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.

11 November 2007

Walking Among the Emperors

LAT: 64° 06' South
LON: 56° 54' West
WIND: calm
Time: 1930

The day should have started with a 0400 wake-up call. I awoke with a start at 0700. Threw on my clothes and rushed out into the lounge to see if I had missed the helicopter shuttle. I was pretty sure I was OK-one of the helicopter flight deck crew, Saska, was still fast asleep in the bunk above me. I wasn't late. The early flights had been canceled due to pea soup skies and Jonas, the kind soul, let us all sleep in. We will wait and hope things go better later in the day. I was scheduled for 1300 so there was time for things to clear.

Flight groups that were canceled started on an early ice walk. And by the end of a few hours I looked over the rail and saw a very presentable igloo made from sawn blocks of sea ice. I think the crew at the bottom of the gang had too much time on their hands. At about 1000 the ceiling started lifting and they flew a recon flight. It's a go. They set up a base camp of tents at the landing site about a mile from the rookery and started shuttling passengers.

I crawled into the 8-passenger helicopter at 1300, lifted off the deck of the Khlebnikov and started the 25-minute ride to the rookery. The ice was incredible. Massive field of sea ice looked like a smooth white plain with islands of brilliant blue icebergs sticking up. Here and there I could see small lines of Emperors coming and going. Occasional you saw seals that snuck up through the tidal cracks to haul out and bask on the ice.

About a couple miles out I saw the rookery. There it was - a dense mass of black dots against a field of white ice. We landed about a mile away, behind the shelter of a giant anchored berg to avoid disrupting the rookery. It was there they had set up safety/ hospitality tents, The tents could be a warm place to escape to if weather conditions changes dramatically and were a place were you could catch a candy bar, sandwich and soup if you internal fires started running low.

There was an Emperor standing, slouched in that monk-like demeanor at the landing marks. Once the helicopter got loud enough he flopped down and tobogganed off to find less noisy neighbors.

The walk to the rookery took nearly an hour. Easy walking, flat, no slick ice, few inches of snow, bright sunshine, maybe a half mile ... it should have been an easy stroll. It took forever.

Every turn in the trail you were met by emperors strolling along. Take 10 steps and five emperors toboggan across in front of you, 10 more steps and one is walking the same trail you are. Between pausing to give them the right-of-way and pausing to take photos it took a while. When we reached the rookery the sight was over whelming. There were close to 4,000 pairs in the rookery and most had a chick. FYI- If you ever want to walk with an emperor you will have to slow your pace to about half speed, If they are tobogganing: forget it. They can go a cool 8 kilometers per hour. No way could you keep up.

The sound of the rookery is one I'll never forget. It was a noisy cacophony of adults bugling and trumpeting and young chicks doing a sort of chirping, higher pitched, adolescent trumpeting. They were everywhere. Gray fluff balls, walking here and there, running, tripping and falling, meeting a parent and begging for food. They would walk along in long lines as they wandered about or stop fall down and take a nap or eat snow. They looked like a packs of hooligans on the loose with no place to go and mischief on their mind.

If you sat down they were invariable so curious they came up to you. They stepped to within 1 meter of me, this strange new yellow-jacketed beast that had visited their home. One person brought a tiny, 4-inch high, stuffed toy penguin. Well, it was the hit of the rookery. Every adult or chick that saw it had to come over and investigate. There was some real concern they just might walk away with it. They are just so curious.

Left the ice at 1900 for a flight home to the Khlebnikov. The shadows were getting long but as I sit and write this at 2245 it is still twilight. Pastels hues wash the horizon and the sky is beginning its long decent into darkness. Once again the Antarctic has rewarded me with an unforgettable spring day.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring. Goodnight for now.