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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