Lines

“I love lines,” said Sisse. She, along with her husband Cotton (http://www.keenpress.com has some of their fantastic photography), are National Geographic photographers. There are few sexier job titles, to be honest. And there are few kinder and more interesting people than Sisse and Cotton- they were generous with their time and advice and companionship to all of the people aboard the Orion. One of their many contributions to life aboard the ship was their lecture series, showing their photography from this trip and others, discussing artistry and technique and serendipity in prints and digital images. But I chose to interpret some of their advice rather differently than they may have intended.

Lending organization out of chaos, a focus and easy pattern of movement for the eye, a bold graphic statement- lines are great. Sisse and Cotton used snowbanks and sheer-sided icebergs, mountain ridges and the curves of women’s dancing arms in their photos. But I went a little bit more literal:

DSC09155

Our orange coats made a great contrast with the snow and blue sky, but the real interest for me was the linear movement of all of the passengers. With all of that ice to explore, why follow precisely in a line?

DSC09373

Maybe the penguins can answer that question. They, too, lined up quite nicely as they proceeded across the fast ice. Maybe the implied changeability of this environment made all the living things want to follow in the footsteps (or slide trail) of someone before. Maybe it was just that the ice was easier to navigate once packed down by others. Maybe it was the universe, coalescing into patterns for a brief moment, to allow two-dimensional captures of a three-dimensional existence. Maybe it just happened, just because. Anyway, I too love lines.

Advertisements

Fast Ice

Fast ice: it sounds so exciting. In a ship surrounded by bobbing icebergs, mountains shrugging glaciers off like very slow coats, and pack ice dotted with penguin footprints drifting by, “fast ice” sounds adventuresome. What’s fast about it? Well, it turns out that it’s “fast” to land. Fast ice is essentially sea ice that is connected to unmoving ground along its edge- much less thrillingly speedy than I had expected. Chief Mate Lubo must have noticed my slight disappointment at his explanation of the concept, because he was quick to explain that “looking for fast ice” was, in fact, going to be just as fun as I had originally hoped. The Orion was a sturdy little ship, and she was going to find some pack ice that was just the right thickness… and run right into it.

DSC09066

And so she did! With much crunching and cheering, the bow of the ship went right into the ice.

Where we went in, the fast ice was at least two years old- not old enough to have become too thick for our hull to break, but thick enough that a hundred people walking around on it wasn’t likely to end in disaster. From what I could tell watching from the tip of the bow, it was somewhere between four and six feet thick, though my estimate is by no means professional or trustworthy. Having formed from seawater as the temperature dropped far below the freshwater freezing point of 32 degrees F (0 degrees C, for scientists and pretty much anyone outside of the US, Palau, Belize, the Cayman Islands, and the Bahamas), much of the salt had worked its way out of the ice and back down into the ocean below.

The intersection of ice and sea is always an interesting one. Justin Hofman, the “Undersea Specialist” aboard the Orion, took a dive at the edge of the ice and brought back video of the creatures living below. Krill requires ice, as a substrate for their algae food, and since krill make up an almost incalculably large part of the Antarctic food web, the ice/water border is imperative for life in the polar region. But besides krill, the rocky bottom was covered with limpets, giant isopods, sea spiders, and the occasional zooming penguin. Under fast ice, they’re relatively safe. Under the shadow of a glacier, they’re fairly likely to be scraped off of the bottom by grinding bergs, falling or pushed by fierce winds. The scars are visible for a long time, as life returns slowly to rocks scoured clean by moving ice.

Surface-side, the fast ice looked clean and bare. It was only slowly that we started to notice the little bumps and cracks running through it, and with all the hullaballoo around the ship itself, it was almost an hour before we actually started paying attention to the local fauna. In the meantime, the crew (who had never experienced this particular adventure before) piled off of the ship with the guests, bundled up with coats and cameras, to pose for a series of adorable pictures with their boat/home.

DSC09085

More on fast ice and penguins to come!

Parental Proximity (More Penguins)

DSC08672

This is one of my favorite photos from our recent trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. Surprisingly, it was taken just feet from one of the only inhabited structures we saw on the continent, at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island (part of the Palmer Archipelago). It’s a British research base, or it used to be- now it’s mostly a museum and a place to send postcards, from the most southern post office in the world! The little museum is in one of the original buildings, along with the little gift shop and mailbox, and a more recent addition houses the few people who summer at the base and run the island’s buildings and projects, which take up half of the island. The other half is reserved for the gentoo penguins, who have arrived since the base was originally constructed in 1944 and are slowly and surely overwhelming the area ostensibly overrun by humans.

Pink penguin guano, filled with the exoskeletons of unfortunate krill, coated almost every surface (penguins are projectile poopers- the excrement goes up a lot higher than you might expect from flightless birds). The sides of the path from our landing site to the buildings were barely five feet away from gentoo nests, which seemed to bother the humans a lot more than it bothered the penguins. It was overwhelming- by that point in our trip, we’d seen a lot of penguins. But… penguins! Meanwhile, this fascinating little museum filled with half-century old expedition rations, notebooks, maps, radios, record players, and creepy audio reconstructions waited just beyond the adorable-birdie gauntlet. And we had something like forty minutes to experience all of it.

DSC08596

p.s. here is the main museum/gift shop building. I like that the color scheme matches the gentoo penguins so well.

I blame Dad for my lack of photos of the island- he left me to write postcards to all of our various family members (anyone whose address I had in my phone). But I can’t really actually muster up any righteousness about it. He had so much fun checking out all the weird leftovers from the age of brutally beardy science-men of the Antarctic… and while my freezing fingers wrote too slowly for me to get back outside for long, our delay kept us in the building just long enough to catch the penguin parent above returning from its foraging trip. From the rocky path, we watched the parents greet one another with bows and beak touches before orchestrating their careful swap in position, moving simultaneously so that the two chicks in the nest would be unprotected and uncovered for as few seconds as possible. Chicks safely covered once more, the relieved parent headed for the water and the returned parent settled on the pile of rocks and guano and roly-poly babies. As the rest of our group headed to the zodiaks and the ship, we lingered for a gross but awesome feeding (the parent barfs up some portion of whatever he or she has consumed while out foraging straight into the mouths of the hungry young) and finally, this picture-perfect family photo.

Leaning on my dad on our way back to the Orion, I did tease him about making me write all of our postcards… but he reminded me of all the times that, like that penguin dad (or mom), he’d (not as graphically) brought home food for me and my siblings. He never barfed up food for his offspring, but he is pretty great as a human father.

Blue-Eyed Babies

DSC08581

The blue-eyed shag aren’t graceful, like albatrosses, or as cute as penguins. But these birds (Phalacrocorax atriceps) are excellent at catching fish, and as attentive parents as a baby cormorant could hope for. One of the coolest things about the nesting colonies we visited on the Antarctic Peninsula was that the birds were at all different stages of breeding: some were recently arrived, constructing nests from seaweed, grass, mud, poop, and feathers; some sat on small clusters of eggs; some guarded their new-hatched fuzzy babies from skuas; some watched as their gigantic young flapped their ungainly wings, preparing for the day they’d take to the skies.

In colonies, the shags aren’t as aggressive as the penguins- we watched the nearby gentoos pull tail feathers, smack each other with wings, steal rocks, and scream full-throated into each others’ faces- but seemed more widely-spaced, and more likely to build a bit apart from one another. The shag in the photo above had claimed the top of that rock and apparently all the space around it, risking predation from the skies but earning a bit of piece and quiet, or as much as a parent could reasonably expect while sitting on two giant squawking babies. As it waited for its partner to return with a belly full of fish (they can dive over a hundred meters deep to catch their prey), this parent contemplated the bustle of the penguin colony and the comparable awkward waddle of the orange-coated humans onshore.

They’ve struck an interesting balance between the aquatic optimization of the penguins and the aerial competency of more typical birds. They take off with difficulty, especially when laden with full bellies, and land in an ungainly jumble of feathers and webbed feet, but beat their wings powerfully through the air once airborne, and dive like black-fletched arrows from sky to sea to catch their prey. From their perches on the rocks, the young shags watch their parents and, presumably, dream of leaving their awkward adolescence for the slightly less awkward, occasionally glorious life of a grown-up. I can relate to that.

Ice

DSC08377

Antarctica has its wildlife, its sweeping vistas, its stormy seas… and it has its little beauties. Through glacial ice, sunlight refracts out the most intense blue you can imagine. Cotton and Sisse, the National Geographic photographers on board the Orion, talked about the color of Antarctica in photography. They play with the fact that so very much of the landscape here is blue: water, sky, fog in the dim light of dawn, and, of course, the ice. Snowfall year after year forms glaciers, moving rivers of accumulated ice… glaciers crush all the air out of that ice, every air bubble that makes normal ice look white, and leave compacted masses of deep blue frozen water.

With all that snow and ice and cold, cold color, it’s easy to lose sight of the real depth of the landscape. There’s a lot you can do with the washed-out bleak look, but my favorite photos from the trip are ones in which the blue is featured, not as a chilly background, but as a glow like the piece of ice above, or even better, broken by little spots of bright color.

DSC00062

Our orange parkas really helped in that endeavor. We stick out against that background, tiny orange people against the overwhelming blue-gray of this glacier on Elephant Island. As an expedition with a thematic tie to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic journey a century ago, it was an especially poignant sight- Elephant Island served as a camp for Shackleton’s men for bleak, blue months while their leader and a few others crossed a perilously rough stretch of water in essentially a rowboat. Our hardy zodiaks and their brightly-colored contents would have been a welcome sight for those men. I hope that when they were rescued four and a half months after they watched their last hope sail away, the Chilean ship Yelcho that picked them up was flying some good colors. But maybe by then they’d really come to appreciate the true beauty of the blue.

They’re Everywhere and They Don’t Eat Crabs

DSC08345

And those are the two most important things to know about crabeater seals. Well, maybe not the most important. And maybe a bit misleading.

They’re not EVERYWHERE. But there are more crabeater seals on the planet than there are ALL OTHER SEALS. That’s right, just crabeaters might outnumber the entire rest of the pinnipeds. Then again, they might not- the population estimate on Wikipedia gives a total number of 7-75 million crabeater seals in Antarctica (…that’s a lot of uncertainty). Either way, they’re among the most numerous large mammals in the world, topped only by humans. Anyways… Crabeater seals, Lobodon carcinophaga, are thus named not because they “eat crabs,” but because they do in fact have “lobed teeth” and have (clearly) been wildly successful in hunting the most abundant Antarctic food source, krill. Krill are not crabs. More on krill to come.

From the numbers we saw, we would never have guessed how many crabeaters exist in the Antarctic. They tend to spread out, one or two at a time on the pack ice and sea ice, near their food sources and the water in which they transform from graceless meaty grubs on solid ground to graceful… meaty grubs in the water. Of all the majestic things about Antarctica, I’m not sure these were one: their ice floes tended to be considerably poopier than seal-unoccupied floes (that red stuff on the seal’s tail in that photo? Not a reflection), their general behavior when we saw them tended to be either contortionist stretching, fighting, or boneless napping, and they couldn’t compare to the size and grandeur of nearby whales, whose poop we never saw. But on occasion they sure were cute!

One of the major benefits of the National Geographic/Lindblad trip was the presence of amazing photographers and people who appreciated the photographers’ desire to spend forever setting up a shot and then taking ten thousand iterations. Getting a photo like this- seal sitting up, face amiably composed, poop more or less obscured, lovely icy background- took probably half an hour of lurking near this seal. A photographer for The Magazine might have spend days setting this up, and as a result would have gotten a much nicer photo… and a very cold butt. The crew and staff on the Orion were awesome about giving us enough time to play and explore and take obnoxious numbers of seal, whale, penguin, and bird photos (not to mention photos of straight-up ice, water, clouds, mountains, the boat itself, each other…), but still managed to get us all back aboard and moving in good humor and with entirely unfrozen butts. They knew we’d never want to leave… but they also knew we’d never want to miss out on whatever was next.

Expedition

DSC07860

Okay, after yesterday’s ALL FACTS ALL THE TIME post, here’s a bit more about the status of our expedition at the point in which I was really starting to get penguin-obsessed.

In the photo above, Linnea (our expedition co-leader, organizer of humans, named for Carolus Linnaeus (awesome), and general fabulous person) faces down one of the many gentoo penguins on Cuverville Island. We’d hiked up a hill to a lovely overlook, from which you could see down over the rookery at penguins building nests, stealing pebbles, sitting on eggs, hatching chicks, feeding their newborns, and hop-shuffling up and down the various penguin highways on the snowy slopes. And we were there thanks to Linnea and her husband, expedition leader Tim.

Our trip was originally billed as a journey from the Falklands (Malvinas) to South Georgia Island followed by a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, but when updated weather reports came in the night of our departure, the captain, Tim, Linnea, and I’m sure plenty of other people made the joint decision to follow the opposite path. Not only would that more accurately retrace the homeward journey of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer/leader of a doomed but spectacularly resilient expedition from 1914-17, but would also give us much (MUCH) nicer weather crossing the Drake Passage, known as the roughest piece of sea in the world. Seemed like a good idea at the time, and proved to be nearly perfectly ideal. As a result of their careful and quick planning, along with their commitment to getting us ashore at the coolest places in the southern hemisphere, we all grew to view Tim and Linnea as something just short of magical.

We made two landings almost every day we were near land, waking up each morning to Tim’s “Good morning, everybody, good morning!” The skies were preternaturally sunny with just enough cloudy texture, the water serene and reflective, the penguins charismatic and the crew cheerful and thrilled to be making their first stops on the Peninsula as well. We’d all begun to get to know each other (Jenessa and Noah were always on the last boat back to the ship from shore with us, the youngest girl on board and I had started to perfect our games of Gin Rummy, and all of the photographers on board could recognize each other by camera equipment alone) and we could begin to pick out penguin and whale species from a fair distance based on behavior and coloration- each day felt like four days’ worth of activity, and we thought they’d never end. We were astoundingly lucky, both to have such an adventurous leadership and such glorious weather.

DSC08876