Day 16 - Gourdin Island, Antarctic Sound
The "Café" on Deck 5-Aft was occupied with the usual nutters in yours truly and Damian Caniglia just prior to sunrise. The morning sky was cast with a flat grey cloud that had the slightest hint of a red glow behind it. The possibility of some sun warmed the soul in the bitter cold. The air temperature outside was a cool -2C, with a constant falling of light snow. Thankfully the wind was non-existent, which negated any potentially crippling windchill factor. Suitably wrapped in thermals and layers, we stood there in silence for quite some time. What we were gazing out on was the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, a sea packed with sea ice and icebergs, and glaciers tumbling and rolling into the sea from the numerous islands that were around us. All we did for the first 20 minutes while drinking coffee, eating biscuits and taking photographs in total silence was smile as wide as Cheshire cats. With spare batteries tucked in our pockets to keep the charge fresh, we continued to fill the CF/SD cards over the next couple of hours prior to the Chef's Special for breakfast.
Dave Riordan in his Zodiac approaching a grounded iceberg. The small dot on top is an Antarctic Skua. The larger blob on the right is a large boulder that would have come off another iceberg or the glacier which calved this beast.
An Antarctic Skua sitting on top of a grounded iceberg.
A lone Adélie Penguin hiding on some sea ice. The sense of scale is hard to convey...can you spot the 16 foot (5m) Zodiac near the sea ice edge?
The enormity of the mountains here, the amount of snow. It was epic.
The morning was spent just cruising around the area on the Sea Spirit. The plan had been to visit Brown Bluff, an extinct volcano that formed about 1 million years ago, but the amount of sea ice that had built up from the storms we had managed to navigate around the previous couple of days, had prevented us from getting anywhere near it. This is the beauty of the expedition beast. All was not lost however, and as the cloud cleared and the sun shone, we boarded our Zodiacs for a 4 hour tour around the frigid waters and air of Gourdin Island in the Antarctic Sound. There were large icebergs and large blocks of sea ice in the area of Gourdin Island. The island is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of Adélie Penguins. So, the blocks of sea ice generally had a handful or more, or sometimes less, of Adélie Penguins lounging or travelling on. When our Zodiacs puttered up to them, they would get very curious and sometimes just amble over for a look. These are my favourite penguin species. Fantastic characters. The pale eye-ring on the plain black face adds to the anthropomorphic expressions they appear to be making.
There were also our first Crabeater Seals of the trip on the sea ice. They are more rotund and bilcoloured than the Weddell Seals. They were just snoozing on the ice, taking no notice of anything, or us. By turning off the outboard motors on the Zodiacs, we were able to glide past them resting on the ice. They are big mammals and very cool to see. This was my sixth seal species of the trip. They were colourful characters in the sense that they were neither black, brown, grey or white! Apart from that, they just slept and growled at us if we disturbed their sleep. A bit like me first thing in the morning and up until I have drank my coffee.
The M.V. Sea Spirit on the calm sea of the Antarctic Sound. My home for 20 days. The icebergs can be seen in the background.
The area was packed sea ice, icebergs and snow. It was quite remarkable. I had, not for the first and not for the last time, never seen anything like this before. It was both beautiful and intimidating all wrapped up in its virgin white and azure blue colours. The harshness of the dark mountains against the pristine snow fields was mesmerising. It was so quiet. It was quite eerie. The sense of scale, as I've said above, is difficult to get across without a reference point. Having the 16ft Zodiacs with passengers in the foreground lends some form of scale for you, dear reader, of the sea ice, icebergs and glaciers. What struck me most when cruising amongst the sea ice and icebergs. was the clarity of the sea water, the blueness of some of the ice, and the quietness. The lack of noise. The Zodiac drivers turned off their engines. We simply drifted through the ice, the only sound being the click of the camera shutters and the scraping of the sea ice off the bottom of the Zodiacs. I closed my eyes and just breathed in the clean, cold air; concentrating on the noise in my ears that only pure silence can bring. In amongst the white noise of the silence was the occasional hissing of trapped air bubbles, thousands of years old, pop and hiss as the glacial mini-icebergs melt. It was a lovely moment. A moment of calm in what had been, thus far, a mind-bending trip.
The Gourdin Island colony of Adélie Penguins was the largest we had seen yet. There were Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins present as well, albeit in much smaller numbers. The silence was broken by the sounds of the penguins and the splashes in the water from porpoising penguins. I was fortunate to be in the Zodiac that was being driven by Paul Nicklen. Paul's huge experience driving in these conditions meant that he pushed the Zodiac's limits and got into places other Zodiac drivers may not try. It was also beneficial because of Paul's undoubted knowledge and unparalleled understanding of polar light. He always positioned the Zodiac in the right place to get the right light on the subject. It was a huge privilege and honour to be with him for this trip. It made a huge difference. The Adelie's were in great spirits, with hundreds of them trying to get into the water after their stint incubating eggs, or digging nesting areas. A lot of them were bunched on the edges of the islands, itching to dive in to the water. Apprehension of what may be in the water holding them back. Leopard Seals should have been arriving at that time, just before the start of breeding season. To pick off slow swimmers, the first divers into the ocean...it was something to see. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the penguins, we didn't see any Leopard Seals. We enjoyed the show they put on, just going about their normal, daily business. Jumping, waddling, belly sliding and porpoising their way around their home. See if you can spot the odd Chinstrap or Gentoo Penguin in the following shots.
Colin "Sandpiper" Baird with his yellow penguins in the frigid conditions amongst the glacial ice debris.
Dave "Danger Dave" Riordan, cleanly shaven, drives the Zodiac that Damian Caniglia is in guiding his group. Damo is the crazy Aussie not wearing gloves in these conditions. Hard core.
After the cruising was finished, it was time for the Polar Plunge!! 26 brave souls jumped into the icy Antarctic waters, including yours truly. The water temperature was -1.1C!! For those of you wondering, sea water freezes when it reaches -2C. My cousin, Peter, wanted the two of us to go in last and together. Let's be honest, when is the next time I could get a chance to jump in the waters of the Antarctic Sound with my cousin? Probably never... So with that, we donned our Antarctic tartan ties to accompany our swimming shorts and jumped in. One has a safety rope tied around one's waist, just in case the frigid waters induce a coronary or other nasty shock to the system. If it happens, at least they can drag you back in! While Peter jumped straight down, I decided to go for a swim, so dove outwards. I swam out, underwater and it was then that the shock of the cold water really hit home, so much so that all I wanted to do was breath. It was a strange feeling. I knew I had enough oxygen in my lungs for a minute or more under water. But after 5-10 seconds, I felt like I had none. All I wanted to do was breath. So, up I surfaced and gulped in lungful after lungful of air...wow, the air felt warmer than the water! After being hauled back in, Peter and I were wrapped in towels, and we made our way to the hot tub on Deck 6 to warm up. After getting into the steaming water, we cracked open a beer and toasted the beauty of the Antarctic that surrounded us on all sides. What a day...
My cousin, Peter, smiling for the camera operated by Colin Souness (thanks for the photo, Colin!). The legs, seemingly attached to the rope, in the background are mine :) (c) Colin Souness
As this is currently the only photograph I have of me swimming in Antarctica, and I have misplaced my DVD of the trip, if anyone reading this has a one or two photographs of me in the water or out of it following the swim, I'd appreciate if you could email them to me!!
The sights to be had in this area were a quick reminder that we really have to do as much as we can to preserve this wonderful and magical place.
Weddell Seal Crabeater Seal on some sea ice Southern Giant Petrel taking off from some sea ice
Keywords: Albatross, Antarctic, Antarctica, Blue, Bucket, Bucket List, Canon, Canon Professional Network, Carmody, Expedition, Ice, Iceberg, Jim Wilson, List, Mark Carmody, Mountain, Penguin, Photography, Quark, Rock, Snow, South, Travelling, Whale, cloud
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