Penguins: The Rules of Engagement

My friend Cathy called my attention to a story that ran in the Washington Post the other day, titled “Antarctica is Such a Trendy Vacation Spot That Chinese Officials Made a Don’t-Touch-Penguins Rule.” Apparently Chinese tourists are flocking to the Antarctic in such large numbers that China suddenly realized it didn’t have any guidelines for their behavior, which, as a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, it’s supposed to have.

I’m actually not sure how you could manage to visit Antarctica without encountering the rules for being a good visitor. On our trip last month, we had a mandatory briefing on the second day we were on the ship, well before we reached Antarctica. The briefing is a requirement of the International Association of Antarctic Trip Operators, or IAATO, which works very hard to keep Antarctica pristine.

We were required to vacuum our outerwear and backpacks before heading onshore.

There was stuff I’d never thought of, such as the need to decontaminate your outerwear so that you don’t inadvertently bring new plant species on shore. Our expedition leader cited a study of 55 voyages to Antarctica, in which 30 percent of visitors were found to have plant seeds clinging to them—usually on their footwear, backpacks, or camera bags. The seeds belonged to 250 different species of plants. So later that day we all headed to the ship’s lounge, where we used portable vacuum cleaners to go over every inch of any gear or outerwear that we planned to take on shore—with special attention to Velcro, which is a big culprit when it comes to carrying seeds. Read more

A Very Long Stay at Deception Island

We were told at the beginning of the Expedition to Antarctica that “flexibility” would be the word for the trip, and that’s proving to be especially true today. Our itinerary for today called for us to visit Deception Island in the morning, then sail about three hours north to Half Moon Island to see a colony of chinstrap penguins. (Most of what we’ve seen so far have been Gentoo penguins, which are definitely cute, but chinstrap penguins are flat-out adorable.) We accomplished the Deception Island part just fine, but that’s where things stalled out. A weather front came through with a lot more strength than expected, and we’ve been experiencing snow and strong winds—so strong that we’re stuck here until the storm passes.

At right is a shot (click on it to see it larger) of what the scene looked like out our dining-room window at lunchtime. The weather in Antarctica is so changeable. We’ve seen fog, rain, bitter cold, and bright sunny days where we were sweating like crazy in our ship-issued red parkas. But I think even the crew is surprised at today’s all-day snow in the middle of the Antarctic summer.

We did have a more or less successful landing at Deception Island this morning. The island is actually Read more

Antarctica Dreaming

I spent a little time yesterday looking in detail at where, exactly, in Antarctica we’ll be going. I looked at the itinerary and did a little Googling about each of the places we’ll visit. Then this morning I got out the Antarctic Explorer map that our editorial assistant at the magazine, Barb Fries, got me for Christmas and tried to plot our path. I’ve got it all figured out! So much so that I’m sure the captain won’t mind letting me steer the ship.

We really don’t go deep into Antarctica—we spend all of our time around the Antarctic Peninsula, a tendril-like slice of land and islands that extends about 800 miles north from the continent. Most of our stops are on islands; only once, I think, do we actually set foot on the mainland.

Below is a section of my Antarctic Explorer map that zooms in on our first few stops (I’ve underlined them in red):

At Port Lockroy, our first stop, we should be able to see the skeleton of a blue whale, as well as Gentoo penguins and blue-eyed shags (the latter being a bird I took for granted on my last trip, but do a Google Images search and you’ll see just how beautiful they are). I think this is also where Read more