Saturday, November 3, 2012

Last full day and an unbelievable sighting!

Today was the last full day of our South Georgia Expedition and there was no lack of excitement. Remarkably the expedition sighted two "Type D" Orca whales as they approached the Beagle Channel.  The "Type D" Orca whale is very rare, with only a handful of sightings world wide. In fact our team think they are sightings number 8 & 9. The "Type D" Orca has a small white eye patch. The picture below shows the different types of Orcas. Needless to say is was an exciting moment, especially when the on board biologists were able to confirm (by emailing photos) that these were indeed the elusive and rare "Type D" Orcas.

Photo from the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center website

As the team settles in for one last night aboard the Plancius they are very happy to be returning to loved ones, but sad to be ending what has been a remarkable journey. Scott mentions that he tried to convince the captain to turn around, and Joel writes in a message that "This place is truly awesome."

It has been a great pleasure for us to share this expedition with all of you. We hope that you have enjoyed learning about South Georgia Island and perhaps have the opportunity to travel there yourself! PolarExplorers will be offering this journey next year from October 15-November 3, 2013. If you'd like to join us please contact Annie at PolarExplorers.

Before you go make sure to listen to Chris and Scott's audio dispatch below, and a second dispatch from Anja and Scott. And below the dispatch are some final pictures from the expedition. Enjoy!


The Shackleton Crossing team on board the Plancius

Kayaking with seals

Rising above King Haakon Bay on the first day of the crossing

That way!

Laurie, we think, enjoying a sunny day

Hanging out with the locals
Joel enjoying the view while it lasts
Are those skiers or penguins?


Friday, November 2, 2012

Shackleton Poetry Slam!

The "Boss" himself made a special appearance tonight, thanks to Jack Martin and his impeccable impersonation of Ernest Shackleton. Jack hosted what could easily be the very first South Georgia / Shackleton Poetry Slam.  The poetry slam topped off a pleasant day of heading north over relatively calm seas.

Jack Martin as "The Boss"

Turns out Shackleton was a bit of a poet as you can see for yourself from this poem he wrote:

"Yes boys, we will be home again, but our hearts will still be faithful to this Southern land of ours. Though we wander in English meadows 'mid the scent of English flowers, when the soft southerly breeze shakes the blossom away from the thorn, and flings from the wild rose cup, the shining gift of the morn;

"And when the scarlet poppies peep through the golden wheat, as the stronger winds of autumn march in with heavier feet; and when the fields are snow clad, trees hard in a frosty rime, our thoughts still wander Southward, we shall think of the grey old time;

"Again in dreams go back to our flight with the icy floe... we shall dream of the ever increasing gales, the birds in their Northward flight; the magic of twilight colours, the gloom of the long, long night...

"And when, in the fading firelight, we turn these pages of o'er, we shall think of the times we wrote therein by that far off Southern shore. With regret we shall close the story, yet ever in thought go back... through the grip of the frost may be cruel, and relentless in its icy hold, yet it knit our hearts together in that darkness stern and cold."

-Ernest Shackleton

And below some additional photos from the journey:

The seal is saying, "this way.... come along!"

Plancius floating in the bay during a hike ashore
When they said visibility was low they meant it!
A skier comes out of the mist.
A break in the clouds.
Carving the snow wheel to help check for crevasse and avalanche danger.
Jamming out on the rear deck to "It's raining men..."
Meeting the Plancius crew in Fortuna bay after finishing the crossing.

A replica of the James Caird at the South Georgia Museum.
Check out some interesting footage about this boat, and how if differs from the REAL James Caird here.

Happy Halloween

Q: What's scary about South Georgia Island?
A: The Boo-head whales!

Hah hah hah! Actually, the bowhead whale is a cold water whale that lives in the Arctic and not likely to be seen around South Georgia Island... but it makes for a good Halloween greeting!

Today the team enjoyed another day of relaxing, eating and attending wonderful lectures given by the on board naturalists and biologists. The seas have been calm and everyone showed up for a costume party to celebrate Halloween. Here are some pictures of the evening entertainment:

Jane, Richard and Laurie enjoying the festivities

Vern letting his hair down.

We also received this audio dispatch, more like a chorus, singing Brahms Lullaby. It actually arrived on November 2nd, but they shout "Happy Halloween" perhaps it is a re-recording(?)

Thanks to Chris and Chuck we have several new photos to share from the expedition. Take a look and make sure to check back again soon for another update!

Is this Anja? We think so!

Making their way to snow (on the first few steps of the crossing).

Traveling in rope two rope teams under blue skies.

Congratulations to our Shackleton Crossing team!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Exploring South Georgia and turning North...

We've had a few chances to talk with our team aboard the Plancius and the enthusiasm for South Georgia Island and all it has to offer has been overwhelming. Everyone is having a GREAT time. Here's a short recap of the last couple days:

Saturday night as the Plancius was anchored in Stromness Bay everyone got their groove on with a ship-wide dance party on the upper deck. Yes, it was freezing. Yes, the wind was blowing. But that's no reason not to celebrate! I could barely hear Rick's commentary over the din of loud music, dancing and general merriment. He handed the phone over to Jack who told me that he has traveled around the world and South Georgia, in his book, is something very special and not to be missed. Unfortunately we don't have any pictures of this night, but you can imagine that a good time was had by all.

Two days of exploring South Georgia followed. The first day everyone enjoyed visits to Gold Harbor where they saw elephant seals challenging each other, penguins and wandering albatross. They also went on a hike to a spectacular to a view point above the harbor. Later on they visted a smaller harbor with a derelict boat, "The Petral", a remnant of the old whaling history that is so much a part of the island.

Elephant seals enjoying the sun

The "Petral" an old whale catcher boat. These boats were notoriously uncomfortable in big seas. 

The next day everyone went on a hike from Maiviken Cove to Grytviken, the former whaling station and now home to a small museum and Ernest Shackleton's grave. Here's what Chris had to say about the hike:
"True to South Georgia’s variable climate the beautiful sunny skies we enjoyed during the morning hike quickly changed to cold rain and sleet. But the weather did not deter us from visiting Ernest Shackleton’s grave where we honored him with a toast."
Hiking from Maiviken Cove to Grytviken

Chris goes on to tell us "Grytviken was a whaling station that operated from 1904-1964. Some of the buildings, such as the small church, have been restored and there is a nice museum with artifacts and information on the whaling days at Grytviken. Some of the whaling vessels that were grounded on the beach remain as reminders of of the whaling activities. A replica of the James Caird, the boat that Shackleton used to sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island is housed in one of the buildings. Seeing the boat and its small size emphasizes just how amazing the voyage to South Georgia Island was." How true Chris!

Grytviken's church is the only structure that's being used as it's original purpose. It is still used occasionally for services including, would you believe it, weddings! According to Wikipedia there have been several marriages in Grytviken, the first being registered on 24 February 1932

Officially called the "Norwegian Lutheran Church" Grytviken's church was built in 1913
as a part of the Church of Norway.
Part of the group at Shackleton's gravesite.
 The group has now turned Northeast from South Georgia Island and they are heading towards Ushuaia, Argentina where they will arrive on November 3. Tonight Rick is hosting what may very well be the first-ever South Georgia Poetry Slam, complete with poems written by the Boss himself. We will share more about the Poetry Slam tomorrow. In the meantime, don't forget to listen to Scott's audio dispatch below and check back again tomorrow for another update from the team!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Well Done, Team!

Way to go, Shackleton Crossing Team! As planned the well-rested team embarked on their final descent and made the final 1.25 miles to Fortuna Bay where they rendezvoused with the Plancius at 9 AM. Tent camping is quite comfy, especially with a hot drink in your mug and a something tasty on the stove, but I'm sure everyone will enjoy the soft sheets and extra elbow room of the Plancius cabins.

Yesterday the Plancius team got to visit a king penguin colony. You'll notice that the chicks and juveniles have brown, downy coats that in no way resemble adults' coats. When explorers first ventured into the sub-Antarctic, they thought that the juveniles were an entirely different species, and named them the woolly penguin.

100,000 King Penguins

The Plancius team also got see albatross chicks and their parents. They report that even the chicks' wingspan exceeded 9 feet!

King Penguins; Juvenile in Foreground, Adults in Background

Thank you, Seven Arrows Elementary, for sending us some really great questions! Find the questions and our answers below:

1) How do you get internet when you are out there?

This is a great question. To answer it, we'll explain how we publish blog entries everyday. Our team in the on South Georgia Island calls the PolarExplorers office after they set up their tents at the end of the day. They have a special kind of phone (satellite phone) that transmits signals by using satellite networks, rather than cell towers or landlines. When they call us, they tell us about their day: what they did, what the weather was like, etc. We use this information to write our blog entries at our office outside of Chicago.

So, the team does not have internet access on the trail, but they can talk to us and send us pictures using their satellite phone. However, there is internet access on board the Plancius.

2) Why is it you don't want to bring any foreign entities with you on the island?

This is another great question, and a very important matter. We don't want to introduce any foreign species to South Georgia, because doing so could harm the environment. It could bring about the extinction of native species.

Here's an example. In 1911 Norwegian whalers brought reindeer with them to the island, so that they could have a source of fresh meat, and also so that they could hunt the reindeer for sport. Even though the whalers only brought ten reindeer to the island, the population grew very quickly. In fact, today there are over 2,600 reindeer on the island! Reindeer are herbivores, and they can eat 12 lbs. of grass in a day. As a result, the reindeer have greatly reduced the amount of plant life on the island, plant life that native species depend on to live. This plant life depletion also hastens soil erosion.

Reindeer are obviously very big, but size doesn't matter when it comes to foreign species. If there were some mice or foreign insects or even a bit of algae in someone's uncleaned gear, that species could cause big environmental problems on South Georgia.

3) Do your food items freeze when you're out hiking?

If it's cold enough, yes, but temperature is often above freezing this time of year on South Georgia. The team cooks breakfast and dinner inside their tents, so they don't have to worry about frozen food for those two meals. Lunch is a different story. They don't take a break for a full meal in the middle of the day, but rather each person carries snack food (candy bars, trail mix, dried fruit, beef jerky, etc) that they munch throughout the day.

So their lunches could freeze as they travel, but, if they want to keep their candy bars from freezing, they can carry them in a pocket or pouch that's tucked in close to their body. This way, their body heat keeps the candy bar from freezing solid.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

1.25 Miles to Fortuna Bay

The barometer doesn't lie. As yesterday's falling pressure foretold, the team encountered a day of whiteouts and freezing rain. No matter, if you listen to the audio update you'll notice that everyone's taking the challenging conditions in stride, even reveling in them. A toasty, dry tent and a bottle of Amarula never hurts!

Chuck and Chris tucked inside a cave where Shackleton and company recovered  from their Elephant to South Georgia Island lifeboat journey

As Scott spells out in the audio update, the team arrived at Breakwind Ridge, just a short 1.25 miles from Fortuna Bay, the team's rendezvous point with the Plancius. Rather than tackling the final descent of the expedition in low visibility at the end of a tiring bay, the team opted to rest up overnight before returning to sea level.

The adventure continues tomorrow. Stay tuned, and thanks again for following along!


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Snow, Fog and a Wheel of Ice!

Our team on board the Plancius reports that the weather is quite mild for South Georgia standards. The sea level temperature reads 4 degrees Celsius / 39 degrees Fahrenheit with winds gusting to 25 knots. In response to a question we received yesterday, we asked the Plancius team whether they had encountered any precipitation. They report that they've had a couple thin, blustery snow flurries but nothing else up to this point.

On the subject of questions and the Plancius, Sharon from California asked us if the name Plancius has any special meaning. Well Sharon, Petrus Plancius (born Pieter Platevoet) was a Dutch cartographer, astronomer, clergyman and co-founder of the Dutch East India Trading Company. See one of his over 100 published maps below.

A Plancius Map

The Shack Trackers had quite an exciting day. The team broke camp and immediately set upon traversing one of the most difficult sections of the route: descending the very steep Trident Ridge. Half a meter of freshly fallen heavy, wet snow added avalanche and crevasse danger to topographical challenge. 

To allay these dangers, the guide team carefully evaluated the various options for descent and chose the route with the least risk. In addition to other evaluation methods they created a 300 lb "wheel" of snow and ice measuring approximately one meter in diameter, and from the lip of the Trident Ridge they rolled it over the ledge where it rolled perfectly down the steep slope--over 600 meters down before it finally toppled over, carving a path down the slope as it went. Thus partially relieved from fear of avalanches or snow-hidden crevasses, the team made their meticulous way down the slope over the next three hours, briefly resting at the bottom for their push to Nunatak, this evening's campsite.

Compare Shackleton's Memory Map to our Team's Route Map
As is often the case, the South Georgia weather patterns refused to fully cooperate. Falling barometric pressure sent snow flurries into the already foggy atmosphere. The team pushed on for five hours in greatly diminished visibility atop the Crean Glacier, named for one of Shackleton's companions.

The PolarExplorers Team Route; Yellow Dots are Campsites

Within a mile of Nunatak, the team decided to call it a day and pitched camp. Even though tomorrow's forecast calls for another 24 hours of low barometric pressure carrying the possibility of more whiteout conditions, the team is traveling quickly and meeting challenges efficiently as they go. So they don't mind adding one mile to tomorrow's itinerary.

When the PolarExplorers headquarters touched base with the Shack Trackers, Anja was polishing off her plate of beef stroganoff, and heading back for a helping of veggie pasta. Rick was checking in on everyone, sharing a nip of whiskey as he went, and all were quite well in the comfort of thermarests and dry tents.

Thanks for following, and keep the questions coming! We love 'em. Check back tomorrow for another update from the field!