By John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of Vancouver Aquarium.
We have finally reached the “true” Antarctic – the peninsula that extends from the continent towards South America. I say finally because we deliberately joined this particular expedition to see the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands – as well as the Antarctic Peninsula. That meant that most of our time was taken up visiting those places, and transiting the hundreds of kilometres between them, which means our visit to our ultimate destination, Antarctica, is at the end of our trip. The weather has generally been less than what we might have hoped for – lots of wind and waves have also meant extra time at sea navigating between destinations. That said, it’s been worth the wait!
Everything, except a few rocky outcrops at the edge of the sea, is covered by ice and snow. Glaciers start at the edge of saltwater and run up and away into the distance as far as the eye can see. Large patches of blue ice in the glaciers make them beautiful – and more so when the sun shines (which it hasn’t for us yet). Blue ice comes about when the ice in glaciers is compressed by their huge weight, squeezing out any air bubbles. This very dense, truly glacial ice, is absolutely clear to look at when we can find a small piece, but because it reflects back only blue light, it looks blue in a large iceberg.
Because the Antarctic continent is covered almost completely by a thick blanket of glaciers – often to four or five kilometres thick – it generates its own weather. That much ice creates a huge negative thermal mass – or mass of very cold air. In addition, the interior of Antarctica is at elevations of several thousand to over 10,000 feet. The cold air sliding downhill picks up speed and becomes a fierce wind that scientists call katabatic winds. They flow down the glaciers, picking up speed, and come out over the water with sudden gale force.
In addition to coping with unexpected winds, we have found ourselves ashore or going ashore in snow storms. It is summer here, but the temperatures have been hovering just below freezing, dropping to even colder temperatures in pockets. We came prepared, and are dressing much like you would to go skiing – long johns and several layers, topped off with a heavy raincoat and rain pants. Rubber boots, or “willies,” as the boat has taken to calling them, top off our gear. Hats and gloves are a must. Some of our explorers with foresight even brought ski goggles – something that has helped in dealing with the winds we have experienced.
None of that has deterred us from boarding the Zodiacs for shore two to three times each day to go explore a penguin rookery, look for marine mammals (such as minke whales or humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)), or soaking up some of the history. While Antarctica is unusual in that no one ever lived here, the whale and seal hunters of the early 1900s (through about 1960) built whaling stations and left whale oil holding tanks, as well as other remnants of a bygone era. In other words, no one on our vessel, the Akademik Ioffe, is bored. Perhaps a bit chilly sometimes, but not bored. For many, visiting “the Great White South” is a trip of a lifetime, and our explorers are bound and determined to take back photos and memories of everything we are doing and seeing.
John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, is currently on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica with a group of explorers. He is providing regular updates during the journey.