50-Foot Waves, the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica

(How did the two of us come to travel to Antarctica on a Russian oceanographic ship? What did we experience in the first two wild weeks of this adventure? For all the exciting photos and past installments, scroll down to earlier posts.)

Our new friend and shipmate Ruediger Loechner of Germany captured the feel of the awe-inspiring 50-foot waves, which towered over the ship. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

"THEY'RE NOW CALLING IT A CYCLONE," One Ocean Expeditions leader Boris Wise told our group of Antarctic voyagers during dinner on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov on November 12. "The winds are over 50 knots. We're heading right for the eye of it."

That's a cape petrel, our most common traveling companion as we neared Antarctica. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Almost two weeks into our multi-stop trip from the tip of South America to Antarctica organized by the great British zoologist, wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist Mark Carwardine, Pamelia and I were getting close to the vast white continent—and also close to a massive storm, the second big blow of our voyage. We were seeing the Southern Ocean at its classic best, meaning wildest, and none of the hearty souls on board the Sergey Vavilov was complaining. We all loved the adventure. 

Let me pause to offer these words of reassurance to any of you who may be intrigued by the idea of going to Antarctica but are seasickness-prone: I am too. I learned during this voyage to preload on Bonine motion-sickness tablets, stick to my bunk as much as possible in high waves and endure jolts of electricity on the underside of my wrist from an anti-seasickness wristband that helped me immensely. I never got seasick—just a little queasy—throughout as rough a voyage as any you'll experience. So don't be deterred.

For three more days we rode turbulent seas—50-foot waves that dwarfed the 30-foot giants we'd gone through earlier—but thanks to deft navigating by our Russian captain, we avoided worse.  At last we arrived at the South Shetland Islands, on Antarctica's doorstep. We now were in a world of icebergs. Pamelia was about to set foot on her seventh continent and I on my sixth.

From every angle the towers of blue ice looked different. Much of the ice was many thousands of years old, compressed to a density and hardness that were hard to imagine.

Because of continuing waves, winds and weather, we could not go ashore for a day, but took Zodiacs through the icy world near Turret Point on King George Island in the South Shetlands. I've put together two photo galleries below, one made up of Pamelia and my shots and one of photos taken by fellow voaygers Ruediger and Eva Loechner. (Thanks again, Ruediger and Eva.)

During  two Zodiac expeditions, wind, cold and sudden snow squalls were part of the iceberg-watching experience. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Once back on board the Sergey Vavliov, we caught sight of another in a succession of whales that we had seen. I believe this one was a humpback. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

photo by Ruediger Loechner

The next morning, November 14, we awoke to a 26-degree F air temperature, 30 mph winds and a 29-degree water temperature—the perfect Antarctic feeling for our expedition to Mikkelson Point, Antarctica. This would be the day Pamelia added her seventh continent. I'll let the photos below tell the story of yet another spectacular morning of exploration.

Pamelia was ready to go as we waited to board Zodiacs for the ride ashore at Mikkelsen Harbor. She had been hoping for decades for a chance to set foot on Antarctica.

The ride to Mikkelsen aboard Nate's Zodiac was bitterly cold, choppy...and spectacular. 

A lone Weddell Seal served as our Antarctic welcoming party. Weddells (named for British sealing captain James Weddell, who first saw them in the 1820s in the Antarctic waters now known as the Weddell Sea) have the most southerly distribution of any mammal. They're found only around Antarctica, and their range extends much farther south than the tip of the Antarctic peninsula, which we had reached.

I've mentioned how quickly and dramatically the weather can change in the Antarctic. Here at Mikkelsen it never stopped changing, from blowing snow to wild clouds to sun and back. The beauty was overwhelming.

The rolling terrain at Mikkelsen is home to breeding and nesting gentoo penguins, which were clustered in several spots.

As I've written previously, the 30-inch-tall gentoos are the third-biggest species of penguin after emperors and kings. They're long-tailed penguins closely related two other species that we would unexpectedly see at Mikkelsen in the hours ahead—chinstraps and Adelies; in the course of evolution their genus broke off from those of other penguins 38 million years ago.

As mentioned, the gentoos were mating. Gentoos lay two eggs, and males and females take turn (one per day) roosting on them for 34 to 36 days. 

Gentoos are quite vocal...

...and feisty.

Some of the gentoos already had laid eggs.

I saw only one, not two, in this nest. which may have been a sign that...

...a predatory skua might have stolen one. (photo by Ruedigger Loechner)

Pamelia later painted an ink study of this battle royal. Later I'll show you the time-lapse video she created while painting it. 

This was an emergency hut—the first we'd seen on our trip through thousands of almost completely human-free miles. That is an Argentinian flag painted on the side, a reflection of the closest neighbor on the South American continent. 

These are snowy sheathbills, scavengers that we had seen near several earlier penguin and seal breeding grounds. They'll eat anything from afterbirths to feces, which perhaps explains why they seem to spend so much time cleaning and grooming themselves. 

I love this shot Pamelia took of a swooping sheathbill.

Many of the sheathbills held one leg up to retain warmth in the frigid conditions. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Note the stunning bill and sheath. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

Surprise! Suddenly a lone chinstrap penguin was wandering around.

Surprise! Suddenly a lone chinstrap penguin was wandering around.

Chinstraps are slightly smaller than gentoos and loaded with personalty.

They have amazing-looking eyes.

The chinstrap and a gentoo passed each other without incident—or even acknowledgement.

And who's this? An Adelie penguin popped up next—also a loner. Adelies were first seen in 1840 by French Antarctic explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, whose wife was named Adelie. 

Adelies stand between 18 and 28 inches tall and have particularly long tails. Their numbers have been declining on the Antarctic peninsula (perhaps because of warming conditions and melting ice), but not (yet, anyway) in Antarctica as a whole.

You may have seen the horrific news story in February 2016 that 150,000 Adelies on Cape Denison in Antarctica had starved as a result of a giant iceberg that had floated in and blocked their access to the sea. The penguins had to make a 75-mile round trip on land to get food. The consequences of melting ice in the Antarctic could be dire for the planet as a whole, but sometimes they are localized, sudden and unforeseeable.

One of our new favorite birds became the blue-eyed shag, or cormorant. Pamelia took this amazing shot.

Our friend Ruediger matched that by capturing two of the blue-eyed shags in sync. Great shot. (photo by Ruediger Loechner)

As the morning began to wind down, we could see the Sergey Vavilov in the distance waiting for us.

We hiked back past the gentoo encampments.

As always, Charles Darwin was traveling with us and was exuberant about the naturalist discoveries he was making. He had become a regular on the ship and had even begun writing his own blog. Charles continues to explore the 21st century, and relive his life and career, as part of The Naturalist's Notebook team.

Pamelia took a shot of me with some of my gentoo penguin buddies. Neither of us could fully absorb the fact that we were standing in Antarctica, the last wild continent left on Earth.   

Pamelia took a shot of me with some of my gentoo penguin buddies. Neither of us could fully absorb the fact that we were standing in Antarctica, the last wild continent left on Earth.

 

STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT ANTARCTIC POST: We'll be taking you to Neko Harbor in Antarctica, our final stop on the continent before a voyage back to civilization through hurricane-force winds in the Drake Passage. Oh yeah. This story ain't over yet. —Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Stuck at Sea In the Antarctic With A Rescued Bird, A Paintbrush and a Stowaway

At 6 a.m. we had a problem. Waves and 45-mph winds were swaying our Russian science-research ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, as it cruised along the coast of South Georgia Island. Would our group of Antarctic expeditioners still go ashore by Zodiac at 7:30 a.m. as planned? Would we be able to explore yet another extraordinary part of South Georgia, the vast penguin and seal colony at Salisbury Plain?

Not on this day. The winds would soon top 50 knots (close to 60 mph), making Zodiac travel impossible. Instead, as the Vavliov searched without luck for a landing spot anywhere on South Georgia, we explored the Antarctic on board, through lectures, books, binoculars, conversations and, in Pamelia's case, art.  

So close yet so far: On a day of wild waves and constantly changing weather—including sideways-blowing snow and brief explosions of sunshine—we couldn't reach the spectacular South Georgia shores in front of us. 

The ever-fun One Oceans Expeditions team and trip organizer/zoologist/wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine had prepared us for high-wind days with a slide show earlier in the voyage. This was one of my favorite slides.

Even in rough conditions, our cabin window afforded Pamelia a good view for photographing birds and other sights.

Having passed the Antarctic Convergence (where cold and warm ocean waters collide and the Antarctic climate and ecosystems begin) we were seeing icebergs more regularly. They glowed blue from the light hitting an exceptionally clear, dense, air-bubble-less type of ice that absorbs every color of light except blue. It's air bubbles that make ice look white.

The ship brought us within sight of the abandoned Stromness whaling station. This is where the remarkable explorer Ernest Shackleton, desperate to find help for his stranded crew, arrived in May 1916 after surviving not only months with his ship locked in sea ice, but also a journey to desolate Elephant Island, an 800-mile open-water voyage to South Georgia in a lifeboat and finally a nonstop, last-ounce-of-energy crossing of the mountains shown here. We would be visiting Shackleton's grave soon. 

A few hearty souls ventured onto the bow during lulls in the winds.

This stranded-at-sea day had another surprise twist: Two stowaways were on the ship. One was in a cardboard box in a gear room on a lower deck. The other was our cabin, soon to be seasick. 

The stowaway in the box was a common diving petrel. The ship's ornithologist, Simon Boyes of One Ocean Expeditions, had found it during his daily check for any birds that had accidentally flown into or been blown into the Sergey Vavilov.

The petrel was not injured, just stunned. Whether he had been attracted by lights on the ship we couldn't know, but for days we had been required to darken all windows (and the ship had minimized its lights) to avoid just such an occurrence. Some of us gathered to watch as Simon released the fully revived bird—which would soon be back to its routine of diving up to 200 feet underwater to feed on crustaceans—early in the afternoon.

Simon Boyes held up the web-footed common diving petrel for all of us to see before releasing it from the side of the ship.

Just a handful of people on the Sergey Vavilov knew about the second stowaway. Pamelia and I had smuggled him on board in Ushuaia, Argentina, the day the trip began. Those who had seen him had reacted positively. "Good to know he's here," voyage organizer Mark Carwardine, the British zoologist and conservationist, had told us after meeting him. "We might call upon him if we need another after-dinner speaker one night."

The stowaway—whom One Ocean Expeditions trip leader Boris Wise referred to with a smile as "the ninety-ninth passenger"—was the fellow shown here:

Yes, Charles Darwin was on board.

Say what, you ask? History's greatest naturalist? The one who died in 1882? Well, nearly a year ago we brought Darwin back to life at The Naturalist's Notebook—see the Darwin Lives! header at the top of this page—and we have been traveling with him ever since. Taking him on this voyage made perfect sense because he had visited Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands in the 1830s while aboard the Beagle and both stops had helped him gather evidence that culminated in his world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.

Charles was so excited about revisiting parts of his Beagle route that (with some coaxing from us) he even began writing Charles Darwin's Blog (click on bold letters to read) at the start of this trip.

Here's Charles Darwin with us in May 2015 at his home, Down House, in England. This is the famous Sand Walk on which he took his daily strolls with his beloved dogs back in the 1800s. Darwin called it his "thinking path."

You'll see more of Darwin before the voyage is over, but for now I'll leave you with one image that illustrates how the great but seasickness-prone adventurer was feeling on this day:

As we rested with Darwin in our cabin, Pamelia took out her paint brush and inks and began a series of time-lapse penguin paintings, which some of you have heard about. For those of you who missed it, Pamelia began sketching penguins in order to get to know and identify them better. She held her pink iPhone in her left hand and taped time-lapse movies of herself painting with her right hand, all on a swaying ship. It was amazing to watch.

She said that the phone sometimes blocked her view as she was painting.

Check out the short video above to see her king penguin time-lapse, the second in her penguin series. We'll be posting others soon. If you missed the first time-lapse (painting a chinstrap penguin), scroll down and you'll find it. Or click on this link: https://youtu.be/8_0xjyI4sr4

In our cabin, the gallery of Pamelia's penguin and Falkland Island bird studies was growing. That large study in the middle was her second time-lapse attempt at a king penguin—and still she felt that she did not get it right. But that's why you do multiple studies.

For fun, Pamelia and I also made a 22-second time-lapse of activity in our cabin on this day at sea, below. Darwin's even in it (sort of)!

By early evening, the weather was looking more promising. The revised expedition forecast called for at least two landings, a big dose of history and wildlife galore on South Georgia Island the next morning. We Antarctic adventurers were back on track, and even Charles Darwin was feeling better.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Sunset over South Georgia Island.

Coming next: Whaling, rat patrols, rare ducks and 10 a.m. whiskey?

Eight Things to Do If You Hit 30-Foot Waves On the Way to Antarctica

Pamelia and I were heading for one of the wildest and most astounding places on the planet, an island "smack in the middle of nowhere," in the words of our Antarctic expedition organizer, the esteemed British zoologist, conservationist and wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine. 

He was speaking not of Antarctica—though he could have been—but of South Georgia Island, the breathtaking Serengeti of Antarctic wildlife. Small (100 miles long), rugged (11 mountains more than 6,500 feet tall, plus glaciers) and uninhabited (except for staff at two small science stations and a post office/museum/British government office located near an abandoned whaling station), South Georgia sits 750 miles from the nearest speck of civilization, the Falkland Islands and more than 1,000 miles from any continent. 

To reach South Georgia Island, our Russian oceanographic ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, would travel through 30-foot waves and cross one of the most distinct geographic and climatic boundaries on Earth, the Antarctic convergence. That's where warm ocean waters from the north collide with frigid waters from the bottom of the planet. Weather, animal life and scenery (here come the icebergs!) all abruptly change. It's where the Antarctic truly begins.

But we would not see South Georgia's snowy peaks and many thousands of penguins and seals for two to three days. What would we and our 90-odd fellow expeditioners do while our ship powered its way through roller-coaster seas? A whole lot, as it turned out. I've summed a few in my Top Eight Things to Do in 30-Foot Waves:

1) Photograph the waves to try to show their size. Photos rarely do justice to massive ocean-open swells, but below are a few of our attempts. (Unbeknownst to us, we would be seeing waves almost twice this big—50-footers—later in the trip.) 

From the third deck on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov—normally about 15 feet above the water line—we looked up at colossal waves such as this one... 

...and these...

...and these...

...and these...

...and oh, yeah, it started to snow heavily. That orange pod is one of the lifeboats, designed to sardine-pack 56 passengers, an adventure we hoped not to experience.

2) Try not to fall off your bed. When a huge wave smacked and heaved the side of the Sergey Vavilov—which is a remarkably stable ship, I should point out, specially designed for polar travel and rough oceans—I would sometimes start to roll off my narrow bunk. I learned to sleep with my arms out as cross-braces, my legs spread wide and my toes hooked over an edge of the bed. 

3) Laugh at the adventure. Glasses and bottles tipped over and slid off tables in the dining room. As recounted to us by Roz Kidman Cox, the longtime editor of BBC Wildlife magazine who was on board and writing a diary of the journey, two of our shipmates had their mini-fridge fly out of its cubby and dump milk and red wine throughout their cabin. Another passenger was flung out of the shower while not hanging onto the hand rail. Another was emphatically hand-signaled off the bow of the ship by a Russian crew member who was worried that the next big wave might wash him overboard. Two others failed to fully screw-tighten their cabin porthole and got a cold-water bath. Another, as a solution to the roll-off-the-bed problem, put her mattress on the floor and slept on it there.

I loved the tale told to us by Richard and Sue, a delightful couple from England, of a previous voyage they had taken through rough seas. Richard was tossed across the ship's bar and cut his forehead so severely that it needed stitches. He refused to let Sue, a nurse, do the stitching because he didn't want to yell at his wife if the procedure hurt too much. Instead he recruited a crew member, who stayed up all night practicing his stitch work on a banana—and ultimately handled the procedure so well that Richard doesn't even have a scar.

4) Defy seasickness. Having suffered my whole life from wretched bouts of motion sickness, I prepared for our voyage through the world's most turbulent ocean by bringing an arsenal of anti-sickness weaponry:  Bonine tablets; a wristwatch-style device that, when strapped on, shot pulses of electricity into the underside of my wrist; anti-nausea gum; a queasiness-preventing inhaler; and stomach-settling candied ginger. All of those, and my decision to be extra cautious and lie down at the hint of a whisper of approaching nausea, worked. 

Bottom line: Never rule out a trip to the Antarctic because you think you'll get seasick. You very well may not. And trust me, the voyage will be worth it even if you do.

5) Try to ignore the waves and attend lectures on the wildlife and places you're about to see. Pamelia and I had been studying the Antarctic for weeks before the trip, but on board we also soaked up the knowledge not only of the renowned Mark Carwardine, who had been to the Antarctic an astounding 23 times, but also of the likes of ornithologist Simon Boyes, entomologist and ecologist Mark Thatchell and award-winning wildlife filmmaker Peter Bassett, who as one of David Attenborough's BBC producers has ended up spending months at a time at places like South Georgia dealing with things like a tent-flooding river of penguin guano and a diet of dried mutton granules (tales he recounts hilariously).

How is the Antarctic defined? Many scientists will tell you it begins not at 66 degrees south latitude (the start of the geographical Antarctic Circle) but at the more northerly and varying line of the convergence, where warm and cold oceans meet, the Antarctic environment starts and the sea becomes richer with churned-up nutrients, feeding a profusion of marine wildlife and birds.  

And so en route to South Georgia, even as the ship swayed, we learned about everything from Antarctic photography (much more on that later) to sea birds to the natural history of South Georgia to the story of the ill-fated Endurance voyage led by Ernest Shackleton (whose grave we would visit on South Georgia) to the seal species we would soon encounter to the biology and Earth science of the 20- to 30-mile-wide Antarctic convergence zone, which we slowly angled across.

We couldn't see the warm and cold waters meeting at the convergence, of course, but beneath us the colliding waters were churning up nutrients that would feed countless billions (trillions?) of tiny, shrimp-like krill, on which Antarctic's larger ocean mammals and birds directly or indirectly feast. The water temperature, which had been about 43 degrees Fahrenheit in the Falklands, dropped by 11 degrees F to 32. (Around Antarctica proper, the water is 28 degrees, a sub-freezing temperature it can reach because of its saltiness.) 

That's Ernest Shackleton's famously  ice-trapped ship, the Endurance. Enriched by the insights of our ship's spellbinding young Scottish historian, Katie Murray, we would in the days ahead be following Shackleton's path, rediscovering his remarkable tale of survival and even seeing his final resting place.

We would see all of these except the Ross seal, which lives closer to the South Pole.

6) Act like a real sailor and scrub your gear. In our case, we had no choice. One Oceans Expeditions is a stickler for "bio-securing" the boots and outer clothing of its voyagers to avoid spreading invasive diseases, plants or animals to any of its Antarctic destinations. We had been scrubbing off anyway before and after each trip ashore, but the time at sea was a good opportunity to bring out not just brushes and disinfectant but also vacuum cleaners, to suck up any stray seeds that might be hiding in the velcro strips on our jacket and pant straps.

Pamelia at the scrubbing station.

7) Be creative. Pamelia takes risks as an artist. Despite the rough seas, she flung our cabin window open, kneeled on my bed and, grabbing materials she had handy, attempted to do some small indigo ink paintings of waves while trying not to fall over. She said they were quick studies (indigo wouldn't have been her color of choice to represent the water) to try to grasp, interact with and record an impression of the incredible ocean moment—AND it was great fun. That was a lesson: When the giant waves come, have fun and get to know them!

"I was aware of what a rare experience this was and wanted to try to know it more," she said afterward. "It was challenging to paint while being jolted by wave action. Sometimes the brushstroke was made by the wave—my hand would involuntarily be jerked and the brush would make marks that I didn't control. I loved the process. Now every time I look at this little painting I'll be brought back to this moment."

Pamelia's sense of artistic adventure matched the wild sea conditions. 

This is a study using white ink in a notebook with black paper, for which she had to think in reverse when trying to represent dark and light. In the days ahead Pamelia would be painting and drawing on the ship and on land, producing 30 studies and experimenting with a video component that we'll show you in the days ahead.  

8) Think of the amazing sights ahead. "Ships run on two things: diesel fuel and rumors," Boris Wise, the day-to-day expedition leader, told us all during one of our meals at sea. He knew that we adventurers were all speculating on when we might set foot on South Georgia, given the rough ocean conditions and strong winds. We were beyond eager.

And then the sightings began: the first snow petrel, named for its pure whiteness. The first wandering albatrosses, the first gray-headed albatrosses, the first chunks of sea ice and glowing blue icebergs. And then...

...land. The first rocky, snow-capped islands we laid our eyes upon were the Willis Islands, just west of the main island of South Georgia. Then came South Georgia itself, forbidding and gorgeous, its white peaks rising as high as 9,600 feet. Seeing it, even from a distance, while standing in the biting cold wind on a viewing wing off the bridge, we were in awe. South Georgia was spectacular. And we were going to explore it.

Land ho! We were about to embark on four days of exploring South Georgia.

Inhospitable? That's what explorers from Captain Cook on have called it, but the animals living there would turn out to be quite hospitable to us human visitors.

At dinner that night, Boris gave us the good news. Tomorrow there would be a 4 a.m. wakeup call, followed by a quick 4:30 breakfast and a 5:30 departure on Zodiac rafts for South Georgia—specifically the beach at St. Andrews Bay, home to more than 100,000 king penguins, many thousands of elephant seals and the retreating Ross glacier.

We were, to borrow assistant expedition leader Nate Small's phrase from a few days earlier, about to have our minds blown.—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood

Coming next: Can you imagine a landscape of penguins and seals as far as you can see?

Look at what's ahead!