Just a heads up…loading those photos for the last post took over 45 minutes, so I’m afraid you’ll only be getting one this time. I promise I’ll get you more when I get home.
Awesome, amazing, breathtaking, spectacular, beautiful, incredible…the list goes on and on, I’ve used them all and none of them do justice to the majesty and wonder of the sights I’ve seen these last few days.
Friday was gray and gloomy but the waters were calm, the worst of the storm to the north of us. I spent a good portion of the day visiting the on-ship auditorium to listen to various lectures on the region of Patagonia, Cape Horn and the 1911-12 season’s race to the Pole.
We passed Deception and Half Moon Islands and while they were amazing they were mostly shrouded in mist. I took about 50 pictures but it’s hard to gather how forbidding they seemed in real life. I think I mentioned before, but it’s almost as if someone has filled a mountain range with water nearly to the top so that only the very top peaks are left showing. There is relatively little shoreline on any of the islands, sometimes there is a sharp cliff or glacial shearing but more often the slope just simply leads into the water; rocky, snow covered, even the more northern islands that had some vegetation, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
We did begin to see some scattered glaciers on the islands and random ice bergs in the impossibly blue water and the frigid wind promised us more to come. I’ll wax poetic about them a bit later.
We also had more and more animal sightings. Every now and then you’d see a speck of black on the ice and just know that if you were a bit closer you’d be able to tell that it was a penguin. And then there were the penguins in the water. I don’t know how it was that in all my years of teaching about penguins in school and falling in love with their charming little black-tie waddling selves that I missed the fact that as they swim they leap in and out of the water like dolphins, but I did. And they do. It’s called porpoising and it’s really is almost identical to the way a dolphin swims. They bullet through the water like torpedoes but every now and then they’ll leapfrog out once or twice or a dozen times before shooting off underneath the waves again. It is fascinating and entertaining to watch. And impossible to take pictures of. I did take some video though so we’ll see if I can figure out how to load it on here (or find a video on Youtube for you all.)
Saturday we started our day bright and early with a 6 am stop in a small cove near Enterprise Island. The water was practically mirror smooth and the sun made itself known in peeks and patches which made for some better photos (but the best were yet to come!) I finally tore myself away after nearly 3 hours on deck and grabbed a bit of food to prepare for our journey through Neumayer Channel, with another 2 hours or so out on deck soaking in all the breathtaking scenery; more snow crusted peaks and blue glacial bits than I knew what to do with.
The ship made a stop at the Palmer Research Station where we picked up a few of the personnel there. They gave a brief presentation about their respective jobs and life at the station and conducted some Q&A. There was even a first grade teacher there who spent time each day skyping in with schools in her district and conducting lessons on penguins, ecology, and more. It almost made me want to go back to teaching. What an awesome job!
Sunday (January 15) we were blessed with the most beautiful day yet. I believe God smiled down on us as we gloried in His creations that Sabbath. The sky was a desert blue, the waters were calm, and the sun was a ball of hot ice in the heavens as we sailed among glaciers in the aptly named Paradise Bay. I don’t know that there are very many things I’ve seen that are as striking as what I saw that day. (*See the photo below for proof!) I was in and out all day putting on and removing layers of clothing, thawing out and rubbing feeling back into my fingers in order to press the button on my camera and heading back out again, for while the sun was shining we were hovering near the Antarctic Circle and the wind was truly Polar.
That afternoon we sailed past Cuverville Island, home to one of the largest Gentoo penguin colonies in the world. The beaches were covered with thousands of them, reddish brown specks (thanks in part to the red guano beneath their feet…we could smell it from half a mile away!) of nearly fledged chicks and adults ready to make their way back to the sea after the breeding season. It’s always a treat to see animals in the wild, but to witness something so vast leaves you with a different sort of sense of awe. We have such a responsibility to share the world with these creatures and protect them in their helplessness or risk not having scenes like that to see any more.
Monday was our final day in the Antarctic and it was just as beautiful as Sunday had been. The Antarctic Sound treated us to a sea filled with glaciers as far as the eye could see in one direction while a look in the other direction showed us the continent itself. We sailed past the town of Esperanza (one of the larger research stations) and into Hope Bay with its Adelie penguin colony; tens of thousands on the cliff sides, hundreds feeding and porpoising in the waters, dozens and dozens on the bergs and floes nearby. At one place they were so thick in the water you could see a thick dark band continuously swarming over the surface like ants and not for the first time I cursed my puny little camera. (I may have to sell my remaining kidney for a good one when I get home!)
By afternoon the clouds had rolled back in and the wind was doing its worst as we made our way to Elephant Island. We traced the route of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men coming around the southern end toward Valentine Cove where they wintered waiting for rescue. Theirs is a heart-wrenching story of courage and survival that brings me to tears nearly every time I think about it. We were nearly frozen, sailing into the wind as the clouds blew in covering the island from view. It was the height of summer, we were well-fed and well-rested, dressed in thick clothes and inches away from warmth and shelter. They approached the island in 3 small boats after a week on open seas in the middle of winter. They’d spent the previous 500+ days stranded on the pack ice that eventually claimed their ship, The Endurance, forcing them to drag their boats over ice to water. After landing, Shackleton and 5 other men set off on foot to cross the mountainous terrain to the other side of the island where they found whaling ships to finally, after 3 attempts, rescue the rest of the men. Four months they waited there under two of the overturned boats before Shackleton returned. And not one man was lost.
I read up a little on some of the great explorers before coming here but seeing the land for myself has given me a new appreciation for what they did and the kinds of men they were. Amundsom, Scott, and Shackleton have quickly moved up my list of heroes to meet on the other side of the veil.
Today has been a sea day, finally making our way through the dreaded Drake Passage but we’ve had smooth sailing the whole way. I’ve had plenty of time to lose myself in the account of Scott’s tragic expedition in Race to the Pole by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and stare aimlessly out the ship’s windows at the blue expanse of ocean stretching out in all directions pondering my own expedition and life in general. And the only conclusions I’ve been able to reach is that life is an adventure whether you sail the oceans, explore new worlds, or never leave the city where you were born. We all have our successes and our tragedies. Some of us will come out viewed as heroes, others as spectacular failures and the majority of us will be mostly unknown. But we all have the right and the freedom to choose, if not the circumstances of our lives, our responses to those circumstances. And therein is the secret, the power; to choose well, face whatever we are given with courage and dignity and keep pushing onward until our journey is through.
But my journey’s not through just yet! Tomorrow we are off to the Falkland Islands and then it’s back to South America; eleven more days to go. I’ll keep you posted!