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While the majority of solid objects visible in Antarctica are various forms of white -- snow and ice -- it can be quite striking when the underlying rocks poke out, often in jagged peaks or rocky towers. Sometimes it seems like the land was built from bits and pieces ... as if giants piled a bunch of rocks on top of each other in some kind of game or children's toys, like Jenga or Leggos. I'm sure erosion must be a pretty fierce power here with the weight and movement of all that snow.
I've already mentioned several times the spectacular weather we had on this cruise. It's made clear when you sign up that landings or zodiac outings cannot be guaranteed to happen each day; it is all weather-dependent. And also the ship's course may change from day to day, even hour to hour, if weather or ice conditions change, making an originally intended destination inaccessible or perhaps making a different one a particularly good prospect. On our last full day of the expedition part of the cruise (before heading back toward the South Shetland Islands and into the Drake Passage), we had an extra special treat in getting three expedition activities! That evening, a spot that supposedly is not often accessible was open and so the captain took us there -- dinner was delayed so that we could have an evening zodiac cruise around a place called Spert Island. This was a treat indeed. Not only for the extra activity, but it was an interesting place and very different from anything else we'd seen. Here, sharp spikes of rock poked up out of the ocean.
The water was this incredible green color that I've never seen before. It depended on which direction the sun was relative to the photo and on the exposure length of the photo as to how well the green color came out on "film." So some of these pics the water is black, but the true representation of it is the pics where it is the astounding green color.
A very cool feature of the area was a series of arches and narrow passages through the rocks. It really felt like we were on an adventure such as one that might take place in a fantasy movie, braving the ancient lands of a lost or magical civilization, with mystery lurking around each corner.
The late-day sun and the low cloud ceiling made for some lovely colors in the sky. At 8:00 p.m., it was still quite a ways until sunset, which happened somewhere around 11:00 p.m. (though it stayed light well after that) but the sky had what I typically think of as sunset colors.
I love books about Antarctic explorers (though I've by no means read an authoritative number, just a few, but I've found them all riveting, and intend to read more in the genre). Hmmm .... perhaps here is my opportunity to plug my all-time favorite book, "Shackleton's Forgotten Men" by Lennard Bickel. Many people know the story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated attempt at crossing the Antarctic continent and how he and his men ended up estranged from their ship and survived a harrowing sea crossing in a measly life boat to Elephant Island and South Georgia. An exceptional feat (though more due to his ship's incredibly capable captain who was a deft navigator with a knack for dead-reckoning, than to Shackleton himself). But most people do not know of the party who landed on the other side of the continent tasked with laying food caches for the Shackleton party so they didn't have to carry their whole expedition's worth of food with them. Like Shackleton's ship, theirs was damaged in the sea ice and they were marooned on the continent, most of their own supplies were lost and yet they carried out their duty to lay the caches while they themselves nearly starved. Three members of their team died in the endeavor. If you ever wonder what the human body might be capable of, these men will show you the remarkable strength and endurance it can have. And in the end, the men carried out this feat in vain, for Shackleton never showed up. They are the epitome of the unsung hero. If you ever are to receive a birthday or Christmas gift from me, you can probably formulate a good hypothesis that it will be either "Shackleton's Forgotten Men" or my other favorite book, "Babylon's Ark." haha.
Anyway, in reading these various polar exploration books, I had always tried to imagine the landscape as described (as there are few photos from these early 20th-century expeditions). And while I have a more vivid visual imagination than most, I still had a hard time picturing a ship among icebergs, vast crevasses on glaciers, a ship being crushed by ice, etc. (While on the Sea Spirit, they showed a very good documentary about Shackleton's "adventure" which had quite a number of photographs and even film footage ... you know, moving pictures! I was pretty enthralled with the video footage.) While I was riveted by the anxiety and apprehension that the explorers felt while navigating the polar waters in their wooden ships, I just found it difficult to find a mental image that I had any confidence in. So part of my excitement in making it to Antarctica was finally understanding the landscape and icescape. The best illustration of it, and the best part of the Spert Island zodiac cruise, was when our boat driver asked if we wanted to try to find our way through a jumble of icebergs as a shortcut back to the ship. If we could not find passage, we'd have to back out and go all the way around the way we had come and be even later for dinner. He presented us these options (try the channel or head back now) as if there might be anyone who would be upset over being late for dinner when we had the opportunity to explore a passage through icebergs in Antarctica! Bah! I can't imagine. (I was especially keen since we turned back from a similar opportunity while kayaking at Cuverville Island -- and had to settle for just watching a whale swim by, poor us, haha).
So ahead of us lay a jumble of icebergs and we moved ahead slowly through them. I imagined a wooden ship, creaking in the waters, the crew looking ahead anxiously, wondering if they would find passage or be turned back.
All around us was ice and uncertainty. Then suddenly we emerged from the ice forest and there was completely open water ahead with the Sea Spirit at the far end. I just felt for a moment the exhilaration those old-time crews must have felt when they saw open waters, having successfully made it through unknown passages. How they must have cheered at the sight. We saw a pair of giant petrels in the water picking at what looked like a dead fish. We'd seen the southern giant petrels on land earlier and were told it was a pretty neat sighting (I guess not super common). So here they were again!
Some of the other icebergs we saw during the zodiac cruise at Spert Island ... hard to tire of photographing and feeling in awe of them. Not the best photo quality, sorry.
So it was of course important to me that I step foot on land during this cruise to be able to properly claim my badge of having been ON all seven continents. At Orne Harbor we were told this was our opportunity, and Erik and I skipped the kayaking to get on the continent. Hurray! My one and only lifelong goal definitively accomplished.
Zoomed in to the snow-covered peaks surrounding Orne Harbor.
To get back down the hill to where the zodiacs waited to shuttle us back to the ship, we were allowed to slide down on our coats like a sledding run. Our friends from across the hall (with whom Erik polar plunged) were at the top with us and neither he nor Erik could get themselves to slide down the trough that other people had made. Erik kept getting stuck at the hips and decided he was too wide to plow through the trough that way. So, he cleverly turned himself around and slid down on his back head-first like a speeding bullet. This was so funny -- I can't really explain how hilarious it looked -- our friends and I laughed so hard. It was one of the more entertaining moments of the trip.
We're pretty bad about taking photos of ourselves together on trips, but wanted to make sure we caught some on this momentous trip to a location which we will surely never have the opportunity to visit again! I posted this first pic on Facebook and received some amusing comments about my lens somewhat dwarfing me. haha. It doesn't really look like it, but Erik must standing on a slope because I'm really not *that* much shorter than him!
But I think below is my favorite of Team Johnson. This is where passengers who signed up to camp out on land one night dug their pits into the snow and slept in mummy-tight bivvy sacks. How do I know how tight they were? We had originally signed up for this activity. I had figured we should do everything that was offered. I had no illusions that it would be comfortable ... I figured it wouldn't be a particularly pleasurable experience, just a once-in-a-lifetime experience to sleep outside in Antarctica. But several things made us change our minds and back out. One was learning we had to dig our own sleeping pits, and my hands were already so taxed by kayaking and holding my big camera lens all the time; the other was the claustrophobia that overtook us after we were given our gear and counseled to try it out in our room so we were familiar with the process of getting in and out of them. After realizing what an ordeal it was to get in and out (and I would surely have to get up to pee in their provided bucket), we returned the camping gear and just climbed the hill during the day, and slept soundly and cozily at night. The common report from those who slept out was that they "slept" out ... most of the people we talked to were either cold or uncomfortable and were mostly awake, though I don't think anyone said they regretted it. And we didn't regret backing out.
Now, if we had this kind of blubber to insulate us, we would have been just as cozy sleeping outside as our bony little bodies were inside!
One of the funniest things about being around the elephant seals in particular was the sounds they made. A couple times I didn't even realize there were any nearby because they blend in with the rocks and my focus was on the penguins. How did I realize they were there? I didn't spot them with my eyes. I heard them with my ears! They make all these noises that sound like a chorus of farting. It sounds like The Bog of Eternal Stench if you happen to know the movie, "Labyrinth." To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where all the noises came from and if they were all from the same place -- their throats or the other end of their bodies! This is a young male elephant seal with something to say.
It's amazing how all the seals can make lying on a pile of rocks look so cozy. They just nestle right in and look so content.
I loved scenes where penguins were walking by the seals so nonchalantly. But if you've been following my blog for long, you probably already know that I have a particular fondness for animal-scapes that have multiple species in them. This first pic below makes me think of the Seven Dwarfs heading off to work at the mines, industrious little critters that the penguins are, while the seals are just basking in the sun in unabashed laziness.
Many times the seals we encountered had open wounds and red-streaked fur.
And one day we saw how they got them. These were a group of young elephant seals fighting on the shore at Penguin Island.
Have you ever seen a seal flipper curled like this? Up in Iceland we saw some whose flippers were kind of like this -- like crude, floppy hands. But this pic almost disturbs me with how creepy the flipper looks! Seems like some weird Gothic, vampiric creature.
But back to the main theme of this post ... the land forms. The penguin's point of view.
Often, the clouds enhanced or even made the landscape. For example, this little island that looks like just a pile of rocks in the ocean is only of interest because of the clouds. The next pic down, I like how the dark umbrella of cloud rises up almost looking like smoke.
A random selection of shots taken from the ship. You start to get a feel for the general character of the landscape, which was pretty consistent along our journey (save Spert Island).
The snow often turned that lovely golden color that often comes with the lowering late-day sun.
And so I wish you goodnight, dear readers. A shot from the ship with the moon in the far corner. This is actually taken with my 70-200 lens, when you might be tempted to think I took it with the wide angle. Don't dream about seals with freaky flippers! (but do dream about magical green waters and snow-capped peaks ... :)