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.

10 November 2007

Blue Bergs and Emperors' Visit

LAT: 64° 06' South
LON: 56° 54' West
WIND: calm

TIME: 2100

We didn't make it to the rookery today. They did a reconnaissance flight at 0500 this morning and the fog was low on the hills. Just too dangerous and uncertain to start shuttling people to the rookery.

So we instead went on an ice walk. The ship is tightly parked in the pack ice so they dropped down the gangway and we simply went down the stairs to walk on the 3 meter thick sea ice. It is truly an amazing sight to see the Khlebnikov's big, dark hull rise abruptly from the white smooth ice. All of us in our little yellow parkas ran around it and explored. We looked ever so much like exotic yellow ants swarming new territory. The ship was parked stern first into the ice so there was much hanging and playing off stern ropes and chains as though they were part of a giant jungle gym set. Of course we took the required pictures of people straining to push the Icebreaker free.

Then the tenor of the day changed. From the open water, near the other end of the ship two Emperor penguins hauled out of the water and came tobogganing through our group. They were as curious about us as we were about them. If you sat down they often approached. Now and then they would raise themselves upright and walk their slow slouched, lumbering walk, looking for all the world like little monks on a pilgrimage. Well maybe not so little monks cause they were nearly 40 kilograms. Finally with their curiosity apparently satisfied they tobogganed off toward the rookery nearly 27 miles to the south.

The male birds grow to weigh 40 kilograms (90lbs) or more, and are the largest of all the penguins. It is the only bird, under normal conditions, that never sets foot on shore and that nests on sea ice. It is the deepest diving bird with a record of nearly 550 meters (about 1,800 feet) and can remain under water for an astonishing 22 minutes. It also is the only bird that has figured out a way to breed in the Antarctic winter.

I was so thrilled to see them. Last year when I left the rookery I assumed that I would never see them in the wild again. I am so very pleased that I was so very wrong. There they were - only 2 meters away from me. And once again I was in Antarctica sitting on the sea ice watching the Emperors. It was wonderful, beautiful, and magic.

We all made our way back to the ship and a nice hot lunch. Not terribly cold but it was still about -17C which is about 1.4F. The walk was invigorating and it gave us all a chance to check out our gear before we spent 8 hours at the rookery tomorrow.

In the afternoon, the captain moved the ship closer to some icebergs stuck in the sea ice and this time he parked the ship bow into the ice. The gangway went down and we hiked across sea ice to the icebergs and explored the area. The icebergs were vivid turquoise blue. The icebergs are remnants of glaciers that have slide their way down the polar slopes to reach the frigid Southern Ocean where they then break off and float away. The old the ice in the glacier has been compressed over tens of thousands of years until all the air has been squeezed out of it. The air bubbles are what makes ice white and without the air the frozen water is an unbelievable vivid, stunning, turquoise blue.

Some of these icebergs become trapped as the sea ice forms around them. The bergs become vivid blue cliffs of ice surrounded by newly formed white sea ice. Breathtaking. Any new snow that falls appears as a soft dusting of pure white catching on the ridges and ledges of the berg. A planet of ice. A world that is different from any other on earth.

Several of us took our time wandering about and photographing the fantastic shapes. We were richly rewarded for our patience. We saw six Emperors quickly approaching us. I flopped on my stomach in the snow and everyone followed suit. We were so non-threatening and they were so curious. They paused inspected us for 10 fifteen minutes before they went on their
way. Tobogganed up to me stopping about 1 meter away. It was a truly remarkable experience. For a brief moment our two worlds were one. We met peacefully and calmly and then each slipped back into the world from which they came. The yellow-jacketed people to the warmth of an icebreaker and the emperors to the world that has been theirs for thousands and thousands of years - the place we call the Antarctic.