published Monday, December 19th, 2011

Journey to Antarctica - Gentoo-Fest!

Thom Benson
Follow live updates as the Tennessee Aquarium's Thom Benson travels to Antarctica from Chattanooga

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    Enterprise Island Gouvernoren wreck
    Photo by Thom Benson

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    Gentoo Rockery Cuverville Island
    Photo by Thom Benson

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

We are greeted early each morning by the voice of expedition leader Larry Hobbs over the ship's public address system saying, "Good morning everyone, it's another beautiful day in Antarctica!" Not only was the day beautiful, we marked the 100th Anniversary of the Roald Amundsen Party reaching the South Pole today.

Yesterday, Antarctic historian Bob Burton gave a wonderful presentation about this achievement. When you hear the complete story, it's interesting to learn that a polar explorer like Amundsen was searching for more than just the location where all of the lines of longitude meet. He had hoped that being the first person to reach the South Pole would generate enough excitement to fund his further exploration around the North Pole. Yet if you read his words, it appears that this land at the bottom of the world changed Amundsen's life in a profound way. "Glittering white, shining blue, raven black, in the light of the sun the land looks like a fairy tale. Pinnacle after pinnacle, peak after peak, crevassed, wild as any land on our globe, it lies unseen and untrodden," wrote Amundsen.

We saw two of those places today. Our group geared up early for a Zodiac tour of the bay around Enterprise Island. According to the expedition notes, the island got its name to commemorate the "enterprising success" of whalers operating in the area. This location was a major center of the industry from 1916 to 1930. One of the vessels operating in the waters around Enterprise Island was the whaling ship, "Gouvernoren" that caught fire and sunk around 1915. Today that ship is great habitat for nesting Antarctic terns. We were afforded many great birding opportunities including a few Chinstrap penguins.

After a chance to recharge our batteries, both literally and figuratively, we headed out again at Cuverville Island - home to thousands of breeding pairs of gentoo penguins. These guys are every bit as entertaining to observe as the gentoos at the Tennessee Aquarium. Two noticeable differences: Many of the gentoos on Cuverville are covered in filth. The nesting sites are pretty muddy, but the birds seem quite content when they are not defending their nests from egg-stealing skuas. Several were seen flying off with stolen eggs to a raucous cacophony of calling by upset gentoos. Rocks were being carried around by many of the penguins and I even saw a few carrying small sticks, bits of moss and a few small blades of grass.

The snow was slushy as we hiked up the rugged hillside above the main rookery. We had fun sliding down the hill, but apparently the penguins prefer walking downhill rather than tobogganing down the slopes on their bellies.

Antarctica really assaults your senses. Your skin feels the icy cold blasts of wind whenever they begin to roar, as well as the icy sting of snow or sleet hitting your face. The sights, sounds and yes, even the smells of this place were almost overwhelming. One hundred years later, much of what Amundsen said about this land remains true. Looking like a fairy tale, Antarctica is a beautifully wild place that still holds many untrodden, and perhaps even unseen spaces.

If you'd like to experience the sounds of Antarctica, go to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library: http://macaulaylibrary.org http://macaulaylibrary.org/ You can hear audio clips of brown skuas, fur seals, crabeater seals, (Snoring chainsaw), Weddell Seals (clicks and chirps like something out of Dr. Who) chinstrap penguins, southern elephant seals (Gassy) and more.

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Humphrey said...

Great pictures!

December 19, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.
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