2 November, 2003
It's time for a fill-in-the-blank quiz. Here goes=8A"When I think of Antarctica, I think of __________________. Did you think of endless snowy vistas, icebergs, glaciers, or seals? Perhaps an image of a penguin cruising across the snow-covered ice jumped into your brain? By the way, if you thought of polar bears, you need to do a little more research about Antarctica. As far as I'm concerned, until this trip the defining image of Antarctica for me was a penguin waddling around on the ice. Although my perspective has certainly widened during my days here as I wander amongst the Weddells, I must admit that seeing penguins waddling on the ice has still been at the top of my Antarctica 'must see' list.
With that quest in mind, we set off this evening for a snowmobile ride to the edge of the ice-or as close as we could get before encountering unsafe ice conditions. Our plan was to head out towards Cape Royds, about a 30-minute ride to the north. Since this area is close to the ice edge, there was a good chance of seeing penguins. We left soon after dinner; the sun was still high in the sky as we took off at 7:30 pm. Having 24 hours of daylight is a great thing when it comes to evening events. Just think, you don't have to worry about getting back before dark, since you have until February!
There was a fairly good track across the snow and ice, so we were able to ride along without most of the usual sastrugi-induced bumps and bounces and spend more time gaping at the extraordinary scenery. The icy flat horizon stretched before us, providing an uninterrupted view in all directions. There was a definite something on the horizon to the north. As we approached, the unfocused something resolved itself and materialized into a group of 5 Emperor Penguins. We turned off the snowmobiles and crawled slowly forward across the ice to get a closer view. Of course, by now the penguins were fully aware of us, since we had just quite loudly announced our presence with a roar of combusting fossil fuel.
Emperor Penguins are majestic. Adults are up to 4 feet tall and can weigh 100 lbs (more than a newborn Weddell Seal pup). Like seals, they have a layer of blubber that insulates them from the cold. In addition, they have a thick waterproof layer of feathers that protects them from the cold Antarctic waters. This group of Emperors lived up to their name, regally ignoring us as we ogled, took pictures, and ogled some more. After almost an hour of concentrated Emperor-watching, we pulled ourselves back up from the ice and continued our journey to the edge.
We reached Cape Royds and decided that, although this wasn't quite the edge, we were close enough. In addition, there was yet another Antarctic bird to add to our list-the Adelie Penguin. There is a small rookery, or nesting area, of Adelie Penguins at Cape Royds. Adelies are much smaller than Emperors, but are equally captivating. The rookery has been set aside as a closed conservation area, accessible by permit only, so we watched the penguins from the ice. The pace of life in this group of Adelies seemed much faster than that of the Emperors we had been watching. Birds were moving all around the cliffs, lifting their wings, stretching their necks, and vocalizing loudly at each other. One passed near us on the ice, hopping deftly across the cracks and jumping over the irregularities on the surface.
Besides this penguin rookery, Cape Royds is also the site of an historic hut that was built by Ernest Shackleton in 1908 during his trip to Antarctica on the ship Nimrod. Unable to reach Hut Point, near present-day McMurdo, Shackleton chose to land at Cape Royds and construct winter quarters for his expedition. His crew of 15 began in February, erecting a prefabricated building measuring 7 x 8.5 meters that had been bought in London. It was insulated with felt and cork, and gained additional insulation from the packing crates stacked around two of its walls. These crates are still lying stacked along the walls. The hut is locked, with entry by permission only. We hope to get a key sometime during the field season so that we can see the inside.
By the time we headed for home it was close to midnight. The sun was still shining brightly across the ice-the low sun angle at midnight creates incredibly long shadows. The journey home was only interrupted once for another prolonged stretch of Emperor-ogling when we came upon another 2 penguins cruising across the ice. Emperor Penguins, smooth snow-covered ice, the glowing midnight sun, and Mount Erebus with its glacier-covered slopes in the backdrop-now this is Antarctica.
Watching us as we watch them
We lie down, they stand
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