Thursday, November 18, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: November 14 - 16, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Leaving the incredible island of South Georgia behind us, we continued
our polar cruise to our final destination, Antarctica. Seas and weather
were calm enough. Now, we settled into a routine of on board lectures by
the staff while simultaneously heading outside for photography whenever
the light conditions would allow. This would be remembered as the day
when the first ANTARCTIC PETREL made its appearance. It would also be
remembered as a day when Will and Joe would get smashing images of a
LIGHT-MANTLED SOOTY ALBATROSS. FIN WHALES were also a major highlight,
some extremely close to the ship.

On November 15th, we celebrated a number of events. First, Don Doolittle
won the "spot the first iceberg" contest, receiving a bottle of
"bubbly." Several ANTARCTIC PETRELS continued to capture the attention
of the birders and photographers. Land came into view, as we watched the
myriad of shapes and sizes of ice bergs, bergy bits and sensational
tabular ice. Our great Captain Alexander Pruss remarked to me, "Now I am
home," at the sight of all of the ice. The mountainous land within our
sights was the South Orkney Islands.

The South Orkney Islands comprise five major islands and several minor
islets and rocks. They lie 700 km east and slightly north of the tip of
the Antarctic Peninsula. They are situated 800 km south of the Antarctic
Convergence. Some 85% of the islands are ice-covered. Pack ice surrounds
all of the islands in May - December, most years. Current ice charts had
shown that the islands were free of pack ice, allowing us to approach.
Decreasing numbers of ADELIE and CHINSTRAP PENGUINS breed in the
islands. Indeed, we saw many of them on ice bergs or the shorelines. Our
destination was Laurie Island where we visited Orcadas Research Station,
operated by the Argentines. Their official greeting on the bridge radio
was one of anticipation and excitement. We were the first visitors to
the station since March 10th. We brought a sack of potatoes, crate of
apples, a watermelon, case of wine and cigarettes to the station. The
head officer proudly gave us a tour of the weather station facility.
They served up tea and cookies and sold a few souvenirs. Post cards and
letters were posted, but there is no way to tell how long it will take
for these to get out. Few ships visit, as the landing is usually quite
difficult. There was no real wildlife value in this visit— it was more
of a place of human contact and a place to set one's feet on solid
ground. It was also a place to remind us that not one country "owns" the
Antarctic Continent. Rather, it was a time to reflect upon the
importance of this unimaginable place. In the words of the scholar
Robert Burton, "So, as well as the breath-taking scenery and the
magnificence of its wildlife, Antarctica is an amazing place because it
represents a huge section of the planet that lives at peace, despite the
presence of a range of nations with very different political and
cultural backgrounds and despite the mayhem that breaks out in other
parts of the world. It has allowed peaceful and controlled development
of scientific programmes whose value has been increasing as the
significance of the role of Antarctica in global environmental systems
has become appreciated." (From Southern Horizons). At dinner, we
celebrated the birthday of one of our group, Donna Kirsacko with fun,
laughter and wine.

Once again, we pulled anchor for nearly a two day sail to our next stop.
That brings us up to date, November 16th. Today, we have been at sea
under mostly cold (30F), calm, gray and mostly foggy conditions. CAPE
have been our constant escorts. There has been no ice about the ship. I
look forward to returning to the ice in the Terror and Erebus Gulf, as
we make our way to Paulet Island. Time for briefing on tomorrow's plans.
All is well on board, and in our little group.

Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; Falkland Islands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula

P. S. Just after typing this, I stood up from the desk to see a huge
slice of tablular ice outside our cabin window! Whoo hoo!

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