An Antarctic Adventure, by Ted Cookson

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AN ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE
by Ted Cookson
Published in March 2013
Half Moon Island in Antarctica's South Shetland Islands, 45-second video clip
Half Moon Island, 32-second video clip
Heading ashore in a Zodiac to Half Moon Island, 32-second video clip
Barbara stepping ashore at Half Moon Island, 20-second video clip
Fur seals on Half Moon Island, 32-second video clip

Gentoo penguin walking at Neko Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula, 30-second video clip
Gentoo penguin considering a swim at Neko Harbor, 31-second video clip
Gentoo penguins at water's edge at Neko Harbor, 30-second video clip
Gentoo penguin mother and baby penguin at rock nest at Neko Harbor, 11-second video clip
Tourist photographs gentoo penguin at Neko Harbor , 25-second video clip

Gentoo penguin feeds chick #1, 43-second video clip
Gentoo penguin feeds chick #2, 83-second video clip
Gentoo penguin with chicks and threatening skua, 71-second video clip

 

Although Antarctica is a “bucket list” destination for many people, during the 2011-2012 Southern Hemisphere summer season only 22,122 tourists landed on this coldest and driest of the seven continents and a mere 4,387 others visited via air or on cruise ships but never landed.  Therefore, on any given day during the four-month austral summer travel window, one would have expected there to be, on average, fewer than 225 tourists on, near or above the entire unpopulated continent.

Our own nine-day round trip cruise in late February to the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city, was undertaken on Corinthian II, a comfortable, 90.5-meter-long (297-foot-long) expedition ship with a capacity of 114 passengers.  As it turned out, our sailing was only 70% full, with 79 passengers aboard ranging in age from 12 to 89. 

It took two days in each direction to cross the 885-kilometre-wide (550-mile-wide) Drake Passage which separates the southern tip of South America from the Antarctic Peninsula.  En route we crossed through the Antarctic Convergence where warmer northern waters mix with the colder Southern Ocean, thus stimulating the development of plankton, the basic nutrient building block of the oceanic food chain.

During our Antarctic cruise both minke and humpback whales were sighted plus five seal species:  Antarctic fur seals, southern elephant seals, Weddell seals, leopard seals and crabeater seals.  The bird life encountered included various species of albatrosses, gulls, petrels, shags, skuas and terns as well as fulmar, prion, shearwater and sheathbill.  Most importantly, we saw many chinstrap and gentoo penguins but less than a handful of adelie penguins. 

Eight landings were made in Antarctica over the course of five days.  In addition, on two occasions we explored the frigid southern waters in Zodiacs.  The use of these extremely-maneuverable motorized rubber vehicles allowed us to swerve between and around spectacular icebergs with fantastic shapes and hues and to photograph breaching whales, cavorting seals and noisy seabirds.  Two of our landings were on the continent itself while the other six were made on various islands lying off the mountainous Antarctic Peninsula.  Two of the most memorable landings were at a British and a U. S. base. 

On the afternoon of our second day in Antarctica we toured Bransfield House on Goudier Island.  Port Lockroy, known during World War II as Base A, had been established at this location in 1944 to gather intelligence on enemy activity and to provide weather data.  Following the war the place morphed into a scientific base operated by the British Antarctic Survey.  Undertaking ionospheric research for the most part, this base was especially active during International Geophysical Year in 1957-1958.  However, the base fell into disrepair after its closing in 1962.  Then, following renovation by the U. K. Antarctic Heritage Trust in 1994, the structure was designated a historical monument under the Antarctic Treaty.

Currently a staff of four manages an extensive gift shop, museum and post office at Bransfield House during the austral summer.  Revenues from these activities go to support the maintenance of the base.  An environmental program there also monitors the disturbance caused to gentoo penguin breeding by man.  Interestingly, the presence of tourists appears to be beneficial to gentoos as humans interfere with predation on penguin eggs and chicks by skuas!   

After our visit ashore, the staff of Bransfield House came aboard our cruise ship to speak on the history of the area and to enjoy both dinner and hot showers.  Since there is no shower installed at the base, the four volunteers must rely on the hospitality of cruise ships in order to obtain an occasional warm rub-a-dub-dub. 


The following day we toured the much larger and vastly-different Palmer Station which is one of three Antarctic research stations operated by the U. S.  Although this base, built in 1968, can support up to 46 people, only 31 were in residence during our visit.  Research at Palmer is focused on long-term monitoring of the marine ecosystem and the effects of the ozone hole, which has allowed an increase in ultraviolet radiation.  A 2.78 C. (5 F.) increase in average temperature at Palmer over the past five decades has meant that today there is less sea ice and that local glaciers have receded.  Also, the cold-weather-loving adelie penguins which were once prevalent near the base have now been replaced by the warmer-weather-loving gentoos and chinstraps.  On the lighter side, I’ll never forget the excellent, rich brownies served there nor the well-stocked gift shop which was opened for our visit.

 

A cruise to Antarctica, the most pristine continent, is a dream come true for anyone interested in wildlife and nature.  If this is not on one’s “bucket list,” it should be.      

 

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 314 of the 319 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com
 

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