Blog

Antarctica
  • Rough Water: Crossing the Drake Passage

    The Drake Passage is the 600 mile wide channel between the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and the South Shetland Islands. It connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Until the Panama Canal was built, ships had to travel around Cape Horn to get from one ocean to the other.

    The Drake is notorious for rough water. When I left Ushuaia, Argentina on December 19 for Antarctica, I was apprehensive about the passage. Would I encounter fierce storms or "Drake Lake?" Like my shipmates, I slapped on a seasick-prevention patch as soon as the ship set out in the Beagle channel and hoped for the best.

    Although I thought I had secured everything in the cabin, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of various items rolling and crashing about the the cabin. I couldn't walk because of the roll of the ship, so I crawled from my bed to gather and secure the items. I learned never to leave the lid of the toilet open on a ship, lest the medicine cabinet fly open and empty its contents into it!

    When morning came (which is difficult to tell with the nearly constant daylight), the rolling lessened just a bit. I crawled to the couch and shot some video. My cabin was on deck 5 in the bow of the ship, so the windows point slightly skyward. So when sitting on the couch in a calm sea, I should see only the sky. As you can see in the video, I was able to see sky and sea alternating. That gives you an idea of the roll of the ship. You can also get an idea of the roll by the movement of the sunlight through the window.

    I later checked with the bridge and found out that the worst roll that night was 30 degrees to each side, with waves as much as 6 meters. The wind was a Force 8 gale on the Beaufort scale. The Drake wasn't as bad as it could have been, but I was happy I put the seasick-prevention patch on.

    Our Captain adjusted our course, changing the itinerary, so that the ship (M/V Polar Star) was going with the sea rather than against it. That smoothed out the rest of the passage considerably.

    The passage on the way back from Antarctica was essentially smooth, the waves being only 3 to 4 meters. and the wind a Force 6 strong breeze.

  • The Southern Ocean

    Until a few months ago, I thought the Earth had four oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Indian. Then I found out about the Southern Ocean—the sea that surrounds the continent of Antarctica. You could claim that the waters in the area belong to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. But there is a boundary that separates the Southern ocean from its northern siblings—the Antarctic convergence. On my recent trip to Antarctica, I not only saw the Southern ocean but I stepped into it each time I took a Zodiac to the shore.

    The Antarctic convergence is the place where cold water from Antarctica meets the warmer northern waters. Unlike a land boundary, the convergence zone fluctuates somewhat throughout the year. The icy cold water moves towards the bottom of the sea, sliding under the warmer water. It's at this point where the climate changes and along with it the marine and bird life. Although I couldn't see the exact point at which the Southern ocean began, it was obvious I was in a new ocean after our ship (M/V Polar Star) had entered it. The outside temperature was noticeably colder. Albatrosses and petrels followed the ship. Icebergs began to show on the horizon. We spotted fin whales.

    When you look at the map of the Southern ocean, you'll notice that the band of water circles the globe. Because the ocean is unconstrained by land, the waves can get quite wild. The open ocean and temperature differences create intense cyclones that travel eastward around the continent. Fortunately I didn't encounter any cyclones during my trip.

  • Verdansky: Where the Ozone Hole Was Discovered

    The Antarctic ozone hole was discovered in 1985 by British scientists Joesph Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. I recently had the opportunity to visit the scientific station where the discovery took place. As you can see in the photo, the station proudly advertises its discovery with a sign in the main hallway.

    Verdansky base (also known as Faraday)—now owned by the Ukranian government—has a long history. It has been populated for the past 63 years (to the day—starting in 07 Jan 1947). The British occupied the station until 1996 when it was sold for a nominal fee to the Ukranians. The spot is particularly good for observing the ionosphere and performing meteorlogical and geophysical studies because it is located at a high geographic latitude and a low magnetic latitude.

    The Ukranians are not restricting their activities to research. They make vodka, have a gift shop, and run a post office. You'll hear more about their vodka bar in a future post.

  • Verdansky: The Southernmost Bar (and Bra?)

    That's not a misspelling. The bar and bra have a connection. Read on and you'll find out.

     The Verdansky Antarctic scientific station has a few side businesses that open only when tourist ships visit the area—a Post Office, a souvenir shop, and the Faraday Bar. They claim the souvenir shop and bar are the most southern. I'm not sure I believe them. It seems McMurdo must have some enterprising scientists there as well.

    If you mail a postcard, keep in mind that your mail first goes to the Ukraine before going to its intended destination. I chose not to use their P.O. and instead waited to mail letters from Port Lockroy, the British station. Port Lockroy sends their mail to England first, which is much closer to any of the destinations that I addressed my mail to.

    The souvenir shop is the most high-priced on the Antarctic peninsula. There are two other souvenir shops—one run by the Polish and the other by the British. Verdansky was our first stop at a scientific station, so I didn't have that bit of knowledge at the time, but now I can pass it on to you! The prices are from 50 to 100 percent over similar things in the states. Someone pointed out to me that the markup was likely due to transportation costs. Before I disembarked to take a Zodiac to the station, I noticed a few boxes near the gangway on our ship that were labeled "souvenirs." I suspect that our ship delivered the packages to the Ukrainians so they could have us buy them and bring them back to the ship! If so, doesn't that warrant a discount? Avoid the Ukranian shop. The British shop is best, so hold out for Port Lockroy and much less expensive. 

    The Ukrainians make their own vodka and sell shots at Faraday Bar. We arrived at Verdansky at 9:00 AM—a little early in the day for drinking vodka. But in a place where the sun never sets, the exact time matters less and less as one bright day slips into the next. (The Ukrainian scientists drink only once a week, I'm told. The bar is closed until a ship shows up.)

    You have two options for paying for a shot.  Either you leave a bra at the bar or you pay $2. I saw two bras hanging there. Notice the red one in the photo, just to the right of the younger man's shoulder. The other bra (not in the photo) was left by a senior woman on a previous Polar Star cruise. Judging by the fact the bra was hung in the window as a sort of curtain, I'd have to conclude that it was a rather large woman who left the bra.

    Leave a bra or pay $2? I didn't think this one over too long. It was an easy choice. Pay the $2. My bras are worth at least $20 each. I would expect that one of them would be worth enough to buy a round for my best buddies on the ship.  I paid the $2 and tossed the vodka. I made the right choice. It was tasty vodka, but certainly not worth $20 a shot. At $2, however, it is the best deal on the base. If you go, drink up!

    (Verdanksy is where the ozone hole was discovered.)

  • An Octopus in Antarctica: Do you recognize it?

    I don't know what to say about this creature. The expedition staff on our cruise had never seen an octopus in Antarctica. This one was in the shallow water near Port Lockroy. If you have any ideas on what species it is, please let me know. I saw this octopus in the swallow water of Port Lockroy. (Photos courtesy of Glen Gould.)

    The octopus swims away.

    NOTE: After first posting this, Dr. Brian Grieg Fry (http://www.venomdoc.com/) suggested "Little hard to tell from the photo, but based on your description of size (most Antarctic specces are quite small), I’d say most likely Megaleledone setebos They get much larger than that."

  • Royal Albatross: A Constant Companion in the Southern Ocean

    One of the ways to tell that you've passed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Southern Ocean is the appearance of albatrosses. This Royal Albatross is one of the several kinds of sea birds that became constant companions to the Polar Star during my recent expedition to Antarctica. (Photo copyright Glen Gould.)

    Like many living creatures on earth, the albatross faces many threats. 100,000 albatrosses die each year from ingesting fish hooks. Most of the hooks are discarded by fishing boats when the fisherman toss out waste and bait. BirdLife International is trying to stop these deaths with their Save the Albatross campaign. Check it out.

  • Petrels Walk on Water

    When the petrel sea bird feeds, its feet patter on the surface of the water. It almost looks as if the bird is walking on water. There is a story in the bible about St. Peter walking on water. Hundreds of years ago someone familiar with that story named the bird after St. Peter. At least that's what I've been told.


    Petrels are a type of pelagic bird—they live on the open sea, flying to land only to breed. Non-pelagic birds fly close to shore; seeing them is a sign that land is nearby. If you can't tell a pelagic bird from a non-pelagic one, you'll be sorely disappointed if you're lost at sea and encounter petrels. You might think you are close to land when in fact it's no where in the vicinity of your boat.

    Because they fly for long periods of time, petrels have thin legs. Their legs can't support their weight very well, which is one reason stay at sea except when they need to breed.

    Petrels—and other pelagic birds—drink sea water. You or I would die if we drank that much salt. How do these birds survive? They have a specially built bill that has nostril tubes for blowing out salt. If you look closely, you can see the saline dripping out of the tubes.

    When I was in Antarctica recently, I saw 10 different varieties of petrels. They appeared soon after we crossed the Antarctic convergence zone, circling the ship while we were in open waters. One of my favorites is the Cape Petrel. It has the most amazing pattern on its wings. It almost looks stenciled on its back.

    Photos copyright Glen Gould.

  • Humpback Whale Teases Tourists

    That's what it felt like during my recent trip to Antarctica. A tail here, a fin there, and the occasional glimpse of a blow hole or mouth. My companions and I wanted to see more.


    We were sitting in a small Zodiac boat in icy cold water watching mammals that are 50 feet long. What if one came up under the boat? I guess we trusted the whales knew what they were doing. They trusted we weren't going to harpoon them.


    You might have seen photos of whales jumping out of the water. That's what we wanted to see. But these whales were feeding. Feeding humpbacks don't do that, which made watching them a challenge. The whales typically approach a large gathering of krill from below, then drive them towards the surface, with mouth open. The whale engulfs the krill, snaps its mouth shut, and squishes the water out. A tasty meal. (First three photos copyright Glen Gould.)


    A humpback whale mouth. Photo courtesy of the Polar Star staff.

  • Polar Bears in Antarctica?

    A few people asked me if I saw any polar bears during my recent trip to Antarctica. No, I didn't. Polar bears live in the Arctic. If you want to see them, either go to Canada (where 60% of them live) or get to some other Arctic location, like Point Barrow, Alaska. Find out more about them and their melting habitat on David Suzuki's website.

    One person asked me if I met any Antarctica natives. In fact, I met several thousands of them. They live there only part of the year, so you might argue they don't qualify as natives. Unfortunately we had a big communication problem. I don't speak penguin. Penguins are very communicative with each other. After watching them for awhile, I could understand their primary motivation in life—fish and reproduction. A few seem to have some other interests, like racing! This photo shows a Chinstrap and an Adele penguin raceing. (All photos copyright Glen Gould 2010.)

  • A Penguin in Your Zodiac?

    What do you do when a penguin jumps in your boat? Snap a photo of the penguin if the boat is landed. If you are in the boat and a leopard seal is chasing the penguin, toss the penguin back into the water—FAST! You don't want a hungry leopard seal in the boat. The seal will grab the penguin by its feet and smack it around until it's dead.

    Leopard seals supposedly perform some fancy flipping maneuver that effectively skins the penguin, but I've also read the seal simply keeps flailing the penguin until it gets ripped into eatable pieces. The prospect of such a gruesome death is probably why a penguin flees so fast and will take the opportunity to jump into a Zodiac if it happens to be around. The Adelie penguin in this photo is just curious. No one chasing him. (Photo courtesy of Polar Star expedition staff.)

  • Striped Icebergs?

    When I was in Antarctica, I saw a few icebergs that had linear voids where ice melted out. These were typically icebergs that flipped or tipped on their side. The sections melted when that part of the iceberg was underwater. These voids can fill up with sea water that's rich in algae, creating the striped effect you see in this image.

    For more information, see Snopes on Striped Icebergs.

    Thanks to The Wanderer for this tip!

  • Ice Shelves Disappearing on Antarctic Peninsula

    Ice-front retreat in part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula from 1947 to 2009. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

    This article appears courtesy of the USGS. Thanks to Elizabeth Laden of Island Park News for the tip.

    "Ice shelves are retreating in the southern section of the Antarctic Peninsula due to climate change. This could result in glacier retreat and sea-level rise if warming continues, threatening coastal communities and low-lying islands worldwide.

    Research by the U.S. Geological Survey is the first to document that every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990. The USGS previously documented that the majority of ice fronts on the entire Peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

    The ice shelves are attached to the continent and already floating, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level.

    This research is part of a larger ongoing USGS project that is for the first time studying the entire Antarctic coastline in detail, and this is important because the Antarctic ice sheet contains 91 percent of Earth’s glacier ice,” said USGS scientist Jane Ferrigno. “The loss of ice shelves is evidence of the effects of global warming. We need to be alert and continually understand and observe how our climate system is changing.”

    The Peninsula is one of Antarctica’s most rapidly changing areas because it is farthest away from the South Pole, and its ice shelf loss may be a forecast of changes in other parts of Antarctica and the world if warming continues.

    Retreat along the southern part of the Peninsula is of particular interest because that area has the Peninsula’s coolest temperatures, demonstrating that global warming is affecting the entire length of the Peninsula.

    The Antarctic Peninsula’s southern section as described in this study contains five major ice shelves: Wilkins, George VI, Bach, Stange and the southern portion of Larsen Ice Shelf. The ice lost since 1998 from the Wilkins Ice Shelf alone totals more than 4,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

    The USGS is working collaboratively on this project with the British Antarctic Survey, with the assistance of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Germany’s Bundesamt f?r Kartographie und Geodäsie. The research is also part of the USGS Glacier Studies Project, which is monitoring and describing glacier extent and change over the whole planet using satellite imagery."

    The report, “Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947—2009” and its accompanying map is available online.

    The other completed reports in the Coastal Change and Glaciological Maps of Antarctica series can be viewed online.