Antarctica

Antarctica Day 5: Camping Overnight on the Continent

Wednesday December 12, 2012 

Today is one of the days associated with the Mayan Apocalypse. What the hell are we doing in Antarctica when the poles are supposed to flip? I joke, but it is rather ironic to be camping here tonight!

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After breakfast, we went out on deck and prepared for an unforgettable day of kayaking. We had sailed further down the Gerlache Strait to Paradise Harbor. All of us on the kayaking crew put on our drysuits before heading down to our kayaks. Those not kayaking would be making their first landing on the continent itself at Argentina’s Almirante Brown research station. All of us kayakers would not be landing on the continent this morning, but we would be seeing the continent up close for the first time from our kayaks.

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During our morning kayaking session, we saw a number of adelie and chinstrap penguins swimming and jumping in the water around our kayaks. They are incredibly efficient and nimble swimmers, but what’s very interesting is how curious they are about us. I had one jump over the bow of my kayak.

Later we stopped paddling in awe as we watched our fellow travelers scampering like ants up a hill above us and the Almirante Brown Station as we paddled by the station. This is the first time we have paddled through waters filled with ice, which cracked as we dipped our paddles into it. We navigated through the labyrinth as we passed around a beautiful bend of Paradise Harbor. We couldn’t believe how thick the glaciers were towering above us. Ian warned us to stay a quarter of a mile from the coast after we noticed some huge icefields that looked unstable probably 2,000 feet above us. A collapse would be a fatal hit directly below it, and even at our distance, a tsunami would probably kill us. These weren’t the times to think about that! The millennial-old ice and snow garnered our attention and respect. We also saw a number of skuas swooping in to take a look at us.

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After a three-hour long paddle, we headed back to the Sergei Vavilov. We were starving and enjoyed some sandwiches for lunch. We transited a short distance further down the Gerlache Strait before anchoring at Neko Harbor, situated on the west coast of Graham Land. Jeff and I had opted to skip our afternoon kayak to make our first Zodiac landing on the Antarctic continent.

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Neko Harbor is absolutely stunning. Upon arriving by Zodiac boats, we had a few hours to savor our first time standing on the continent. We saw a huge colony of gentoo penguins and occasional chinstrap penguins. We even saw some carefully protecting their eggs. The penguin cries punctuated the air as they navigated up a path up the penguin highway to their nests. With thousands of penguins in the colony, the smell of their dung was powerful.

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When we tired of watching the penguins, some of us chose to climb up a glacier in deep snow to an overlook of Andvord Bay. We saw colossal ‘tabular’ icebergs that had breaken away from the continent’s ice shelf. We also could see several oddly shaped icebergs that looked like sculptures in the bay. Most impressive was our view of the Sergei Vavilov way below us and out in the bay. It almost looked like a toy ship off in the distance.

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Before leaving Neko Harbor, several of us decided to take advantage of a unique opportunity: going for a swim – actually, simply an immersion – in Antarctic waters. I decided to take the polar plunge. The water temperature was about 37 degrees and I was crazy enough to do this in Barrow, Alaska, in the Arctic Ocean several years earlier. However, this was colder and we were literally swimming with pieces of ice. I even saw a gentoo penguin before I submerged myself!

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A few of us decided to do it, but we were instructed to go one at a time. We had a doctor on hand with a defibriliator just in case we went into cardiac arrest. It literally took my breath away and froze me up for a few seconds as I submerged under the icy water. After exiting the water, I quickly dried off and put on my warm clothes. Jeff passed on the swims but took photos of my stupidity. Our Canadian friend, Paul, did something even more unique. He became one of the few people to have ever wakeboarded in Antarctica as he used one of the crew member’s board as cruised behind a Zodiac boat.

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Upon our return to the Sergei Vavilov, we all went to enjoy our dinner for the evening. Then we packed our gear for a night sleeping on Antarctica. Only less than 60 people may camp on the entire continent on any given day, and it must be approved by the Antarctica Treaty governing organization in advance.

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We left on our Zodiac boats for Rongé Island, where we would camp. Upon arrival, we watched a demonstration on how to dig a snow trench. The snow here is not of the right consistency to build an igloo – it is simply too fragile and would collapse. After the demonstration, we all spread out and began digging by using our snowshoes as shovels. By digging deep enough so that our entire bivy bags were out of the wind, we would stay protected from the sub-zero windchills.

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We first put down our sleeping pads and assembling our bivy bags. We then added our rented sleeping bags inside before getting ready for bed. The temperature was going to be about 0 degrees Fahrenheit, so this would not be the most comfortable night. It was weird seeing daylight still at 11 p.m. Even weirder was the small gentoo penguin colony nearby socializing during the night – a strange version of “crickets” singing that I have never experienced in the wild before. The only concern I had was a large leopard seal that Jeff and I had seen about 100 years to our right along the coast. We hoped our buddy Jon would be the bait and not us if the seal wanted a meal during the night!

I slept well except for the one time I had to get up during the night to take a leak. We had set up a can because everything has to be carried out. The penguins nearby seemed to be an intrigued as I took care of business. Then I trekked back to my tent to sleep for a total of about five hours. I could see my breath freeze as I exhaled. I couldn’t help but think of early explorers like Robert Falcon Scott who froze to death in their bids to conquer this continent.

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