The M/V Ushuaia was anchored in Charlotte Bay at Portal Point on our fourth day in Antarctica, surrounded by the ice-capped land and low rolling glacial hills. The peninsula, the actual Antarctic continent, was our next and last southward destination. The time to head north to Ushuaia would have to be the next day – a bit earlier than originally scheduled due to the loss of a propeller – in order to get the slower-moving ship back in time for the students to make their fights home. A continental landing was the perfect way to spend our final day down south!
There were only a few penguins around (Gentoos), as well as a couple of fat seals. Imperial Cormorants (known down there as Antarctic Shags) were fairly plentiful though, flying back and forth with necks craned out to peer suspiciously at us. I was stuck once again by the beauty of the Antarctic; our zodiac approached the shore where a few dark and craggy rocks jutted out of the water, overtaken nearly instantly by snow and glacial ice. The entire peninsula as far as we could see was glacier, a sparkling blanket of white with hues of gray and blue.
We hiked to the top of the glacier we landed at and spent nearly two hours up there taking group photos, learning the process of ice-coring, and enjoying the last hours of our final land excursion.
Ice coring was led by our leader Alex Taylor. A hole about 2 meters deep had to be dug into the snow before the ice became exposed. Then students took turns using a manual ice-corer about 1+ meters long – nicknamed ‘Old Fritzy’ – to carve into the ice. The ice corer is hollow with blades at the bottom. As you push and twist it down into the ice, you carve a long stick (core) of ice inside the corer that can be used to analyze historic climatical data.
Some ice corers are a kilometer long (possibly more), and can drill deep enough into the ice to go back thousands of years. We were told how bubbles trapped in the deep ice cores can contain air hundreds or thousands of years old. It is excellent raw material to collect accurate data from. So interesting! The blades on the bottom of the ice corer we were using had not been adjusted though, so our ice core was only about 2 inches deep when everyone got tired of hand drilling.
After the ice coring, Geoff Green told us to find a comfortable spot on the glacier, and to sit or lay down for five minutes of complete stillness, silence, and reflection. I went with Kaitlyn Obstfeld (one of the three Yukoners on the expedition) to the edge of the glacial rise overlooking Charlotte Bay and laid down, closing my eyes.
It took a few moments for the whispers and rustles of clothing to silence. After that Antarctica made it’s presence felt in a completely new and different way from what we had experienced so far.
I was warm in my clothing, but the cool, soft breeze blew across my exposed face. The wind made a faint rustle/hiss across the snow. Around us, small waves inside the shelter of the bay lapped rhythmically against the exposed shore rocks. A seal grunted below, at first mistaken by both of us as a stomach growling. The glaciers crackled and popped around the bay. Snow, cold air, and faint salt water were all I could smell.
It was so peaceful. I wanted those moments to last longer.
In the Yukon it is easy to go out from our house and find the wilderness, nearly untouched by people. It’s easy to see wildlife and gorgeous landscapes, smell fresh air, and find a quiet place. However, in those five minutes of complete silence I realized exactly how untouched Antarctica is, even more so than the Yukon. Though you see few in the Yukon, you did not see or hear any jets soaring in the clouds in Antarctica. The faint sounds of a barking dog being carried on the wind were none existent – only the grunting of a wild seal.
When we all ‘woke up’, I felt refreshed and spiritually cleansed.
It was time to pack up and get back down to the zodiacs, but not yet time to head to the ship. We had one more thing to do.
Shrieks filled the air as bathing suit-clad students leaped into the +1.8C water. The penguins watched with curiosity as we dove in, ten at a time, chunks of ice bobbing in the waves. According to the Oceanography class, this water temperature was the warmest yet to be encountered for the expedition. It did not feel warm though; I shivered like mad as I undressed with everyone else on the rocks edging the water, and when I went in my feet burned. You feel that sensation in the Yukon lakes during the summer, but it was still much colder than I was used to. My waist was as far as I got before I had to run back and get a towel. The air felt so warm after that!
Many other students dove right in head-first; the expressions on their faces as they resurfaced were priceless. The leaders had stacks of warm towels waiting for us, and the zodiacs were lined up ferrying wet students back to the ship. Our final zodiac ride was not a sad one – it was nice to get back to the ship where we could all change into warm, dry clothes and dig into a delicious BBQ sandwich lunch (there was a BBQ out on the deck). This swim was an SoI first in that no previous SoI group had gone swimming in Charlotte Bay before. Likely very few, if any people ever have!
After lunch we had a bunch of activities scheduled and things were winding down as the ship began its course northward. I started falling into the mindset that the end of the expedition was approaching, and in only four days we would be back at South America. Despite seeing other ships I felt so isolated from the rest of the world down in Antarctica; it all seemed so far away. I missed my family so much I could hardly bear it. I could not wait to reach wifi so I could call them to hear their voices and tell them about everything we had experienced, but even home seemed far away. The world outside of Antarctica was like something I had dreamed. It was difficult to imagine going back. Yet we were going back – we did what we had come to do, seen what we had come to see.
That afternoon we went to these ‘peer-to-peer’ meetings where we discussed the expedition events with other students, what we were learning from it, and what we planned to take back home. There were a few other group meetings as well, and then it was fairly quiet. A few of us were chatting with Geoff about Students on Ice and other Antarctic programs when suddenly he leaned past me, looking out the window, and said “Is that a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross??”.
A Light-mantled Sooty Albatross had not been seen that far south in decades; it was a very rare sighting and another lucky score for our expedition.
Adrenaline shot through my veins as I raced behind Geoff to the back deck. The graceful and angular brown albatross glided effortlessly alongside the ship investigating as we came out. Dipping down to the waves, it caught an updraft and floated back up, turning to go right overhead. Not as big as a Wandering Albatross but still a breath-takingly large bird, it is solid brown with a bold white crescent around the back of it’s eye, a pointed wedge-shaped tail and angled wings. Curiosity sated, it tilted slightly and with amazing speed took off across the seas until it vanished from view.
I was in such awe I felt overwhelmed and got all teary. It was the last full day we had in Antarctica and as we didn’t see one on the way in I felt that we just wouldn’t see one at all. For this albatross to show up at this time was unexpected and very special. I have never had such a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment over a bird before. What a moment, and what a way to end our last full day in Antarctica.
It was definitely not over though – the albatross proved that! I realized that even once this expedition came to an end, my journey would continue on with all kinds of interesting twists and surprises along the way.