Antarctica, Day 4: Crossing the Antarctic Circle


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Day 4 started off as one of the more unusual and exciting days I’ve experienced. Chad’s calm morning announcement was followed by a glimpse out our porthole to find the world’s two most adorable seals just hanging out on an ice floe about 25 feet from the ship. We went by it so fast I nearly missed it. The rest of the landscape was dotted with mountains and massive, breathtaking icebergs.

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Close-up of an iceberg. The patterns and sheer size of these amazed me.

Before breakfast, at around 6 a.m., we headed down to the presentation room for yoga, because why wouldn’t you want to attempt delicate balancing and stretching acts on a moving ship? The initial plan was to do it outside on one of the outer decks, but I was glad that idea got nixed since it was precisely -2°C/28°F out there and I was starting to wonder how a person does yoga in six layers of clothing.

The presentation room turned out to be a bit crowded, as there were no fewer than 12 people doing yoga in a space the size of most people’s living room. But we made it happen. Where I had problems was the roughly 7’2″ ceiling, which made the extended mountain pose a challenge for my 5’11” body with outstretched arms. I noticed that Jocelyn, a staff member with a good 3 inches of height on me, was having the same problem. A great yoga session nonetheless.

After breakfast we were invited upstairs for a 7th deck party. By the time we got there, the top outer deck of the ship was filled with passengers, staff members serving hot chocolate, and hula hoops. The party could now begin, as we would soon be crossing the Antarctic Circle. Things got rowdier and more exciting as we approached a latitude of 66°33’44″S. “Wait for the bump!” the staff members joked. We heard the final countdown of 10 seconds and all started counting “10, 9, 8…” before being interrupted by another staff member: the 10 seconds actually refers to latitude, not time on your watch. No one ever claimed us passengers to be more than nautical novices.

DSC_0374-2 DSC_0375-2 My hula-hooping skills at 66°S.

Once we did cross the circle it was like New Year’s Eve. Joy, celebration and dancing ensued. It’s something that will stand out in my memory for a long time to come, since I’ve experienced New Year’s 35 times in my life but an Antarctic Circle crossing only once.

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Apparently crossing the Antarctic Circle also brings insanity. While most people continued to enjoy the party, about 20 of us stripped down to our swimsuits and took a dive in the ship’s Antarctic 0°C/32°F water-filled outdoor plunge pool, followed by a warm-up in the sauna. It’s amazing how short the human memory can be, because once we were fully warmed up from the sauna we decided we couldn’t be declared official Antarctic lunatics until we had each plunged three times. We all took turns and, in the end, achieved our lofty goal.

DSC_3649Jumping into the plunge pool

Day 4 would also mark a first for us: our first excursion off the ship! Kate and I had decided to go with the kayak option, where we would be able to kayak instead of riding zodiacs on any of the off-ship excursions, albeit with that ever-present Antarctic disclaimer of “weather permitting”. We got the green light and proceeded to the mud room, where we went to the extraordinary effort of squeezing dry suits, booties, kayak skirts and life vests over our multitude of layers of clothing. Michelle, one of our two kayak guides, had impeccable timing – the very moment we were suited up and ready to go – in informing us that the swells at that time were too high for our first kayak excursion. Dry suits off and into the zodiacs we went.

As we zipped along in the zodiac toward shore, we spotted a black and white creature off in the distance. PENGUIN! Our first penguin!! Cameras came out and the solace of Antarctic silence was now filled with clicking sounds. As we got closer our excitement was dashed – not a penguin at all, but rather an Antarctic shag. It wouldn’t be long, however, before we made our first actual penguin discovery and resumed the ridiculous amounts of picture-taking, knowing full well we would eventually get a lot more opportunities to get closer and better pictures. It didn’t matter.

Our first penguin sighting was of a small number of Adelie penguins on dark, jagged rocks surrounding a snowy drift alongside a hill. We watched from the zodiac as they waddled up and down in a way that I had seen on TV or in movies, but was so much more endearing to see in person. The way they move while on their two feet is awkward but adorable at the same time. They also tend to drop down on their bellies at times and push off with their feet, a move referred to as tobogganing.

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We drove the zodiac around a bit more in and out of areas with massive blue icebergs. As much as I love the penguins and seals, my favorite part of the trip was seeing the icebergs, and below the Antarctic circle seemed to be the prime spot for that. Some appeared as though our captain had called ahead and had someone plant neon blue lights inside the icebergs, thereby giving off the image of blue lights shining from the crevices. The official explanation from Kurtis, our iceberg expert, was that the blue color was a result of the ice being compressed. Seemed slightly more likely than my neon-light planting theory.

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Our first landing on Antarctic soil came a bit later. Ian, our zodiac man for the day, pulled up to the rocks at Detaille Island and we disembarked to stretch our legs and explore. Excursions were truly a joy, not only because they allowed us to warm up after sitting idle in a zodiac, but we were also able to disperse and wander off on our own. There were limits, of course, to how far we could go given that we didn’t want to disturb any nesting penguins or have an untimely encounter with an unseen crevasse. The second we hit land we spotted three Weddell seals off in the distance, napping (as we would come to discover they really like to do). I was also able to sit atop a hill and observe a penguin at the minimum five-meter distance for a while as he lay on his belly and observed me.

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We would later find out that, while I was gallivanting around on land, one of the zodiacs still cruising sighted an Emperor penguin – a rare but exciting discovery this far north on the Antarctic Peninsula. These are the largest kinds of penguins, rivaling small children in size. It was my first lesson that FOMO – fear of missing out – is a real and tragic phenomenon.

_MG_3767An Emperor penguin that I missed out on. Photo courtesy of Craig from our ship.

On my way back down to the zodiac meeting point I stopped in to check out Station W, a British research station operated there from 1956 to 1959. Walking through the narrow hallways and into the basic rooms with supplies and winter gear that now serves as a historic site and monument was a stark reminder of how much less hospitable this cold place was back before technology allowed for the kind of luxuries today’s travelers and researchers have. In fact, it was shut down after just three years due to weather and sea ice rendering re-supply efforts impossible.

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We returned to the ship for stories and much needed calories in the form of yet another delicious dinner, followed by a great night’s sleep.

Facts about Day 4:
Latitude: 65°57,8’S, longitude: 66°42,8’W
Sunrise: 3:49 a.m., sunset: 11:27 p.m.
Air/water temperature: -2°C/28°F, +0.2°C/32°F
Wildlife spotted: penguins (Emperor, Adelie); petrels (Southern Giant, Snow); Wilson’s storm petrels; Antarctic (endemic) shags; skuas (South Polar, Kelp), whales (Humpback, Antarctic Minke), seals (Crabeater, Weddell, Leopard)

Categories: AntarcticaTags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 comments

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