Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The last day in Antarctica – Feb 11

Today is our last day in Antarctica. Where has the time gone? I was worried that 6 days on ice flows might be too much, but the time has flown by.

This morning we landed at Whalers Bay, on Deception Island. Deception Island is actually a volcano, and there is an opening to the caldera which is filled with water. So in we sailed through Neptunes Bellows, the narrow channel leading into the caldera. The weather was cold, wet, sleeting, snowing, and windy. Just like Antarctica is supposed to be. Coming ashore in the Zodiac was “invigorating”, to say the least.

Whalers Bay is an old whaling station that closed in 1931 due to a slump in the price of whale byproducts. There are still a number of buildings standing and available for exploration.

Deception Island is also one of the few places in Antarctica with flowering plants (there are only two types).

We saw a field of Pearlwort. The excitement was almost overwhelming!

We also had a few fur seals for company. Unlike the other seals we tend to see here (crabeater, leopard, waddell), these are actually members of the sea lion family with big flippers and external ears.

In the afternoon we went to Hannah Point on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands. Our expedition leader, Hannah, is quite proud of this place and calls it “my place”, although it was actually named after a ship that sunk a hundred years ago. I don’t think she was on it, but who knows.

At Hannah point there were – go on, try to guess – Gentoo penguins! But more interesting, we had another breed that we hadn’t seen yet, the Chinstrap Penguins.

They are obviously called that because of the distinctive chinstraps that they use to hold the tops of their heads on.

We also encountered a number of young male elephant seals. Male elephant seals can grow to five TONS. The females are only about one sixth that size. Imagine the implications for matrimonial bliss! So, ladies, when you think about complaining that Hubby has put on a few pounds, just think of the elephant seals and how lucky you really are.

I’ve mentioned before the frequent aroma of “eau de Penguin” that we’ve encountered on the islands. The elephant seals make this seem like Chanel #5. Elephant seals spend the vast majority of their lives at sea. They only come ashore to breed and to molt (lose their fur). They are molting in the above photo. In the ocean they don’t have to worry about where they go about their business, so on land they are what might be considered poorly potty trained. They simply go wherever they are, then wallow around in it. When they are done molting, after about a month, they go back into the water and have a good rinse off. But in the meantime, they can be a bit on the ripe side.

There now, isn’t that more than you ever wanted to know about elephant seals? But remember: Knowledge is Power… Go out and use it!

A final farewell:

At 9:12 tonight we passed out of Antarctica. Our last waypoint was Snow Island. How appropriate. We now head back to Drake’s Passage where we will be sailing for two days across open ocean. We hope that it will be as calm as the ride down, but heavy winds are predicted so it might be a bit of a ride.

Snow Island, according to the charts, is located at 62 degrees 51 minutes south by 61 degrees 16 minutes west.

It looks like another chunk of rock in the middle of the Southern Ocean. But it was our last view of Antarctica, and as such will always be located for me in my memory and my heart. This truly is an incredible, unbelievable place. Many people have asked me what the highlight of my trip has been. That has been a difficult question to answer. I’ve loved the people of Colombia, the beautiful colonial architecture of Ecuador and Peru, the colors of the Atacama desert, and the vibrance of cities like Bogota, Quito, and Santiago, among others.

But for a magical place that’s spectacular like no other on earth, the answer has now got to be Antarctica. What an experience!

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