Thursday, January 5, 2012

Embarking on Trip 2 (December 18-20, 2011)

Today (December 18) we left Ushuaia once again to sail south through the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.  I love the excitement in the air as we set sail; with a new set of passengers the energy level is high and their delight in every aspect of exploring their home ship is refreshing.  The sun was setting as the lines were thrown and we breathed in the last scents of trees and earth we would experience for the next 10 days.

Sailing out of the port in Ushuaia

Ahhhhh....a smooth Drake Passage (December 19-20)!  Merry Christmas to us!  There really is nothing better than a smooth Drake crossing, in fact, this crossing is the calmest I have ever experienced.  Barely a ripple on the water leaving many guests to question the "fury" of the seas in this region.  To which I respond "Shhhhh!  Don't wake the sleeping giant.  Or you will get what you ask for!" 

Days at sea are full of activity for passengers on board.  The naturalists and staff are going over the sail plan, the rules and regulations about conduct in the Antarctic set forth by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), lessons on dressing properly and how to load into zodiacs as well as informative presentations on Antarctic history and biology.  The schedule is so full that there is barely a chance for a polar nap!

So what do I do on calm sea days?  Catch up on work (and sleep)!  Last trip my colleague Mike brought back over 100 eggshells from Deception Island and I still had many of them to clean.  Paula and I spent a good part of the day cleaning eggshells in the mud room and entering in any remaining data into the database.  It is good to get all of the tasks from the previous trip done before we start collecting data on the next trip.  It can be horrible to have it pile up.

Once the eggshells have been cleaned, they are
placed in labelled cups and allowed to dry
completely before we put them in labelled bags
to be shipped back to our lab in the U.S.

Cleaning guano off of eggshells is a high-tech business.
We have found that electric toothbrushes do the best job!

Just when I was starting to get overly antsy about wanting to get off of the ship and onto land we sailed over the Shackleton Fracture Zone, a more shallow portion of the the Southern Ocean between the Antarctic and Scotia tectonic plates.  This area is well known for elevated levels of productivity as the change in bathymetry allows for the penetration of light further into the water column.  All along the horizon we began to see blows from humpback whales. 
First it appeared to be about 5-8 whales, but the closer we got we could see 10, 20, 30 individuals in this one location.  Ultimately we came up with a count of about 46 humpback whales, more than any one on board had ever seen in one location at any time.  Whales were breeching in every direction, cheers came from all sides of the ship.  There were also chinstrap penguins and fur seals joining in the feeding frenzy.  It was an amazing sight to see and I do not know if I will ever witness anything like it again.  What a great way to end our Drake crossing!

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