From the National Geographic Endeavour in Antarctica
Dec 21, 2006 - National Geographic Endeavour
62 degrees 56’S, 58 degrees 55’W
After the last stroke of midnight, the longest day of the Antarctic year began with a brilliant, fiery sunset to the south high lit by a golden sundog. Confusing, I know, but that is what can happen at this latitude. We were headed SE across the Bransfield Strait into the teeth of a brisk southerly wind towards the Weddell Sea flanked by a flotilla of welcoming tabular bergs. By 0600 we had rounded the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and were approaching our morning anchorage in Antarctic Sound. Nearby a stately fleet of monstrous bergs were at anchor two of which were choking the throat of the narrow straits between Tabarin Peninsula on the continent and Jonassen Island. These two tabular bergs measuring around 600 yards in diameter were grounded in approximately 600 feet of water.
The sheer vertical volcanic cliff that rises behind our morning landing place gives Brown Bluff its name. It swarms with the cape pigeons, fulmars and snow petrels that nest there. Below the cliffs lies a shoulder of pulverized breccias and ash forming a flat platform upon which Kelp gulls and some 600 Gentoo penguins were nesting. Steeper hillsides beyond provided perfect breeding grounds for approximately 20,000 Adelie penguin nests each of which was occupied by at least one, if not two chicks up to three weeks old. It is so difficult not to anthropomorphize about penguins as they go about their daily affairs. Where we see nests we read houses; for lines of penguins we see commuters, and so on. The penguin colonies appear like cities to be arranged into neighborhoods, and “houses" each with neatly tended “gardens.”
Slumbering Weddell seals were seeded on the basalt cobblestone beach. One awakened by chance opening its big dark eyes to look around in what appeared to be sheer astonishment at the strange aliens nearby. Since land predators are absent here the seals and the penguins are not afraid of others, including ourselves and treat us as innocents.
By noon we were on our way east and then northeast and into the narrow channel of Active Sound between Joinville and Dundee Islands. The Sound, lined by ice cliffs, narrowed in places to barely one mile wide and was strewn with tabular bergs stranded in the shoals. Some of these carried resting penguins and blue-eyed shags indicating that food was nearby. On the echo sounder we could make out the trace of something in the water extending in depth from 20 meters down… almost certainly krill.
We finished our day on Tay Head a tiny lump of land sticking out on the south side of Joinville Island where about 70 ambitious passengers embarked on mile hike to the base of a glacier. Our naturalists explained everything from the manipulation of the land by previous glaciers, to the formation of the different types of rocks under our feet.
Before this excursion, we knew that the Antarctic plants mostly consisted of mosses and lichens, but we hadn’t witnessed a complete lack of vegetation firsthand until this excursion, where we trekked over a massive expanse of rocks and pebbles to reach our destination.
Upon arriving at the glacier, anyone who thought the hike was difficult found it well worth the reward. Hikers threw snowballs, made snow angels, and took photographs to make friends appear as if they were thousands of miles from another human being. On the way back to the ship, few realized that the glacier was the most stable surface we have stood on since leaving Ushuaia. The floor of the Endeavor is flat but unsteady because of the waves; the volcanic sand of the Island of Aitcho did not move but was not firm; and the rocky terrain characteristic of Antarctica and its surrounding islands constantly shifts beneath our feet.
After returning from the glacier, hikers joined with the rest of the guests to watch the penguins playing by the water and keeping babies warm in their nests, or just to take in the spectacular views of the scenery. The contrast of the grey sky, blue icebergs and glaciers, brown rocks, and the ship’s yellow and navy blue provided a memory that guests will never forget.