Welcome! Thank you for joining me, Sharon K. Schafer, on my journey to one of the most remote, beautiful, and truly wild places left on our planet: The Antarctic. I am an artist and naturalist from Nevada, USA who will be photographing, sketching, and journaling my experiences in Antarctica for two weeks in November 2007.

09 November 2007

The Antarctic Sound

LAT 64 degrees 06 minutes South
LONG 56degrees 54 minutes West
TEMP 3C (this morning it was -17C)
WINDS calm

Woke up this morning to the the sight of icebergs in the Bransfield Strait. Air temperature was around 34F. A bit brisk for my Southern Nevada blood.

Our on board biologist gave us a lecture on the seals of the Antarctic. In the Antarctic region there are only five species of seal: the Elephant, Ross, Crabeater, Southern Fur, and Weddell Seals. Seals are roughly divided into two groups: the eared seals and the phocid or true seals. Not surprisingly the eared seals -- you guessed it -- have little tiny flaps, more commonly known as "ears," that stick out from their head. The eared seals are the ones you recognise as "circus seals." They can rotate their flippers forward beneath their body, which allows them to move about quite rapidly and efficiently. The true seals can't do this. They have to flop around to get anywhere at all. Imagine being rolled up in a rug and asked to make your way across a room like a caterpillar. You would probably get where you wanted to go, but it might not be the most graceful thing to watch. Though ungainly on land, in the water these creatures are amazingly agile, graceful, and acrobatic.

The true seals tend to have a thick layer of fat or blubber that makes them look thicker bodied then their sleek Eared seal counterparts. The only Eared seal in this part of the planet is the Southern Fur Seal; all the rest are the big, blubbery true seals.

After the lecture, I bundled up and walked out on deck. Sure enoug, there were lots of crabeater seals lounging about on the ice floes. "Crabeater" seals don't actually eat crab. Go figure. They, instead, are an extremely well designed krill eater. The main cusps of the upper and lower teeth fit perfectly together and efficiently sieve the little shrimp-like creatures from the water.

We entered the Antarctic Sound about 10 am this morning and by noon we were breaking ice. It is hypnotizing to watch gigantic sheets of ice heave and crack as they are pushed by this powerful ship. The ice seems to stretch forever. There is pack ice to the horizon. Our aim is to get close enough to 25 miles or so of the Emperor Penguin Rookery on the far side of Snow Hill Island. That way we will have less than a hour helicopter trip round trip and more time on the ground with the Emperors.

The day is dark. A low gray ceiling of clouds darkens the landscape. Clouds obsure the tops of James Clark Ross, Seymore, and Snow Hill Islands.

The pack ice we are pushing through and breaking is far from homogeneous and flat. It is a mass of jumbled fractured pieces strewn about in haphazard piles by the ocean restless movements. Huge flat sheets as smooth as a table or broken into gigantic round pancakes of ice by the swells and currents. There are areas cut by complex network of fissures and fractures often filled with slush and burgy bits floating in near freezing ocean waters. A greater open water area, large enough for a ship to pass is known as a lead and the even larger great open areas are known as polynya.

I can't describe what it is like to be here, to look across frozen ocean and break ice 3 meters thick. Words fail me. Words fail all of us. We stand on the bridge and watch the spectacle 9 8 decks below. We bundle up and venture out to the bow where we can lean over and look down to watch the 3 meter ice crack and run as though it were glass. We listen to the ice scrape and bang its way down the hull as we pass through it and realize how privileged we are to be here.

We have started seeing Adelie penguins here quite regularly. They are a little upset that we are crashing through their ice. They scuttle away tobogganing on their stomachs but once clear of the danger they stand and curiously watch the ship pass. What the "heck was that?" We also saw more Crabeater seals and at last saw our first Emperor Penguins.

By 3 pm we have reached our destination. We made it to within 27 miles of the rookery before the fast ice stopped up completely. We parked the ship stern into the ice. This will be our home for the next four days at least. Like that line from Coleridge's poem, "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner," which he wrote about the Antarctic.

The ice was here, the ice was there. The ice was all around.

We may even fly to the Emperor rookery tomorrow. Right now its time to enjoy the long, slow Antarctic sunset. We will think about the Emperors tomorrow.