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.

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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.

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More on fast ice and penguins to come!

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Expedition

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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.

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