Biker's Diary: Ability to land in Antarctica demands flexibility

Goldy Gopher joins Dr. Jan Meyer for a photo with the penguins at Paradise Bay.

A chinstrap penguin shows some enthusiasm to welcome the travelers to Half Moon Island. COURTESY OF GENNA ROLAND

The ship enters the narrow Neptune's Billows into the caldera of Deception Island as the seals lounge on the beach. COURTESY OF ANDREA KLAUSSNER

The ship enters the narrow Neptune's Billows into the caldera of Deception Island as the seals lounge on the beach. COURTESY OF ANDREA KLAUSSNER
By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
Bluff Country Reader

On the day of our first scheduled landing at Antarctica, we were to visit the Arctowski Polish station. However, the weather did not cooperate, and the seas were too rough for us to go ashore. This became the first of several times when the Captain reverted to his Plan B; some days it was to Plan C, D and even further.

Admiralty Bay was also too rough to land, but we were able to cruise in the tender boats, even though it was incredibly windy. We were surrounded by floating ice and the waves turned to sleet by the time they hit the boat, and us. Getting into and out of the tender boats that day, and dealing with the wind, was good practice and I became convinced I could do it without falling into the water. My clothing worked too: nothing penetrated the outer layer, and then I knew I could also get onshore and back with no problems.

We had an extra day in Antarctica, five instead of four, so fortunately we had some flexibility. We ended up getting to go onshore three different times, one day we cruised, and one day we just rode out a storm. Our first landing, on Half Moon Island (part of the South Shetland Islands in the Antarctic Circle) was at the Argentinian Calmara Base. There we saw one of the world’s largest rookeries of chinstrap penguins, so named because of a black stripe around the bottom of the face. We were surrounded by ice and snow, and it seemed a very appropriate welcome to the continent of Antarctica.

Our landing at Deception Island, also in the South Shetland Islands, was almost brutal: the wind was strong enough that every step facing it was a struggle. While the temperature was never very low anywhere we went — always just around freezing — the wind chill made up for it.

On this landing, we didn’t visit the two stations there, Spanish and Argentinian, but we did poke around abandoned and broken-down ruins of a past whaling industry. The only way to escape the wind was to get behind the shelter of one of those structures, although I had read that at some spots it is possible to dig into the sand and experience a heated spa: the island is actually one of only two active volcanos in Antarctica. We did see a colony of chinstrap penguins there too, along with seals and the ever-present birds.

It was on this landing that a few of the more adventurous passengers, including Linda Sifford and Tom Sautter, were going to go swimming; it would be the ultimate Polar Plunge! They had their swimsuits on under all of that cold weather gear; towels would be furnished by the crew.

Linda had asked if I would get photos of them as they dashed in — and out — of the water. When I decided to get on an earlier boat returning to the ship, I didn’t see them around, so I asked the crew members if there was going to be swimming today. If so, I would wait. The response, “Are you crazy?” The ship’s medical staff had declared it too dangerous, not only because of the cold but there was a “hungry seal” in the immediate area that had just devoured a penguin and might still be hunting. I guess humans in the water might have been a real temptation for him. I didn’t wait around.

Fortunately, to return to the ship we didn’t have to go on our assigned tender boat; we could hop on anytime we wanted to. Barely able to stand up in the wind, I had stuck it out about as long as I could, but needless to say, I cut short my visit there. I was sure that we’d have another landing opportunity in better conditions.

Long ago I learned that the company’s ad was correct: it was good advice to “never leave home without your American Express card.” Then I learned to add my laptop to the necessities, and also my maroon and gold. For this trip, I had brought a small version of Goldy Gopher, official mascot of the University of Minnesota sports teams. He went ashore with me twice, and we had our picture taken together both times. (He didn’t mind the weather, but then he had a nice warm zippered pocket of my jacket in which to stay protected from the wind.)

Goldy didn’t have a passport, so he was traveling on mine. We were able to get it stamped at two of the three landings we made, one a Chilean station, and the other an Argentinian station. Goldy was flexible, too, and a great traveling companion.