Quark Expeditions reported at 18:00 yesterday that its “Ocean Nova” had floated free of the rocks. Today it is heading up the Antarctic Peninsula, back to Ushuaia, Argentina though minus its passengers and crew, which were offloaded to the “Clipper Adventurer” earlier in the day yesterday … just to be safe.
Quark reports no tear in the ship’s hull, thus no leakage, which is a good thing. And lucky. According to Quark president Patrick Shaw: “We are grateful that no environmental damage occurred and that all travelers who were aboard Ocean Nova are safe.”
What I noticed yesterday when news of the grounding raced around the world – it’s incredible how fast news of tragedy moves these days, even from the planet’s most remote corners – was a definite decrease in appetite for another Antarctic accident. When the “Explorer” sank in November 2007, it was a very big deal to the world’s media. When the “Ushuaia” went aground in December 2008, it was again a big deal … I think because most of the media world assumed it would lead to another sinking. With the “Ocean Nova” there was a burst of interest, but now the media understands the difference between a grounded and a sinking vessel and there was a bit of a ho-hum emitted.
Which is concerning. I hope it’s not soon taken for granted that accidents in Antarctica are common place, thus less newsworthy. The reality is that each season there are more and more accidents – tourist ships hitting ice, rocks, etc. – and they need to be reported. My concern now, given the frequency of accidents along the Peninsula, is that in the very near future the only accidents in Antarctica to be deemed newsworthy are if there is a sizable leak, a sinking, a loss of life. All of which would be tragic for this still-pristine place.
One word of self-promotion in regard to the Antarctic Peninsula, “Paddler” has just published a very beautiful story drawn from our expedition last year by sea kayak, sailboat, foot and small plane. On the newsstands now!
The M/V “Ocean Nova,” operated by Connecticut-based Quark Expeditions, has been stuck on the rocks in Marguerite Bay for more than 24 hours. For the time being, the ship is not leaking oil and its captain is hoping it tides will lift it off the rocks. But having been in Marguerite Bay twice this past December, and seeing photographs of how the boat is lodged, it would appear he’s going to have to depend on unusually high tides to float the ship.
The ship apparently ran into trouble due to high winds, not unusual more than one hundred miles south of the Antarctic Circle. According to Quark, the 64 passengers and 41 crew are “following a normal programme of lectures” while the ship is stuck. They are awaiting arrival of the Spanish Naval ship “Hespedrides” and another Quark passenger ship, the “Clipper Adventurer.” If the ship cannot be unlodged, passengers will be transferred to the “Adventurer.” [14:00 EST, ALL PASSENGERS HAVE BEEN PUT ONTO THE "CLIPPER ADVENTURE," WHICH WILL SAIL FOR USHUAIA, ARGENTINA. DIVERS HAVE INSPECTED THE STILL-STUCK "OCEAN NOVA" AND ARE REPORTING NO LEAKING.]
In early December I was fifteen miles from the site of another Antarctic grounding, the M/V “Ushuaia,” which rested on the rocks for a couple days before being dragged off by a Chilean naval ship. It ultimately limped back to dry dock in Punta Arenas, Chile, its season cut in half.
It has been a rough season for Quark-chartered Antarctic ships. Earlier in the season the “Lyubov Orlova” – which the company was chartering for the season – was held at the dock in Ushuaia for several weeks by Argentine port authorities for failing inspection. Its passengers were either sent home or placed on other Antarctic-bound tourist ships.
Though overall tourist visits to the Antarctic Peninsula are down, probably due to sour economic times worlwide, there will still have been 40,000+ during the 2008-2009 season. More demand combined with less ice means more visits and more statistical risk of accident. Tour operators contend that it is still a small number, which is true relative to how many people visit a national park in the U.S. on any given summer day. But the consequences down south are potentially severe. If any of the ships currently plying the Peninsula were to run aground and sink – which the “Ocean Nova” could still do – it would leave behind a very tangible, and very difficult to monitor or clean-up, mess.
On another amazingly warm blue-sky day I’m standing on a low hill looking out over Neko Harbor. Across a narrow bay is a wall of glaciers, behind me is soft hills covered by deep snow. In the far distance in three directions are long lines of tall mountains covered by snow and ice, some of it tens of thousands of years old. Just a few slivers of hard, dark granite peek out, reminding me there is land – a continent! – beneath all of this white. (At Vostok, a Russian base on the eastern side of Antarctica, scientists have measured the ice to be 14,000 feet thick, nearly three miles.)
It is hard to imagine this place without ice and snow, but of course it has been. Roughly 125 million years ago what we know as South America and Africa began to separate; then, the Antarctic Peninsula where I stand was still connected to South America. From 38 to 29 million years ago the Antarctic continent moved south. During that Cretaceous period, circa 144 to 65 million years ago, the continent was covered by forest, including tree ferns, cycads, palms, conifers and deciduous trees, and was home to freshwater fish, dinosaurs, reptiles and the predecessors of the penguins we see here now, though they were somewhat different. In that they were the size of an average man and weighed 300 pounds.
The continent has frozen and thawed since, but has been completely covered by ice and snow since the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago. Today, even at the height of summer, only two percent of Antarctica is ice-free; the continent contains 75 percent of the fresh water on earth.
It is clear the Peninsula is evolving, changing … warming. Analysis suggests the rapidity of warming in the northern Peninsula is unmatched over the last 2,000 years. Temperatures along the Peninsula during summer have climbed on average five degrees in the past 50 years; its average winter temperatures have risen by ten degrees, twice as fast as anywhere on Earth in the past century.
If even a small part of the Ice Cap were to melt, world sea levels would rise from several feet to several yards, inundating most coasts. If the whole Ice cap were to melt, as it has in past ages, sea levels around the world would rise an estimated 260 feet, destroying a number of low-lying countries. Since sea levels have risen only 8.6 inches in the past century, the three-foot rise projected by the year 2080 is serious. Many millions will become refugees, depopulating the long U.s. coasts up to 50 miles inland, including all of southern Florida and the Mississippi Delta, also much of Bangladesh, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, the coasts of Africa and innumerable Pacific atolls.
Antarctica without snow and ice? Seems impossible, right? Here’s what the continent would look like without ice. It has been weighed down by heavy ice for so long that part of it is submerged. They would gradually climb back above sea level if free of ice, though that would take tens – hundreds? – of thousands of years.
What Antarctica would look like without ice
The continent that lays beneath, much of it now submerged due to the weight of the ice
Photos, Fiona Stewart
After spending several days hiding out in a protected bay in the South Shetland Islands – one hundred miles off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula – the wounded ship M/V Ushuaia, run aground along the Peninsula ten days ago, is reported to have safely crossed the Drake Passage under her own power and is headed for dry dock and repairs in Punta Arenas.
Today’s report says there was no evidence of a continued leak from its damaged hull as it sailed. Antarpply Expeditions, the owner of the ship, insists the Ushuaia will be ready to continue its Antarctic season as early as December 28, January 7 at the latest. That, of course, depends on the severity of the damage caused when the ship ran on the rocks near Wilhelmina Bay. Updates to follow … thanks to our friends at IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) for the heads up.
It is impossible to come to Antarctica and not be possessed by the ice, simply because it is everywhere.
The continent is covered in places by two to three miles of ice, so heavy it has submerged the land beneath below the surface of the ocean. In its ice Antarctica contains seventy-five percent of the fresh water on the planet. The freezing of the sea that surrounds Antarctica is the greatest seasonal change on the planet. At the height of winter (June-July-August), the sea around the continent freezes at an unbelievable rate – advancing two miles a day, creating more than 40,000 square miles each day. By mid-winter seven million square miles of sea has frozen around the continent, doubling its size (you could fit two of the United States inside).
Come spring much of that frozen sea breaks off, drifts away, blows into warmer waters and melts. Yet still, at the height of summer (January), just a few weeks from now, only two percent of the continent is ice-free.
Unlike the one hundred words for snow allegedly used by the Eskimos, there is only one word for frozen water down here: ICE. But of course there are thirty to forty different variations. A few that you may hear me reference in coming weeks: Sea ice is frozen salt water, flat and floating on the water’s surface. Fast Ice or Shore-Fast Ice is the frozen sea that remains attached to land; it can be walked on, usually safely, which I’m sure we’ll do in the coming weeks. Ice Floes are flat pieces of sea ice sixty or more feet in diameter, broken up by the action of wind and ocean swells. Pack Ice is an expanse of broken sea ice or ice floes that have been pushed together by winds and currents. Pancake Ice is roundish plates of ice, usually just ten to fifteen in diameter, found in the early stages of the freezing of the sea.
When it comes to fresh water ice, which comes off the continent, there are glaciers, which is ice flowing downhill, moving under the influence of gravity and creating great tongues running straight down to the water’s edge. A tabular iceberg is big and flat-topped and has broken straight off the ice shelf, which is created by fresh water flowing into a protected bay. An iceberg can range in size but is usually more than fifteen feet tall; by comparison, bergey bits and growlers are smaller pieces of floating ice. Brash ice, which we’ve seen a lot of already, are the chunky/junky remnants of all of the above, floating on the surface, looking like it’s been run through a blender.
Chilean Naval ship Lautauro, accompanying the damaged tourist ship M/V Ushuaia
Two nights ago, across the Gerlache Strait cloaked in dense fog we saw the surreal sight of the M/V Ushuaia moving southwards, attached to the Chilean Naval ship Lautaro. We guessed they were pumping fuel from the injured tourist ship into the reserves of the Navy ship, just in case it was still leaking. We also assumed they were looking for a calm hideaway where they could properly inspect the ship before attempting to motor back to South America.
In fact, they headed into the northern end of Paradise Harbor, where we had spent an earlier part of the day, so that Navy divers could inspect the hull. Too much ice prevented them from staying, instead anchoring off Waterboat Point, near the Chilean station called Presidente Gonzalez Videla. Apparently, according to my friends at IAATO, the private organization that oversees and coordinates all tourist traffic along the Peninsula, the hole in the hull was not sufficient to stop the boat, nor was it leaking any longer. Released by the Chilean Navy, the M/V Ushuaia should by now have arrived under its own power at a protected anchorage in the South Shetland Islands, where it will consider its next move – returning to Argentina on its own, perhaps being accompanied, or even towed.
I spent the afternoon at the small island of Pt. Lockroy, where I’ve been many times before. We stopped in a couple times last January, during our sea kayak exploration, and hung out on the beaches and its protected bay. When we left Antarctica late that month, we actually left our kayaks tied down to big rocks on the island; they were picked up in February by the “National Geographic Endeavour” and carried back to Spain; from there they were shipped in a container to the U.S. and now sit happily in my Hudson Valley backyard.
Rick Atkinson, a Scotsman who first came to Antarctica more than thirty years ago as a 21-year-old dog sled driver for the British Antarctic Survey, greeted us on the penguin-crowded stone beach. The black and red refuge hut on the hill behind is surrounded by Gentoos (and an oddly out of place pair of Adelie penguins). An overpowering whiff of guano fills my nostrils … Aaaaah, Antarctica! Like the station at Vernadsky, the hut is surrounded by still-deep snow.
British Historic Site, Port Lockroy
He’s been coming here for thirteen years and has done and overseen the renovations during that period that have turned the hut into a British historical site. Part museum, part souvenir shop, Pt. Lockroy is today a must-stop along the Peninsula both for its recreation of life and work here fifty years ago, and also to stock up on Antarctica books, t-shirts, stickers and stuffed penguins. It’s an admittedly odd thing to stumble upon here in this remote place. But Rick and his three assistants wear their work with a smile, greeting on average one tourist ship a day, often hosting more than three hundred people in and out of their tiny work/living space.
It was with Rick last January that we endured one thing we’d never expected in Antarctica: Horrific rains. We sat inside the hut then and watched the rain pour in buckets off the roof, soaking the penguin chicks still-covered in down. “That was the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he remembers. “But given that we’ve just experienced another very warm winter, I won’t be surprised if we see it again this year. Every year, it seems, there’s more and more rain at Lockroy.”
He and his team have been here a month and will stay until early March. Recording tools left on in the hut over-winter suggest the temperatures only dropped to -12, which for Antarctica, even inside the small, unheated cabin, suggests more warming.
We leave Rick some fresh water, baking soda and peppermint tea, assuming we’ll see him again during the next couple of weeks.
• Last evening, just after six p.m., in the southern end of the Gerlache Strait we spied the M/V Ushuaia moving southwards. She was side-by-side with and physically tied to the Chilean Navy ship, which had helped her get off the rocks earlier in the day. Our guess is that they are pumping as much of the fuel that they can out of the ship, to prevent any more leaking. The bigger question was where were they headed? Most likely to a calm bay nearby where damage can be assessed and, hopefully, repaired, before motoring back to South America. There is precedent for this; in 1979, the old “Explorer,” which we watched sink last November, wound up on the rocks, with a giant gash torn in its hull. It hid out near Cape Arctowski for a month, before it was sufficiently fixed and capable of being towed across the Drake Passage.
• Another small accident along the Peninsula last week has sent television host Bear Grylls limping back across the Drake as well. Apparently down here participating in some kind of land-based expedition – an “Ethanol Ventures trip, promoting alternative energies?” is what the press release says – he fell and injured his shoulder. The Discovery Channel, which airs his “Man vs. Wild” show, was quick to point out he wasn’t filming for them in Antarctica. He was lucky to hang onto his job last year when he was outed for sleeping in motels while pretending to sleep in snow caves, etc.