord.
If there’s one animal that brings back visions of the Ice Age, it’s the musk ox. Its contemporaries back in the Pleistocene included woolly mammoths, mastodons, and saber-tooth tigers, all of which became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Musk ox are funny looking animals, with long shaggy hair obscuring short legs, making them appear as dark boulders at a distance. Up close they have large horns, which the males use during the rutting season. The last remaining indigenous populations of musk ox are here in Northeast Greenland National Park.
But for the geologists on board, the real stars are the rocks displayed along the walls of Greenland’s massive fjords. Columnar basalt related to the Devil’s Causeway in Ireland, red rocks the same age as rocks in Sedona and Grand Canyon, Arizona; plus fanciful exposures of folded sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. The twists and turns in the rocks look like a giant marble fudge cake stirred by the global forces of plate tectonics during the mountain-building event, when Europe and North America collided over 400 million years ago. Another daunting thought.
We switch focus from Viking history as we cross the Fram Strait to Svalbard, one of the iciest stretches of ocean anywhere. The Fram was the ship Fridtjof Nansen’s used in his quest for the North Pole in 1893-96, and Svalbard is the Norwegian word for “cold coast.” Our crossing is made even more challenging by thick fog over the past couple of days. Fog is the enemy in the pack ice—navigation is treacherous and spotting wildlife nearly impossible. It wasn’t until the 1600s that Dutch whalers discovered a bounty of whales in Svalbard. They were then followed by sealers, walrus hunters, and trappers. Both polar bears and walrus are now protected in Svalbard, unlike Greenland where subsistence hunting is still permitted.
As our reward for braving the elements, the weather clears in Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago that stretches to almost 80º north of the Equator, or just over 600 miles from the North Pole. We make a landing after dinner to observe walrus at close range, and on the last afternoon of the voyage we cruise the tidewater glaciers in Hornsund, a spectacular fjord known as a hotspot for the isbørn, or ice bear.
Sharp eyes on the bridge locate a swimming polar bear that hauls itself onto a blue iceberg, while another one swims along the glacier face hunting seals—jackpot!
Seeing a polar bear in the wild brings our voyage full circle. The rapid melting and thinning of the Arctic pack ice is changing the polar bear’s habitat, their dinner table is literally being obliterated by climate change. It’s anyone’s guess what the ultimate impact will be. Some scientists speculate that the polar bear may disappear by the end of this century. One last daunting thought that I hope never becomes reality.