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Tim returns from Antarctica! Updated STORY and NEW PHOTOS! (Mar 04)

AntarcticaNews In January (2004) Tim took up an opportunity to guide and guest lecture for six weeks with Peregrine Adventure on the Antarctic Peninsula. It was Tim’s first time to the Antarctic and he returned with vivid impressions of a continent that is still overwhelmingly wild. Read his story below and VIEW THE NEW ANTARCTIC PHOTO GALLERY!(this gallery includes more than 60 new pics with captions) AN ANTARCTIC EXPERIENCE 'The ship plunged into a wave, forever rising in search of the crest. Lying in my bunk I felt as if my stomach was suddenly pressing onto my spine. All six and a half thousand tonnes of ship shuddered. Then we were falling, waiting to hit the bottom, my stomach thrown the other way pressing onto my lower ribs. I dared not stand up in fear of making an all too common lunge for the basin and sick-bag. Out the porthole I could just make out the looming dark giants that were thrashing the side, often sending water gushing over the deck. Twenty-four hours earlier I had boarded the ship in Ushuaia en-route for the Antarctic Peninsula. What had begun as a smooth sail out the Beagle Channel from Argentine Tierra Del Fuego had quickly become my first encounter with a Southern Ocean storm, or more specifically the Drake Passage. Here the Southern Ocean swell is funnelled into the relatively shallow and narrow gap between Cape Horn (the southernmost tip of South America) and the Antarctic Peninsula. This creates some of the most infamously rough seas in the world. As I lay on my back trying to deal with my own waves -of nausea- I wondered what lay in store over the coming six weeks. This was the first of three voyages working as a guest lecturer and guide with Peregrine Adventure. I hoped that at the very least I would find my sea legs onboard my new home, the Russian owned and run ‘Akademik Sergei Vavilov.’ As the wind exceeded 60 knots and the swell increased to up to fifteen metres, it wasn’t so much the screaming wind and waves that worried me. On a modern built ice-strengthened ship 117m in length, the voyage is relatively luxurious let alone safe. First class cuisine was still served at every meal break and in the bar one could relax with a beer and watch the storm brewing (albeit with an anti sea sickness patch). What knotted my stomach most was peering beyond the glass of my porthole and imagining the old wooden square-rigger ships ploughing the ocean wilderness. What was it like for the first explorers who worked with just sails and timber, and maps that were based on speculation? This wonderment about historical travel to Antarctica was something that we would meet at almost every turn during the journeys ahead. Two days later the ship was gliding across waters of silk. As the sun nudged into the sky a golden light spilt over the horizon onto the icebergs that floated on the sea like glistening castles. On the deck we gathered with cameras to capture the ethereal light greeting our arrival to the Antarctic Circle. The minimal discomfort of the Drake Passage passed into insignificance. Beyond the floating monoliths came the first glimpses of the Antarctic Peninsula. The feet of the peninsula rose from the ocean in dramatic ice cliffs to glaciers that seemed to be paused in mid tumble. Above them spires of rock draped in ice rose into bands of wind-whipped clouds. Every now and then a peak could be seen piercing through towards the clearing sky. As I quickly learnt, the scale of the mass of ice and rock could be misleading. What appeared to be small cracks and fissures from afar were actually gaping 2-10 metre-wide crevasses. The tongues of glaciers sticking out into the water were often 30 metres or more in height, dwarfing the ship. And yet the same ice was dwarfed by the backdrop of a myriad of mountains that routinely rose to above 1000m. At once the enormity was overwhelming, even more so when I came to realise that the peninsula is merely the fingernail of the Antarctic continent. Anyone who had ever claimed to have ‘conquered’ such territory and claimed it for Queen and country had obviously been dabbling in a bit of far-fetched imagination (and probably a fair quantity of rum). Early explorers were, more realistically, testing the fragile window of opportunity for human survival in Antarctica, rather than ‘overcoming’ the elements of the far south. Arriving in Antarctica by ship I felt was not much different than doing so by air travel. Whilst we had finally ‘landed,’ we were still far removed, waiting for transit to the real thing. For me, that moment of being struck by reality came with the lowering of zodiacs and sea-kayaks. At first we made a path for a Weddell Seal on an iceberg in the distance. As we neared, it was roused from a snooze and momentarily opened its saucer-sized dark eyes. It seemed interested for a few seconds before nodding back to sleep. It was obviously disappointed that we weren’t in fact giant krill. On another berg a glistening, wet, Leopard Seal was wriggling into a comfortable position, resting its belly after a fishing run. We came to know the Leopard Seal well with its reptilian neck and formidable jaw-line. They are the hunters of the Antarctic, with almost 50 percent of their diet consisting of Penguins. You could smell the first landing site long before it came into focus. The stench of several thousand breeding pairs of Adelie penguins is definitely something you don’t grasp from photos. Onshore they waddled, and slipped, and slid, and motored on, either from their nests to the water or carrying regurgitation pellets back from the sea for the young ones. What was surprising was how far these penguins –who don’t look very well equipped for walking- wander uphill to nest. They form highways that head up steep slopes to heights of 200-300m. Back on the zodiacs, it wasn’t long before we were engrossed by a few circling Minke Whales. Their dorsal fins cut the water with grace and speed. Some individuals were also breaching the surface as if to catch a glimpse of the strange tourists. In what would become a routine for the remainder of the journeys, some whales would even glide under the zodiac and nudge the rubber before surfacing within a few centimetres of the boats. Several days later we had the same experience with Humpbacks (far larger animals.) Rolling onto their backs, spy-hopping, and showing their flukes all seemed to be part of a mutual show of curiosity. Being downwind of a Humpback with bad halitosis when it surfaced, and being drenched in its spray, added to the experience. Returning to the ship always felt surreal and made me wonder whether what we had just seen was merely a theatrical production. It didn’t take long to realise that in many ways we were merely visitors bearing witness to another world. From afar it may have seemed like Antarctica was an empty place ruled by ice, but up close it was clear that this was indeed the kingdom of the animals. The curiosity, indifference, and obvious lack of fear shown by the wildlife towards us made me feel that humans just did not belong. This, coupled with the fact that Antarctica does not come under any national jurisdiction, gives one the sense that it truly is the last wild continent on earth. The first voyage as a whole left me bombarded with so many new sights and feelings that I was disorientated. Passage back to Ushuaia was a good opportunity to digest everything. A week and two Drake crossings later the ship was being cautiously steered into the sub-antarctic waters of South Georgia. This large mountainous island is riddled with history and legend. When Captain Cook first discovered its shores he thought he had discovered Antarctica and triumphantly placed a flag in the earth among the King Penguins. It escaped attention for a long time afterwards until sealers – who had decimated the fur seal populations of South America- arrived looking for new resources. As a result, the fur seals on South Georgia were hunted into economic extinction. Next came the whalers. The whaling stations were also used as bases for exploration of Antarctica. The most notable of the explorers connected with South Georgia was Ernest Shackleton, whose grave can be seen today at the old Norweigan whaling station of Grytviken. South Georgia was also the flashpoint for the start of the Falklands war, adding to its varied history. As we loaded into the zodiacs and headed to shore into driving rain and freezing salt spray, I couldn’t help wonder what the wildlife made of this peculiar human activity. King Penguins were diving in and out of the water, unperturbed by the weather, going about their timeless daily routine. On shore the surrounding plains and hills were teeming with a plethora of life. 100,000 King Penguins formed a carpet rich in colour and movement. Growing up to 90cm in height they are the second largest of all penguins, and with vivid orange and yellow markings are the most visually capturing. They are also the most curious of the penguins, and often approach to peck at boots, backpack straps, or just to stare at the rather strange upstanding seals. Lying low among the tussock grass meanwhile, the enormous ‘blubber mountains’ of Elephant Seals grunted randomly. They dwarfed the baby fur seals that frolicked in the shallows. Today the fur seals have hit back and already number more than one million. Like space travellers arriving on a different planet we landed and wandered about in awe. The orchestra of grunting, squawking and squealing hit the senses like an amplifier at full volume. And yet there was also a great sense of calm, as if there was a harmony that often eludes our own human societies. The afternoon was just as surreal with a visit to Albatross island where, from a distance, you could view nesting Wandering Albatross. The Wanderer is the largest flying bird on earth, and is a true ocean dweller travelling throughout the Southern Ocean on fishing missions. Watching an Albatross fly back to a nest is not unlike viewing a jumbo making a tricky landing at an airport, gliding and turning, eventually coming to a halt with magnificent grace. Unfortunately the Wanderer and other Albatross species are under threat by the long line fishing industry. Their numbers are dropping dramatically every year. By morning the rain had cleared and the true drama of the landscape was being played out. The olive green shoreline and hills merged with scree slopes and glaciers that dangled from precarious rock faces. The mountains rising 3000m seemed as lofty and white as the clouds themselves. Bit by bit were beginning to understand why South Georgia is such an alluring and inspiring place…and yet it was soon time to move on back to the Antarctic Peninsula. The following three weeks were characterized by a landscape that was ever changing. Although I returned to some places three times, they were almost unrecognisable Sometimes the clouds ambushed the mountains and squalls rushed across the water swallowing the ship whole. At other times clear blue skies dominated the horizon and it was hard to imagine the biting cold of winter. The penguin chicks were growing fast, and icebergs came and went, often overnight. As I became more in tune with the environment and my role as guide I could better orientate myself and appreciate the subtleties. My most vivid moments came in the midst of snow squalls, and whilst camping on the ice next to Gentoo penguins and snoring Weddell seals. Many a time my eyes wandered across the landscape. I pondered with some impatience about what it would be like to travel independently onto the glaciers and into he lofty realm of the mountains and ice. On the ship I enjoyed the luxury of a Finnish-made sauna where you could stand out on deck and admire the landscape while your skin was numbed by the icy wind. When I had time onboard, a highlight was talking to the Russian crew who were mostly from Kalliningrad- all had a story to tell. Then of course there were the rewards of working with passengers and staff who were all passionate and curious about Antarctica. When the boat pulled back into Ushuaia in the end of February I was saddened to leave for the airport. Although I could not pretend that my experience was anything more than a fleeting introduction to Antarctica, it was enough to permeate my everyday perspective of the world. Next time I head off surfing in Australia and gaze out across Bass Strait toward the Southern Ocean it will be with fresh eyes….and of course a longing to return south. ' VIEW THE NEW ANTARCTIC PHOTO GALLERY!(this gallery includes more than 60 new pics with captions)