Antarctica: Land Ho! We’re at Elephant Island

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Because the waters of the Drake Passage have been unusually calm, we headed over to Elephant Island, named by the early explorers for the abundance of Elephant seals found here. It was on this island that Ernest Shackleton organized his mission to rescue his men that he left behind after The Endurance got caught in frozen ice less than a century ago.

Because of the historic significance of where we were headed, it was fitting then, that our first lecture this morning was about the motley crew that joined Shackleton.

After all, how many people do you know that would have responded to the following ad placed in a newspaper by Shackleton? “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, return doubtful.”

We arrived in the vicinity of Elephant Island at around 3:30 PM. In order to check out the wildlife, we had to first attend a briefing and understand some of the safety and environmental guidelines. The guidelines were prepared by the IAATO, or International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Those Inside-the-Beltway DC-types who are reading this will once again be amazed that, yes, there is an association for just about everything. Among other things we learned:

  • The proper way to board a zodiac boat from the main ship was by the
    sailors grip (clutching wrist-to-wrist, both hands).
  • Boots were to be washed off and scrubbed with disinfectant prior to landing on any part of Antarctica or surrounding islands. This is because they do not want any invasive species of bacteria, plant or animal matter that might be found on the bottoms of boots to find a new home on the island and possibly contaminate it.
  • Finally, they advised us to keep at least 15 feet away from all wildlife.
  • Our excursion this afternoon on Elephant Island afforded us the luxury to see two of the six or so types of Penguins native to Antarctica: the Chinstrap and the Adelie Penguins (the others include: King, Emperor, Macaroni and Gentu). The word penguin was used for the first time to
    describe these animals in 1586 when explorer Thomas Cavendish circumnavigated the globe in his ship, The Desire.

    It really is hilarious when you watch these little creatures try to walk in the wild. You can’t help but wonder if nature wasn’t playing a practical joke when these flightless birds were created. One of the highlights of day was seeing five or six of these things stranded, yet hopping along, a small iceberg in the middle of nowhere.

    When we returned from our outing there was another lecture opportunity, this time on seals. For some, the last thing that you’d want on a vacation is to hear someone lecture to you. However, we’re really learning a lot from these various discussions. What is especially appealing about them is that the scientists know their audience very well and engage them at all opportunities. The lecturers could easily talk for 3-4 hours on any given subject. But instead, they keep the discussions to 25 minutes, which is a perfect amount of time.

    Cocktail hour followed this lecture where a staff member brought to the bar a (small) chunk of ice that he found floating in the water. He was chipping away the ice and offering to put it in the beverages. It is, after all, very clean, pure water!

    We concluded the night with a preview of what to expect on our next stop: Paulet Island, followed by dinner and a game of Scrabble with some friends we’ve made on the ship.

    Tomorrow, we’ll provide a re-cap of our voyage to Paulet Island.

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