Life on the Gerlache Strait

I haven’t posted in awhile – but don’t think I’m done with Antarctica! This is simply what happens in March and April. This time of the year is the equivalent of Christmas holidays in the academic world. There’s a race to wrap-up old work, the year-end meetings, reference letters, student advising, drafts of papers to read. And, at the same time, the weather is shifting: color returns to the world as the grass becomes green and tulips push their way up through piles of autumn leaves that still litter the backyard. There are warm days that pull me outdoors for long-awaited bike rides, followed immediately by two inches of snow and brief returns to winter.

With this post, I want to carry you with me down the icy waterway of memory lane, and share some of my favorite photos of our meanderings along the Antarctic Peninsula.

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Our zodiac took a brief tour through some very icy waters in Flandres Bay along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Did I mention that our Antarctic itinerary went through daily, sometimes hourly, revisions? Antarctic passenger ships are required to book their landings many, many months ahead of time (as far as 6 months or more) – but moment by moment changes in wind and ice can put a wrench in the whole thing. Our expedition leader, Monika Schillat, worked non-stop behind-the-scenes negotiating with other ships, with research stations, and with our captain, to determine where we would go next. So the coordination of all those schedules meant that we did a lot of back-and-forth sailing in the region known as the Gerlache Strait.

The Gerlache Strait separates the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula between about 64 and 65 degrees south latitude. It’s dotted with small, rocky or icy islands and winding bays lined with glaciers and inhabited by whales, orcas, seals, penguins and a handful of scientific research stations.

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When shore landings weren’t possible, zodiac rides around ice bergs were a happy alternative.

The Strait is spectacularly beautiful – so we didn’t mind the back-and-forth. There was so much to see, and with the ever-changing sky, it was often hard to tell we were looking at the same mountains. (Although, after a week we started to get that deja vu feeling.)

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Our view of Palmer Station on Anvers Island. This was as close as we got to the station.

We had been eager to stop at the U.S. research base on Anvers Island, Palmer Station. Apparently, this stop was a highlight for the two previous Homeward Bound voyages. But, as with Neko Harbor, just as we were getting ready to ferry ashore, our landing was cancelled. It’s tough and very slow to ferry 90 passengers in zodiacs through the brash ice that had gathered near our landing spot.

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Brash ice (small chunks of ice less than about 5 feet across) often got in the way of our scheduled landings. A slight shift in wind direction can quickly affect where this ice accumulates.

Group FOMO hit an all time high. But several of the Palmer Station staff, the station manager, and some of the scientists came out to visit us on the ship instead. We had a great panel discussion about research activities and life at the station.

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Ms. Christiana Figueres thanks the Palmer Station staff for the dedication to their work at a panel discussion in the lounge of the Ushuaia.

The next day, we had hoped to push southward to the Ukrainian station, Vernadsky. But there was way too much ice. Apparently, this is a problem for ships planning to visit Vernadsky and the Ukrainians were just as disappointed as we were. Just before the captain turned our ship around, at the southernmost point on our journey, we all went up on deck to take in the sun, the ice, and dark, glassy, rolling waters. There was no wind, but an incoming swell rocked us gently back and forth as it rolled under us.

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Too much ice in the water blocked our passage to the Ukrainian station, Vernadsky.

On the following day, we eased our way into Flandres Bay, off the Gerlache Strait. This was our one ‘day off’ on the trip, so we had time to stand out on the deck in brilliant Antarctic sunshine and watch our approach.

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One of the many glaciers terminating in Flandres Bay.

There were many moments on this journey when I felt like I had stepped into a fairy tale, and this was one of those moments. Imagine if you could walk into one of the world’s most spectacular national parks – Yosemite Valley, or Lake Louise in Banff, Canada, or Yellowstone – and have the place all to yourself. Just you and your family or friends. Imagine a national park without roads or signs or rangers. I suppose you don’t necessarily have to travel all the way to Antarctica for that type of experience. But you will find it there.

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Homeward Bounders exploring Flandres Bay by zodiac.

We took zodiac cruises around the bay that afternoon. I have trouble describing the various shades of blue that made up our world there. It’s like we were drifting through a palette of colors that you would normally only see in the sky.

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Seals sunning themselves on an iceberg in Flandres Bay.

We spotted seals sunbathing on an iceberg. We witnessed a glacier calving in the distance. And we floated through the brash ice for a bit. The sound of the ice moving aside as our zodiac glided through reminded me of someone crinkling cellophane. We were quiet, except for that, and the hum of our motor. For awhile, our zodiac driver cut the engine, and we sat in silence in the sunshine, soaking in the mountains, the ice, and so much water.

These are the moments I come back to when the buzz of daily life starts to get in the way of remembering the greater purpose in what I do every day. This is the planet we want to preserve for the future. It’s changing before our eyes – human influence is everywhere. But I still hope is that we can minimize our impact and that those icy waters will remain that way.

 

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