TERRA FIRMA!!! Today started off with a buzz of excitement. During the night we had passed through the convergence, meaning that we were truly in Antarctic waters. Today would be the day when all of these people who have been waiting and planning for such a long time would finally touch their feet to Antarctica soil, or maybe I should say Antarctic Ice.
The change was evident not only by the excitement, but by the fact that we're now seeing icebergs on a regular basis as we sit and eat our meals or walk around the boat.
Before we could leave for shore we had to first listen to a mandatory debriefing about the protocols while on shore. These protocols have been establish by IAATO in order to help conserve Antarctica and make sure it remains relatively untouched. These protocols are quite similar to the Leave No Trace Principles but with some interesting differences. When I discuss LNT with my students we talk about the fact that it’s better to sit on a rock than it is on plant matter that can be damaged. However here in Antarctica you don’t want to step on plants (all two species of them) OR rocks because rocks are what house the lichens and are nesting sites for penguins. Speaking of penguins. Probably the most frequent question I heard before I left was “Can you bring me back a penguin”. I now have an answer for you. No. Unless you want to do my year of jail time and pay my $25,000 fine. We aren’t even allowed to approach them by any more than 15feet. There are actually people who troll facebook and other social media sites looking for evidence of people getting too close to Antarctic wildlife and they will prosecute you if they find you! That said, penguins can’t read and so if they choose to break the law, there’s nothing you can do about it.
In my ecotourism class we also talked about the importance of not bringing along any hitchhikers (seeds, eggs etc) along with us into other terrains. This is another aspect of the protocols, so after the debriefing we had to take any of our equipment that we would be using on land and have it vacuumed and decontaminated. I think I was the only one taking pictures of it, but it was nice to see something I teach my students put into practice on the other side of the world.
Then the moment we had all been waiting for arrived… penguins! Tons of them. We were cruising along through the English Straight when someone pointed out a group of them flying through the water. Everyone made mad dashes for cameras in order to put our newly learned camera skills to use. I didn’t get a great picture of this group but then another and another appeared. We saw upwards of a dozen groups of 10-20 penguins making their way to shore. I guess I had expected to see some penguins in the open water, but not this many! And then if that wasn’t enough the humpback whales decide to put on a show, breaching multiple times before showing us their tales as they dove down deeper to feed. According to the sonar on the boat there were krill balls below us, which is likely what was attracting them. As we were standing out on the bow, chatting about whales, I learned form Andy (Canadian naturalist, obviously he’s cool) that the Killer Whales in this area are genetically distinct from those found in BC waters. They believe that the last time they interbred was around 750,000 years ago!
Well I best be wrapping up it's midnight and twilight but I need to get some sleep. Couple of more landings tomorrow and possibly some kayaking.
Hope you’re all having a great start to your Christmas holidays!