Tuesday – December 11, 2012 –
Today was the big day: our arrival in Antarctica! My brother Jeff and I are extremely blessed to be able to travel to such an isolated and beautiful destination. And beautiful it was, as we stared in awe at the snow-bound continent outside our porthole. We had anchored between the peninsula and a small island called Anvers Island.
The days are definitely getting longer. The sun came up at 2:30 this morning and would stay up until 23:45 p.m.! After getting dressed, Jeff and I walked upstairs at 7 a.m. to the library for our first daily kayak briefing in Antarctica. Everyone looked bright eyed and bushy tailed about paddling this morning! Jimmy and Ian briefed us about our first paddle in Antarctica. Our fellow kayakers’ ocean experience ranged from relative beginner (less than 3 times in an ocean kayak) to more experienced. Jimmy and Ian addressed safety protocol and what to do in case of capsizing. Our dry suits would protect us for a couple of minutes, but even with them, it would be imperative to exit the water as soon as possible due to hypothermia risks.
Before going on deck, we went upstairs to the dining room for continental breakfast. We enjoyed some warm food – eggs, French toast, bacon and coffee – before heading to the mudroom. There Jeff and I joined our fellow kayakers in putting on our drysuits and shoe covers before walking out on the expedition deck of the Akademik Sergei Vavilov. The temperature was about 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but felt cooler with the windchill factored in. Anchored off Anvers Island, we peered ahead at stunning Fournier Bay, almost not believing what we were seeing. It was jaw dropping looking at huge icebergs floating not far away from us off Fournier Bay as low clouds enveloped the surrounding mountains.
Our adventure concierge leaders positioned rubber Zodiac crafts out in the bay after being lowered by crane from our level-six deck. Jeff and I walked down the gangway where we were the first kayakers up since we were using single kayaks instead of doubles. I have never kayaked in this temperature of water before, so I didn’t want to fall in the ocean. I was a little bit nervous at first because there were some small waves in the bay, but I started to feel back at home in a sea kayak because my rudder pedals were adjusted perfectly to my legs. I paddled around and had a pretty good feel for my kayak as I waited on my guide. I also shot some video of Jeff and the Akademik Sergei Vavilov as we waited on our remaining kayakers and guides.
Around 8 a.m., we set off with Jimmy and Ian guiding us into Fournier Bay. We kayaked not far from several enormous icebergs, but careful not to get to close. They shift upside down often, and many times they are larger on bottom. They can cause serious injury or capsize you if you’re careless.
A couple of times, we witnessed glaciers capsizing in the distance after hearing them roar. At one point I had drifted a little bit behind when I stopped to shoot video on my iPhone. Then I heard a tremendous boom behind me. Ian was instructing everyone to paddle their kayaks together into a side-by-side flotilla facing into the coming waves. Then he hollered at me to close about 100 yards quickly and join them. I didn’t quite make it to them in time, but I arrived close enough before I maneuvered to face the oncoming four-foot waves. It was a good reminder that we are in a wild and remote polar region and that we cannot let our guards down.
Later, we paddled at a safe distance by a number of vast ice sheets and glaciers. Words cannot adequately describe how beautiful the Antarctic Peninsula is!
After we kayaked for about 2.5 hours at Fournier Bay, we disembarked our kayaks and loaded into two Zodiacs to head back to the Sergei Vavilov. A couple of other Zodiacs hauled our kayaks back. On the short transfer back to the ship, we saw our first humpback whales of the trip. They were massive and so impressive to see on our first kayak session of the trip.
The humpback is just one of several whales plying the waters of Antarctica. Other large species include the blue whale and orca, which are feeding in cold polar seas in the summer. When the winter comes and the seas start to freeze, they migrate northwards travelling thousands of miles to warmer waters. We may also see minke, sei and fin whales during our visit.
When were arrived back at the ship, our Russian crew loaded up the Zodiacs and kayaks before the Sergei Vavilov cruised onwards through the Gerlache Strait to Dorian Bay. We would be stopping for an afternoon anchoring off the coast of Wiencke Island. After lunch, Jeff and I skipped the afternoon kayak session and decided to go ashore with the Zodiac passengers to see the gentoo penguin colony at Damoy Point. This point is home to Damoy Hut, a small seasonal observation post operated by Argentina for penguin researchers. On the beach we saw hundreds of gentoo penguins eating and nesting on the snow. They are extremely social birds with each other, but a little shy around humans. You cannot get too close, but if you stand still they will walk past you.
There is nothing quite as interesting as watching penguins stumble around in the wild for the first time. They shuffle their feet awkwardly as they scoot along smooth snow. However, they have trouble crossing large indentations in the snow, especially those caused by human footprints. When they tried to cross our footprints, they would tip over and fall on their tummies. They would then use their front flippers to wallow forward before regaining their back feet. And I thought I was klutzy … not the most graceful birds!
Of the 17 penguin species found on earth, there are only five different species of penguins in Antarctica. Two of these are emperor and adelies, which live and breed in the freezing ice. The adelie penguin family, which numbers around 2.3 million pairs, is one of the largest species of penguins in Antarctica. The emperor penguin – with about 220,000 pairs – can only be seen if you venture south into the interior of Antarctica. The largest species here are the chinstrap penguins, which number around 2.5 million pairs. The gentoos, like those we saw here at Damoy Point, are one of the smaller families of penguins in the Antarctic. There are only about 50,000 pairs of gentoos found in the region. The smallest of the five species are the macaroni penguins, with only around 10,000 pairs in the Antarctic.
Nearby the gentoo penguin colony, we saw a Weddell seal lounging around. These seals will occasionally eat penguins, but they mainly dine on fish, bottom-feeding prawns, crustaceans, krill and squid. They have great eyesight in the light, but when it’s dark in the winter, they use their special whiskers with more than 500 nerve endings to detect the wake of fish to capture them. These are interesting seals because they are one of the very few Antarctic seals that prefer living near shore-fast ice as opposed to free-floating pack ice. Weddell seals have the most southerly distribution of any mammal and venture all the way to McMurdo Sound! Here on shore-fast ice, they have no natural predators.
After taking some amazing photos and enjoying the calls of the penguins, we took the Zodiac crafts back to our ship. We then disinfected our Wellington boots by standing in a pan of disinfectant and wiped them on a scrubber. Afterwards we went on deck for our camping demonstration. A couple of our guides set up on the bow to show us how to set up our bivy bags and brief us regarding what we could expect on sleeping in Antarctica overnight. They predicted it would go below 0 degrees Fahrenheit at night, so about five hours would be about as long as we could expect to sleep comfortably. We were surprised by the large number of fellow travelers who decided to participate. How could you come all the way to Antarctica and not participate in such a unique experience?
As we cruised through the Gerlache Strait, we had a great four-course meal tonight with fish, soup, salad and dessert. What an unforgettable first day in Antarctica!