Sunday, January 22, 2012

In Antarctica: December 23rd Part 1

I am now in Antarctica – shrouded in it, enveloped by it, covered over completely by the beauty of it. It is easy to love the planet from here. I go back and forth with loving people. Sometimes I have empathy for us as a species. We're so busy and sad. We fight over parking spots. We stand in lines impatiently. We treat one another poorly and feel hard done by. I think of humanity collectively as T.S. Eliot's “infinitely gentle / infinitely suffering thing.” In my less generous moments I'm a misanthrope. I enjoy being away from people at least as much as I enjoy being with them. Perhaps that's part of the happiness I feel here. This entire continent is devoid of people. Not completely, of course. There are just over a thousand researchers who inhabit Antarctica year round, but they're spread pretty thin over Antarctica's 14,000,000 square kilometers (more like 28,000,000 in the winter when sea ice doubles the continent's size). No planes fly overhead on their way to somewhere else. No wires connect one thing to another. It is still quite possible to step ashore in Antarctica and to be the first person ever to have landed on that particular spot.

Early in the morning I spend an hour alone on the bow watching penguins feed on krill and see a humpback also having breakfast as we move through the Bismark Strait and along the Neumayer Channel. We've come north a degree of latitude overnight to find a way in through the ice that clogs the passages to the south. We go ashore in Zodiacs to Port Lockroy on Goudier Island and make land for the first time. There were whalers here in the early 20th century and a British military base was built during WW 2 which became a research station until the sixties. The station was restored in 1996 and now is part museum and part penguin lab. The three residents of this base are studying the impacts of human tourism on gentoo penguin breeding. The old base hut has been made to look as it did in 1962 when it was abandoned. The caretakers also stamp passports (a passport stamp from Antarctica is a rare commodity), run a post office (cards and letters are transferred from here to the British Postal system so “snail mail” puts it mildly), and they even have a shop which raises funds for the Antarctic Hertiage Trust. You can run from consumerism but you can't hide.

I'm more interested in the penguins. IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) has rules about interacting with Antarctic wildlife – a kind of Star Trekian prime directive which aims, as much as possible, to let the wildlife be wild and undisturbed. The rule is to stay five meters away from penguins (and further away from other species that might hurt you) but it is not possible to keep a distance from them at Port Lockroy. There is a gentoo penguin colony here and they are nesting everywhere, including under the hut and directly beside the walkway between the hut and the rocks the zodiacs landed on. But the penguins are unfazed by our presence anyhow. I stand for ten minutes or so looking at a group of them. This is my first penguin encounter and already I think that it would be very hard to dislike a penguin. More on that later. As I'm watching, one of the penguins that has been lying on a pebble nest stands up and beneath it I see a penguin chick that is no more than a day old (the adult could have been the male or female since they take turns feeding and protecting the chicks). On cue mom (or dad) leans over and vomits a little digested krill into the chick's beak and somehow even that seems endearing.

I spend two hours wandering around the colony. There are some old pieces of equipment from earlier days, including a dog sledge. There is also an entire humpback whale skeleton partly covered by snow. Nesting amongst the gentoos are a number of blue-eyed cormorants. They have similar black and white colouring so I have to look carefully to pick them out among the penguins and I find the way the two species of birds tolerate one another surprising. Is there a lesson here somewhere? I wander around with my camera, patient for another parent to lift up off its chick (or chicks--many have two or even three) or egg. I also put the camera away for long stretches wanting to see things without the filter of a lens. Just me and my penguin against the world.

On the way back to the ship, Robyn steers the zodiac around a few especially impressive icebergs, including one that serves as a king-sized bed for a Weddell seal. I'm onboard again by 11am so that was just the morning. There is so much happening right now that I can't cover a whole day in one blog post. 

More later.  


  1. I agree that it would be very hard to dislike a penguin. Your experience sounds delightful! Thanks for keeping us posted, Jay.

  2. Jay, I finally was able to log on to your blog. It's lovely. and so exciting. I can hardly wait to read more and please, post more photos.

    Hugs, Lee Ellen

  3. Hey nice pictures. I have visited Antarctica couple of times for my own projects. I love penguins but i have never seen the baby penguins. I am having many pictures of penguins which i had captured in my HD camera. I will share it very soon.