Day 6 |
Dec 27, 2011

Liz Bradfield, Naturalist

By At sea, South of the Antarctic Convergence

Co-ordinates: S 61º58.53’, W 57º02.55’
Weather: overcast, 10-20 kts wind
Air Temperature: 1.5º C

Today, we arrived in Antarctica. Even though no land was in sight until around 6 pm when we saw a low hunch of an island, we woke up with temperatures lower, latitude higher, and our ship already south of the Antarctic Convergence, the strong band of current that separates Antarctica from the lands and waters north.

My sleep was a little challenged last night, for the strong winds that ceiling the currents had created a swell that, although not dramatic, did make itself known. However, the sky in the morning was bright, cape petrels were slipping across our stern, and the first light-mantled sooty albatross of our voyage were circling in and out of view.

I spent the day, along with most other guests, making a steady rotation around the boat: Observation Lounge for coffee; outer deck for birdwatching; Theatre for a lecture on krill, the southern ocean, or glaciers; Panorama Lounge for tea; and back to the decks again.

Each trip out revealed something new, and the most exciting view of the day was that of a few Antarctic petrels that kept pace with us for a few hours. These birds look much like the ever-present cape petrels, but have bars of chocolate and white across their wings rather than a sprinkling. “Not a habitual ship-follower” the books say, as well as “a bird of the pack ice”—today proved to be the exception to each statement. Many of the staff commented on the fact that this season has been one in which more Antarctic petrels than usual have been seen. What this means is hard to say, but it is surely a treat to watch these graceful birds.

During the talk on glaciers, we were happily interrupted by an announcement from the Bridge: Iceberg Ahead! We fled The Theatre, bundled up, and went up on deck to pass closely by our first iceberg, and a tabular berg at that! The sheer walls of ice rose up about 100 meters, and we had fun speculating what might live inside the deep blue caves toward the top of the berg.

As we passed, there was a roil in the water. Seals! Three crabeater seals rolled through brash ice and then swam along the edge of the iceberg, their pointed snouts and tan coats unmistakable. Perhaps they were looking for a small ledge to rest on, or perhaps they were hoping to take advantage of the productivity one of these large icebergs bring to the waters they drift through. Recent studies on icebergs in the Weddell Sea have revealed that the fresh water, algae, bacteria, and other nutrients streaming from the iceberg create a productive “hot spot” in the sea, kind of like an Antarctic oasis.

We were all snugly tucked into The Theatre and listening to Robin tell us about our early morning adventures at Brown Bluff, when word came over the loudspeaker: Whales! Two humpback whales, a mother and calf, were swimming slowly toward the Peninsula. The Captain slowed the Silver Explorer, giving us wonderful looks at these two great giants. This is my first view this year of a humpback calf—while it’s possible that others arrived earlier, we just haven’t happened to cross their paths. Watching their low, dark dorsal fins appear and disappear in the waves, I thought about the vast distances this young whale had already traveled. Further by far than our ship, and our voyage to date has felt significant. It is humbling to see the animals that make a home in these rough, rich seas. It’s wonderful to know that the Continent draws near.