One major problem encountered when you decided to visit the "Big White" (southern edition) is getting information, traditional tourist information. Sure, the encyclopedia is full of stuff on the Antarctic. The National Geographic World Atlas has a rather large write-up and a good, big map spread over two pages. Our habit has been to look for guide books and maps. There aren't any available. No one ever goes there other than scientists. There aren't any hotels or amusement parks.
After some agonizing we selected a trip on the MS Frontier Spirit, a ship operated by Sea Quest Cruises but owned by the Japanese shipping company, NYK. This trip leaves from New Zealand and goes to the Ross Ice Shelf, then to the US McMurdo Sound Station. The usual trips from the western hemisphere leave from South America and go only to the Antarctic Peninsula, never venturing below the Antarctic circle.
We will leave from Bluff, which is at the south end of the South Island, visit but not land on the Snares Islands, land on Campbell Island, pass Balleny Island, stop at Terra Nova Bay, and finally reach the Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo Sound. On the way back we will visit Cape Evans and Cape Royds on Ross Island, Franklin Island, Cape Hallet and Cape Adare, MacQuarie Island, Auckland Island, and Stewart Island. Total time on the ship will be 20 days. While near the continent we will visit four huts left by the early explorers.
We flew from LA to Auckland, an 18-hour flight because of head winds, the same jet stream that has been bringing rain to California from across Hawaii. Although it was a terribly long flight, the time shift of only three hours wasn't too bad and we immediately accommodated.
Auckland is an enjoyable town. Since we had no car, we spent most of our time there walking around and shopping. A country tour was included in our trip so the afternoon of the second day we visited a blacksmith shop, a polo training school, a dairy farm, and finally an angora goat farm. After that we had afternoon tea and then saw a deer herd. Deer are just another cash crop in New Zealand and are raised in the same manner as cattle.
The flight to Invercargil and bus trip to Bluff to join the ship seemed anticlimactic after the long flight from LA. The MS Frontier Spirit is a smallish ship, 130 passengers, with a rather international crew. We were welcomed aboard around 7:30 pm, given a glass of champaign, and shown to our rooms, but advised that we should quickly dine. We got back to the cabin around 10 pm and unpacked as the ship rolled and pitched her way south. We slept soundly under the influence of dramamine.
The captain is a somewhat famous german, Heinz Aye. The remainder of the officers are a Japanese, provided with the ship I suspect. The "hotel" staff are mostly Scandinavian with some other European nationalities mixed in. Filipinos comprise the deck crew. The exploration staff are mostly US with some South Americans thrown in.
The first full day gave us our initial taste of boarding the Zodiacs in a rolling sea. We reached the Snares Islands and toured the coast only since New Zealand claims control of the islands and does not allow tourists on shore. At times the swells caused a 10 foot difference between the rubber boats and the ship landing platform. Our only personal incident is that Jodie got her feet wet in one of the surges that came over her boot tops.
The first sighting penguins was here! The Snares Crested Penguin lives only here and they are here in profusion. This island group is also the home of the Snares Fern Bird. Both birds are difficult additions to the avid birder's life list. We now "have" them and aren't even birders.
This small ship is quite different than other cruise ships we have been on. It is an "exploration" ship or cruise. Things are pleasantly informal. People dress up only slightly for dinner, with the exception of special nights such as the captain's welcome dinner and farewell dinner. It was difficult to pack for this trip, not knowing just how informal it would be. We seem to have hit it right with a rather fancy outfit for Jodie and a dark suit for me for the two "formal" occasions.
Speaking of the Captain's Welcome Dinner, we were invited to sit at the captain's table the second night out! Our other companions were two women who have traveled several times with the captain, a german couple who have visited over 130 different countries, plus the only other couple on board from Grand Circle Cruises. Captain Aye is an enjoyable and fascinating man. He is addicted to the Antarctic and to accomplishing new things. He also seems to love this ship. After one unsuccessful attempt, he, and the FS completed the Northwest Passage last year. He is now attempting to convince Sea Quest to send the ship around the Antarctic continent, a 40-day cruise at $800 per day. There are already 70 passengers committed to the cruise.
The ship provides high rubber boots and warm parkas for all passengers. The description of the boots in the brochures was somewhat vague so we bought Sorrels which we found on sale. The ship boots come to just below the knee and are worn over normal shoes. We wore ship boots on our second trip ashore. We needed them for our first trip in the Zodiac but they hadn't been issued yet.
At times, the ship is surrounded by sea birds. Initially they were Paintado Petrels or Cape Pigeons but most lately they have been Albatross. As we approach the Antarctic Convergence the types of birds are supposed to change.
Our second stop but first landing on the trip was at Campbell Island. We spent an entire day there with a Zodiac ride and small hike in the morning and visit to the NZ meteorological station and a long hike on uneven board walks to view breeding Royal Albatross in the afternoon. We wore our heavy rubber boots and rain gear for the hike, but not the parkas. We wound up carrying the rain jackets since the sun came out and it became a warm hike. When I got back to the ship my trousers were quite soaked with sweat.
The arduous hike was worth while. The Royal Albatross is a very big bird! Their wing span is over 6 feet and their body is quite a bit larger than a turkey. They nest in high places so that it is easy for them to take off and land. One bird of the pair sits the nest for three or four days while the other bird goes to sea for food. They usually mate for life although separations do occur.
Although the point of the hike was to see the birds, the plants and the island itself would have made the hike worthwhile. There is a very pretty large daisy and many other megaherbs(?)
We have now been at sea for a day and a half since leaving Campbell Island. Our intended close pass by Balleny Island has been canceled for this leg due to dense sea ice that we cannot pass through. Hopefully the ice will not prevent our reaching the Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo Sound.
We have come to realize that one feature of this kind of travel is that not everything planed may be accomplished. This isn't a 500-passenger floating palace that proceeds on a rigid schedule. Some plans may have to be changed in the face of nature. The whole style of the ship appeals to me. With its 2-to-1 passenger to crew ratio and resulting cost it will be difficult for us to travel this way frequently. Someone on board has taken 17 cruises on this ship!
We have two large groups on board. Fully one third of the passengers are from Japan. The second third are German and Austrian. The rest are lumped into English-speaking and includes the Americans, Aussies, and Kiwis. There are official New Zealand "escorts" who become policemen on shore.
We have now been in both polar regions of the Earth. At exactly 5:52 am on January 22 we crossed the Antarctic Circle. This was verified by a GPS satellite which is used for all navigation on this ship. I really marvel at the early travelers to this region. They came in wooden sailing ships. Their navigational tools were compass and sextant. A compass becomes unreliable this close to the pole. You need sun or stars to use a sextant and we have had clouds for days.
After a week on the ship, we have finally reached Antarctica! Today, Saturday the 23rd, we went ashore on Foyn Island which is just off the coast. This was our first "up close and personal" encounter with penguins. The island is a major Adelie rookery. They are every bit as cute as they seem on film. Film, or TV, does not convey the odor, however. 30,000 birds that eat nothing but krill and then defecate all over the place do not produce a very pleasant smell.
In addition to the penguins, there were a number of Weddell fir seals laying about on the island. Since there were penguins, there were also a number of Skuas trying to live off of the dead and dying penguins, and each other as it turns out. The Skua eats anything. They will steal unprotected eggs and chicks, in addition to cleaning up offal.
We spent the morning on the island and then headed off to Cape Hallet to visit the first hut built on the content. The sea ice was heavy enough to prevent our reaching the place so now we are dashing off to the Ross Ice Shelf at which we should arrive tomorrow afternoon.
The Ross Ice Shelf - what an impressive sight as we approach. A long, solid line emerges from the litter of floating ice bergs, eventually becoming an apparently endless wall of ice, extending from horizon to horizon. The irregular surface appears to be sculpted from granite, not ice. Here and there gigantic tabular bergs that have recently broken off are sitting near the shelf, waiting for the randomness of nature to move them off to the oblivion of warmer water.
We approached the wall about 25 miles form the Eastern end, missing the other 400 miles of it. We followed in along until it was time to head for Cape Evans.
One very novel feature of this ship is that the passengers have almost unlimited access to the bridge. It is quite unique to be able to run up to the bridge to see what is going on. Any of the officers are willing to tell you where we are, show you the charts, and answer any of your stupid questions. There was a little navigational seminar the other day after which we got to steer the ship. I steered the ship! Today as we were messing around in the ice fields the bridge was jammed with passengers. Finally Captain Aye said that there were two areas that must be kept clear, the area in front of the helmsman and the area on one side of the chart table. Passengers were welcome in all others. The constant chatter has also gotten to him. There is now a sign stating "Silence on the Bridge."
Our next stop was to have been Cape Royds to visit one of Shackelton's huts however fast ice blocked access by Zodiac and the other access was through an SSSI (Special Site of Scientific Interest) area, the southern-most Adelie rookery, so we went off to Cape Evans to visit Scott's first hut. These huts were left with most of the provisions. Their abandonment was quite hurried in some cases. When the Cape Royds hut was cleaned out, a half eaten meal was found on the table, knife and fork laying on the plate.
In spite of tight construction, most huts were found full of ice when the New Zealand conservators started work on them. Cleaning out was a bit of a chore however the work has been well done. There is an amazing variety of canned goods and other materials in their huts. One very notable item is a large pile of seal blubber that was used as stove fuel. In spite of years of laying about and alternate freezing and thawing it still has a strong, rank odor.
Both capes are on the shore of Ross Island. Mt. Erbus, an active volcano, dominates the island. The island is really nothing but the volcano. All of the area is covered with lava, pumice, and ejecta. The remaining white snow contrasts nicely with the natural black of the ground.
Since this is the Antarctic, there are no plants in the common sense. There is some algae in the melt water pools. Apparently there are Emperor penguins here upon occasion. Only Skuas and an occasional Weddell fur seal are residents now.
The ship returned to Cape Royds to allow passengers an opportunity to visit the hut. It required a four hour round-trip hike to get there since the landing point was beyond the rookery. The hike was over dinner time so the hikers were provided with a box lunch. The last hiker returned to the ship about 11:30 pm. We didn't go because I didn't think that I would like to be hiking that late (just a wimp, I guess).
We went to the bridge to watch the hikers return and remained to watch the departure from Cape Royds. We wound up staying up until 2:30 am when the ship anchored in McMurdo Sound. The trip to and down the ice channel was so fascinating that it was impossible to go to bed. Sleep would have been difficult anyway since the ship crashing into the ice was rather noisy. Finding the entrance to the channel was a bit of a challenge. Captain Aye had some coordinates provided by the McMurdo Ice Watch. He called them for more information but the US Coast Guard Ice Breaker Polar Star responded. They reported different coordinates and also said that they had had a helicopter reconnaissance an hour and a half previously which reported the channel to be ice free.
We had to pass through heavy pack ice to reach the channel and again several times in the channel. Minke and killer whales escorted us in the passage. The solid ice on either side was frequently populated with Adelies.
Our day in McMurdo Sound included a visit to Scott Base, the New Zealand scientific site, the US science factory, and a visit to another of Scott's huts. We landed and were driven over to Scott Base which is about 3 miles from the cleared ice in front of the US site.
Scott base consists of a number of interconnected buildings, all built out of commercial refrigerator elements. Even the doors are standard commercial refrigerator doors. Most work has wound down here since winter is coming. Our group was lead by the head of the over-winter team who is also the guy in charge of the mechanical stuff. An excellent leader for my interests.
After the visit we strolled up to the top of Observation Hill, a volcanic cinder cone that overlooks the area. It was a terrible trail but a good view.
The US facility is a small town. US Antarctic research is budgeted at $25 million per year. Support of this activity is $150 million. I don't understand what is included in either budget. All researchers fly into McMurdo and land on the sea ice in the spring or on the permanent ice shelf after the sea ice becomes weak. C141s and C5s land on the sea ice since it is quite strong. For the remainder of the year, ski-equipped C130s provide the transportation. The ice shelf can't support the loads of the larger planes. Even the New Zealanders, who are critical of the US facility, are dependent on the US to fly their people in and to clear the channel so that fuel can be brought in.
The facility consists of many large buildings, including a beautiful new science building. Overall operation is directed by the National Science Foundation. The US Navy provides support. An independent contractor operates the power plant and provides the workers. The Air Force flies the airplanes. And the Coast Guard provides the ice breaker. This seems to be the typical US bureaucratic approach to everything; maximum division of labor to spread the money around.
Both the Scott Base and the McMurdo base provided our only opportunities to buy souvenirs. We now have half a suit case loaded with tee shirts and sweatshirts. This pent-up urge to shop resulted in a scene reminiscent of locust descending on a wheat field. We also had the unique opportunity to mail post cards from the Scott Base. We had originally been told we would have no opportunity to mail, however we later heard that we could mail there. We had some post cards which we quickly wrote and then mailed at the base. They went out on a plane last night so should now be in New Zealand. They probably won't be post marked from the base but they did put a rubber stamp on the face of the card.
Our trip out the ice channel was a spectacular as the inward passage; whales and penguins and floating ice. The sea became rough as we went to bed. When we awoke the ship was bouncing about quite violently. There were 40 mph winds and 20 foot waves. After a bit the seas reached 40 feet, the captain turned the ship about and drove against the wind and waves heading south at 3 knots for most of the day. The majority of the passengers were sick and stayed in their cabins. The dining room and bar were filled with the sound of breaking crockery and glass all day long. Through the wonders of modern chemistry we both stayed well and did nothing but eat all day. After people tipped over with their chairs in the morning, the dining room staff chained the chairs to the floor, sorry, deck.
The storm prevented our visit to Cape Hallett and as evening falls, we are approaching Cape Adair. We reached the storm, or the storm reached us, just after dinner. For a major part of the next day the FS was pointed south into the storm at a speed of about 3 knots. The violent pitching caused great discomfort among the passengers and broke quite a lot of glass and china in the dining room, kitchen, and bar. Several cases of beer fell to the floor. In late afternoon, as the sky lightened, we turned about and headed north again. The passage became much smoother as soon as we turned.
Cape Adair is the home of the world's largest Adelie penguin colony with approximately 300,000 nesting pairs. It is also the location of the first hut built on the Antarctic by the Borchgrevink expedition. One of the Scott expeditions also built a hut there but it has fallen down The winds must be incredible here in the winter.
The zodiac landings were a bit exciting here since the wave surge on the beach was at least 6 to 8 feet. Some of the beach crew became completely submerged. The Borchgrevink hut is quite well built with interlocking tongue-and-groove boards. There isn't as much material left here as in the Cape Evans hut. It is also much smaller but was home to 10 men over the winter.
According to Baden Norris, a historian from Christchurch who has been presenting lectures as we go, the exterior boards were removed from all of the huts and a water proof layer of butyl was placed on the structure. Then the exterior boards were replaced. The roof boards were also removed and a layer of plywood added, the original boards replaced, and they a layer of butyl added. The huts are now wind and snow tight. Baden is the curator of the Canterbury museum in Christchurch and was also involved in the hut restorations.
We are now passing the Balleny Islands. There is a chance that we may land on the center island which will be quite unique. A total of six people have landed on these islands. There is another Adelie penguin rookery here. Some chinstrap penguins have also started nesting here.
The weather and swell were terrible at the Ballenys. We hove to and launched two zodiacs to scout the Sabrina Island for a suitable landing spot. Almost immediately the occupants of both were soaked by the waves breaking over the bow. When they returned after not finding any suitable landing place, the occupants, all experienced zodiac drivers, said they were frightened. Peter Cary, one of the lecturers on board and a penguin researcher, had applied for an NSF grant and support to spend two weeks on one of the islands. He now has second thoughts since he could find no safe camping area.
We have spent the next two rollicking rock-and-roll days at sea on our way to MacQuarie island. MacQuarie has been the site of extensive exploitation in the past century. After the fur seals were destroyed, man turned to the elephant seals for oil. When they were all gone, he turned to the penguins for oil. After nothing was left, the Australian government issued no more permits. In 1947 a scientific base was established and shortly afterwards the place was made a state game preserve for the state of Tasmania.
The New Zealand fur seals have started colonizing the island; the elephant seals have returned; and there are four varieties of penguins. In addition, there are many flying type sea birds who nest on the upper reaches of the island. There are also introduced brown rats, mice, cats, and rabbits. The rats and mice are currently uncontrolled. The rabbits have been reduced by 80% through the use of myxomatosis (sp?) and the cats are being trapped and starved off. (Shame we can't do that at home.)
Only 600 visitors are allowed each year. Of all the wildlife, the King Penguins are by far the most engaging. They have no fear of man. In fact, they have a strong curiosity and come quite close to see what you are. With their bright orange ear patch and breast they are quite beautiful. There are also rock hoppers who stay on the rocks, Royals, and Gentoos. There is a large royal penguin rookery. The Gentoos tend to breed in small groups about the island.
Worsening weather shortened our second day on the island. The wind began blowing so hard that the captain became concerned for those of us still on shore and called for all to return to the ship. I think that he actually became concerned that the ship anchor was dragging. The trip back to the ship was easier than the trip to shore.
While on shore the second day we very briefly visited a garage at the Aussie station and then started a guided stroll about the area. We encountered some of the bull elephant seals who are ashore to molt. Some were laying on the path. The ranger-guide told Jodie just to walk between them. She now has an excellent mental picture of the wide open mouth of an angry elephant seal. The ranger then played "dominant bull" and stretched both arms high to tower over the seals. Since they couldn't stand as high, they backed off, reluctantly. Soon the wind began to blow quite hard. In one area it was so strong that you could slide on the mud just being pushed by the wind. That wind is what cut short our visit.
One thing that has made this an enjoyable trip has been the presence of three lecturers. Walt Venium is the head of the geology department at Sonoma State, has done extensive field work, including 6 trips to the Antarctic, and is an avid mountaineer. Peter Cary has a PhD in something or other and is into penguin research. Although originating from Cincinnati, he has migrated to New Zealand, to be closer to his subject and research grants. Baden Norris I have mentioned before but will say again that he has added immeasurably to the trip.
Our last remote island visit was to the Auckland Islands. This was to be a two-day visit however high winds eliminated the second day visit to Enderby Island. We arrived and anchored off Port Ross in Sarah's Bosom harbor. Port Ross was an ill-fated attempt to colonize the islands. The cold, peaty soil, and almost constant rain prevented crops from growing. All that remains is a completely over-grown road, a dead tree trunk with a ship name carved on it, and a cemetery. The island is densely covered with native undergrowth, ratta and other stuff, and has quite a lot of bird life. While on a zodiac cruise we visited the site used by a German 19th century expedition to study the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. All that is left is a brick pedestal and a triangular brick platform.
We were to remain anchored there and visit Enderby the next morning. The wind came up in the middle of the night, however, and it became necessary to take the ship to sea where we drifted until late the next morning. We reentered the bay but only to pick up some seal researchers who had spent six weeks on the island. We missed seeing elephant seals, erect crested and yellow eyed penguins, and some petrel nests. Crew members who have been on the island say it is a terrific place. Oh well, next trip.
Our final visit was to Ulva island nature preserve and to Stewart Island. Ulva is very small but lush with 320 days of rain each year. We made a brief hike around the island, serenaded by bell birds, and then made a wet trip across the bay to Stewart. Our reintroduction to civilization was at a bar-b-que put on by the volunteer fire department at the fire station. After a tour of the island, we went back to the ship to pack.
I am now sitting in the hotel lobby awaiting the start of our 20-hour flight back to LA with "rest" stops in Fiji and Hawaii. We will not be allowed out of the Air NZ holding pens at either airport since we will not clear customs at either place.
At dinner the last night on the ship I asked my dining companions what they liked the best on the trip. After they answered they of course asked me what mine was. When I think back to what I thought the trip was going to be like and what we were going to do I find that my perceptions of the Antarctic or the Antarctic plus this cruise were at least incomplete. I had only a hazy notion of what things were going to be like. I started my answer with a list of things I liked, which were:
the Ross Ice Shelf
the historic huts, especially on Cape Evans
I still find it difficult to select a single answer from this list. The captain said that is all of history, only 29,000 people have ever visited the Ross Ice Shelf. Two of the items are nature; two are the works of man.
This really was a fantastic trip! We traveled a total of 4576 nautical miles and made a total of 14 landings by zodiac. We saw penguins, seals, and sea birds in their native habitat, not in a zoo. We saw a very small part of the 70% of the World's fresh water that is locked up in the ice of Antarctica. And we saw a small but fascinating part of man's efforts on the content, both current and in the past.
Problems with clothing, etc.
What to do with a non-waterproof camera? The "horse collar" life preserver that is required on the zodiacs interferes with most camera straps. It also makes it difficult to wear the camera under your coat. Some sort of waterproof sack that could be hung about the neck could solve the problem.
A warm, billed, cap would be useful. The parkas provided have warm hoods however a hat bill would be nice both for sun and for rain. In addition, the hood doesn't close about the head very well. They are quite warm but not waterproof. Rain is frequent in the subantarctic islands and spray is common in the zodiacs almost any time. Waterproof pants have been useful on almost every landing. The waterproof coat has been good in rain situations. Both have been good as wind garments. Suspenders, or pants with suspenders, would keep them up on those of us who no longer have a waist.
The boots provided come almost to the knee and are worn over the shoes. There have been some instances where water came over the top of the boot, either on the ship platform or on the beach in the swell. If warm wool socks are worn, the boots seem warm enough. If I had known that the boot were worn over the shoes and that there were going to be hiking opportunities, I would have brought my hiking shoes. Jodie would have also brought here telescoping hiking stick.
Other things that could be useful: ear warmers, face mask, slip-on shoes for wear about the ship.