Sunburnt in Antarctica

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February 23rd 2020
Published: February 23rd 2020
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Antarctica 8-13 February 2020

The Antarctic Peninsula

I really don't know how to start describing our visit to Antarctica – it was amazing, and made even more so by two days of wonderful weather. Bryan, one of the experts on board (more about that in a moment) said that in 43 years of experience in the Antarctic this was the best two days he has ever experienced. Good for us, but maybe not for the planet!

Perhaps some factual information first will set the scene. In 1959 12 nations active in the region signed The Antarctic Treaty which applies to the area below S 60 degrees. It creates a natural reserve devoted to peace and science where there are no wars, where the environment is fully protected and where research is the priority. As of 2017 there are 53 Antarctic Treaty Members representing 80% of the world's population. As part of the Treaty all development and exploration for mining purposes has been banned until 2048 and hopefully even longer.

Everything taken in to the Antactic has to be taken out including all rubbish and human waste matter. Carrying full 'poo' containers to load on ships in high winds was the topic of a number of 'Traveller's Tales'. There is a rule that people can go out in winds no higher than their weight in kilos, so if you weigh 70 kilos your limit is 70 miles an hour winds or you are likely to be blown away. Although it is summer with good weather we did experience winds around Tierra del Fuego that made it difficult for me to hold the camera upright.

Seven nations (Argentina, Australia, France, Chile, New Zealand, Norway and the U.K.) have territorial claims which are not internationally recognised. Some try to reinforce their sovereignity by erecting flags and plaques, issuing stamps and Argentina has even resorted to sending pregnant women to Antarctica to give birth to support their claim!

All activity in the region is tightly controlled and even affected how the Zaandam operates. Only low sulphur diesel can be used even though the ship has sulphur scrubbers. Noise, speed and light pollution is tightly controlled and when passengers go on deck special rules come into effect such as no smoking, eating or drinking and this is tightly enforced by crew stationed all around. Hats, scarves, gloves and any other items that might go astray and be blown overboard have to be fastened tight.

Any ship visiting Antarctic waters with more than 200 people on board is not able to land so we knew in advance that we were going to be cruising around. The itinerary allowed for one day travelling south across Drake's Passage, a notoriously treacherous stretch of ocean, to approach the Antarctic Peninsular. Then we would have four days scenic viewing, weather permitting, before another day returning back across Drake's Passage and docking in Usuaia. So six days at sea. No detailed itinerary is given as everything depends upon the weather, sea state and ice. The Captain decides where and when to go to ensure safe passage. His decision is final.

Beforehand I wondered if it would become boring so took lots of books on my iPad just in case. I needn't have worried. The problem became finding time to fit everything in. Each day we had three talks, travellers tales in the evening in the Crow's Nest bar where one of the Expedition Team told an anecdote about their time in Antarctica with titles such as The Dumbest Ways to Die in Antarctica, How I was Chased by a Seal, at least two trivia quizzes a day, a film, an evening show on the Mainstage and three different music options in the evening. Trying to find time to eat was a challenge. In total over four days I spent about 20 to 22 hours on deck watching the scenery and wildlife, although the third day was so cold and grey I was only outside a couple of hours. One of the team was usually on the bridge to spot wildlife and interesting geological features to make sure we missed nothing.

We have on board the Expedition Team. Three experts, a geologist (from the U.K. originally, now living in New Zealand), an Australian historian and a biologist/penguin specialist from New Zealand. All three are well respected academics and researchers who have spent years working in Antarctica and have written numerous books. Each day we had three talks, one from each of them about a topic from their areas of interest. It could have been dry, boring stuff which sent the audience to sleep but in fact it was just the opposite. They were so entertaining, and informative that it was necessary to go and bag your seat at least half an hour ahead of time. To make sure no-one missed out the talk was also broadcast simultaneously on cabin televisions.

So Bryan, the geologist, explained the formation of Antarctica from 500 million years ago to how it ended up in its present position. I thought his talks might be ones I could skip but the animations and graphics made it easy to understand and I never nodded off. Craig, the Aussie, was the joker and good fun. From him we learnt about the lives, loves, idiosyncracies and suffering of all the main explorers, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen and Douglas Mawson but when his final talk dealt with secret Nazi hideouts under the icefields and aliens we knew it must be time to head back to the mainland.

Lloyd, the biologist, gave an engrossing talk about Darwin, his hero. His devotion to and admiration of Darwin is so great that when summing up the man's achievements he was overcome with emotion and it took a minute or two for him to regain his composure. It was a real privilege to see Darwin through Lloyd's eyes.

But that was nothing compared to his final session on penguins. If there are sensitive souls amongst you who like to retain belief in such things as Santa Claus and cuddly penguins skip to the next page. The following is definitely not for you!

The topic was the Extraordinary Tale of the World's First Penguin Biologist, subtitle, the sex life of penguins. The sceptical amongst us might think Lloyd called it that to stir up interest – a marketing strategy! Don't believe it. It was certainly an X rated lecture. The start point was to explain about George Murray Levick (from Newcastle) and how by accident he came to be the first person to observe penguin behaviour in 1912. Through an almost random set of incidents an archivist at the Natural History Museum recently unearthed the long lost field diaries of Levick and much to Lloyd's shock when he was finally able to see these he realised that in fact Levick had observed the same behaviours as he had himself but exactly a hundred years earlier. The unbelievable thing is that Levick was not allowed to publish his material. It was considered too shocking to reveal! Even when he wrote it Levick used a simple code (easily broken) of Greek letters to conceal his findings as he was so embarrassed about them.

So what was so shocking to these Victorians? Where do we start. The common myth about penguins is they select one partner for life, and mum and dad raise the chick, or chicks. This is not true. As Lloyd described it (from his and Levick's observations of Adelie penguins) they are even more unfaithful than humans. But it does not end there. Male/male sex with numerous partners is as common as male/female. Female penguins signal when they are ready to be mounted but males will attack and mount them even when they are not, particularly if the females are weak from lack of food or have been injured. This is described as rape by the biologists. And even worse they practice necrophilia!

Another behaviour that parallels human traits is what researchers label 'prostitution'. To protect eggs small stones are needed. If a female who is running short of stones sees another male with a plentiful supply, she will go and signal to him that she is ready to be mounted but when he becomes excited and distracted she pinches a stone and runs. According to Lloyd, males are gullible. He has watched them fall for the same trick over and over again. Other females will signal readiness and actually lie down, then when the male has finished she wobbles away but not before collecting one of his stones and taking it back to her own partner.

In effect male penguins are rampant and will have sex anytime, anywhere, with anyone. This actually made part of Lloyd's research easier. At one time he and his assistant had to collect sperm so they decided they would try using dead females and cling film (called Gladwrap in some places). After a while it had worked so well they decided (tongue in cheeks) to see if they could make their task easier still and they bought some fluffy toy penguins from the souvenir shop in Usuaia. Clearly these were more pleasant to work with than dead penguins. And yes, they were successful. It worked perfectly! Sperm collection became much simpler. Obviously they had to continue using cling film too. Can you ever think of a penguin in the same way again?

As I said we had two days of sunshine, strong enough to get a touch of sunburn on my forehead even though it was cold and I was wrapped up well. My forehead was the only skin exposed. I was on deck seven hours that day. The third day was 'normal' weather for the region, misty, patchy low cloud with an odd shower then the sun breaking through in tiny shafts flashing the icebergs and flows with shafts of silver. The fourth morning was cold and bright but the Captain had been monitoring a weather front that was approaching and as he expected it to be bringing rough weather to Drake's Passage when we were due to cross he decided to make a run for it, leaving the Peninsular half a day early. It was a good decision as we had another very smooth passage and the benefit of reaching Usuaia to dock the evening before expected.

But what was Antarctica like? Truly breathtaking! The photo of the map shows our route which included Admiralty Bay, Hope Bay, Charlotte By, Wilhelmina Bay, Cuverville Island, Dallman Bay, Deception Island, Paradise Island and the Neumayer Channel.

We went in much closer than I had expected and also further into the bays than is usual because the sea was so calm with good visibility that the crew were able to manoeuvre between ice (called in descending order of size, icebergs, bergy bits, growlers and brash). Great ice sheets cover the land and in some parts the sea too (called fast ice). Wherever there is any ice free beach or slope it is usually covered with penguins, millions of them in colonies. You can identify the colonies from some way away as the ground has a pinky tinge. The krill they eat is pink so when the penguins poo they leave pink guano over the ground. You can also smell them some distance away.

In the Falklands we saw King penguins, Gentoos and Magellanics, and in Antarctica we added to those Chin Straps and Adelies. We could not believe how many penguins we saw, not only in the colonies on land but thousands in the sea, usually 'porpoising' (moving on the surface like dolphins or porpoises but 10 times faster) to increase speed as they neared home, and hanging about on chunks of ice of all sizes.

The birdlife included albatross, petrels, skuas and gulls. Unfortunately they move so fast and with the combination of blindingly bright sun, boat movement and wind I was unable to get any useful photographs.

In addition to the penguins we saw humpback whales and orcas. We learnt to identify some of the behaviour of the humpbacks, when they were lying on the surface resting, when they lifted their flukes to do a deep dive and most interesting of all we watched them working together in groups to bubble fish. They gather in a circle on the surface, blow, then descend and create bubbles which form a circular 'net' to herd the krill together to make it easier to feed on them.

We also sailed past three or four stations, tiny groups of buildings where scientists and researchers from various countries come to work for the summer, and of course some stay for the winter too. Some countries establish stations to make a claim on the land. I hope the photographs give an idea of the beauty of this remote region.

After sailing north for 24 hours we arrived at Cape Horn, which is an island, and Tierra Del Fuego, an archipelago so named because sailors saw smoke from the fires lit by indigenous groups in the region. European settlement wiped out most of the indigenous people, including hunter gather groups, the Ona, the Haush and the Selk'nam. The Yaghan and Alacalufes were known as 'Canoe Indians' as they travelled around in canoes living off fish, shellfish and marine mammals. They died as a result of disease brought by Europeans or by being killed in order to clear them from the land. Despite the harsh climate they wore few, if any, clothes preferring to stay warm by using fires and covering their bodies in animal fat. They believed it was warmer and healthier than wearing clothing that would always be damp because of the weather.

On Cape Horn we saw the lighthouse and the 'Albatross' memorial to the 15,000 people believed to have died in these treacherous waters. Fortunately we were ahead of a weather front and enjoyed relatively calm seas and moments of sun as we circled the Cape a couple of times. Then we entered the Beagle Channel and sailed into Usuaia.

Usuaia is set in a beautiful location surrounded by mountains, some of which still had snow on even though it is the end of summer but it is also bleak and windblown even at this time of the year. We had not planned a trip so we walked around the town, went to the Falklands War Memorial and visited the pharmacy. I cannot say it was a comfortable experience. In his talk about Usuaia Kevin the Cruise & Tour director (himself Argentinian) had showed us a sign that had been displayed on the jetty until recently which forbade the mooring of British boats. It was not very welcoming! He said it had been replaced with a slightly politer version but despite that it was not a place we wanted to stay long. At the memorial there was a display of huge photographs taken in 1982, all very partisan, but as they were falling into disrepair we thought that might be a sign of an improvement in local feelings. Then I read the last sentence on the memorial written in large letters, 'WE WILL RETURN!'. Then as we reached the Zaandam a shiny new tourist coach returning visitors from their excursion ashore pulled alongside and a message painted on its side declared, 'The Malvinas are ours!'. A very welcoming place. After visiting the Falklands where 99% of the people voted to remain a British territory it is disturbing to see so much energy being put into threatening its existence.

Additional photos below
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