published Monday, December 19th, 2011

Setting foot on the Antarctic Continent

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

Friday, December 16th, 2011

We awoke this morning to another rainy day. Expedition leader Larry Hobbs, who has been coming to Antarctica for more than 25 years, has never seen two consecutive days of rainy weather in Antarctica before. "It's another sign of how rapidly things are changing in this part of the world," Hobbs said.

In spite of the light showers, we had a wonderful time at our first stop in Neko Harbor. When you are dressed properly, the weather is taken out of the equation. We were welcomed ashore as we set foot on the Antarctic Continent for the first time. (All of our other landings were on islands to this point.) For some passengers, this was the milestone "Seventh Continent." Others were able to say they had gotten the most difficult journey out of the way first, hoping to eventually travel to the remaining continents on their life lists.

Another gentoo rookery is located at this landing site and we enjoyed the antics of these birds from several different vantage points. Some birds were incubating eggs and aggressively defending their nests from rock-stealing neighbors while others were busy keeping an eye out for marauding skuas. It was especially fun to watch the penguins at this location bathing in the clear waters near the shoreline. They would clean their feathers and splash around before zooming away underwater for their morning meal of krill.

Several huge, blue blocks of ice across the harbor appeared as if they break loose at any time. Our guides asked us to stay away from the beachfront in case that happened. If it would have, a sizable tidal wave would have been generated that could have had bad consequences. So when a large cracking sound was heard, virtually everyone looked across the harbor. Higher up, a pretty big piece of snow and ice was cascading down the jagged mountain face. From a distance it didn't look like much, but I'm almost certain that tons of snow and ice were involved in that small avalanche. I got video of that crash and one that followed about a half hour later.

Off in the distance some porpoising gentoos caught my eye. They were zigzagging in an attempt to escape a leopard seal. The action was moving a bit to rapidly to capture on camera, but it was interesting to watch. It's a little too early for leopard seals to be hunting penguins. They have better luck a bit later in the breeding season when juvenile penguins are learning to swim.

Later in the morning we set sail for Paradise Bay, a short cut the captain was hoping to use was blocked by a huge tabular ice berg and the entrance to the passage appeared to be choked with ice. So we took "the scenic route." Whenever the sun would break through the clouds, you were treated to truly unimaginable sights. (You begin to run out of superlatives for Antarctica pretty quickly.)

There's an abandoned Argentine research station located at the head of Paradise Bay. The brightly painted red buildings really stand out from the black, white, gray and blue colors of the surrounding landscape. Blue and white would dominate our views today as the bay was choked with icebergs of various sizes and it was snowing heavily. This was a wet snow with huge, "horsefeather" type flakes. Because of the ice, we were not able to land near the Argentine station, but we were able to enjoy a magical Zodiac tour of the bay.

We spent more than one hour slowly easing up on tabular ice bergs, getting close to sea birds and slipping through the so called "grease ice" that was forming in the bay. Even though we didn't get to shore one last time, this excursion felt like we were traveling inside a giant snow globe that had just been shaken vigorously and set down to be admired.

Every evening we enjoy an expedition recap, learning more about what we had experienced and what the next day would bring. During this evening's recap, the captain took the stage to give us a weather briefing. He was able to make us all laugh about the challenges we were about to face as we re-enter the Drake Passage. The weather system that had been responsible for our wet and snowy conditions today was passing by us to the North. We were going to experience some rough seas as we ventured out into open water.

After the briefing adjourned, everyone headed to their rooms to lash things down before taking the captain's advice and eating a quick meal. Shortly after dinner the winds started raging, peaking at 74 knots - the lower threshold for hurricane force winds. The seas were pretty choppy as we watched the waves breaking over the bow. Occasionally the spray would cover the windows of our perch inside the observation lounge on the 6th deck.

We had two days of "Lake Drake" on the way to Antarctica, now we got a few hours of what it's normally like in the Southern Ocean. And a couple of the boat's crew members said this storm paled in comparison to what they have seen before. I spent some time videotaping the action without experiencing seasickness, so I suppose I have officially earned my sea legs.

Tomorrow's weather is expected to be more calm. We have a few more adventures on board before packing our bags for port and the lengthy flights back home.

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