Pleneau Island—We spend the morning watching and following big groups of swimming/feeding penguins on the backside of the island, about halfway down the Antarctic Peninsula.
Photo by Graham Charles
It is one of the most prolific wildlife scenes I’ve ever witnessed here. The skies are dark, hinting snow, but the incredible beauty has kept us out on deck all morning. Literally thousands of Gentoos emerge in one big pack after another, swimming and porpoising. In single file they surface and jump onto a tiny piece of ice, which quickly disintegrates under their accumulated weight. Other penguins savvier, popping up onto bigger icebergs, which they scamper up and over, again in single file, before diving one at a time off the opposite side.
As well as gathering krill and small fish for their by-now two-month-old chicks, these penguins, I’m convinced, are also out horsing around, having some fun. It’s summertime, after all. In another month or two this scene will be dramatically different, frozen and iced-in, and all of Antarctica’s wildlife will be pushed to the ice edge.
It’s an interesting year to talk about ice along the Peninsula. Every year the sea around Antarctica freezes solid, essentially doubling the size of the continent. And every year with spring and summer, most of that frozen sea either melts or breaks into smaller pieces and is blown away, offshore.
This year is different. Though summer is two-thirds over, still-thick sea ice borders the coastline and encases many of its just-offshore islands. It’s more ice than any of us who’ve been visiting the Peninsula for the past couple of decades has seen in 15 years or so.
After watching the penguins hunt for a couple hours we sail south, to Petermann Island, a traditional summer stop and home to nesting Adelie, Gentoo, and blue-eyed Cormorants. For several years the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Oceanites had put up tents here, allowing its volunteers to come and live for an entire season, documenting wildlife. On an average day during the season, one or two tourist ships usually land passengers on Petermann for a walk around.
But no one has visited the island this year. We attempt to chug through the two miles of thick, slushy ice separating the island from a clear channel. Several times our boat’s engine overheats due to the thick slush being sucked into the intake, requiring us to turn off the engine and plunge it out to prevent it from stopping for good.
Meanwhile, through binoculars, we can make out the fuel storage tank at the Ukrainian science base of Vernadsky in the Argentine Islands. We’ve stopped there many times in the past, to anchor in the calm creek that sits behind it and to share a meal and home-brewed vodka with the 14 scientists based there for 12 straight months. This year, thanks to all the ice staying put and not drifting away, no one has been able to reach the base. The Ukrainians have been iced-in for nearly one year. We raise the base commander on the VHF, and he assures us all is good—they recently celebrated the Ukrainian New Year with a big dinner—but he admits they are anxiously hoping their 14 replacements will be able to reach the base in another month.
Sailing back to the north, heading toward a safe anchorage at Pt. Charcot—near where we’d watched the penguins and leopard seals frolic earlier in the day—the wind comes up, the seas darken, and the ice that surrounds us begins to move. It pushes toward land, filling in any open gap in the sea.
As Skip Novak pilots the boat in, around and through the ice, I sense worry. If we are to anchor at Pt. Chacot and the wind keeps blowing out of the west, as it is predicted, it is very likely we’ll be stuck, unable to move or get off the boat, for many days.
Standing outside in the blow we talk—actually shout over the wind—about our options. It is actually a very short conversation. “Let’s get north, away from this ice,” says Skip. I agree.
Now stories of too much ice along the Antarctic Peninsula may run contrary to those you’ve heard—many from me!—about how much the temperatures in this part of the continent are warming and ice melting.
That hasn’t changed: Both air and water temperatures along the Peninsula have gone up on average 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 40 years, the biggest such change on the planet. The issue this season is not lack of warmth, but lack of wind.
During our adventure this year I’ve had two fascinating conversations with longtime Peninsula veterans about the changes they’ve seen. Each agreed the warming is creating big differences, though each focused on different impacts.
Bill Fraser, one of Antarctica’s premiere penguin scientists, has been visiting the American Palmer Station since the mid-1970s and is convinced the warming temps are changing wildlife patterns. He blames the changes specifically on the lack of sea ice due to warming air and sea temps.
Leif Skog is captain of the National Geographic Explorer, operated by Lindblad Expeditions, which has been bringing tourists to Antarctica since the mid-1960s. Skog has been coming here for nearly 40 years. We spoke on the bridge of his ship at Pt. Lockroy, the former British refuge hut known as “Camp A.”
For him, the biggest change has been the weather, specifically the wind. Or lack of it. “We used to get katabatic winds roaring down off the glaciers every three days or so. Gusts of over 100 miles per hour. We prepared for them, worried about them constantly. Now…we never see winds like that.” Changing weather patterns influenced by warming temperatures—and the lack of sea ice—makes perfect sense for what we’ve witnessed this season.
As we sail the Pelagic Australis to safety, slowly pushing through the still-thick, slushy ice toward the backside of the beautiful Lemaire Channel, standing outside in blowing snow and cold, Skip and I talk about just what an incredible part of the world Antarctica is. We drift past a sizable iceberg we had lingered near earlier in the morning, under far different conditions.
Reminding us that every day—every hour—is different in Antarctica. Make that every 15 minutes.
Port Lockroy — If there is a human population center along the Antarctic Peninsula, this is it. While there may be hundreds of thousands of penguins, tens of thousands of seals, whales and sea birds that call this remote stretch home, few people do.
But at the height of the austral summer season — December-February — more people congregate in the protected harbor here at the former ‘Camp A’ of the British Antarctic Survey than anywhere else for many thousands of miles, if temporarily. (The next most populated place in Antarctica would be the American base at McMurdo, home to 1,200 scientists and support crew during the summer months, but located on the opposite side of the continent.)
The former refuge hut has been turned into a mini-museum and gift shop, demanding a mostly volunteer staff to run it and keep the small island relatively tidy (it is surrounded by breeding Gentoo penguins, everywhere …) for the tourist boats that arrive, often twice a day.
When we go ashore at Goudier Island we find an all-women staff of four plus a visiting guide from one of the tourist ships who’s spending ten days here helping out. The two men are here temporarily, installing video cameras around the hut so the penguin colonies can be monitored remotely during the eight months no humans live here.
I had a slightly selfish interest for pulling into Lockroy; a pair of kayaks I’d asked to be dropped off by the National Geographic Explorer had been stashed alongside the residents’ Quonset hut a few weeks ago. We find them, bright red and yellow polyeurethane wrapped in plastic badly deteriorated by the ozone-free sun that shines brightly here during the summer thanks to the still-present hole in the atmosphere that grows over the deep, deep south this time of year.
The even-more-temporary residents of Lockroy are those that arrive by private sailboat, a growing phenomenon, seeking well-known shelter from Antarctica’s fiercest winds. Twenty years ago, it would be rare to see a sailboat here, maybe one or two during a complete summer season. Today there are almost always five or six boats at anchor in this bay alone.
Skip Novak, the owner of the Pelagic Australis that I’ve chartered, has been coming to the Peninsula by small boat since 1988 and is one of a the charter members in a very small (3 or 4?) club of pioneers. He is on board with us and regales us nightly with stories of those early days when they used to tap into the fuel deposits left behind at abandoned science bases, debauched nights in Ushuaia’s lone strip club (the Tropicana, still there) at trip’s end and the always odd and colorful characters who initially came here in small boats against the advice of virtually everyone.
We anchor at Lockroy for three nights, filming in the iceberg-studded bays nearby, diving under icebergs and photographing the whalebones left on the sea floor by rapacious oil barons of a century ago. During those days a half-dozen sailboats anchor nearby:
An Italian couple on their private boat pull in, crewed by a staff of six sailors. The report from its skipper, who used to work for Skip, is that they are already bored by the penguins and ice and will most likely cut an anticipated 30 day trip short by two weeks. A Brit in a plastic sailboat carrying four friends comes and goes from the anchorage on day trips. Daily they return with a slightly fearful look in their eye and worried tone in their details; their boat is certainly not cut out for bashing through ice and this season there is a lot of still-frozen sea ice out there in the passes.
Another small plastic boat, the Paradise, operates out of Ushuaia and specializes in bringing (mostly French) climbers to the Peninsula. In my 20 years coming to this part of the world, on top of the general tourist boom the biggest change has been that the adventuring crowd has finally found ways of getting here. The result is lots of skiers and climbers are chartering small boats and spending their days exploring new peaks and routes. While most of the biggest mountains along the Peninsula have been previously climbed (the tallest is Mt. Francais, at nearly 9,256 feet) there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of smaller ones no one has ever stood atop or ski traversed.
But the number of sailboats we see is down from a few years ago; then we pulled into Lockroy and there were ten boats. Similarly general tourist visits are down; four years ago Lockroy had a record 18,000 visitors by cruise boats, this year they anticipate 13,000. The record high for visitors to the Peninsula was more than 35,000 in 2008; this year it will be just over 20,000. Global economic woes are an explanation for the drop, as is the elimination of most of the giant cruise boat visits thanks to a change in law ruling out the heavy fuels they use from operating along the Peninsula.
One boat we’re keeping our eyes out for left Ushuaia a couple days before we did, stacked with nine British special forces soldiers down here for “drills.” We’d run into a similar group a few years ago — similarly 8 men and 1 woman — and they’d welcomed us into various anchorages along the Peninsula with bagpipes, proper British tea and good Scotch.
More traditionally for Antarctica we meet up with a handful of boats being run by second-generation sailors, who have inherited a passion for the place by essentially growing up here … both a job and lineage no one could have imagined just fifty years ago when the international treaty that governs the continent was written. The word “tourism” is never mentioned in that original agreement.
Paradise Harbor — Its common knowledge among Antarctic veterans that no two days here look or feel alike. Ever.
The reality is that no quarter hour looks alike. Or can be predicted, no matter how many months or years you’ve spent here.
We spent the night in a small, protected bay about 400 miles down the coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula. The tricky thing about sailing a small yacht here (the aluminum-hulled Pelagic Australis is 74 feet) is that there are very few truly protected anchorages; it reminds me often of the coast of Maine, with its thousands of small islands, where finding safe haven is often similarly dodgy. Here the combination of rapidly changing winds and weather mean that even when you’ve securely tied off bow and stern to rocks with a pair of heavy metal lines at each end, there is no certainty that you’ll really be safe through the night.
The biggest threat, of course, is ice. A big wind comes up, a seemingly protected bay can fill with icebergs big and small, and any sailboat can be locked in within an hour, unable to move until the ice blows out again. Which might be an hour, or days.
(While most of the private boats that sail to Antarctica are aluminum or steel-hulled, as it becomes an increasingly popular destination for adventurous yachties, the greater number of plastic, even the occasional fiberglass boat, show up here, more greatly threatened by sharp-edged ice.)
This morning we are lucky; there’s no ice in the bay when we awake. We are even luckier to spend the entire day just half a mile from where we slept, hiking, sailing and filming the rare beauty of Antarctica as it changes, seemingly by the minute.
Steel gray skies turn bright blue. High white clouds skid across the horizon, then disappear. Brash ice — small bits of broken-up sea ice — turn the ocean surface into what resembles a giant frozen margarita. One by one a handful of icebergs the size of small houses float into the bay, pause, circle, then continue on, pushed slowly to the north by winds and current.
From up high looking down, whether perched on the spreader 30 feet above the Pelagic’s deck, or standing atop one of the 100 foot tall glaciers rimming the shallow U-shaped Skontorp Cove — named for Edvard Skontorp, described as an “outstanding” Norwegian whale gunner — the scene is otherworldly: Ice moving in and out, winds picking up then calming, high clouds casting shadows on the sunlit, black Southern Ocean.
Since the rain that haunted us the first few days of this exploration have stopped, on a day like this it’s easy to be reminded of how privileged we are to see this remote corner of the planet. Its also a good reminder of just how relevant the them of change — the subject of the film we’re shooting here, Wild Antarctica 3D — is to this place. Ice comes and goes, sea and air temperatures change, species are threatened, and every day the changing weather is the primary topic of conversation.
Mid-afternoon I jump in a Zodiac with Graham Charles, my Kiwi friend who knows this coastline as well as anyone, and we take a long, slow ride along the glacier’s edge.
We purposely stay a safe distance away from the towering ice. Those who know Antarctic best are the ones who respect its threats most, including its 29-degree waters but particularly its ice. Only the foolhardy pull cowboy acts here — like lingering too close to glacier walls or attempting to thread through tempting arches carved in icebergs — given the harsh penalty to be paid if you misjudge.
It is a warmish day, just above freezing, and the sun has been heating up the exterior of the glacier all day, making it more vulnerable to calving. When big chunks fall off it into the sea it’s like bags of cement being tossed in, sending waves and spray rolling. When a section of wall collapses it’s like a mini-tsunami.
Just as we pass a particularly sculptured wall, sure enough, a 30-foot wide section atop the glacier wall gives out a few warning groans and then drops into the ocean. It slides at first, then seems to explode. Watching over our shoulders, the engine on full throttle, six-foot waves chase us but do not catch up. Skidding the boat onto smooth waters we put it in neutral and watch as Antarctica continues to change all around us.
We woke tied-off to the rusted hulk of a half-sunken Norwegian whaling ship. Its story is legend along the Peninsula for having caught fire a century ago during a sail-away party, its stores of whale oil afire lighting up the sky for several days. Now it is just another ruined reminder of those boom days when Antarctica’s whales were one of the world’s biggest producers of oil for lighting and heat.
Today is one of those days down here that you wish you could be sitting by some kind of warm fire, whether in the comfort of your living room or a preferably a bonfire. At eight this morning it is thirty-four degrees and raining, conditions which began yesterday and promise to be with us for at least two more. Thanks to satellite imagery we are able to track the weather up to five days in advance, more or less; at the very least we know when high and low pressure systems are on the way and from what direction to expect the winds.
Loading into a hypalon Zodiac — Graham Charles, an old friend of mine and great Kiwi explorer, Skip Novak, a longtime sail racer and owner of the “Pelagic Australis” that sailed us to Antarctica and myself — round the southwestern edge of Enterprise Island to have a look at the art show of grounded icebergs that gather in the relatively shallow waters each summer season.
We are not disappointed. Twenty and thirty foot tall icebergs litter the alley. One has a pair of small arches carved through it by wind and waves. Another has a sheer wall, like smooth granite, rising straight out of the cold sea. Another is ridged by undulations carved into its underside over many years before it rolled onto its side.
Graham, who has kayaked the length of the Peninsula and works every season as an expedition leader aboard one of the 30+ tourist ships that come south each season, is almost apologetic for the rain and gray. “It’s so unusual these days to see so many back to back days without sun. We’ve gotten spoiled by weeks recently where there’s been nothing but blue sky and glassy seas.”
Skip, who first sailed to Antarctica in the early 1980s and is one of a small handful of charter boat captains whose boats have returned each season since, agrees. “But even when you say that, I think back to conditions twenty years ago when we had far more wind. And back then, every morning you’d wake up to snow on the boat, which we almost never see now. It’s simply too warm to snow.”
Perhaps the most beautiful part of Antarctica, even on a gray, misty day, is just how much it changes from year to year. I’ve been to this corner of Enterprise more than a dozen times and the ice that surrounds it changes every 15 minutes. Sometimes by the light glancing off it or, like today, the mist that envelops it, or the wind and waves moving it up and down, from side to side, threatening to flip it onto its side.
Without question the biggest change to come to the Peninsula in my 20 years of experience down here is the weather. Today during the austral summer, November to February, each year is warmer and wetter. It’s not just my imagination: Data collected at the various science bases along this stretch of the continent detail that air and sea temperatures have risen dramatically in the past 40 years. During the summer, average temps have risen up 5 to 10 degrees F; year round, the average temps along the Peninsula, including during its long, cold, dark winters, have raised by up to 18 degrees.
The warmer conditions are relevant to us because they deliver more precipitation, i.e. rain. Our hope is that this will be a summer filled with many clear days, in large part because we’re trying to capture Antarctica in 3D … and we don’t want the audience to come away thinking the place is only gray, misty and wet.
Conditions have been making filming tricky during these early days of our exploration. A drop of snow or salty sea spray on the 18” mirror or one of two camera lenses on the Epic 3D rig means lots of stopping and starting, stopping and starting. The result is long days and lots of waiting.
But the delays are worth it. The beauty down here is that when the sun does shine it’s like watching a Disney film on hallucinogens, surrounded everywhere you look by ice in its thousands of forms.
The black volcanic sand beach carries a heavy history, of an efficient if somewhat desperate past, in evidence from the cemetery where British whalers are buried to the abandoned and rusted pumps and storage tanks that line the shore, once filled with the oil of thousands of whales killed here each during a 25 year run.
From 1904 to 1931 this bay was home to one of the Southern Ocean’s boomtowns. As many as 15 big processing boats and another 35 “catcher” boats worked this beach at one time, most from Norway and the U.K.
With a sun rare for this island south of the South Shetlands lighting up the beach we moved up and down it not with giant tools for skinning whales but giant cameras for documenting the falling down boomtown. Rusting tanks that once held whale oil, collapsed dormitories that once housed men and wooden whaleboats buried up to their gunnels by blown sand are the subject. It is rare today that a whale ventures into the caldera, but just before entering through Neptune’s Bellows a trio of humpbacks had blown in the near-distance.
One thing we know for certain is that the sun won’t last. My hope is to make a landing the next day on the exterior of the island, at a beach known as Baily Head. Though it is just around the corner from the interior of the caldera, and we could hike to it in two hours, the preference would be to land by Zodiac on its steep beach.
How steep? It typically shuts out three of four attempts … and those are in big robust, hard-bottomed Zodiacs, not the more pliable nine-footer we will use.
Dump the Zodiac as we landed here, and there goes the film, on Day 2.
It’s the confidence of my Kiwi compatriot Graham Charles, who knows the coastline of the Peninsula as well as anyone, that is our ace in the hole. Sent to scout the beach just after 7 a.m. he returned with a thumbs up — or maybe it was a shrug of the shoulders, it’s hard to tell when we’re all dressed in six layers — but his message was that right now, it was calm enough to land. The worst case was that we could land by shore and have to hike ourselves and gear to the other side to get off the island.
One, then two and three runs were made with success and during the next two hours as we assembled the 3D camera in a growing wind on the cusp of the beach, observed by several thousand chinstrap penguins, the seas rose quickly and were soon crashing onto the shore. If we’d arrived an hour later, we’d have never been able to land.
The reason to make the effort to reach Baily Head are those thousands of chinstraps that trudge up and down in a continuous file ten to twenty abreast from high in the amphitheater behind to plunge into the cold Southern Ocean for a day of feeding. They line up on the beach, assess the surf, count the sets and then — often hesitantly, sometimes with a stutter step — dive or are swept in.
Landing for them can be even trickier; from a distance you can see them coming — 40 to 100 at a time, porpoising out of the sea, headed for the beach — and then surfing, or being slammed, onto the black sand.
Leaning into the sensitive camera to keep it upright, wrapping it in space blankets and plastic sheeting to protect it from the wet, we watch the scene for several hours in the admittedly freezing wet and cold — 32 degrees with a wet blowing wind and cold spray off the ocean.
The hike with gear to the top of the 500-foot ridge in the now-grassy and muddy bowl that is home to nearly 200,000 birds was easier than we expected and after shooting atop the beautiful ridge for several more hours, by five p.m. we were clambering down the backside towards a small black sand beach.
As we hiked down, a single file line of dutiful penguins, their bellies stuffed with fish and krill, headed back to their nests, most now featuring two fuzzy gray chicks.
Ever since sailing men first proved the world was not flat they have been cursing the weather conditions at Cape Horn and the Drake Passage that lies below, separating South America from Antarctica.
Everyone from Sir Francis Drake, for whom the windy passage is named, to Captain Bligh, who fought into the winds for 100 days before giving in, turning around and sailing to Tahiti the long way, no one in their right mind has looked forward to these seas.
Pelagic / Chilean Base
I’ve crossed the Drake a couple dozen times now and include myself on the long list of those who live with a mild and constant dread of the place. Whether leaving from the southern Chilean ports of Punta Arenas or Puerto Williams, or Ushuaia in Argentina — from which most of the 30-odd tourist ships that carry visitors to the Antarctic Peninsula each austral summer leave from — in the days leading up to each of the crossings my fingers are tightly locked for many days in advance, praying for calm seas.
This time out was no different. We were set to leave aboard the 74-foot “Pelagic Australis” from a dock lined with expedition yachts on January 2 and the five-day outlook was for incredibly light winds and … calm seas. If that luck held, it looked like we’d make what we anticipated to be a three-day crossing in good time, with little turbulence.
Unfortunately our luck did not hold. Delayed waiting for an underwater housing for our 3D cameras, which never arrived and as far as I know is still stuck in customs in Buenos Aires, we finally sailed away from Ushuaia at midday on January 4 in 45 mile per hour gusts. Just minutes later they closed the port due to strong winds.
That luck — bad luck — managed to hang in for the next four days, as we were bucked by strong easterly winds pushing us far off our hoped-for course of due south to Deception Island. Instead we were forced to tack far to the east to avoid sailing directly into the wind, taking us slightly out of our way to the eastern edge of the South Shetland Islands. When we finally turned the corner around the Shetlands at King George Island, we had to lower the sails and motor face-on into a pounding wind and sea, making less than four miles an hour.
At 7 a.m. on the 8th we finally sailed into the caldera of Deception Island, wearied by a trip that had taken about 24 hours longer than it should have.
I had chartered the “Pelagic Australis” four years ago for a similar exploration; the crew this time around has some overlap: my friends and expedition partners Sean Farrell and Graham Charles were with me then, as was Skip Novak, who owns the “Pelagic.” But the camera crew has changed, to include 3D experts Ken Corben, Bob Cranston and Johnny Friday.
During the four days of bashing our way across the Drake it was easy to lose focus on why we were headed to the Antarctic Peninsula in the first place. But as a rare sun came out over Whaler’s Bay at Deception Island — lighting up the long, black volcanic sand beach that a century ago was home to one of the most efficient whaling operations the world has ever known — it was easy to put the seasick pills away, crawl out of our bunks and start pulling camera gear out of the holds below.
“Wild Antarctica 3D” is my first entry into the growing genre. The film industry, pushed by coalitions of heavyweight broadcasters and theater owners around the world, are gambling that 3D’s time has finally arrived and are demanding more and more high-level content. For me, being able to bring the Antarctic Peninsula, which I’ve been visiting the past two decades, initially into theaters in museums and science institutions all the better. I can already see penguins and icebergs jumping off the screen and into people’s laps.
Like much of my writing and filmmaking about Antarctica in recent years this film will ultimately be about Antarctica’s ice, specifically how it is changing.
Despite that the southern continent is covered in some places by nearly three miles of ice, along the Peninsula each summer for the past four decades its ice edges have been being degraded thanks to warming air and sea temperatures. Stepping onto the rare, sunshine-filled beach at Deception Island we were reminded that many things change here, and fast.