Undblad Explorer was a small ship, built with icebreaking prow. Once we toured through an ice pack, looking at the local fauna. Groups of seals lie around on the ice, soaking up the sun or just resting; sometimes they became a bit wary at our approach and slipped into the water, but many of them just looked up and stared at us.
We embarked in Lindblad Explorer in Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan. The first warning we had was about water conservation—the showers had "minutieres" on them, to time the flow of water, and we were warned about conservation, since the ship could not make up enough fresh water from salt water to keep up the supply, if we used too much. Water in the shower would run for only about a minute, then shut off. Eventually, we both found that about two minutes in a shower would cleanse, if we did it Japanese style, soaping down first, then washing off the soap.
The ship was a bit spartan, but after a period of adaptation, satisfactory. Lindblad Explorer carried a number of lecturers. They are specialists in various disciplines and there are daily lectures about various aspects of the things which we were about to see, or had seen. Talks on the mechanics of glaciers, about sea mammals and birds, the history of Antarctica, from the first exploration to the latest are all parts of this tour.
Getting into all those pieces of clothing in a small space was quite interesting, but we learned. The boots were the most difficult, as they had to be donned after the trousers, and the waistline bulk made it difficult to lean over to lace them up. We looked like teddy bears.
The first beach we landed on had penguins galore, of the chinstrap variety. They have one marking which gives them their name, a black strap of feathers which goes under their bills. Think of a dark sandy beach with small surf breaking on it, rocks on each side, and several harems of seals lying around, and dozens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of penguins and you have the picture. Penguins walking into the surf, penguins returning from their fishing expeditions, walking around and paying little or no attention to us as we walked up to see the rookery. If you got down to something approaching their level (about knee height) they might just walk right up to you, inspect you, turn their backs, and walk off. One inspected us, first with one eye, then with the other, turned his (her) back, waggled its tail, and stalked off.
(I got too close to one of the seals and was chased off by the master of the harem. It must have been quite a spectacle, me flying off in those heavy boots and clothing—very slowly, as it was impossible to move very fast-chased by a seal.)
We hiked back into the rookery, through a small stream of very cold water, just barely melted, accompanied by penguins. Those poor little creatures walk about a mile to go fishing, for the purpose of feeding their young.
The penguin walk is quite clumsy, but they have another method of locomotion on snow.
They flop down on their bellies and toboggan, which is relatively fast.
They sometimes cluster in groups on rocks at the water's edge, trying to decide whether to go into that water at all. When the cluster reaches a certain size, one brave individual will dive into the water, then most of the others follow. Then another group congregates, and they go through it all again. When returning, they get smashed against rocks, eventually mount them, and proceed awkwardly to their young. Locomotion in water is by means of porpoising. Up and down, each time garnering some krill for their food, then presently they return to feed the young.
Their white fronts are often dirty with the pink color of the krill, but mostly the white is spotlessly clean. Penguin nests are built, of small stones, which they shamelessly steal from each other. One experimenter put a stack of small stones painted red in one corner of a colony, and when he returned, the red stones were scattered all over the colony. One mating habit is for the male to give his chosen a small stone. Another is for two birds to stretch their necks straight upward, making mating sounds.
Rookeries are quite noisy and rather dirty with guano. (And smelly, as well.) However, we found ourselves quite taken with those birds and their ways. After hatching from the egg, the baby penguin is covered with down, which it keeps for some time, shedding it in favor of the fancy dress. Some varieties leave the young with a nursemaid when they are off fishing, and you can see aggregations of those very young birds together. I watched one of the nurseries—the "nursemaid" kept after any stragglers, chivvying them back into the group, where they stayed until the parents returned.
Leopard seals eat penguins, when they catch them swimming. So one encounters orphaned baby birds. Skuas will eventually eat those. Rookeries can be vast; one we saw was estimated by experts to have about a million birds in it.
We looked on penguins as little people. They manage lo endear themselves to anyone who comes into contact with them. Perhaps it is their upright posture, perhaps it is their clumsy locomotion on their feet—or possibly the "academic processions" going to and from the shore.
There were many Adelies, chinstraps, gentoos, and some of the larger species, as there were royals and the emperors, which are about four feet tall when standing upright. They look for all the world like elderly professors.
We were taken on Zodiac cruises, which didn't land at all, but simply watched for wildlife from the boats. During one such, whales appeared on the water surface. Humpback whales, weighing thirty tons, we were told. They were playing around during and after feeding. What an amount of krill such creatures must eat. (Krill are tiny shrimplike things—pale pink and almost transparent, with great black eyes. One figure I recall is that it takes thirty krill to make a gram.) Those large whales take in a great gulp of sea water, full of krill, and strain it through the baleen. Their throats pouch out with each gulp, and the water comes cascading out as they strain out the krill.
Several whales came swimming over to the boat and swam under it. We could see their flippers in the water under the boat. Then one breached and we could see its back and finally the flukes, which had barnacles on it in a pattern. Everyone was a bit scared by these demonstrations . . . with those flimsy boats being so close to those huge animals. Most Weddell seals have scars from contact with killer whales—we saw them. Seals slide into the water without any splash, swim away with a gliding motion. In the water, they sometimes allow their curiosity to overtake them, and they stick up their heads and watch. Cormorants (skuas) nest on sheer cliffs—there were many nests clinging to those cliffs—all of them with young cormorants watching.
There was a barbecue dinner at the Argentine station in Paradise Bay. It was about to close for the winter, when the scientists would go home. Unfortunately for us, the ship had had a batch of hand-knitted watch caps for sale, each of us had one. Knitted into them was the motto "Falklands War, 1982." We had forgotten about that, and went in with those caps on our heads. I told Robert about it, and he turned his backwards, but hairpins anchored mine in place. I felt apologetic toward our hosts.
Leaving, our boat driver was a fanatic whale chaser, and we spent an hour and a half chasing some fin whales which we never got close to.
The ship stopped at Paulet Island in the Weddell Sea, Deception Island, which is supposed to have the only Antarctic swimming pool—water in that area is warm enough for people to swim in, because of some underground heating (thermal activity). Antarctica has some working volcanoes, such as Mount Erebus, which is where there was a fatal New Zealand airline crash several years ago. Mount Erebus normally has a plume of smoke coming out of it.
Summers, the U.S. has about 1,200 people down in Antarctica, most of them at McMurdo Sound, our chief base there. But we also have Palmer Station, which we visited, Siple Base, and bases at the South Pole.
Probably the visit to McMurdo was the coldest day we encountered—going ashore in the Zodiac, our cheeks almost froze. We struggled up the hill to the base, finding it necessary to sit down for a rest several times. Then I finally commandeered a bus to take us to headquarters.
Robert found many fans among the people in Antarctica. At Palmer Station, one man was sleeping at the time of the ship's visit. When he heard that Robert had been among the tourists, he phoned the ship, and they talked.
On one Zodiac cruise, there were sea lions which played games with our boat. Their heads would come up above water and they would watch us, but when we steered toward them they would go under and pop up in a different place. Sea lions differ from seals in their gait, being able to walk in a fashion with their hindquarters.
One cruise was among icebergs, to see the sculpturing done by the winds, freezing and thawing and melting. Some of the bergs might be as much as a hundred years old, they told us. Bergs come in various shapes—tabular (squared off—just calved from the Ross Ice Shelf), which, after some melting, became castles, medieval monsters and all sorts of imaginative shapes. One evening, while we were at dinner, the captain spotted two huge bergs, and toured the ship all around them. At one point, it was estimated that we were in a field which contained sixty of the monster bergs.
A champagne party was held on a glacier. Ice is a marvelous substance, ice sculpture beautiful, but it's difficult to describe.
There were albatrosses of various sorts, including the wandering albatross—probably the largest bird known. We also saw petrels, and could go up to the nests and look at the young.