Monday – December 10, 2012 –
The days are definitely getting longer as we approach Antarctica. The sun rose around 3:30 a.m. after setting around 10 p.m. last night. This morning Jeff and I decided to sleep a little later and skipped breakfast. We had a number of interesting sessions scheduled for throughout the day.
First up, Jeff and I met up with the other kayakers and our guides in the Mud Room to be fitted for our kayaks. Jimmy and Ian helped fit us with our drysuits and overshoes that we would wear to protect the bottom of the suits.
After our kayak fitting, we had lunch with a guy named Paul from Calgary. Paul is finishing up college and has been touring the world for the last 10 months as part of an educational experience that his generous grandfather funded with stocks a long time ago. His Mom joined him and was quite the adventurer herself. They had just finished touring parts of Argentina before joining the expedition.
During the afternoon, we had to attend two mandatory sessions. The first session discussed the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 – more commonly known as the Antarctic Treaty System – and its rules governing visitors to Antarctica.
After the beginning exploration of Antarctica in the early 1900s, between 1921 and 1959, several expeditions took place and some research stations were opened. During this period several nations had claims on parts of the Antarctic continent. In December 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations. The treaty bans military activity and guarantees free access for scientific research. It also defers all territorial claims in Antarctica. Essentially, the Treaty established Antarctica as a zone of peace and science. In 1991, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties adopted the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which designates the Antarctic as a natural reserve. This protocol established environmental principles for protecting the Antarctic environment and its dependent ecosystems.
With the exception of scientists stationed on the continent, we learned that only a certain number of visitors are allowed to visit Antarctica at any given time. Schedules must be approved in advanced by the Antarctic treaty governing group. All tours must be licensed by the Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. We also learned that only around 60 visitors may stay over on the continent at night. At each stop, we would have to disinfect our boots by soaking in a disinfectant when re-entering the ship. We are required to take everything we carry on the continent back with us and not bother the wildlife.
Later in the afternoon, we had a mandatory zodiac meeting. Our deputy expedition leader – Geoff – discussed our guided tours and the zodiac craft landings would undertake. They reviewed everything from safety to dressing appropriately for the conditions. They also talked about wildlife we would see.
During the briefings, we learned a lot about Antarctica, which is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth. It is the world’s fifth largest continent and almost twice the size of Europe. Approximately 98 percent of Antarctica is covered by ice and, with an average elevation of about 2,000 meters, it is the highest continent on earth.
Antarctic weather continues to evolve. It can change rapidly and dramatically; within minutes fine sunny conditions may shift to grey skies, windy conditions and snow fall. There is little precipitation as the air is too cold to hold water vapor. However, it retains any moisture it receives and about 75 percent of the world´s fresh water is stored as ice. Interestingly, ice is formed from snow falling and consolidation. It is a continuous process adding ice to the ice sheet and losing it by evaporation, melting and calving into icebergs.
The winds in Antarctica are notorious as the strongest winds on the planet. In fact, katabatic winds – caused by denser, colder air – rush down off the polar plateau to the coastal areas. This can create strong storms near the coasts. Antarctica is surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the world’s fourth-largest ocean. It extends from Antarctica to the Antarctic convergence, where the cooler southern seas meet with the warmer northern waters.
During our trip to the continent, we are visiting the Antarctic peninsula – which is the closest land to South America. The peninsula is the continent’s richest breeding grounds for seals, penguins and sea birds and is well known for its stunning scenery. Supporting this wildlife is not only seafood, but vegetation. Algae and lichens grow mainly on rocks and stones. There are 75 species of moss and two flowering plants – a grass and a pearlwort. Growth is slow and most become inactive in the Antarctic winter.
After our sessions, Jeff and I walked out on the bow for first time. We passed the Antarctic Convergence this afternoon and ventured into the cooler waters of the Antarctic. We noticed a distinct drop in temperature as we left the warmer waters of the southern Atlantic. Then we saw our first humpback whale of the trip. It was massive, even from a distance. We also happened to see our first small icebergs. Many of them had resident chinstrap penguins along for the ride. We also had our first land sightings on the Antarctic peninsula!
For dinner, we ate with Meg (our kayak guide Jimmy’s sister) and Katie, our resident historian. Katie is Scottish and a doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews. We talked history of Antarctica and I enjoyed hearing about some of her experiences traveling. Meg also told us some interesting stories of her travels.
After dinner, we attend the fireside chat with our expedition leader Boris, who is originally from New Orleans. He talked about what we could expect on the Antarctic peninsula. We also spoke with our penguin scientists working for Oceanites, Leslie and Paula – both grad students from the University of Maryland. Leslie is Canadian and Paula is Argentine. They will both be conducting research on a special research grant from Oceanites.
Then we watched sunset from bar/observation room. I also spoke to Dr. Mike while filming sunset on the sixth deck. The sea was rougher today, but we never got sick. We slept well thanks to the scopolamine patches.