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A penguin guards a whale bone. Photos by Bruce Northam
A penguin guards a whale bone. Photos by Bruce Northam

Way, Way Down Under: An Antarctic Safari

Penguins are happier than clams. Now I know why.

Antarctica is a frozen otherworld safari without borders. A (Quark Expeditions) Russian icebreaker introduced me to the earth’s overwhelming polar underside: stadium-sized, sculpted blue and green icebergs drifting past thundering, skyscraper-height glaciers calving over jagged, rock mountains into a sea of breaching whales and affable penguins.

This continent gives new meaning to hitting bottom, way way down under.

The planet’s final frontier is 1.5 times larger than the United States, and that circumference doubles during the winter freeze. Its ice sheet is earth's largest body of ice – an area of about 13.3 million sq km – formed through snowfall accumulating and compressing over millions of years. It holds ninety percent of the earth’s ice and seventy percent of its fresh water.

At its thickest, the ice is over 2.8 miles (4.5 km) deep, a colossal cap covering the continent and exerting massive influence on world weather, substantially more than the arctic ice cap. The Arctic region/North Pole is ice floating on an ocean and, by comparison, has half the ice.

Here, there are birds that can’t fly (penguins) and mammals that can’t walk (seals); a pollution-free environment where the wildlife returns your ogle. There’s no native population, so any environmental degradation is caused solely by outsiders. With limited history of abuse – excepting whalers and seal clubbers active until the mid 1900’s – animals don’t fear humans.

Wildlife endures unimaginably harsh climate conditions. Only two percent of its land is not covered by permanent ice, and that’s where 16 of the 17 species of extremely tolerant, upright ducks colonize and nest during their short summer vacation. (Penguin species number seventeen claimed the Galapagos).

The UN-sponsored, 1959 Antarctic treaty mandated that everything south of 60-degree southern latitude may only be explored for peaceful purposes: no hunting, fishing, industry, exporting, oil drilling, or weapons testing. Mingling with penguins, however, penguins willing, is permissible.

Evening in Antarctica
Evening in Antarctica

Floating into this winter wonderland of crystal glacier palaces is a powerful sensory overload. Amazingly, Antarctica’s February daytime temperatures were warmer than New York’s, with mercury rising above freezing and sometimes into the 50s.

Serrated, Rocky Mountain-style geology juts up from the ocean, with quarter-mile thick glacial shelves creeping though their valleys and slowly but surely spilling like frozen waterfalls into salt water. In the midst of it all there are beaches where several Zodiac excursions make landfall daily. One stopover was on a bleak, disused whaling station.

Every other landfall was absolute splendor. A privileged guest on solo hike, I met three thousand Gentoo penguins quacking like an army chorus of kazoo trumpets, flapping their wing-fins aimlessly and showing off their regal posture.

A few of them napped. The kazoo/quack soundtrack melded with whimpering seals, yapping arctic gulls and terns, the thunder of fracturing glaciers and the steam-release phish from whale blowholes. Whalebones were scattered on the beach as far as the eye can see.

At first, this colony of Gentoo penguins seemed to be only spying their omnipresent foe, five fur seals snoozing on five nearby boulders. Strolling calmly and keeping a respectful distance invited them to waddle within a foot of my seat on a rock, return my stare, and inspire a peak wildlife encounter.

A curious Gentoo penguin
A curious Gentoo penguin

After a five-minute staring match, the four in the front row tilted their heads curiously, kazoo’d me, tilted their heads back to the other side, and kazoo’d again. A curious ciao.

Penguins cleverly tackle issues with the highest emotional temperature, like tag. Don't drop off at the back there – it gets more interesting. Though they can outrun most humans, they seem a tad goofy on land.

But with their wings evolutionarily transformed into flippers, penguins are bird group best adapted to aquatic life. They are incredibly efficient swimmers and divers who feed in high seas, so they are, in a way, fish out of water while waddling around their coastal nesting colonies.

In Darwinian terms, these frequent games of tag are actually parents running away from two or three closely pursuing, hungry chicks to see which one is stronger and faster (or hungrier), and more likely to survive the winter.

The reward for determined tag victors, winner of the selection procedure, is mom or dad regurgitating a snack in their mouth. Sometimes a sprint-waddling parent or chick trips and falls forward onto their belly and immediately initiate a paddling motion to maintain their same speed as paddling toboggans on the snow or ice. Mother Nature’s least remunerated entertainers are also the ultimate survivalists.

In their first summer of life, these black-and-white suited comedians molt: stand around waiting for their new suit to arrive, i.e., shed fluffy baby feathers and grow into waterproof skin. They stand around leisurely shooting the breeze, it seems, accepting your decision to do the same thing.

Fur seals
Fur seals

Photographing penguins is similar to focusing on a moderately amused child: you lose them if you break the spell.

The 800-mile (1,287 km) peninsula pointing at South America is a small segment of the continent that’s flanked by hundreds of islands and numerous varieties of penguins, seals, whales and sea birds, all reveling in summertime glory.

The peninsula has a volcanic granite mountain spine the result of the same geologic process that wrought the Andes. This peninsular “tail” interrupts the continent’s otherwise almost perfectly circular shape.

Visitors are urged to maintain a respectable fifteen-foot distance from all wildlife (I respected this, but didn’t shoo curious visitors).

Territorial fur seals would first bemoan my presence by whimpering like cold puppies. The protest mounted with throaty, menacing growls and culminated with mock lunges and wompy gallops toward me. I’d witnessed several mock, snarling, biting and head-whacking wrestling rituals, and when one of these 300-pound beasts made a few thumping gallops in my direction, I ran.

 

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