Antarctica: Life at Sea

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

Today is our first full day at sea. We are very fortunate in that the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage that plagued explorers nearly a century ago have been quite calm for us. The Drake Passage can be difficult to navigate because of the Antarctic Convergence: a place where the warmer south Pacific waters meet with the colder Antarctic waters.

It’s hard to imagine that less than a century ago, in 1916 (the continent was first crossed in 1773), Antarctica was still dangerous place for explorers and their crew, including the notable expedition of Ernest Shackleton. The 1916 trip by Shackleton aboard the Endurance was a risky proposition. In fact, Shackleton’s call for explorers to join him read, “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, return doubtful.”

We are fortunate to have catered meals on our ship, but back then, food was difficult to come by. One set of explorers wrote they ate the rats found on the ship. Drake would remark that in one day, in order to survive, his crew killed atleast 3,000 penguins.

Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlach would also find a food in the form of penguins and remarked about their taste, “If it is possible to imagine a piece of beef, odoriferous cod fish from a canvass-backed duck roasted together in a pot with blood and cod liver for sauce, the illustration would be complete.”

But today, heroes like Drake, Shackleton and Cook have paved the way for researchers and expedition ships like ours.

Many have asked: What the heck do you do on a boat headed for Antarctica? Well, actually, there’s more to do than you might think. Today, for instance, there were two lectures to attend and two movies shown. One lecture was about the birds of Antarctic seas and many on the boat could be found afterward looking outside for notable birds including the Wandering Albatross which has the wingspan of twice the arm length of a human! Unfortunately, these birds were not very plentiful due to the unusually calm waters.

We also heard a lecture on “Antarctica: The Frozen Continent.” A few things they mentioned which I took notes on:

  • At 40 million square kilometers, Antarctica is the third largest continent (behind Europe and Australia).
  • The mean temperature is -50 degrees Celsius and the coldest temperature ever recorded was -89 C.
  • The ice averages 2.3 kilometers thick and covers 98 percent of the continent. The main ice sheet covers some 14 million square kilometers. And its weight is actually pushing down on the earth’s crust. So, yeah, despite the cries about global warming, there’s still a lot down here.
  • In fact, if all the ice in Antarctica melted, the oceans would rise anywhere between 50-60 meters. But, the waters still manage to freeze over and grow to some 19 million square miles in September and October every year.
  • But the continent isn’t all ice. There are mountains including the TransAntarctic which run for 3200 kilometres.
  • Well, that’s about all. Tune in tomorrow where we will will report on our findings from Elephant Island.

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