Jake’s Take – Drake Passage – Day 2 – Part 1

February 13th, 2010 at 9:52 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

One of the things that is part of the routine on Lindblad’s expeditions is a nightly re-cap of things discovered and observed during the day, and as yesterday was the first real day of our expedition to Antarctica and beyond, we also had our first recap.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that was the in-depth discussion of the tracking of killer whales (orcas) led by cetacean expert Stephanie Martin. Stephanie explained that while it has been assumed that all killer whales are all the same species, recent research is suggesting that perhaps there are three different sub-species of killer whales – the ones up in the northern waters (Canada, Norway, etc.), the ones here in the part of Antarctica we’re in, and another set in the area of the Ross Ice Shelf area of Antarctica. One of the things she’s doing to help further research into this area is using a crossbow with a 140-pound pull, along with very special quarrels (arrows for crossbows) which allow her to get tissue samples from killer whales at a distance far enough for the killer whales to not be scared off by the zodiacs, but close enough to be able to reach with the crossbow. These samples are then sent on (with all the appropriate permits) to a research facility in the U.S. which studies the tissue samples to get a better understanding of killer whales. Along with each sample is information on the individual whale the sample came from, generally provided via photographs. In particular, detailed photos of the dorsal fin can normally be used to distinguish individual killer whales from one another – much like a fingerprint..

After another pleasant dinner and perhaps our last real sunset for the next couple of weeks (because we will be so far south during summer in the southern hemisphere), Krystyana retired early because of queasiness, and Linda, Bas, and I went to the observation lounge atop the Explorer for tea, a Grand Marnier (for me), and a game of Five Crowns (I won, for a change). Just before 9pm we crossed 60 degrees south latitude, the geopolitical demarcation for the Antarctic. We had finally arrived!

Sleep was a bit restless due to less consumption of brain numbing seasickness medication than the night before and therefore we had a greater perception of creakiness in our cabin as we chugged through the seas, but we understand that we will probably be too filled with adrenaline rushes from the scenery and wildlife in the coming days to sleep much, and when we do, it will be the sleep of exhaustion that creaking sounds will not easily penetrate.

The first iceberg we have seen since entering Antarctic waters - side view

The first iceberg we have seen since entering Antarctic waters - side view

We woke around 8am to the announcement of the first “reasonable” iceberg sighting, that being the first iceberg spotted during a time when most passengers would be awake. The real first iceberg of the trip was spotted at 5am, however, and the one announced to us was in fact the second one. It wasn’t a huge iceberg, but large enough to stick out of the ocean a bit, as well has have a carved out section to reflect a gorgeous turquoise color to those few privileged enough to see it (like us!).

Another view of the iceberg after we passed it

Another view of the iceberg after we passed it

After breakfast we had our first whale sighting of the day – a small pod of southern bottlenose whales, according to Stephanie, our marine mammal expert. These are apparently very rare, and, alas, they were too far away to get any decent pictures. However we did happen to pass, at about the same time, a flock of chinstrap penguins as they were roaming the open ocean for food. The ones we saw leaping out of the water had full bellies, so hunting must be good.

A small group of chinstrap penguins in the open ocean, leaping out of the sea as we pass by

A small group of chinstrap penguins in the open ocean, leaping out of the sea as we pass by

A close-up of a leaping chinstrap penguin

A close-up of a leaping chinstrap penguin

The first presentation of the day was by Peter Carey, co-author of “The Antarctic Cruising Guide”, covering penguin species and penguin physiology. Among the interesting things we learned was the geographical range of penguins (most in the sub-Antarctic region, but ranging up to the equator – i.e., the Galapagos penguin and well down into the arctic – i.e. the Emperor penguin); that there is a dispute on the number of species of penguins (Peter believes it should be 18); and that in case you need to eat penguin to survive out in the wild (and if you have no other viable source of food, of course) you need to sit on them to kill them (via asphyxiation) as their neck muscles are too strong to allow for wringing like a chicken. The latter information was provided in a survival handbook for the Australian Antarctic Research Mission, which Peter had worked for a while back. Not information we are likely to need, hopefully, but interesting nonetheless.

Ultimately, we were told we should expect to see about a half dozen penguin species on our three week voyage.

Our next lecture was by Jason Kelley entitled “Antarctic Geology & Plate Tectonics”, where Jason took us through planetary evolution and the science and history of plate tectonics. It turns out that nearly a billion years ago, the Antarctic land mass was in the position that Alaska is in now, and plate movements gradually have put it at the southern end of our globe, or at least as we measure south now. Magnetic poles have switched every 500,000 years or so, so calling something south or north appears to be a bit ephemeral in the grand long-term view of things. That feature of planetary magnetism also interrelates with the ability to date areas near the edges of the tectonic plates to determine movement rates, among other things. Jason also explained various aspect of plate subduction (one plate moving below another), earthquakes, and volcanoes, as these are all related as well. Quite a fascinating presentation!

I took Bas up to the bridge after that so he could work on one of the science projects he is working on for this trip, namely gathering regular recordings of meteorological information, including barometric pressure, wind speed and direction (and we learned about the Beaufort Scale for wind speed in the process), GPS location, and air and water temperature. One of the cool things about Lindblad Expedition’s ships is that they have a 24-hour a day “Open Bridge” policy, and in fact welcome visitors, and will explain the instruments, navigation, and whatever else one is interested in – or just hang out. In the case of the Explorer, the bridge is also where lots of people hang out trying to spot critters or icebergs (warmer than being outside to do that for hours on end).

During our time with the second officer, Yuri, on the bridge there was also a sighting of humpback whales at a distance. I only saw fluke signs (or fluke prints) – the flat circular patch of water that whales leave behind as their flukes power them into the depths, but Krystyana got a picture of them.

Krystyana caught this distant shot of the humpbacks of two humpback whales

Krystyana caught this distant shot of the humpbacks of two humpback whales

We also spotted a new bird for the trip – a light-mantled albatross (no photos, alas).

After lunch we stayed busy. First with a presentation on proper sea kayak use by underwater specialist David Cothran, and then a mandatory briefing by our expedition leader Bud Lenhausen on what to do and not to do when in Zodiacs and when on land, as governed by the IAATO – International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (which I mentioned briefly in my post yesterday).

IAATO is a self-governing organization founded in 1991 by seven Antarctic tourist charter companies, and now has more than 90 members. It’s policies line up with the Protocol on Environmental Protection added to the Antarctic Treaty, also in 1991.
1991 – Antarctic Treaty Parties – put together the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.

In short, the rules all of us need to follow here in the Antarctic are intended to keep Antarctica as pristine as possible. Those rules include not throwing or dumping any litter or foreign matter overboard, preventing the introduction of non-native species including plants and animals, not bringing any food or smoking materials ashore, taking only photos, leaving with only memories, not rearranging flora or fauna or rocks to make a better picture, not harassing the wildlife (keep at least 15 feet away, but if it approaches you in a non-threatening manner, that’s okay), etc.

With respect to the 15 foot rule, we were also told that as many of the animals are moulting and thus grouchy, we might want to stay a little further back from animals like fur seals or suffer potentially nasty bites. Also, giant petrels can projectile vomit more than 15 feet, and it’s really foul stuff, so keeping our distance from those would be strongly advised.

In any event, we would also be stepping in a disinfecting bath before leaving the ship on Zodiacs, as well as when we return, to help remove anything harmful (and penguin poo, which is pretty foul too).

And for those of us with occasionally weak bladders, we were reminded that there are no restrooms in the Antarctic, and if we had a need to leave a deposit – liquid or solid, we should snag a Zodiac back to the boat, do our thing, and then catch another ride back to land.

One of the IAATO rules is also that a given vessel may have no more than 100 people on land at any one time. As there are about 140 of us, that means we will have a bit of a rotation, with time spent cruising the coast in Zodiacs and swapping in and out with others on land. Apparently it’s quite seamless, so we’ll see.

We figured that at 3:30pm, that was pretty much the end of our excitement for the day.

Boy were we mistaken! More in Part 2 a bit later…

 

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