Vail travel: Stormy passage to crystalline dreams
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
The world seems to get smaller every day, but there are still plenty of remote destinations. Antarctica
is definitely one of them. Along with the sheer distances involved, there are other obstacles. From Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, where Leigh and I began our trip, the challenge is crossing the Drake Passage, known for ferocious storms that can easily toss around even the biggest big ships as if they were bits of flotsam.
Southbound, part way through the passage, we cross the Antarctic convergence zone, where cold waters flowing away from the frozen continent mix with warmer waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The convergence is part of the circumpolar current – the world’s largest – carrying 130 million cubic meters of water per second, or 100 times the volume of all the world’s rivers combined. Temperature and salinity change dramatically at the convergence, supporting distinctly different types of marine life on either side.
Based on those contrasts, hydrographers recognize the area south of the convergence as a discrete body of water and a unique ecologic region. In 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization designated the region south of the current as the Southern Ocean. The mixing waters nurture huge swarms of plankton and krill, forming the basis for a prolific food chain that sustains thousands of whales, the world’s largest animals.
In recent years, increased ultraviolet radiation through the Antarctic ozone hole has reduced phytoplankton productivity by as much as 15 percent and damaged the DNA of some fish. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing has depleted stocks of some species unique to the area, including Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish, sold commercially as Chilean sea bass.
There are also concerns about how climate change and melting Antarctic ice might affect the convergence zone. The circumpolar current helps regulate global climate, but these potential impacts are poorly understood.
For about 12 hours during our voyage across the Drake, Leigh and I feel like we’re stuck inside a giant, slow-motion spin cycle. The M/V Professor Molchanov groans and creaks, rolls, pitches and yaws. Every now and then, the bow of the ship splashes hard into the face of a 20-foot wave, raking our fifth-level cabin windows with a heavy dose of spray. At the peak of the gale in the middle of the night, a few chairs get tossed around like dollhouse furniture, and every step requires a steadying handhold.
But the next morning, it’s smooth sailing once again. We visit the bridge to look for whales and Captain Nikolay Parfenyuk tells us it could have been much worse.”Mr. Drake is sleeping. He is not hungry today. Mrs. Drake is saying hello to all of you,” the captain jokes in his Russian accent.
Only a few passengers are awake at dawn, perched on the bow as the Molchanov enters the Antarctic Sound. Sunrise tinges the sea and ice with surreal shades of lipstick-pink and tangerine-orange. Just off the bow, a group of penguins arc through the glassy water like a fleet of mini-dolphins. The birds have evolved to become powerful swimmers. They move their short stubby wings in a flying motion to propel themselves under water, yet something from their past is telling them to try and take flight.
“They’re trying to fly,” expedition leader Jan Belgers says later. Even though the birds gave up the sky for the sea eons ago, they still have some genetic memory of what it must be like to soar through the air, Belgers explains.
As we enter the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, the maze of icebergs grows tighter. The captain maneuvers the Molchanov through the frozen crystalline garden past a fantastic variety of bergs. Some are washed smooth by waves and wind, while others are jagged like shards of broken glass. As we approach our first landing site, we spot a pod of cruising orcas. A few elusive 30-foot minke whales, among the smallest cetaceans, also surface near the Molchanov. The minkes stay close to Antarctic shores and are one of the whale species that don’t migrate northward, spending even the winter in icy Antarctic waters.
Weddell and leopard seals lounge on flat floes, the latter looking fat and happy after feasting on this year’s crop of penguin chicks.
Our Dutch expedition leaders have loosely conceived this part of trip to follow in the footsteps of early polar explorers. The Antarctic Sound was first navigated in 1902 by a Swedish expedition under Otto Otto Nordenskiöld in a ship named the Antarctic, under the command of Captain Carl Anton Larsen.
Larsen’s ship was eventually crushed by the ice of the Weddell Sea and his crew was stranded for months on Paulet Island. As we putter toward the shore of the small circular chunk of volcanic rock, we spot the outlines of a tiny stone cabin where 20 men took shelter. After spending a fiercely cold winter on the island, part of Larsen’s crew traveled over the ice dragging sleds and seeking rescue. Eventually, all the men but one were recovered by an Argentine vessel. A simple wooden cross set back from the beach marks the grave of Ole Kristian Wennersgaard, a 22-year-old sailor who died on the island in pursuit of science and exploration.
Paulet Island is home to a major adelie penguin colony during the Austral spring and early summer. When we arrive in early March (late summer in the southern hemisphere) most of the penguins are gone. But the remains of their rookery, in the form of pungent pink guano, is still evident. The acrid smell wafts across the water and our beach crossing to the uplands involves a hike through some awfully smelly turf. A few straggling adelies remain, along with dozens of fur seals lounging on ice floes and along the beach. Nearby, is a nesting group of blue-eyed shags, the only members of the cormorant family to venture to Antarctica proper.
As late-afternoon sun slants across the bay, the captain calls us back to the ship. The ice is closing in and he doesn’t want to get stuck. We flop back into the Zodiacs and speed back out to the Molchanov. Next stop, Dundee Island, and then mainland Antarctica, where some travelers in our group will fulfill their lifelong dream of visiting all seven continents.
Snow usually comes and goes in this part of the state. A forecasted storm is expected to stick around for a while. Forecasters are calling for snow to persist throughout the weekend in the high country, with a prospect of a couple of feet of powder by the time the storm starts to diminish on Monday.