Random Antarctic Notes
We had big, choppy seas yesterday, churned by strong gale force winds and twenty-five to thirty foot swells. Classified on the Beaufort Scale as class 9, if measured on land these same winds would “break larger branches off trees and blow small trees over, blow over construction signs and barricades and do (considerable) damage to circus tents and canopies.” Made me glad I wasn’t out in a kayak.
Today we woke to a completely different, nearly windless sea, surrounded by a sizable group of humpback whales. On their way further south this time of year to feed, we found them doing exactly that. Stopped in almost one place, circling, lunching. There were so many it was hard to count, but many tens were breaking the surface simultaneously. At any one point you could easily see the backs, fins or tails of twenty big animals, all under a glorious-if-cold morning light.
• Forty-five-year-old Pennsylvania businessman Todd Carmichael is the first of what will most likely be half-dozen adventurers to reach the South Pole under their own steam this season. He covered 700 miles from the coast at Hercules Inlet to the U.S.’s Scott-Amundsen base fast – 39 days, 7 hours, 49 minutes – some kind of new speed record, reportedly an hour or so quicker than the last record … though I find speed in Antarctica to be extremely irrelevant. It’s such a tough place that physical feats down here are all successful; as long as you accomplish what you set out to do. Along his route he described the snow as a combination of “talcum powder, moon dust and laundry detergent.” In regard to solo travel in Antarctica, I will always bow down to my friend Borge Ousland, who skied across the continent alone and unsupported in 1996-97, from Berkner Island on the Weddell Sea to the U.S. McMurdo base on the Ross Sea. It took him 64 days to cover 1,764 miles.
• It’s not just tourist ships that get in trouble down south. The vaunted British Naval Ship HMS Endurance – the Royal navy’s Sole ice patrol ship – which works Antarctica each season, had to be towed back to Chile during the past few days after her engine room flooded, leaving her without power and propulsion in the Magellan Strait. A cruise liner, the Norwegian Sun, stood by, ready to evacuate the one hundred people on board. Eventually a few passengers were offloaded from the Endurance by helicopter and Chilean Navy missile boat; meanwhile a Chilean Navy helicopter made an emergency landing on the Norwegian Sun to uplift a 47-year-old California woman suffering from an encephalic hemorrhage.
The British Navy ship – which last January “discovered” the exact location of the sunken tourist boat Explorer, 4,200 feet below the cold surface – has been towed to dry dock in Punta Arenas, Chile, where it will undergo inspection for damage alongside the tourist boat Ushuaia, which ran aground along the Antarctic Peninsula earlier in the season.
A PROUD DAY
Though I’ve been in Antarctica since before Thanksgiving, I’ve had the good fortune in recent days of gaining a couple media distinctions. The New York Times included my account of travels in Vietnam (“Descending the Dragon”) on its ‘best of list’ … and yesterday Fox News honored me as one of 2008’s ten “liberal loons.”
I’m not sure if it’s yet an annual list, but Fox.com put together a top ten of what it regards as the year’s “wackiest” takes on global warming, including my National Geographic report from the Antarctic Peninsula last January of penguin chicks dying thanks to a new combination of daytime rains and freezing nights. Headlined “No Matter What Happens, Someone Will Blame Global Warming …”, and the blogosphere has quickly picked up the story, with several publicly missing Al Gore’s inclusion. “10 Liberal Loon Lies Blaming Everything and Anything …” is typical of the rest.
So, as the year winds down, time a little reflection. Praise by the New York Times, derision from Fox News. Keeps me in pretty good company, I imagine.
SPEAKING OF PENGUINS …
It’s clear from my mail that blonde penguins definitely have more fun … so … a few more photographs of some of Antarctica’s more unusual pengies … (compliments of my friend John Carlson and his Antarctic wildlife surveying friends at Oceanites).
Photos, Fiona Stewart