Wildlife in Antarctica: What to expect...
Throughout the planning process, one thought kept recurring through my mind. "Yes, but will I see penguins?"
Dozens of pros and cons about wildlife are juggled around, rationalizing the feeling that one might not see wildlife on this trip to Antarctica. This is not a wildlife rich area. I already saw penguins in Cape Town. A small family sometimes hangs around at the Novo camp. The wildlife is very protected and we can't get close to them if we find them anyway. None of this satisfies one's curiosity to see the real wildlife treasure of Antarctica. . . . "Yes, but will I see penguins."
On arrival at the Airstrip, I was advised that no penguins have been spotted at the Novo base for some time. Seeing the enormity of the entire landscape, I had resolved that it would be impossible to hunt down and find anything other than the lone pesky Antarctic Skua bird which lurked behind my head, trying to peck at my shiny sunglasses. My traveling companions didn't seem as concerned about live furry or feathered entertainment, and this disappointed me. I heard that all of the animals live out towards the sea, on the "barrier" and that we may see some on the flight. When the time came, I volunteered for the flight and joined with enthusiasm. Other guests of the flight will remember me, the character with more photographic gear in her backpack than her own body weight. I brought a digital camera, a real film camera for back-up, a laptop, power supply, medium format camera and a few lenses - just the 80-200mm zoom, the 20mm wide angle and the 8mm fisheye... nothing much. I just like to be prepared. As we boarded the small biplane, most other passengers leered at my baggage and felt a bit uncomfortable at the excess space it took up on the small craft, but that opinion was soon to change.
Buckled-in, our flight took-off almost simultaneously with another plane headed for the German Neumayer base. The little twin-propeller plane was on skis rather than wheels and the 'drive' to the ice-way was a bit noisy as we plowed over snow ridges. It seemed like the plane hit a springboard at 30 meters and popped up into the sky with confusing ease. Our friend on the ground said it was a beautiful sight, like two dancing planes arching off left and right off the runway. Each seat had its own little round window and we all peered happily out over the horizon full of white expanse.
Reaching the Indian base, the pilot did a nice circle for us to all see the landscape with its beautiful glaciers and lakes. We headed further north toward the sea and the ice below began to show river-like iceflows. Objects and features were so large, with nothing to demonstrate scale. An entire vocabulary of ice terminology must be used by Antarctic explorers as they deal with these complex and enormous ice-based landscape elements. The ice below went on and on. At one point, it seemed to turn brilliant blue for miles under wisps of white snow-topping.
Activity and gestures in the cabin sent the all passengers to left windows to peer ahead outside. The Russian film crew with us had a clear advantage of commentary with the pilots. Next time I vow to learn more language so I don't feel left out, I thought to myself. There, on the horizon, was my first Iceberg. My heart leaped. It looked squarish and building-shaped... like a big white factory on the horizon. As we approached, I waited for a good moment to frame a picture of it. As it came into better view, I realized it was the size of a small town. The monstrous monolith would dwarf a football stadium. We were flying low and whizzing past it so fast, and with adrenaline screaming in my ears, I clicked as fast as I could to capture its mass. I noticed the commotion behind me and realized that we were now completely surrounded by icebergs. Beyond us to the left and right, fantastic ghostly shapes loomed as far as the eye could see. Some were flat, others tall. The ice around most was broken open with an icy water moat around. The excitement in the plane was so thick, you could touch it. Nobody spoke the same language, but who needed to.
We pointed, we traded windows, we took each others pictures, with shouts erupting between cockpit and film crew. Before I knew it, the small back door was cracked-open with a documentary film-lense peering out around the edge. Envious of the glimmering view through the door compared to my round porthole, I crept in to a nearby seat to share a wedge of view. A Russian warning and arm advised me of the rules of distance and caution, but I would be allowed some access. I wound the camera strap around my wrist three times quickly and scanned the vastness of the jeweled wonder outdoors. From this widened perspective, it was too much to soak-in so quickly. Below, I spotted a flock of irregular black dots. "Wow, Seals!" I thought and shot quickly before they were gone. Little did I know these black-winged creatures skimming the ice belly-down were not seals, but indeed King Penguins. Soon, I graciously thanked my friends and surrendered my seat at the door to watch from other windows.
The ice began to break farther and farther apart. Ice shelf became Ice pack and Ice pack became Sea Ice. More murmurs brought our attention to the port-side, where we were seeing the famous Icebreaker supply freighter, the Magdalena Oldendorff. There she sat, neatly poised in a glimmer of scrunchy-topped ice and black water. The pilots took a hard bank around her, tipping the plane as we went. I thought to myself how glad I was the door was closed again, or someone would surely fall out. By now, I had long since forgotten the lure of penguins to the impact of dancing giant icebergs. I spotted more seals and dots of penguin families, but was for some reason now mute to notice.
Corner of Iceberg photo
Looking closer... a seal.
So yes, I saw penguins in Antarctica.
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by Jen Winter - Based on Site Inspection and logistical expedition of February 7-9, 2003
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