April 26, 2012

April 1, 2012

Antarctica: a summer job less ordinary

Hide and seek Chinstrap style.
Orne Harbour
In the past year Antarctica has taken on a very different meaning for me. When I first thought about heading down there two seasons ago, it was all romance and mystique. The highest, driest, windiest and most isolated place in earth. None of that has changed, just my perception and relation with it all.

Antarctica, worth the Drake
Gerlache Straight
Kicking it with the locals.
Leopard Seal. Mikkelsen Harbour
Since my return to New Zealand three weeks again I have been struggling to put my finger on what I was or wasn’t feeling about living and working down there. I’m sure this happens to all those fortunate enough to spend an extended time down there.
It is an amazing and uniquely beautiful part of the world and most won’t be lucky enough to ever visit. However, I have been lucky enough to have just spent three months traversing the Western Antarctic Peninsular (WAP).
South Bay Station. HDR

Una's infamous twin peaks

When you spend every day there it does becomes the norm. It’s a strange feeling waking up and not being blown away by the fluking whale (showing off it’s tale) outside your porthole. I almost felt like a spoilt brat standing on deck as we watched humpback whales play and breach near the ship and thinking…. If only the light was better then I’d get my camera out. Honestly, who does that? I guess its good to be aware of the ‘norming’ of it all.

Orne Harbour. Moody
Antarctica's very own shopping mall.
Port Lockroy
My season was split in half. The first six weeks I was zodiac driving and talking a little bit about photographing (perhaps bluffing is more accurate). I think I can say seeing the deep south from a zodiac is the second best way to explore the place. Fast, mobile and relatively robust. I was primarily shuttling passengers to and from shore or doing extended cruises and talking about the wildlife, natural and human history. In between all this you are able to take the odd photo here and there.
Really Mum, krill again... and its cold. WTF!
The second half of my season was spent running a sea kayak and camping programmes off the ship. Back in my natural habitat. I can safely say that Antarctica is best seen from kayak level. When the ‘regular’ passengers went off for their ‘regular’ excursions, our small team of kayakers would head off in the opposite direction in search of adventure. Trips were usually 2-3 hours in length, which conveniently is about the length of time a paddler can hold their bladder.
Rush hour traffic in Port Charcot
More chillaxing with the locals.
Crab Eater Seal. Port Charcot
We would traverse coastlines, explore bays, crash through brash ice and commune with the locals. It is amazing the difference in interaction with wildlife from a kayak vs. a zodiac. It would seem that when you’re quiet, stealthy and unassuming, the locals want to have more to do with you. Just like any locals really although there isn’t Lonely Planet language guide for this neck of the woods.
Vanilla would have loved it here

A scissor kick to the back of the head.
Gentoo Penguins getting personal. Paradise Harbour

Lemaire Channel. Nice!
This season I was lucky to have some of my top wildlife encounters, ever! One that springs to mind is having a 30 ton Humpback whale take an interest in our team of kayakers. I had spotted the whale as we sailed into a place called Orne Harbour. This happened because I had just told my team that it was unlikely we would see any ‘large’ wildlife there. Of course. After a quick load into the kayaks we pushed around the corner and were lucky enough to take this particular whales interest. Most of us have seen whales on t.v. before. The thing that really struck me about seeing them up close was the noise and smell of it all… I mean, who knew that whales had fishy breath.
Gentoo mid flight. A special snap shot in time.
Port Lockroy
Not my best day at work
Even Leopard Seals drool in their sleep.
Cierva Cove
What Leopard Seals are dreaming of when they sleep.
Gentoo Penguin. Port Lockroy
Deception Island. Gets better with time
Another stand-out moment this season was a 20 minute commune with a 9 foot long Leopard seal at a place called Peterman Island. Weighing up to 600kg and with a healthy amount of sharp teeth they are certainly an amazing and intimidating animal. This particular leopard was pretty relaxed and just cruised around the kayaks and support zodiac casually checking everyone out. On occasion it would bump or mouth one of the kayaks as if trying to figure out what we actually were. I was even brave enough to get a little GoPro footage.

It’s possible that with many of these encounters, you are the first human/ kayaker they have ever come across. Pretty neat stuff really.
To be honest, every day in Antarctica is a good day. Its always different and there is always something new to see.
Free Bird Southern Ocean style.
Daryl showing off.
Perks of the job. Taking hot Danish chicks paddling.
Just in case you get lost... not a lot of help really
Bellinghousen Station, King George Island

One thing you don’t think much about when you think Antarctica is getting there. For some, the Drake passage is an attraction in it’s self. Personally I don’t see the appeal. On a ten day voyage you spend four of them rocking and rolling and feeling generally not awesome. Just over 800km (at 15kph) takes its toll. Even if you don’t feel sea sick you feel sea shit. Certainly amount the staff, the Drake can be a dirty word… unless you’re Russian of course. Then you’re too staunch to feel sea sick/shit. Like with many things in life, there is a tax to be paid. The Antarctic’s tax is 1600km’s of the Southern Ocean at it’s narrowest (and often roughest) point. Such is life.