Co-ordinates: S 62º 24’ W 59º 47’
Weather: Overcast, at times driving rain and hail stones
Air Temperature: 3º C 37º F
Sea Temperature: 2º C 36º F
Pressure: 983 hPa
Wind: Strong winds from east-northeast
I joined several of my fellow Expedition Team members for breakfast in The Restaurant this morning, where after ascertaining the diversity and abundance of albatross and petrels around the ship from our early rising ornithologist, Ken, the talk naturally turned to that of the weather. As predicted the wind had picked up overnight and as we approached the South Shetland Islands and more specifically the Aitcho group of islands we began to wonder if the predicted drop in wind would occur.
Guests were few and far between initially, no doubt taking advantage of a morning in which no early landing was scheduled. I retired to my stateroom to prepare some new material for the daily recaps, in which we make short informative presentations to the guests and answer any lingering questions that they may have. Practising my multitasking skills, I also turned on the TV to listen to the lecture being given by Claudia, our climatologist. She was educating the guests on the factors affecting the climate of the Antarctic continent, as well as the other qualities that make the continent so special and uninhabitable.
At 11:30 it was time to convene in the Mudroom for the bio-security check. Guests must bring all their previously worn outer garments, bags etc., for inspection by the Expedition Team. Here we examine all nooks and crannies of the equipment and vacuum any seeds, dirt or organic material so that no foreign material might be inadvertently deposited on the White Continent. With the Antarctic Peninsula being one of the “hot spots” of the earth i.e. where temperatures are rising most swiftly (as mentioned by Claudia earlier in her lecture), there remains the distinct possibility that as the snow and ice retreats, the continent could begin to be colonised by invasive plants, some inadvertently brought in by humans. It is our responsibility to ensure that we play no part in such an eventuality.
Bio-security checks complete, I joined a group of predominantly Dutch guests for lunch in The Restaurant. Mealtimes are one such occasion when we can converse with guests on our areas of interest or answer their many questions on the many sights and abundant wildlife that they are witnessing or that await them. What with pleasant conversation and the usual array of fine food, The Restaurant is indubitably one of my favourite places on board. Today however, I had to forego the delights of the dessert table, as the Expedition Team met to discuss the various roles we would all play in the afternoon landing at Barrientos Island.
As the landing was taking place from mid-afternoon onwards, a Recap & Briefing was held immediately after lunch. Here Aiello alerted all to the number of different nationalities on board, both amongst the guests and the crew. Juan presented on the Antarctic Convergence (Polar Front). Our ornithologists Ken and Will instructed guests on the use of binoculars and the identification of chinstrap and gentoo penguins that we would be seeing this afternoon. Christian aka Rapa Nui, our historian, informed all present on the history of Cape Horn and the Drake Passage. As our Expedition Leader, Robin, took centre stage to brief the guests on landing both today and tomorrow while the rest of the team slipped away to don foul weather gear in preparation for the imminent landing on Barrientos Island.
The wind had indeed died considerably, though it still was an obvious presence, and soon a Zodiac was roaring to shore with the advance party; our job to flag out penguin-free routes around the landing site. I joined Robin at the shoreside, helping to hold the Zodiacs as they disembarked guests on the beach. All around, gentoo penguin chicks chased their parents, begging for food. At the water’s edge they usually gave up their endeavours, aware that their down feathers were by no means waterproof. Skuas shot by barely clearing our heads as they constantly patrolled the fragmenting colonies looking for weak or sick penguin chicks.
Higher up on the ridge top and over the far side, the chinstrap penguins shuffled around in a quagmire of guano and mud. At this stage few chicks remain, the majority having successfully moulted their down feathers and taken to the seas. Tatty looking adult chinstraps gathered on the beaches to complete their annual moult. For this forced stay on land, they have had to feed voraciously at sea for several weeks to replenish their fat reserves as the process of replacing their old feathers with new ones requires considerable energy.
Unfortunately the weather deteriorated somewhat, and the gusting wind brought with it rain showers and indeed a brief hail storm. As I stood waist deep in the cold water, steadying a Zodiac as the afternoon came to a close, I couldn’t help wondering yet again how the polar explorers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries survived. Here I was garbed in all modern clothes with varying magical qualities such as being waterproof and windproof, and as the wind and rain crept in around my cuffs and collar, I began, quite naturally to feel the cold. Yet these explorers not only endured worse, as they strained to trek through snow, blizzard, slush ice and other such miseries but for months if not years on end. In most cases they had no warm ship to return to, and certainly no warm and dry clothes to slip into at the end of the day. I simply don’t think I could have survived. Had the rain not been joined by the sea spray as the waves crashed off the Zodiac I was holding, I would have raised my hat to their memory.
Back on board the Prince Albert II, I was delighted to see our bar waiter Paul, ever faithfully dishing out hot juice drinks to warm the innards of the modern day polar explorers. One hot shower and a three-course meal later and I was more than ready to forego my musings on the early polar explorers and their damp and frosty reindeer sleeping bags for my snug down quilt. Goodnight Antarctica. Sleep well.