My trip to Antarctica began with lost luggage and extended air trips,
stopping first in Miami, Buenos Aires and finally Ushuaia. Our ship
departed from this small, picturesque town at the southernmost tip
Surrounded by snow-capped mountains on a warm summer-like day, we
left on the ship MV Polar Star, a Norwegian icebreaker. As we made
our way out to the open sea, one thing became abundantly clear: there
are no oil refineries here, no barges, no towns or cities, no other
ships, no people — total isolation among the glaciers and mountains,
all in a setting of crystal blue-green water.
Rising 1000 feet above sea level, Steeple Jason in the West Falkland
Islands was our first stop. This is home to the world's largest Black-browed
Albatross colony (in excess of 100,000 pairs). The 1,952 acre site
is an uninhabited nature reserve owned and managed by the Wildlife
Conservation Society of New York, an organization that helps to preserve
outstanding wildlife habitat in fifty-two countries.
The early morning walk to the albatross colony seemed to take hours.
Much of the terrain was in wildflowers and mustard-colored lichen.
Finally, a huge expanse of bird life revealed itself between the water's
edge and elevated clumps of tussock grass. The dark eyes of the albatross
are a standout. Accented with a smoky grey eyebrow, the eye appears
smudged in the most artistic of handiwork. The bill is a bright yellow-peach
and the wingspan measures eight feet.
The densely packed colony contains substantial nests composed of
mud and grass, spherical in shape and elevated, each containing a
pale grey nestling fed by regurgitation of stomach oil. With extreme
care, the large-billed parent tenderly feeds and grooms the downy
chick. Most of the adults were parenting, but some were in various
stages of courtship — bowing and scraping, bill rubbing and
wing stretching. Albatrosses mate for life and can live as long as
Great numbers of penguins reside along the shores of the southern
oceans. We observed eight species, including one lone Emperor, a juvenile
on an ice pack. Certain islands are home to different species. One
of the largest King Penguin colonies is located on Salisbury Plain
in South Georgia, a group of approximately 150,000 pairs.
All trips to land are made in “zodiacs,” large rubber
rafts holding ten to twelve people. The penguins are a curious bunch,
unafraid of humans. As we approached the land, they gathered in large
groups. I refer to them as a “welcoming committee,” and
as we came ashore, they sang in a manner that resembles blowing into
a pocket comb covered with wax paper. The sound is nasal and trumpet-like.
The nesting colonies are usually away from shore, on a plateau or
in a place set apart. This is the area of incubation where the precious
single egg is exchanged from one parent to the other parent. After
a two week period, the incubating parent returns to the sea to fatten
up. It will be fifty-four days until the egg hatches.
The whole process is a carefully orchestrated team effort. Those
of you who saw the film March of the Penguins are familiar with the
ritual. The advantage the King Penguins have over the Emperor Penguins
in the movie is warmer temperatures, averaging thirty-six to forty
degrees in summer.
The nesting area is situated on a high expanse of ground, and there
is a constant parade of penguins coming and going to the nest site.
They follow one another in an orderly fashion, looking like an expanded
version of the seven dwarfs marching off to work, those returning
from the sea on the far side of the beach and those going to sea on
the shore side. The beach is composed of black sand, leftover remnants
of volcanic activity.
Penguins are not at all clumsy on land, but in the water they are
dynamite swimmers, porpoising in groups in pursuit of their daily
diet of fish. They are delightful little characters, curious and highly
sociable. But they are always in the company of predators: fur seals,
elephant seals, skuas and giant southern petrels.
Antarctica is governed by the Antarctica Treaty System as a natural
reserve dedicated to peace and science. Forty-three nations participate.
The United States maintains three permanent research stations on the
continent, and our group was privileged to visit Palmer Station on
the Antarctic Peninsula (64-46 S, 64-03 W). My trip began in late
December and extended through the end of January. It was summer in
the Antarctic and never got completely dark. The sun often set by
midnight, but by 3 a.m. the sky was pink with dawn.