Friday, February 28, 2014

Antarctica Day 10: My 10 Minutes on the Antarctic Continent

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


After an early morning kayak meeting to discuss our options for the day, we
dressed up and loaded up to go only to find out that the wind at our
destination was far too strong to get in the kayaks. The wind was even
threatening to be too strong to even get in the zodiacs, but this was our
last chance after a few close attempts to step ashore the actual Antarctic
continent vs. the near-shore islands we had been landing at. Even though we
had spent most of the trip within throwing distance of the shore, the
massive glacial walls made landing zodiacs difficult. As we were standing
outside in our gear waiting to disembark, we were all told "anyone not
determined to go to shore can hang out in comfort on the boat", but all of
us stayed.

They took us to shore at Brown Base, an Argentinian research base that
usually don't like to set people land (even though it really isn't within
their power to say yes or no, Antarctica by the Antarctic Treaty not really
being Argentina's to claim and all), but this time the base commander was a
nice woman sympathetic to our cause. We ran up a hill, I kissed rock, made
another snow angel, and then we were shooed back to the boats before the
wind could get any worse. But exciting! Antarctic Continent! Woo! For many
it was their 7th continent. It was my 4th. Asia, Africa, Australia, here I

Then we cruised to Wilhelmina Bay, with the promise of TONS OF WHALES,
WHALES EVERYWHERE. And leopard seals, which is what I was most excited
about. I've had nightmares of leopard seals approaching us in our kayaks
(them being bigger and a whole lot meaner than the kayaks and all), and was
eager to have it happen for reals. But again the wind thwarted us, even
though the weather was lovely. I was also bummed because my camera is still
in a bag of rice hopefully recovering from its overnight swim (everyone
please keep your fingers crossed, or this will be the end of Pretty Pictures
by Carie) and the light and snow and glaciers and mountains were spectacular
and I desperately wanted to take photos. Alas. But we got in the zodiacs and
cruised around for our Whale Hunt. For two hours. No whales, no seals. But
the staff, always excellent and brilliant and feeling sorry for us, took a
zodiac loaded up with booze out and delivered spiked hot chocolate and a
Queen karaoke session to all of us while we cruised.

Back on the ship we were bugged to get our photos uploaded to the ship's
shared folder so that all of us could have photos of ourselves and so that
we could have a "Best of" set put together. Ingrid and I snuggled up in our
room and worked hard on processing all of our photos and videos, a big job
when you spend all day every day taking photos and videos!

The evening's activity was the ship's Antarctica Auction, where some fun
items were auctioned off in order to raise money for several
Antarctica-related nonprofits. There was a penguin sculpture made and
donated by the Chinese group, a set of silly penguin T-shirts, a gemstone
penguin pendant necklace, a beautiful watercolor of penguins walking up a
glacier that a resident artist had painted on a previous voyage from one of
the landing sites, a cleaned whiskey bottle that had been re-labeled and
bottled with pristine melted glacial ice collected on this trip, a photo of
this year's Vernadski station crew signed by the crew (awww), breakfast in
bed delivered by the staff member of the bidder's choosing, the chance to
don a captain's hat and sunglasses and be "captain" for the hour when we
sail around Cape Horn (if I had lots of money, that's the one I would have
wanted), one of Ari's biopsy darts that still had a bit of whale skin stuck
to it (I got to smell test it, it was legit), a bottle of scotch that was a
re-creation of the scotch that Shackleton had brought with him on the
Endurance voyage, and the big treasure: a map of our ship's route plotted
out and signed by the ship's captain. The map went for over $4000. Lynn, the
woman through whom my dad had booked this trip, bought the Shackleton scotch
and then sold off $10 tastings to raise even more money. $10 I could afford,
and I very much enjoyed the peaty scotch.

Just as dinner was being served, I glanced out the window and saw some
mountains glowing outside. I ran up to the top deck just as a sunbeam was
passing over a pyramidal glacier-covered mountain at the horizon. It was
stunning. If I had had my camera working, it would have been the best photo
of the trip. Instead I stood there and drank in the beautiful moment before
running down to grab my roommate and have her snap the shot. On the way up
the stairs, we crossed paths with Ari who commented, "they may not still be
breaching," since apparently whales had also been spotted. But they were. So
there we were, watching a spectacular sunset over spectacular mountains in
Antarctica, and the whales were putting on a show.

And then we had delicious stuffed pumpkin for dinner.

Another day in Antarctica.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Antarctica Day 9: Camping on Winter Island, and other stuff

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


One of the things I had most been looking forward to on this trip was the
opportunity to go camping—in bivvy sacks—out on the Antarctic ice. On the
night after kayaking through slush, visiting Vernadski Station and trading
my bra for cinnamon vodka, and biopsying whales, I finally got my chance.

The campers were dropped off by zodiacs on Winter Island, part of the
Argentine Islands within sight of Vernadski Station (but sadly, swimming to
the station for a night in the bar was out of the question). We were all
handed a down sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, bivvy sack, and foam
thermarest, and let loose to find ourselves a spot to nest for the night. I
picked a spot way up on the ridge overlooking (and away from) everyone else,
hoping for some peace and quiet and at least a little bit of a feeling of
solitude. We had been instructed to build "nests" by digging a body-sized
pit into the snow to protect us from wind. Certainly a good idea, but the
snow on the ridge was too thin to dig a pit, and I knew from all of the
Andean camping I had done that I'd be plenty warm without it even if the
wind picked up, so I just built a little protecting wall out of snow on the
uphill, windward side of my spot, set up "camp", and then wandered back down
the hill to take some photos of everyone doing their own "nesting" in the
human penguin colony below.

After people had mostly settled, a few folks gathered next to the old
abandoned historical British hut near the shore below the ridge where Huw
had (of course) set up camp—with his head resting against the hut (I was
surprised he hadn't broken into the hut to sleep where his heroes had
slept). Huw told us bedtime stories about his visit to a traditional polar
bear hunter in Alaska who had a vacation home in Hawaii and spent more time
watching ultimate fighting on his enormous TV and drinking cheap beer than
outside in the snow, shattering Huw's preconceptions about what a
traditional polar bear hunter should be. After storytime I wandered back up
the ridge and tucked in, just as the snow started to fall.

The night started out peacefully enough, but about an hour in, the wind
picked up, and the previously peaceful snowfall turned into howling wind,
and the noise of ice crystals being pelted against the nylon of the bivvy
sack as if flapped wildly. Still, I was used to similar and fell back to

A few hours later, I woke up again when water started dripping onto my face.
The snow had turned to a wet slush, quickly melting when it hit the warm
bivvy bag with me inside, and was pouring into the face flap I had left open
to keep from getting too claustrophobic. I tried a few alternate
orientations, readjusted the head flaps, and finally found that by curling
up on my side and zipping the bivvy almost shut with just an airhole at the
side, I was both comfortable and protected.

But, as I slept, it turned out that I wasn't as protected as I thought. I
had turned my bivvy into a funnel collecting precipitation which was
dripping into a corner of the bag, the corner where I had my dry clothes and
camera. When I woke up again, I was sleeping in a puddle, and my stuff was
swimming. I did what I could to rescue the camera to the relative dry of the
inside of my sleeping bag, then, worried that if this was happening to me it
was certainly happening to the other penguins below me, and thought that
some of them must be pretty wet, cold, and scared, and unzipped my head flap
to peek out and see if I could see anything.

All I saw was white. There was nobody below me. I could see the hut, the
shore, but the zodiac was gone, and the dark bodies and colored bivvy bags
were absent. They had left me!

My mind raced. I'm not an easy person to forget: by now at least half of the
passengers and all of the staff knew me by first name. The staff who were
out camping with us that night knew me well and knew where I had set up
camp. They wouldn't leave me. But, it occurred to me, it had been snowing
pretty hard. Maybe I was buried enough by snow such that, in the dark and
confusion of the storm, if they had come to look for me maybe they just
didn't see me and assumed that I had already loaded up into one of the
zodiacs back to the ship. I looked out for the ship, but the storm was too
thick and I couldn't see that far. Surely when they got back to the ship
they'd notice I was missing when they checked people off of the list when
they came up the gangway, right? But maybe in a panic to get out of the
storm, they had gotten sloppy? But at least my roommate would eventually
notice that I was missing.

I felt reassured. I wasn't going to be stranded forever. I was warm enough
for now, although the bag was pretty wet and the wind was cold. In the worst
case scenario, I was sure I could swim across the channel that separated the
island we were on from the island that Vernadski Station was on, and would
get wet and very cold but would survive the swim and hike to the station.
And at the station they would get me warmed back up and taken care of for
however long I needed. I decided that the best course of action was to go
back to sleep and deal with the situation later.

I woke up again about an hour later, and peeked back outside to see if I
could see the ship.

Instead, I saw the black figure of a person on the snow below the ridge. As
I watched, I saw the black figure walk around and magically more black
figures appeared: the penguin colony was awakening. They hadn't left me.
They were just now getting everybody—who were also covered in snow—up. I
felt half relieved, and half disappointed. A part of me had looked forward
to the adventure of getting stranded on an island in Antarctica and having
to swim to my rescue at a Ukrainian research base.

I got up quickly, got dressed quickly, packed up everything quickly, and
dragged my bivvy with the sleeping bag and the rest of the gear still inside
down the ridge where the rest of camp was starting to move. The guides
looked concerned, but did an expert job of hiding any serious worry and
putting on a cheerful, positive face to get everybody up and moving without
freaking people out. The wet and cold had been unexpected, and was
dangerous. I helped as best I could, trying to spread laughs and smiles
while handing out and helping people into lifejackets while the staff got
people up, gear sorted, and loaded the zodiacs.

I was deeply impressed by the way the staff handled the situation. Even
though everyone was cold, wet, and severely sleep deprived, with the
exception of one high-strung zodiac driver, they stayed calm and gentle as
they got the cold, wet, sleep deprived, confused, and scared campers back to
the waiting ship. I was also impressed by the attitude of many of my fellow
passengers. Even though they had every cause to be upset about the
situation, nobody freaked out. When I asked people how they were doing, I
got a grab bag of answers ranging from "miserable" to a lot of variations on
"cold and wet, but fine", to an incredibly enthusiastic and smiley "Great!!"
from one of the Chinese students. In fact most of the Chinese students
seemed to have enjoyed the experience, even if it was cold and wet and
miserable. They had gone camping in Antarctica. That's pretty much how I
felt about it.

I went camping in Antarctica!

The zodiac ride back in high swell was rough, and the wet and cold got even
wetter and colder. It was interesting observing the drivers and comparing
notes with other passengers after the fact: the best driver reviews went to
Ian our ship's bartender, who although rattled and worried kept kind and
calm and gently guided passengers out of the boats with a "when you feel
comfortable, I want you to scoot up here, grab my arm, stand up, step on the
step, step on the pontoon, and step to the gangway". On the opposite end of
the spectrum was a driver who barked out instructions and yelled at
passengers when they didn't do things exactly how he wanted it done and
timed, freaking already rattled people out even more, and making people more
worried about getting the dance steps correct than being careful and safe.
It was a lesson to remember in managing people.

Once back onboard, we all changed out of our dripping clothes and hung them
up where we could, mostly on the rails in the hallways. I had to put some
things in our cabin's sink because they were too wet to hang up to dry. Then
it was straight to the showers, a hot shower never felt so good.

We found out at breakfast that, while most of us quickly recovered, a few
passengers had gotten seriously cold. Fortunately our shipboard doctor and
wonderful staff quickly took care of everyone, and we all survived the
experience none the worse off for the experience. But in general the mood at
breakfast was lively, the campers sharing their stories with their
tablemates, many of whom made remarks like, "yeah, I looked out my window
last night and was really glad not to be out in that". The line for hot
oatmeal was about double as long as it usually was.

Many of us immediately left breakfast for our beds in order to squeeze in a
nap before another full day of activity. I grabbed some rice from the
kitchen in order to try to dry out and hopefully save my camera first,
crossed my fingers, and then went to bed.

But our Expedition Leader David was having none of it: we were passing
through the legendarily spectacular Lemaire Channel, a narrow iceberg-choked
channel flanked on both sides by towering cliffs and nearly as towering
glaciers, and we needed to be out to see it. So I dutifully put on some warm
clothes and went out to the bow, watching glaciers and cliffs appear through
the fog, and spotting my first leopard seal sleeping on an iceberg.

But although he tried to coax us to stay out with the promise of good whale
spotting opportunities, I needed sleep, and went back down for another nap
the minute we left the channel for the more open waters of Flanders Bay and
the Gerlache Strait.

Our afternoon excursion was to little Danco Island, a small rocky mountain
sticking out of a horseshoe between the mainland and another island that was
the home to a massive Gentoo penguin colony. The rocky parts of the island
not covered in snow were pink with penguin shit, and I couldn't help
thinking of how gross the human equivalent would be while trailing a penguin
splashing happily through ankle-deep feces as it hiked up the hill. I walked
to the top of the island at about 800 meters and got a stunning 360° view of
water and mountains beyond the water on all sides as penguins waddled and
squawked and brayed and splashed around in their own shit around me. I
celebrated the moment with a snow angel and a fast descent sledding on my
butt. Near the bottom I had picked up a lot of speed and noticed that a
penguin was walking right into my path, so I put down my boots to try to
brake, flipped over, and ended up doing a very un-graceful penguin belly
slide for another 100 or so meters before halting, fortunately still well
more than the legal 5 m from said penguin. The penguin didn't even look up
from his focused march across the snowfield.

Back on the ship, Ian arrived at dinner dressed in a penguin suit to
announce the 50th birthday of Tom, one of the leaders of the Chinese group.
We all sang to Tom while he was put into the penguin suit for the rest of
the evening, including a very important and very serious internet meeting
(They have internet?? How did they get internet??) with the president of
their university back home. During their meeting, the rest of us enjoyed
storytime with Expedition Leader David up in the bar: he was the first
person to motorcycle on all seven continents, and in all 24 time zones, and
told us some of the crazy stories from his adventure.

By bedtime, despite my naps, I was totally exhausted.

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Antarctica Day 8: Vernadski Station, Argentine Islands, and Peterman Island

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


The day started out with an early morning wakeup call, which for me are
always a bit rough. But I cheered up as soon as we got in the zodiacs. It
was snowing hard. It occurred to me that I had never seen snow falling on
the ocean before, and commented to Kurtis, our kayak guide, how strange it
was to watch snow fall with no chance of building up, melting right into the
ocean. Kurtis replied that that wasn't necessarily true, that sometimes if
it's cold enough, the snow forms a slush layer on the ice that can seed the
formation of pack ice, "I'm hoping we might see some today," he said.

Our kayaks were white when we got in them, and two of us were simultaneously
inspired to burst out singing, "It's beginning to look a lot like

We first paddled along the shore of Vernadsky Station, the first manned
research base we had seen on our voyage. It had been built as British
base—originally named Faraday Station—but was abandoned and sold for one
British Pound to the Ukrainians (it's nice real estate and a lovely base, so
I think the Ukrainians got a damned good deal), who continue to run it,
doing ionosphere and ozone hole research. I had a vague preconception of
what a research base should look like from friends and colleagues who do
research at McMurdo and South Pole Station, and that preconception involves
a sort of moon base-like sterile, inhospitable-seeming setting with half
snow-covered metal tubes that the Antarcticanauts hide in. Vernadsky, in
contrast, seemed like a summer camp on the sea, complete with a large gang
of penguins waddling around and squawking rowdily, a giant wood thumbs up
hung on the side of one building, and palm trees painted on the water tower.

Past the station, we continued into a series of little inlets that became
increasingly still and glassy, and all of the sudden I realized that the
snow that was falling was falling onto the water and staying there: grease
ice. While snow was building up on the top of my kayak, slush was building
up on the surface of the water. The slush got thicker as we paddled, to the
point where I felt like we were kayaking through a spilled white smoothie.
It was peaceful, the snow dampening the sound in the air as it does
everywhere, but being out on the water in it was a magical, novel

We came out into the open ocean again and the wind had picked up and there
was quite a bit of swell. We bobbed up and down on the waves in our little
kayaks, and the paddling was significantly more of a challenge than it had
been in the nearly glassy conditions we had been out in on our previous
trips out. It was fun. Kurtis asked us all how we were doing and if we were
up for staying out longer, and we all were. We had fun paddling around a few
small islands and watching porpoising penguins in the water and napping fur
seals on the shore.

But we also got our chance to go to land and see Vernadsky, which I was
excited about. A research station! Full of Ukrainians! And a chance to mail
some postcards! One of the engineers there gave us a brief tour of the
station, focusing on the ski room where they keep their skis and snowshoes,
although we did pass a room where I saw someone peering into a microscope
and was tempted to wander in and ask if I could see what he was looking at.
I asked our guide if the skis were for fun or for checking on instruments,
and his reply was "Sometimes instruments. Mostly fun." He, as well as the
others, had been posted there for a year and was just over a month away from
the end of the rotation. But he was still loving it. Then he took us to the

It turns out that the guys at Vernadsky distill their own vodka on the base.
They charge visitors $3 a shot, or there's a special for the ladies: the
bartender will give you a shot if you give him your bra. The bra I was
wearing had been falling apart for months and I was planning to toss it when
I returned to Ushuaia. Instead I got to leave it in good hands hanging
behind the bar at a Ukrainian research station in Antarctica. It's how my
bra would want to die. So I stripped off a few layers…and one final
layer…handed over the bra, and accepted my extra large shot of vodka, which
I downed like a champion. I sort of regretted drinking it so fast because it
was delicious; I'm not normally a vodka drinker, especially not a vodka shot
drinker, but this had a really nice cinnamon flavor and went down way too
smooth. I then got my photo taken with pretty much everyone in the bar, from
the bartender to our ship's bartender to a bunch of the Chinese students to
Sergei, one of our ship's Russian crewmen. One of the Australian Tribe of
wild women thought it was so great that I had taken the bartender up on the
bra offer that she bought me a second shot, which I drank after toasting a
poster of Michael Faraday, who I decided was far more attractive than a
physicist has any right to be (but maybe it was the vodka).

Vernadsky also has a nice (if appropriately expensive) little gift shop,
where I bought myself a patch to put on my backpack as well as $50 worth of
postage stamps to mail a bunch of postcards to those of you who took me up
on the postcard contest. There were a few issues—although I thought I had
successfully downloaded the addresses to my phone which I took with me to
the base, not all of them made it on, so some of you will get postcards from
Vernadsky that will be posted in Ushuaia, apologies, but still pretty

It was a great spot and I was sad to leave (I'm sure the station full of
Ukrainian men who had just spent 11 months at a male-only base in Antarctica
would have been happy to keep me there), but the staff dragged me back to
the ship, where we were late for lunch.

The ship continued through the islets around the Argentine Islands to
Peterman Island, which is spectacularly situated near the coast with Mount
Scott and Mount Shackleton theoretically visible (although for us they were
hidden in fog) and massive glaciers pouring off of the continent. Peterman
has a large penguin colony of both Gentoo and Adelie penguins. The island's
population used to be about 90% Adelies, which along with Emperor penguins
are one of only two endemic Antarctic species, and 10% Gentoos, which are a
warmer water species. However, the warming of water temperatures have driven
the Gentoos south, so that in the last few years the population has
reversed: ~90% Gentoos and 10% Adelies, the last of the Adelies we were
likely to see since we would be continuing north into warmer waters.

The kayakers went out for a paddle but we were turned around by large swells
that kept getting larger and had started to make a few of the group nervous.
We turned around and paddled to a zodiac that was waiting for us. The
procedure was supposed to be that we pulled up alongside the zodiac and
carefully pushed ourselves out of the kayaks, onto the pontoon of the
zodiac, and swung into the boats while the kayak guides tied up the kayaks
to trail behind the zodiac. But I suck at parallel parking, and that applies
to kayaks as well as vehicles, came in too steep, nosed the zodiac…and over
I went.

It felt like slow motion and I was fully aware of the moment that my center
of mass had shifted to the point of no return, and the kayak rolled. With my
lifejacket, it didn't flip all the way over, so for about a second I was
hanging sideways in the water, getting washed by the swells, but I was
laughing. Michelle, the other guide, was on the opposite side of the zodiac
and later said she heard a, "bump, whoop, splash, and then giggles". I
pulled my skirt off of the kayak, pushed myself out, righted myself and then
the kayak, and swam to the end of the zodiac where Kurtis hauled me in. My
total time in the water was probably less than a minute, but it was a
memorable swim! Forget the plunge pool: I went swimming in open Antarctic
waters! Not too many people can say that.

The drysuit had done its job and I was pretty dry, but the wind was cold and
it was decided that I should be dropped off at the ship to change. The trip
back to the ship was chilly, but not bad, and I half-regretted not swimming
around for longer just for shits and giggles. I got back, changed quickly,
and 10 minutes later was back on a zodiac to Peterman Island to hang out
with the penguins.

The penguins were awesome. I walked around a bit and sat down and watched
them. I only saw one Adelie and at least 500 Gentoos. Not sure where the
supposed 49 other Adelies were hanging out. Where the Adelies are just cute,
the Gentoos were obnoxious and even kind of disgusting. The smell of penguin
guano was a bit overwhelming, and it was everywhere in big pink (from the
krill they eat) shit-slicks. What really impressed me was the distance that
the penguins would shoot their projectile poo, and decided that the 5 meter
distance rule was more for our protection than for theirs.

Later back at the ship I was pointed to a research paper someone had printed
out and laminated and posted up in the bar. All of you reading this should
go to Google Scholar right now and do a search for Meyer-Rochow & Gal (2003)
"Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation" in
Polar Biology V.27: p.56-58. Don't miss the chart (and diagram) on page 2.

On our return to the Ioffe from Peterman, we saw the fins of killer whales
in the distance, then suddenly the arced back of a humpback whale right
behind them. The humpback was part of a female and calf pair, and they were
swimming with a pod of orcas. One of the orcas even surfaced right behind
Huw's zodiac full of Chinese students, who were ready with their cameras and
took some stunning close-up shots. Once back on ship, our captain took us on
a whale watching tour, keeping a respectful distance until we stopped for a
bit to watch them swim and the humpbacks came right up to us and swam right
underneath the bow. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest and having spent a
decent amount of time in the water in Alaska, Puget Sound, and Hawaii, I'd
seen humpbacks and orcas up close before (including one childhood experience
where, while being towed on an innertube behind a boat in Puget Sound, an
orca suddenly surfaced right next to me, scaring the shit out of me and my
parents, who quickly hauled me back on the boat lest the orca decide I
looked like a nice little snack), but it was still spectacular.

Meanwhile I got to give Brandon and Ari a hand with processing the biopsy
samples they had just collected after they swaggered up the gangway like
Great White Hunters, crossbow and bags full of filled biopsy cores in hand.
(Note to my geobiology friends: I'll bet we could take some badass mat cores
if we shot the mats with a crossbow first) As everyone else was squealing
over the backs of the whales, I was geeking out looking at the cores: about
a cm of rubbery black skin attached to another several cm of creamy white,
snotty blubber. I wish I had a photo—maybe I'll have the chance later in the
trip—but I was too distracted by having biopsy of whale in my hand to think
about taking pictures. Like I said in a previous post, the biopsies are
taken by what look like pretty normal metal biopsy core tubes with a beveled
sharp cutting end sloping into a hollow metal tube, about 1cm in diameter
and ~5cm long. The cores screw onto the end of arrows with attached foam
floats. While one person drives the zodiac to get close to the whale while
it presents its back, the other loads the arrow into the crossbow, aims for
just below the dorsal fin, and shoots. If successful, the core slices into
the skin of the whale, loading the core with skin and blubber, and then
bounces off, and the zodiac moves in to pick up the floating arrow with
sample at the end. The core is unscrewed from the arrow and put into a
labeled, sterile bag, GPS coordinates are recorded along with the type of
whale and other notes, and then the cores are processed back on the ship. To
get the biopsy samples out, they just pop them out of the tube with a
toothpick (what they really need is a plunger, sometimes the samples got
kind of mangled by the toothpick) into a cryotube, and the samples get
stored in the shipboard -80°C freezer until they can take them back to their
labs to work on. Skin is used for DNA work that can tell the gender and
population of the animal, and blubber is used for lipid analyses that get at
nutrition, hormone levels, etc.

It had been an exciting day, but the excitement was just beginning. After
dinner, the brave among us were loaded back up into zodiacs and taken to
shore to go camping on the Antarctic ice.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Antarctica Day 7: Antarctica Strikes Back

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


Today we had planned to spend the day at Prospect Point, our first visit to
the actual mainland. The kayakers had an early morning wakeup to discuss the
day's plan, and all of us were eager to go ashore in the morning, step foot
on the continent, visit some penguins, and then go out for a kayak in the
afternoon. So we suited up for the zodiacs and lined up. While we were
waiting, it was announced that the scouting zodiac hadn't been able to find
a safe place to land, so we'd just be cruising around, looking for whales
(Minkes had been sighted earlier in the morning), seals, and penguins. I was
a little sad I hadn't chosen to kayak instead, but when I saw that our
driver was going to be Whale Pro Ari, I changed my mind. With him at the
helm, if anyone had a chance to see whales up close, it would be us.

But Antarctica had other plans. We jetted out just as snow started to fall
to visit some of the floes with Crabeater Seals first, and we all had our
own opinions about what we thought they looked like. I thought they were
adorable, sort of long, fat, aquatic dogs. Elke thought they looked like
giant slugs. Permadrunk British Woman said enormous leeches. I thought they
had sweet little smiling faces. Ari said they had ugly dumb pig faces.
Seals! Cute seals! I apparently was in the appreciating minority.
We also saw some Adele penguins, including a line marching up a snowy
ridgeline on land, and a fur seal, surveying his domain from a rock. But
then the wind picked up, the water got choppy, the ice floes started moving
fast (and getting crunched between two would have been bad news for us), so
Ari pointed us back toward the Ioffe. None too soon, as the waves got big,
crashing over the bow of the zodiac and soaking all of us, especially those
of us right up in the front. I loved it. Our first bit of "real" Antarctic
weather, and grinned as the water splashed into my face and ran down the
inside of my waterproof jacket and poured off of the others.

But Ari and the Russian sailor manning the gangway got us all safely back
onboard despite the swells. I was soaked, and was glad to be intercepted by
our deck's motherly Russian maid who showed me a super-secret utility closet
that provided a shaft for the engine heat up to the top of the ship with a
rope strung up where I could hang and quickly dry all of my wet gear, and I
got in for a hot shower before the rest of the crowd arrived.

I was up in the ship's beautiful library directly below the bridge at the
bow of the ship enjoying the views and the coziness as we sailed off through
the driving snow. The ship started to growl as we plowed through massive ice
floes, and I put on my jacket and went outside to the bow for a better look.
I carefully picked my way to the front of the ship, wading through the inch
of snow that had fallen on the deck in the past hour, holding onto things to
brace myself against the wind. Just as I looked over the bow, I saw a floe
with two seals on it directly in our path. The seals seemed totally
unconcerned until the ship hit their floe, splitting it, and even then the
seals just barely looked up. As their side of the floe pushed off to our
starboard side they looked up at the ship warily and slowly scooted away,
but only a few bodylengths, pretty funny to watch. Here we had been
ultra-careful about keeping a respectful distance in our kayaks, and the
seals occasionally showed interest. But then a massive ship comes almost as
close, splitting their ice floe perch in half, and they barely responded.

Although I had hoped that by then I had earned myself some sea legs, the
rough sea got to me, and I tracked down the ship's doctor to plead for some
more Dramamine, and then the bartender for a ginger ale. I soon felt
significantly better—better enough to go to another lecture by Ari on his
research, which was the best talk we'd seen yet. Cool stuff on how they have
been researching the feeding habits and diving patterns of Humback and Minke
whales. Two highlights:

1. Seeing the crossbow that they use to launch the biopsy cores, which sit
at the end of an arrow with a foam float on it. They shoot the arrow at the
whale, it hits the skin, collects about an inch of skin and blubber, bounces
off, floats, and they pick it up with the sample inside the hollow core
tube. I was surprised: the size of the core was no larger than for biopsies
I've had done on me, it looked identical to one that was used about this
time two years ago to slurp out a breast lump, so although "biopsy" made me
cringe for the whales, it's hard to feel sorry for an animal about an order
of magnitude larger than me and with a much thicker layer of blubber than
I've got.

2. Seeing videos of the software they use to process the tracking data they
get. It shows the track of the whale in 3D space, which looks like a weird
roller coaster, with plots of fluke activity so you can see when the whale
is actively paddling, and then the video shows the whale on top of the track
so you can see how it moves underwater. It drove home how difficult this
research is: you can only see the whales directly when they come to the
surface, so knowing what they do when they are underwater—which they are
most of the time—is science done blind. These trackers are some of the only
info on whale behavior. So despite how beloved (and huge) whales are, we
don't really know that much about their behavior in their natural
environment. Kinda like microbiology.

It was a mellow evening, and I skipped my first talk of the trip, deciding
I'd rather hide away from people and process some of the millions of photos
I've taken than sit through another bird talk. I claimed seasickness as my
excuse when asked about it.

At dinner, I found out that my roommate Ingrid had just returned from an
epic journey where she and her husband drove (drove) from Amsterdam to
Singapore, through Siberia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam… after dinner she
showed me the movie her husband stitched together and AWESOME. What in
incredible thing to do with someone you love (or do period). We finished off
the night over bourbon in the bar, and watched "The Tribe" (a group of
crazy, hilarious Australian women who were doing this as a sort of Girls
Night Out on steroids) have a dance party (challenging, with the heavy
rocking of the ship) all by themselves. Because when you're that awesome
(and drunk) who needs others?

Hahahaha. Nice.

I might go camping tomorrow…

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Antarctica Day 6: Detaille Island

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


Last night wrapped up with a bar talk by the Incredible Huw entitled, "Real
Explorers Drink Gin", with should get a "huzzah!" from several of my peoples
back home, about the tipples of choice of some of the great explorers, the
history of maritime boozing, and why Gin is the drink of champions. It
wrapped up, appropriately, with bottles of expensive small-batch gin Huw—who
is sponsored by a gin company—provided. I am an
American/bathtub/"masculine"/ultra-piney gin girl myself, but it went down
smooth and was plentiful. Needless to say, once again, I didn't make it the
early night like I had sworn I would do. But if Huw is to be believed, my
health and general well-being at sea is better for the drinking.

But I woke up very, very tired, and went right back to bed after breakfast.
The weather had turned for the normal (vs. yesterday's unbelievably
spectacular), the seas were significantly more rough, visibility poor, and I
didn't feel like I was missing anything.

But five minutes after I crawled into bed, it was announced over the
intercom that an Emperor Penguin had been spotted off the port side of the
ship. One of the giant penguins from March of the Penguins. Where we are is
pretty far outside their normal range, but a few have been spotted in the
area the past few years, and there, sure enough was a lone sentinel hanging
out on a small iceberg, watching us coolly as the ship passed slowly by.

Then I got a whopping half hour to nap before the first lecture of the day:
a very interesting talk by Professor Thomas on the Antarctic Treaty. It
added to my feeling of having arrived on another planet: a world largely
outside the normal reaches of politics, free of permanent human settlement,
pristine and peaceful, a massive, continent-sized nature reserve, a place as
foreign to humanity as outer space.

And then we hit ice. Lots of ice. At lunch it was announced that the path to
the inlet we were headed to was full of pack ice. The captain thought that
we could get punch through it, our ship being ice-strengthened, but we'd be
going slow, and navigation would be tricky. Where normally we were welcome
on the bridge for bird- and mammal-watching, we were asked to keep traffic
down and stay silent until we got through. So of course that announcement
caused the second stampede to go check out the World Outside of the day (the
first being a record clearing of the ship to see the penguin). Leaning
through one of the portholes in the front of the ship and looking down to
see the ship's bow slice through the ice floes was impressive. This was
Antarctica as I had pictured it.

While ice-watching, we also saw lots of critters: Crabeater Seals looking
like enormous furry silver slugs lounging alone or in groups on individual
floes, Fur Seals propped up on their front flippers as if ready to beat
their massive chests at us, a pod of orcas with their characteristic black
fins slicing through the water in the distance, and a group of charismatic
little Minke Whales fairly nearby. After all of the shit I had given Ari
about not seeing any of these whales he claimed were around, Antarctica (and
Ari, with his sharp eye) delivered.

We made it through the ice into glassy waters near mountainous little
Detaille Island, home of another abandoned base as well as a large colony of
penguins. The kayakers suited up while the rest of the group loaded into
zodiacs, and we were soon back on the water. We paddled past several large
ice rafts where Crabeater Seals were sunning themselves. Several were
curious enough to look up, even caterpillering around the ice (really funny
to watch, these big fat beached mammals scooching themselves around on the
ice) to get a better look at us. At one point I paddled off a little ways by
myself to enjoy the view and the peace and quiet. After several days at sea,
although I love the people, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Over the
rhythmic sound of the waves against the kayak and the paddle striking the
water, I heard a strange sound, and stopped.

The sea was crackling. Little popping sounds were coming from all around me.
I looked around and didn't see anything unusual (other than, you know,
icebergs, seals, and Antarctica) when it suddenly dawned on me: it was the
sound of ice slowly melting and releasing the bubbles of 20,000 year old (or
more) trapped air! It was a special moment, sitting there in my kayak,
looking out at a vista of the iceberg-littered bay surrounded by towering,
glacier-covered mountains, as the sea crackled around me as though I was
sitting in a giant blue bowl of rice crispies.

I rejoined the group just as an Adele Penguin shot out of the water onto an
ice slab and waddled around it trying to figure out—you could see the
curiosity and confusion in its easily anthropomorphizable movements—what the
hell kind of seals? whales? we were.

After watching its antics for a bit, we paddled on past towering blue ice
sculptures in fascinating shapes: spires, bowls, striped wedges, and arches.
I was admiring one particularly lovely one when suddenly a Crabeater Seal
popped up right behind one of the other kayakers. Then another. The pair
swam around us, popping in and out of the water, for over five minutes,
curiously investigating this flock of red and yellow vaguely seal-shaped
things, before swimming off again. Wow.

I find myself saying Wow a lot on this trip.

It was a very cold day (In Antarctica), and when we got back to the ship and
it was announced that the sauna was open, that sounded like a very good
idea, so I changed straight into my bikini, threw on a bathrobe, and headed
up to the sauna deck. The plunge pool was also open, but that didn't seem as
appealing. I walked up the stairs to the 6th floor, stepped out into the
frigid Antarctic Evening air, climbed the ladder to the top deck (my
favorite spot on the boat—often empty, always stunning), and had to laugh
out loud. There I was standing in a bathrobe alone on the top deck of a ship
in waters packed full of icebergs with white mountains surrounding us in the
distance. Standing in a bathrobe in Antarctica.

On my way from the top deck to the sauna, I noticed that the hot tub on Deck
6, which up until now had been closed and tied up, was half-uncovered and
steaming. I pulled the cover the rest of the way off and climbed in. I
laughed out loud again. There I was. Sitting alone in my bikini in a
steaming Jacuzzi on the deck of a ship in waters packed full of icebergs
with white mountains surrounding us in the distance. Simmering in a Jacuzzi
in Antarctica.

I had a magic moment there by myself in the Jacuzzi as the ship started to
move back through the pack ice and the scenery and seal-topped icebergs
floated by before I was joined by a few others. Including Crazy Drunk
British Woman from Day 2, who may not have been drunk that night—that may
just be her personality—because the totally hilarious spoutings-off
continued. All peace was lost, but it was funny. The best—where the rest of
us totally lost it—was a monologue about saunas and the strange hours for
women-only and men-only use of the shipboard sauna and how it really
shouldn't matter if we're all "wearing kits" (I believe I correctly
translated that as clothing), but that some people don't like wearing kits,
and she's quite fond herself of going around without her kit but her husband

About an hour later (official rules stated 20 minutes maximum, but I'm a
rebel), I had the tub to myself again. The light was getting low and the sea
and mountains and sky were all pastel-colored. I was admiring another
beautiful, blue, arch-shaped iceberg, perfectly lit by the last sunbeam
streaming behind a wall of ominous-looking clouds, when all of the sudden
right in front of it a pod of what looked like a dozen Minke Whales

Another perfect Antarctic moment, with me sitting in a floating sky hot tub.

Perfect moments can't last forever, and one of the staff came up to kick me
out of the hot tub and close it for the evening and shoo me to dinner. I
helped her get the cover back on and took my time getting back downstairs,
breathing in some final views before heading back inside and stopping by the
sauna for a few minutes before going back downstairs and getting bundled up
for dinner.

Bundled up because dinner was out on the stern deck: an Antarctic BBQ!
Complete with dance party music, a buffet line of excellent BBQ, and hot
spiced wine.

Everyone was happy. The views were incredible. It was cold, but our stomachs
were warm. These guys know how to run a ship.


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Antarctica Day 5: Landings Around Marguerite Bay

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


After all of the jaw-dropping scenery, we were finally let out of the boat.

Wake-up call was at 6:30, and our kayak group meeting was 10 minutes later,
when we were told that the winds were too strong to go out. Damn. But it was
incredibly beautiful out. We were cruising through Marguerite Bay en route
to our destination at Horseshoe Island at ~67.7°S, at the end of a
spectacular fjord near the SE end of Adelaide Island. There were towering
mountains everywhere. Standing on the bow and watching the scenery go by
made me tear up.

By the end of breakfast we had arrived and it was time to suit up into our
Wetskins and Gumboots (bright red waterproof gear), load into zodiacs, and
get driven to land. To land! On Antarctica! Aside from the achingly stunning
scenery, there were Fur Seals, Weddell Seals, Leopard seals, and Adele
Penguins, beautiful bright green copper deposits leaching from the rocks,
and an abandoned but perfectly-preserved British Antarctic Survey base,
complete with cupboards still stocked with Uncle Ben's Rice, tea, and
Marmite. Hew our historian was out of his mind with excitement: his
grandfather had flown helicopters there and his father-in-law had once
worked there, and it was his first landing there despite writing books about
the people who had worked there. For him, it was like coming home, and a
sweet thing for the rest of us to witness.

After taking approximately two thousand photos until my battery was
exhausted, we returned to the ship for lunch and to motor to our next
destination at Stonington Island, even farther south, our southernmost point
for this voyage at around 68.3°S, within spitting distance of the mainland
of the Antarctic Peninsula. It used to actually connect to the mainland via
a glacier, but the glacier has retreated and stranded the island.

There, we actually got to load up into our kayaks. What an experience!
Kayaking through the thick Brash Ice (mini-icebergs), the ice cracking and
scraping against the kayaks as we paddled toward towering glacier-capped
pyramids with penguins at their shore. Getting up close to the blue ice
sculptures (but not too close, we saw one flip over, releasing a
mini-tsunami as the great condominium-sized mass of ice beneath the water
flipped up and the iceberg bobbed while it re-stabilized) many
words for incredible are there?

We joined the rest of the ship on land at the site of both British and
American bases on a beach flanked by Adele penguins and guarded by seals
singing in weird, alien-like whooping voices. The light reflected off of
blue icebergs and glowing from the glaciers and purple mountains was
indescribably Perfect. The day was perfect. Magical. Breathtaking with every

It really is hard to describe how incredible it was to land in this world of
snow and sea and ice. This place where summer is a cold, clear winter, and
winter is bitter howling darkness. Where the sea is littered with the
spillage of glaciers pouring off of the continent, where the mountains gleam
with blankets of pastel-colored ice, where the sky glowed softly with a sun
that was never high on the horizon and that filtered through thin clouds
with a light that was simultaneously romantic and foreboding of the
bitterness of which this end of the planet is capable. The air smelled like
nothing except where it smelled like guano. The only sounds were the
cracking of ice and the blowing wind except close to shore, where penguins
squawk impatiently and seals bark and growl, then whoop with their alien

I feel deeply, deeply blessed to have experienced this day, this place, here
at the nearly sterile white underside of our beautiful globe.

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Antarctica Day 4: Crossing the Antarctic Circle

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


We woke up in the morning in a sea of icebergs. At breakfast it was
announced that we would be crossing the Antarctic Circle sometime later that
morning. Although the trip was billed as a circle-crossing trip, often the
ship is stopped well beforehand due to sea ice. We got lucky. It was also
announced that the shipboard pool would be filled with ocean water once we
crossed the Circle, and any brave souls wishing to swim in polar waters
could do so. I was the first to raise my hand when they asked if anyone
would be interested.

The morning started off with a lecture on Pinnepeds (seals, sea lions, and
kin) by whale expert Ari—one of three professors and several more PhDs,
scientists, and experts who are our guides onboard—and marine mammal expert
#2, Dr. Brandon Southall. It was another excellent sciencey lecture, and I
loved every second of it.

After lecture we all gathered on the bow of the ship, led by intrepid
explorers Huw (our historian) and Beau (one of several generalist outdoor
guides), who dressed for the occasion (you'll see what I mean when I am able
to upload photos, but they were decked out in shorts, wool socks, rubber
boots, down jackets, floppy hats, goggles, ropes, ice axes, and a whole
kitchen's worth of cookware dangling from their oversized external-frame
backpacks. We were informed that the large iceberg ahead of us was sitting
just past the great invisible Circle line, and the excitement grew as we
steamed toward it.

Two Russian sailors hoisted flags representing every country from which each
of us hailed, eliciting a cheer from the huge group of Chinese students when
the Chinese flag unfurled. New Zealand, the Netherlands, Australia, Fiji,
New Zealand, USA, Germany, Portugal, and, of course, Russia, were also
represented. The Japanese flag, tragically, tore away in the wind.

Mimosas were passed around, music started, and the ship's horn blasted just
as we pulled up to the iceberg. The party raged on the bow in the frigid air
and beautiful sunshine. Then land came into view as we approached the
Western shore of Adelaide Island: visible as snowy triangular peaks barely
distinguishable from the white clouds that hid their bases. It was an
indescribably beautiful sight.


I was almost too excited to sit through lunch, and then through the
post-lunch lecture on penguins by our ornithologist David, a.k.a. "Birdmon",
as the Plunge Pool was being filled up on deck above us. With my bikini on
underneath a pile of snow clothes, I headed up to the deck, and was greeted
by a cheering crowd of onlookers and mostly-naked polar swimmers. I stripped
down, jumped in, and jumped back out almost as fast. The swimmers piled into
the ship's sauna to warm back up, and we were informed that in order for it
to really count, we had to go in three times. So I ran back out and jumped
in again. And again. It felt, dare I say it, good. And it was a blast, with
all of the shrieks and yells and cheering and hugs and energy. One of the
tiny Chinese girls who had been standing and watching in her purple fleece
pants and down jacket and bright pink beanie with matching pink glasses
suddenly stripped down to her shorts and T-shirt and jumped in. Three times.
Amazing! Few people get the chance to swim in Antarctic waters, fewer still
South of the Antarctic Circle. It was pretty special.

After warming back up, there was one final lecture, this one an excellent
set of tips for photography by our head guide, Antarctica expert David
McGonigal. I was really glad to get a good photography lecture. I like to
think I take decent photos, but I've never had a photography class and
really wanted some tips. He had some good ones. And also urged us at least a
dozen times to BACK UP our photos, including on some shipboard computers
where a bunch of "best of"s will be collected and shared at the end of the
There was a Pilates class that a bunch of the women and myself braved, just
enough stretching to prepare our stomachs for the onslaught of food to come
soon, and followed up the healthy exercise with Happy Hour! at the bar with
bartender Ian, who it will surprise nobody who knows me well, was my BFF
within 48 hours of the start of the voyage.

Happy hour spilled into dinner, which spilled into hanging out on the bow of
the ship to watch a stunning sunset which magically coincided with the most
beautiful moonrise I've ever seen, which spilled into more happy hour, which
ended in a rowdy game of Cards Against Humanity at 1AM with a 6:30AM wakeup
call. Oops, but a fantastic, fun day.

Love these people.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Bad connection, fourth try.
Crossed Antarctic Circle, party on bow, crew very excited.
Went swimming.
Survived...felt refreshing.
Tonight sunset turned mountains of Adeleid Island pink, spotted whales, snow
petrels, moonrise.
Most beautiful thing Ive ever seen.
Its another world.
Cant stop smiling.
Kayaking and continental landing tomorrow.
So happy.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Antarctica Day 3: Into Antarctic Waters

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


Overnight, we crossed into Antarctic waters, leaving the Drake Passage and
passing into the "convergence". The Ioffe is booking it south with the goal
of getting well past the polar circle, which is pretty unusual to be able to
do on the Antarctic Peninsula. We should cross the circle sometime tomorrow
morning after breakfast.

The night got bumpy, and I didn't sleep well. At around 6:30 AM, I gave up
on sleeping and got up, thinking I could go to the gym and at least get a
workout in before breakfast. Turned out to be a terrible idea. I got thrown
from the treadmill right away, and got queasier and queasier to the point
where I ended up just lying on the floor for a while before I worked up the
stomach to wobble back upstairs. I took another Dramamine and managed to
make it through breakfast, but returned to a safe horizontal position right
after that until it was time to go to the first of a series of mandatory
morning briefings.

The first briefing by our expedition leader, David, was on IATTO guidelines
for low-impact Antarctic tourism with the slogan, "Creating ambassadors to
the last great wilderness". The IATTO is an organization made up of nearly
all of the tourism companies that operate in Antarctica that came up with
rules for behavior in Antarctica. Stuff like not harassing and approaching
penguins (5 m minimum distance unless the penguins decide to come to you,
which apparently they do pretty often), wearing lifejackets in zodiacs, and
sterilizing and washing gear between landings so as not to introduce
invasive species or cross-contaminate sites. It's an interesting example of
self-regulation in the tourism industry. The guidelines so thorough and
careful that when the Antarctic Treaty was updated in 1995, they just added
what the IATTO had put together to regulate tourism, since their rules were
stricter than what anyone else could agree on. It was this briefing—and the
Planetary Protection-like means of trying to get us humans to not
contaminate where we're going—that really brought home how incredibly
different this is going to be. I have not left the Earth, but I am going to
another world.

Then we Antarcticanauts got our briefings for when we arrive in the Other
World and are allowed to leave our floating spacecraft. We will be donning
thoroughly-disinfected spacesuits, leaving the mothership for transportation
to the surface in rubber pods, from which specialized teams will disperse to
characterize the surface. A subset of us with the courage and qualification
will pilot gliders (a.k.a. kayaks) to explore the ice labyrinths and, we
hope, meet some of the intelligent beings that inhabit this Ice Planet. We
will be coming in peace, carrying no weapons or means of defense, but some
of the aliens of this world are very large and potentially dangerous, and we
are hoping that any encounters will not be of a hostile nature. I was fitted
for my sealed flightsuit this afternoon, which, like the spacesuits of the
Apollo era, are unwieldy and require a bit of help to get in and out of.

I'll admit that, while certainly not among the sickest of the Antarctinauts
aboard the Spacecraft Ioffe on this voyage, my stomach has not adjusted
completely to the gravitational anomalies of ocean travel. Today was
particularly bad, although also particularly light for the legendary Drake
Passage, and although my stomach was growling, I couldn't stomach the mess
hall for long enough to eat lunch today, wobbling back to my cabin to lie
down for a few hours instead.

We had more lectures in the afternoon, one on ice by Kurtis, one of the
kayak guides who happened to also have a B.S. in geology, and another
wonderful lecture by Huw on Shackleton. While his "History of Antarctic
Photography" lecture the day prior was surprisingly engaging—more for his
infectious energy and enthusiasm than for the pretty pictures he was
showing—this lecture was absolutely riveting, going to show that while
pretty pictures may make a good presentation, good energy and passion for
the topic make it great, and people do actually give a flying fig about the
subject matter.

Went up to the top deck a few times for some air--always the only one up
there--and the sea is beautiful, really beautiful, but I'm starting to get
antsy for something to break up the horizon.

Thankfully I made it through and even enjoyed dinner. The Russian waitstaff
didn't take long to figure out that I was scraping the cheese and whipped
cream off of things and, without me asking for it, brought me fruit instead
of cheesecake for dessert. Impressive.

Oh, and I saw an iceberg.

An iceberg!

And had bourbon on the rocks after dinner with some new friends except the
rocks were Antarctic ice. Antarctic ice! With 20,000+ year old air trapped
inside! And I drank it!

Land ahoy tomorrow, hopefully. I'm wiped out, kids. This sea business is

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Antarctica Day 2: Drake Passage

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


The first full day at sea began with a 7:30 AM wakeup call over the intercom
above my head…"Goooooooooooooooooood morning!"

I rolled out of my top bunk and wandered out in my pajamas, walking like a
drunk because of the rocking of the ship, to the wrong side of the ship to
try to see Cape Horn which had been announced to be on the Starboard side of
the ship (facing the front, that's right), and squinted to try to see the
foggy outline of land in the distance. Then it was off to the womens' shower
room, where I took an awkward but hot shower while braced against the wall
of the rocking boat.

Breakfast was a generous buffet that I took full advantage of, later getting
the hilarious comment from a British woman on board, "I must say, I am very
impressed by your capacity to eat. You are so little, but you just eat and
eat and eat!"

I was feeling a little bit on the edge of queasy from the rocking breakfast,
so went and laid down for half an hour until the Intercom called Deck 3 to
the Mudroom for getting fitted for our Wetskins and Gumboots: waterproof
overalls, jackets, and rubber boots which would be our armor for the
upcoming Antarctic shore excursions. The mudroom was a cavernous room
furnished with racks of plastic overalls and jackets, including one swaying
wildly as it dangled from the ceiling, life vests, kayak oars, shelves full
of boots, and tubs full of radios and dry bags and other miscellaneous
equipment. I had also rented a waterproof backpack and binoculars for the
trip, and was given those to take back to my cabin.

Shortly after that we were treated to an excellent lecture on whales of the
Antarctic by Oregon State University professor Ari Friedlaender, who
specializes in the feeding patterns of humpbacked whales. I learned that
many of the whales get covered, partially or fully, in layers of orange
diatoms which they periodically shed with a skin layer in warmer waters.
Also, whale poop is particulate, and apparently they are major nutrient
transporters by harvesting krill or fish or whatever it is they feed on in
the Antarctic and then head up to warmer, less-productive waters.

Then came a rambling lecture that was presumably on seabirds but ended
up consisting, at least by volume, mostly of random quips about how
quantum physicists have uncovered the secrets to the heart's energy and
the universe is chaos and WTF?

And, shortly thereafter, lunchtime. This was starting to feel like one of
the intensive immersive summer courses I've taken and taught where the
activities start first thing in the morning and run straight through with
brief breaks for regular food pellets until you collapse in exhaustion
sometime in the late hours of the night, rinse, wash, and repeat for weeks
on end. But lunch—a lamb stew—was excellent, and I again enjoyed great
conversations with a new set of tablemates.

After lunch came more lectures: one on the history and impact of the tourism
industry in Antarctica, which according to our expert—who has spent his
career as a professor studying tourism in Antarctica—has been minimal and
has, interestingly, in some ways led to the more careful monitoring of
environmental practices of the government and scientific bases there. But he
danced around something that probably wasn't far from many of our minds:
while the things we will be doing in Antarctica—hiking and kayaking and
respectfully observing wildlife, may qualify as "eco-tourism", the
environmental cost of getting to and from Antarctica is not minimal. At the
same time that we will be enjoying vistas of ice and the wildlife that
depends on the productive cold waters for their survival, we will be
contributing to the melting of the ice and slow loss of ice cover and
warming and acidification of the ocean. A part of me wished he had made a
stronger point that we, as the incredibly fortunate few able to visit and
bear witness to the place, we incur an obligation to, at the very least,
share the specialness of it with others, work to minimize our footprint in
other ways, and become ambassadors of environmental measures to try to
protect sensitive and unique ecosystems like this one.

Then came a briefing for the dozen of us who would be kayaking once we got
to Antarctica, afternoon tea (the food didn't stop coming), and a final
lecture on the history of photography in the Arctic. The speaker started
with an anecdote about the first talk he ever gave, and a woman who
approached him and said, "Look, Huw, it doesn't matter what you talk about.
We couldn't give a flying fig what you talk about. All we care about is that
you show pretty pictures," and then gave a brilliantly-delivered talk on the
obscure topic of the history of photography in arctic regions packed full of
pretty pictures.

It's been a beautiful day with shining sun and water so calm that it is hard
to believe that this is the legendary Drake Passage. But I didn't go outside
until after 6 PM, when we finally got a brief break for some fresh air. The
air was cold, but not frigid, and I was alone on the upper deck, with
nothing but blue water to see in all directions. I played with my borrowed
binoculars, but there were no whales or birds to be seen. But it was
beautiful, a wavy blue desert. It occurred to me that I had never been this
far out in the open ocean before, and it was an eerie and humbling feeling.

And then, over the intercom, happy hour was announced. A special happy hour,
with gin & tonics served on the back deck of the ship, a first-ever for a
Drake Passage happy hour. The seas were almost quiet, the sun golden and low
on the horizon, and spirits were high.

It's a friendly group on board here. I enjoyed a very entertaining dinner
seated with a British couple, at least one of whom seemed quite hilariously
drunk, and her spoutings-off were so priceless I wish I had my video camera
at dinner. At one point she did a Monty Python coconut scene re-enactment
while straddling her chair. At dinner. The Russian waitresses looked on in
horrified bemusement.

To wind up the evening we were invited to the "presentation room" (a very
functional lecture hall in the comfortably quiet bowels of the ship) to
watch Episode 1 of the BBC's Frozen Planet. While staff members who had been
involved in the filming, some of whom were featured in the "filming of"
part, were seated behind me. Pretty special.
Tonight we cross into Antarctic waters! There's a bet going onboard to guess
when—and at which latitude—we'll see the first icebergs. Any cheating tips
appreciated from my NASA friends. ;-)


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Antarctica Day 1: Welcome Aboard the Ioffe

As it turns out, I have limited, text-only, once-a-day email access aboard
the ship via satellite phone. In theory. I have no idea if this will work
and no way to know unless one of you emails me at my ship address
( to let me know! But assuming it works,
I'll try to post daily so you can follow along with me on this incredible
trip to Antarctica. I am taking tons of photos (and video) and will get all
of that up as soon as possible after I return to Not-Antarctica. Warm wishes
from the Drake Passage! -Carie


I feel that the trip officially started the evening before the ship even
arrived in Ushuaia's port, when I met Lynn. My dad had booked this trip
through a lovely woman named Lynn, who runs a Bend, Oregon-based agency
specializing in polar expeditions. I had been in contact with Lynn since
early January when I first opened the Christmas envelope containing the
Antarctica postcard on the back of which my dad had written, simply, "Ioffe,
Kayaking and Camping, Antarctica, February 18-March 3" (I had to read the
Antarctica part several times before it sank in). Usually such trips are
booked many months in advance, but the Christmas surprise had delayed the
sending of critical documents like liability and medical forms and boot
sizes, so the day we celebrated Christmas Lynn and I had a flurry of
back-and-forth emails to get the forms taken care of and to confirm all of
the details.

Lynn emailed again several weeks prior to the ship's departure inviting her
customers to join her for dinner in Ushuaia the night before the cruise. As
I hiked up the hill from the hostel to the restaurant, I spotted a woman
who, in her quick-dry pants and polar fleece, her dark expedition
sunglasses, and her dark mid-length hair partially braided back in a simple
and practical way, walking with strength and purpose like a woman of the
mountains, was unmistakably from the Pacific Northwest. Sure enough, it was
her. She immediately recognized me, too, despite our never having met or
exchanged photos before. It reminded me of how in L.A. I would often get
"you aren't from around here, are you?" comments that made me wonder what it
was about my dress and appearance that made me such a dead giveaway, but I
guess you can take the gilled, web-footed, makeup eschewing, hiking-thighed,
smile- and squint-wrinkled, REI-outfitted, vaguely moss-scented woman out of
the Pacific Northwest, but you never take the Pacific Northwest out of the

We were joined by Jan and James, a retired biology teacher and wildlife
biologist, also kindred gilled and web-footed folk from the PNW, who despite
their appearance of ordinary grandparent-aged gentlepeople, had hilarious
stories from their pot-smoking, environmental rabble-rousing,
spotted-owl-protecting hippie days (which, it sounded like, never quite

The views from the restaurant were beautiful, the pisco sours and wine
excellent, the food outstanding, and the company engaging, friendly, and
warm. Excitement set in at full intensity, and I had a hard time getting to
sleep that night (but the wine helped).

I woke up the following morning early and nervous, I had an impossible
laundry list of loose ends to tie up and errands to run. I had last-minute
camera and toiletry supplies to buy, things to mail, emails to send,
applications to fill out, manuscript corrections to submit, photos to
upload, papers to download, and a hundred other things to do. One of the
most urgent was to secure bus tickets to leave Ushuaia when I return. I am
scheduled to give a research talk at the Universidad Nacional del Sur in
Bahía Blanca (on the Argentine coast "close"—and by Argentine distances
close means a seven hour drive south—to Buenos Aires) a few days after the
ship gets back from Antarctica. To get there, I have a solid two days and
two nights on a bus. I wanted to secure bus tickets for my return, which
because Ushuaia lacks a central bus terminal and bus tickets can only be
bought at special agencies and half of the agencies were closed and the
other half didn't sell tickets for the companies that served the places I
wanted to go, I was unable to actually get tickets. Coti, if you're reading
this, fingers crossed that it works out when I get back or else I might be

In the end, I got very little of my ToDo list done, but Antarctica wasn't
waiting, so I shut the computer, grabbed my bags, and ran to the check-in
point across the street from the harbor. I arrived late, but not too late,
after the bottom seam on one of my bags gave out halfway to the harbor and
spilled its guts all over the street, and I had to scramble to intercept the
wine bottles—miraculously still intact—that were rolling down the hill into
traffic. I handed off my passport to the Keepers, was herded onto a bus, and
was driven to my home for the coming two weeks, the imposing and glimmering
white M/V Akademik Ioffe, "pride of the Russian research fleet".

The Ioffe looks a bit like a whitewashed barge with a whitewashed Borg cube
stacked on top of it. She was built for polar hydroacoustic research, and as
a result is ice-strengthened, very stable (with a fancy system for shifting
ballast in heavy seas, so although she still rocks, there shouldn't be as
many pukers on this voyage as there otherwise would be), and very quiet. She
is 117 m long, 18.28 m wide (the extra 28 cm permitting just enough extra
room for the small sofa in our cabin), providing ample space for the ~100
passengers on this cruise, and comes equipped with a Russian crew (which
means Borscht is reliably on the dinner menu and the stairwells look like a
scene out of Hunt for Red October). The ship is actually used for research,
including on this expedition, and the tourist passengers taken on help fund
some of the research done.

After snapping some photos, I walked up the gangway and into the ship, where
I was greeted by a tunnel of scientific and hospitality staff and shown to
my cabin, conveniently located within crawling distance of the mess hall,
and met my roommate for the voyage, Ingrid from "near Amsterdam" (everyone
from Holland says that when you ask them where, exactly, they are from).
Ingrid is very Dutch: tall, blonde, athletic, elegant, totally at home on
the water, and very nice. She said that she was sad and missing her husband,
but is doing this trip alone because he gets seasick and didn't want to go.
She perked up significantly when we set sail after dinner.

But before dinner we had orientations, a cocktail hour with non-alcoholic
mystery pink beverages and caviar (the latter part being very Russian, the
former seemingly incongruous, like someone had simply forgotten to add the
vodka to the mixer), a safety briefing, and a safety drill complete with
oversized life vests and a climb into our designated lifeboats.

Dinner began with Borscht. I had never had Borscht before and decided I
liked it quite a lot. There was also a generous salad bar (I had worried
about maybe not having fresh veggies on the ship, forgetting that ships like
these are usually incredibly well stocked), and an entrée of broiled turbot
in a hearty tomato and bean sauce. I am definitely not going to starve on
this cruise. I skipped dessert in order to head up onto deck to watched as
we cast off from the dock and sailed away from picturesque Ushuaia in the
pink light of sunset. I wandered the decks to soak in the views and enjoy
the elated feeling of the start of an adventure, and later ran into Lynn
and Jane and James chatting at the bow.

Darkness fell and the temperatures with it, and we had turned to head back
inside when Jane turned to me and asked, "Do you miss hugs?" Yes, of course
I had, and enjoyed the big warm hug she gave me. "I figured that, traveling
alone, you probably don't get hugged very often. I know I would miss it." It
was very sweet.

We worked our way to the ship's bar and enjoyed wine and whiskey with a
handful of other passengers and crewmembers until someone came in at 10:30pm
and announced that the lights of Puerto Williams were visible at Starboard.
Puerto Williams. I stood out in the night and watched the twinkling lights
that marked the place I had spent one of the most memorable weeks of my life
back in November, waved to Patty, and waved to the mountains that had been
my friends there.

And it was another moment where, realizing my place in the universe, I was
humbled and grateful and excited to be alive. There, on a ship, sailing to
the end of the Beagle Channel, soon to enter the legendary Drake Passage,
sailing south. South. South. South beyond the end of my world. South into a
new world.

I crawled into my top bunk bed, turned out the lights, and was rocked to
sleep by the slow swaying of the Ioffe.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Romantic Valentine's Day Weekend Alone in Ushuaia

I arrived in Ushuaia late in the evening the night before Valentine's Day, checked into my hostel, made a quick grocery run, did a quick paper submittal, went to bed, woke up, randomly chose a hike, jumped into a taxi, and just like that, BAM, I was off to the mountains.

Forget words (maybe I'll add some later), just enjoy the pictures.

Day 1: Glaciar Vinciguerra

Peat farm

Bridge to happiness

Damn you beavers!!


Carie + Mountains = <3

Valle Andorra

Microbial symbioses in action

Some sweet lichen/moss

Me. Alone in the mountains. That's love.


Anneke, I blame you for this.

Home sweet home.

Glaciar Vinciguerra

Day 2: Valle Superior

Feral horses on the trail

Wait, what season are we in now?

Peek through the forest

Mountain stream

Pretty stump


Valle Andorra

Pretty Edelweiss-like flowers

Laguna del Caminante

My own personal waterfall: view from my tent

Night 2 campsite, alone in Paradise



Goose down

Day 3: Paso de la Oveja


Mountain stream

More mountain stream

More mountains

Goddamn it was so pretty

Snow in a talus field


Paso de la Oveja

In Canadon Negro

U-shaped valley

Edible Llao Llao tree fungus (so delicious)

What are you and how do I get there??
Aaaand, civilization

Red lupine and a security fence in Ushuaia

Wait, where AM I?