Antarctica: Cabin 223, Tag No. 51

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NOTE: The following was written in 2006 during David Kralik’s trip to Antarctica.  This is a re-print.

You know how when you take a vacation, it usually takes a few days before you really feel like you are on vacation? Then, something happens where you finally fall into vacation mode? Well, today that was that day, for several reasons.

Currently, I’m sitting in the back of the boat’s on-board movie theater watching — what else? — but March of the Penguins awaiting arrival at Brown Bluff, which will be our first official landing on the continent of Antarctica (up until this point it’s been the nearby islands).

Today’s adventures actually began very early when I suddenly woke up thinking I had missed breakfast only to look outside my window and see huge icebergs float by underneath what appeared to be an early sunset sky. It was actually 2:30 in the morning. At this time of year in Antarctica, there is no permanent nightfall, just a dim, yet colorful sunset. Now that I was awake, I quickly recalled the crew’s suggestion that if we were up at that time during the voyage to Paulet Island to head up to the observation deck and watch some amazing iceberg formations float past. To the average person, icebergs might be boring, but when you see one up close, and realize that any ONE of them could have sunk the Titanic, you quickly develop a sense of amazement.

Shortly after 9 AM, we boarded our zodiac boats and headed for Paulet Island to view our first penguin rookery. We didn’t have to see them to know they were there: we smelt them from afar. To ensure ensue that all passengers are accounted for, the exit door towards the zodiac boas have a wooden peg with a tag number corresponding to each guest. My cabin room number is 223, and I happen to be tag # 51. The tags serve a useful purpose to keep safe
track of the passengers should they want to leave the boat for any extended period of time.

Back on Paulet Island, our scientific guide estimated that there were 100,000 Adelie penguins present.
This afforded us the opportunity to see most of the classic penguin activities. Some were lying on their bellies keeping their eggs warm or standing up to turn them over. Others were collecting small rocks in their beaks to build a nest for the future chick. We heard mating calls, saw a few fights break out and, of course, were fascinated by herd mentality as we watched a group of 100 or more penguins all jump into the water at once. When I came across a group of penguins sitting at the waters’ edge, I jokingly said aloud, “OK, guys, on the count of three. One…Two…Three.” And, believe it or not, at that very moment, an entire group jumped into the water and quickly disappeared as they swam their average speed of 5 meters per second. I tried a few more times at getting them to push off in unison into the sea but had no such luck.

I find penguins quite fascinating because it is really interesting to see evolution at work as you observe their walking or swimming habits. Penguins have wings and legs. But neither are completely developed to make them fully useful: they can’t fly and they waddle at best, falling down many times. So, they are kind of like the animal that nature forgot to finish its evolutionary cycle. No matter, though. As our guide explained: “Penguins have no competition for their land they use or the food they eat. So, they don’t need to adapt or make any further biological changes. Every single aspect of their body is adapted to their environment.” Sure, they look goofy, but they are perfectly content creatures.

Following our return to the main boat, we had an opportunity hear a talk on “The Little Guys in Tuxedos.” When people think of penguins, its very likely the image that comes to mind is that of the emperor penguin, which was featured in March of the Penguins. At three feet tall, they are the largest of all the varieties of penguins but also the fewest in number. During the late spring/early Antarctic summer months (i.e. right now) you are not likely to find very many emperor penguins in large quantities. So, it was with great amazement that following the lecture, we walked out to the bow of the ship and within 20 minutes we spotted a lone emperor penguin. Ordinarily, that would be a highlight of any trip…but today gets better.

After sailing further, our ship ran into some pretty serious pack ice and we dropped anchor. The crew decided to exit the boat and test the ice to see if it was safe to walk on. After about 45 minutes of testing, they gave the all-clear sign. I quickly flipped tag #51 to the “out” position and made my way outside. Mind you, this wasn’t just any ordinary ice. We were given the opportunity to literally walk on water. We were walking on the Weddell Sea!

We walked around a bit and then someone spotted another emperor penguin! It was about 200 yards away. The combination of our patience and the curiosity of the penguin resulted in him continued to walk/slide toward us. As a general rule of thumb, we learned that if we remain low to the ground (at the penguin’s height), stay silent and immobile, the penguin won’t feel
threatened and waddle away. So, sure enough, he came closer. And closer. And closer until finally he was less than one yard away from yours truly. I took the opportunity to get some really close up pictures shot in RAW format on my Canon Reel xTi 10.1 mega pixel camera.

This penguin sighting was yet another bonus from today. We didn’t expect to see another one when we got off the ship to walk around on the ice so, consequently, I wasn’t prepared for weathering the extended outside temperatures. As I found myself lying on my stomach, staring directly at an emperor penguin three feet away, I thought to myself, “OK, penguin, would you please hurry up and move on…my %$#* are freezing off!”

Following this incredible photo opportunity, we had dinner and are currently watching The March of the Penguins.

By this time tomorrow we will have reached Brown Bluff and officially landed on the Antarctic peninsula. Tune in tomorrow to learn about what else happens on this wild and crazy Antarctic Experience.

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