Sunday, March 20, 2011

Antarctica - Aitcho Island and Deception Island (South Shetland)

March 13, 2011

Two days of swaying back and forth, side to side, biding our time and staving off hints of nausea were now over, and the eagerly anticipated morning was now upon us; this was our first real day in Antarctica. The intercom system sent out a wake-up call, starting off with a bit of music from the Temptations - "I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day," went the song, and though the claim of sunshine may have been a bit of a stretch, nothing but the worst of weather could have dampened our excitement that morning. My roommate, Tim, got up a few minutes before me, re-entering the room with a huge grin and proclaiming that it's simply gorgeous outside. I quickly suited up in my thermal underwear, thick waterproof ski-type pants, fleece, heavy jacket, hat and gloves and ran up to the top deck to get my first glimpse of land. The chill of the air was obvious, though it wasn't as cold as I had imagined, as I gazed out over the calm water towards the islands. A bit of fog and clouds hung over us, though you could still easily make out the islands all around us, mostly large rocky islands with a few ridges, covered alternately in snow, ice and bits of dark exposed rock. Though we couldn't yet see any wildlife, just the site of this winter wonderland was exciting enough, and little did we know that this was just the very beginning of it all.

Donning our all-weather gear, life jackets and rubber boots to help us trudge through the tide at our wet landings, the mud and the penguin droppings, we lined up at the door, gently pushing our way forward to be the first to get on the Zodiacs, the motorized rubber rafts that are small and maneuverable enough to take us to shore and around the areas. Ten to twelve at a time, we boarded the Zodiacs, and I was lucky enough to be on one of the first ones. This was Aitcho Island, named for the Spanish pronunciation of the letters H O which are an abbreviation for something in the area, one of the South Shetland Islands that lie just North of the tip of the Antarctic peninsula.

In just two or three minutes, we were landing on the shore lined with dark pebbles, exiting the boat into the low tide and hurrying to meet up with the group of thirty or forty Gentoo penguins greeting us upon our arrival just a few yards away. The Gentoo penguins are common in the areas that we'd visit, little black and white birds with yellow beaks and a small white spot stretching across the top of their head, from eye to eye. They only stand about knee high to most of us, but we all crowded around this first group, crouching down to get the view from their level. Once all of the passengers had arrived, the guides explained a bit about the animals and led us down the rocky beach that sloped into the water from a ridge along the middle of the long, narrow island. Another reason I had chosen this cruise over other ones was the size. The Antarctic Treaty governing all activities on the continent by an agreement of many different countries mandates that only 100 passengers can be at any landing site at one time, so large boats have to make landings in shifts, whereas smaller boats like ours could simply unload the whole group without worry. Our ship could carry up to 86 or so passengers, but we were slightly below capacity with about 75 passengers, so it turned out to be a nice sized group.

Moving up the coast of the island, we came upon our first seal, one of the infamous leopard seals of the area. These leopard seals are named both for the spots on their light colored bellies and for their ferocious predation habits. With sharp teeth and mouths much wider than normal seals, they carry a sinister looking smile, reminding me of the Joker from Batman movies. These are also known for their aggression, even having killed a scuba diver or two and attempting to attack others. I wasn't positive we'd actually see one of these large beasts, about the size of a small to medium sized shark, so I was really excited to see one right away. Fortunately, this sighting was on land, where seals are fairly harmless, slinking along with their clumsy bodies, as compared to sea lions who can prop themselves up with their flippers and move fairly quickly in short bursts. We remained a safe distance away, and the leopard seal eventually retreated into the water, and we turned inland, climbing up a damp hillside. The area here is actually covered in large patches of dark green moss, a very slow growing variety that manages to hang on in a continent where anything green is extremely rare.

The other side of the island was covered in pebbles and rocky outcrops, giving us a few more mammal spotting with a pair of lazy elephant seals, the massive blobs briefly looking up at us and determining that we were not a threat before going back to lounging around, and a few fur seals, which are actually a type of sea lion. Down by the water on the back side of the island, we saw more and more penguins, waddling along in their awkward, endearing way, some with flippers outstretched for balance, others boucing from side to side with their arms at their sides. Though we were amazed by this first island, we had to keep moving, so after about an hour on the island, the guides lured the reluctant group back to the boats, where we reboarded for some food and motored down to our next destination, Deception Island.

Deception Island is another of the South Shetland Islands, this one shaped as a nearly complete circle, with a small chunk missing that allows the boats to pass into the center. The ring is a remnant of a collapsed volcano, leaving the signature crater and a bit of geothermal activity behind. With its long black sand beach and sheltered waters, this was one of the few spots where whalers in the early 20th century could dock their ships and take care of business instead of having to do the work on the ships. With whaling long since subsiding in the area, the island now just bears a few remnants of the early business in the form of very slowly decaying pieces of boats and rusting silos used to house the oil harvested from the whales. After lunch, we rode out to the beach for another landing, allowing us to walk around the lower part of the island, backed by steep slopes of snow and bedrock encircling the island. Again, we were greeted by some Gentoo penguins and fur seals, fairly indifferent to the presence of our tour group. Getting away from the bigger group, I found a quiet spot to just sit and observe the raw beauty of the island, watching a group of five or six little penguins pass right in front of me, stopping for a second to take a look and then moving on their way to the water.

Summoning us back towards the boat, it was now time for the other main attraction of Deception Island - the opportunity to swim in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean. The geothermal activity of the island provides some hot water vents to warm up the water along the edge, though this is only mostly true during low tide. As we were there during high tide, the cold ocean covered most of the vents, meaning that there was little difference between this water and other parts of the islands. Sometimes it's even warm enough for people to lay out in the water like a hot tub, but that certainly wasn't the case given our timing. About fifteen to twenty of us decided to take the plunge. Stripping down to my bathing suit and readying my towel and clothes for when I got out of the freezing water, I hesitantly walked along the black sand into the freezing water, acknowledging that this was not going to be a warm dip in the jacuzzi. I waded and swam around for just a minute or two, happy to come back to land and find a tiny hole in the sand that someone had dug to find a bit of the hot water seeping through, helping to warm up our frozen feet for just a few moments. As I tried to dry myself, I noticed that my skin was mostly numb, so I quickly dried off and hopped on the awaiting Zodiac to take us back to the warm dining room of our boat for some snacks and warm soup. It probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a dip in these freezing waters.

Our first day in Antarctica was coming to an end, and the day had already been a memorable one. Swimming in the freezing water, coming face to face with seals and hundreds of penguins, learning about the historical remnants of this foreboding continent and simply seeing the first bits of pristine beauty had been amazing, and there were still four or five more days of this to come. It was almost an unreal sensation to find myself in this incredible place, and I again went to sleep in eager anticipation of what we'd discover over the next few days.

(After a little over two days of cruising down from Ushuaia, we finally found some land in the form of the South Shetland Islands. The excitement on the boat was palpable as we prepared for our first Zodiac landing, taking the motored rafts out from the cruise ship to Aitcho Island.)

(Immediately upon landing at Aitcho Island, we saw quite a few penguins, followed by a leopard seal slinking its way back towards the water, and eventually this fur seal (actually a sea lion) on the backside of the island.)

(A cute little Gentoo penguin. These guys are quite common, and we saw a few different groups of them from the moment we stepped onto the rocky/pebbly shore. Most of them are probably a little less than knee-high. The great part about Antarctica is the animals aren't really scared of people, so you can get fairly close to them, or allow them to come up and investigate you. This guy was just passing by.)
(The South Shetland islands are just off the Northern tip of Antarctica, and one of the few spots in the area where you'll find anything green. In this case, it's mostly a slow growing moss. As you can see, as a part of the cruise, we were given matching red jackets, as well as long rubber boots to help wade through the water, mud and penguin guano.)

(Another Gentoo penguin hanging out in a little stream, trying to decide which way to go. Though we had already seen a lot of them during this first landing, we were still entranced by each one walking by.)

(As most people moved on, I hung around for a few minutes while the penguin took a drink and slowly waddled away.)

(Though we were late in the season (ours was the last sailing of the MV Antarctic Dream), there were still a good number of penguins left on land. As it gets colder, they actually spend the majority of their time in the sea during the winter. These guys are just finishing molting and getting their new feathers ready to spend time in the water. If they were to enter the water while still molting, they wouldn't have the waterproof/oily protection offered by their full coats.)

(Me, Aitcho Island, some Gentoo penguins and our ship, the Antarctic Dream, in the background. Nice combo. Though it was cold, it wasn't as bad as I expected, perhaps hovering just above freezing during the day time.)

(Large groups of penguins came down to bid us farewell as we left Aitcho Island.)

(Some of the beautiful rocky and icy scenery among the South Shetland Islands. Though it was cold outside on the top deck, it was nice to get fresh air and the incredible views.)

(Entering Deception Island, an ring shaped island left as a remnant of a collapsed volcano, we hit the black sand beaches for a bit of wildlife and history. This boat was one used to carry fresh water for whalers back in the early 20th century.)

(One of the feisty fur seals, actually a misnamed sea lion, heading towards the frigid water.)

(Some of the penguins were just lounging around, not unlike a few of the tourists. I took a few minutes on my own to just sit and watch a few of these groups away from the rest of the people, and it was amazing to actually be in a place like this.)

(Other groups of Gentoo penguins opted for yoga and exercise while I looked on.)

(This group of fur seals was a little territorial, guarding one of the former huts used by the whalers. With its long black sand beach and sheltered cove, this was one of the very few spots where whalers could land to take care of their cargo, and remnants such as rusting silos used to hold the whale oil still exist in this island.)

(At low tide, Deception Island has geothermal vents that release hot water and allow swimmers to relax in a hot tub like setting under the backdrop of the snowy mountain ridge. Unfortunately, we arrived at high tide, so it was essentially just freezing water. Fun stuff, but I couldn't resist the chance.)

(Stepping out into the water, it was absolutely freezing, though I didn't expect much different.)

(Trying to manage a smile before my faces freezes. Upon getting out and trying to dry off, I found that my skin was pretty much numb at that point. There was one little hole dug in the sand with a bit of hot water to warm up, but a few warm toes doesn't really do much for a freezing body.)

(I even made an attempt at a dive, which is big for those of you who know my swimming prowess/lack thereof. Fortunately when we got out, we got straight back onto the Zodiacs and to the warm boat waiting for us in the harbor.)

(If you look closely, you can see the splash and my feet just about to enter the water after my dive. About twenty of us passengers decided to swim in the Southern Ocean while the rest just looked on and laughed from the comfort of their warm jackets.)

(Our three course lunches and dinners were quite nice for the most part. This was one of the favorite dishes, a steak on top of a rice and lentil mix. Again, as a backpacker, I'm not really used to eating like this, so we took full advantage of the food and the dessert bar.)


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