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Bound for Antarctica: Earth's Last Frontier

July 13, 1986|KITTY BAKER | Baker is a Hatboro, Pa., free-lance writer.

KING GEORGE ISLAND, Antarctica — It was 3 a.m. when the travel clock slid across the cabin floor along with various cosmetics.

We had come serenely through Beagle Channel and were going "round the Horn."

Waves smashed against the portholes. I braced myself in the lower berth against the heavy pitching and rolling of the World Discoverer. Tales of ships lost in these waters, and the flooded hold of the Bounty, came to mind when I noticed that a porthole was leaking.

I wanted to go on deck to see where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge to create the most turbulent water in the world, but my stomach said, "Don't do it."

With the Atlantic to port and the Pacific on the starboard, we were heading into Drake Passage bound for Antarctica. Waves driven by the perpetual westerlies were up to 35 feet.

We were running in the troughs and listing as much as 30 degrees, but the sturdy expedition ship, with its hardened hull for navigating in ice-bound waters, did not creak or groan like the wooden vessels in old sea stories.

The next morning a shipmate called, "Black-browed albatross!" alerting us to a great white bird gliding in the ship's green wake on an 11-foot wingspan.

Resorting to Ear Patch

Brown skuas, spotted cape pigeons and petrels circled the ship. Watching the birds in the brisk air mitigated a threat of mal de mer, but even the hardiest resorted to an ear patch to prevent seasickness before our first day at sea was over.

It's not easy traveling to the last frontier on Earth. Delays at airports, fog and an overnight stop at Santiago, Chile, added up to more than four tiresome days before we dropped anchor off Wienke Island, site of an abandoned whaling station.

We waded ashore from a rubber dinghy to a place of extraordinary beauty. A glacier that once covered the entire island has receded to the far shoreline, where, warmed by the virtually constant summer sun, massive sheets of ice break off (calving) to form icebergs.

From the west side of the glacier, seven unseen masses cracked loose and plunged into the sea. The sound is, indeed, as Charles Darwin had said, "Like the blast of a man-of-war." Those distant booms and the raucous calls from a small rookery of penguins are the only sounds that break the silence of the blue-and-white frozen wilderness.

The air was pure, surprisingly warm at 26 degrees Fahrenheit; the sun sparkled on sculptured ice forms floating in an inlet. If it hadn't been for a small deserted building and bleached whale bones we could have believed that we were the only people to have ever walked on this land.

The penguins greeted us, "Ha! Ha, ha, haruh!" then tucked their woolly gray 3-week-old chicks under their bellies and paid no more attention to us even when we walked within flipper-flapping distance.

Diet of Krill

The gentoos and chinstraps, about 18 inches high, sit on nests of stones spaced two feet apart, just beyond squirting range of their neighbors. Their diet of krill establishes the odor of long-dead fish so pungent that one soon learns to stand upwind.

The intrigues of penguin family life entertained us as we watched a male stealing stones from nests of neighbors who could not leave their chicks to pursue the thief out of fear of skuas flying overhead.

He presented each stone to his mate, who accepted the gift nonchalantly, not seeming to care that he had acquired it despite many a cuff from a leathery flipper that sent him staggering.

Although excellent swimmers, the penguins we saw are surprisingly awkward on land, just barely managing to maintain balance with their spiky tail feathers acting as props to keep them from falling over backward. With flippers extended like fat arms, they present the appearance of tipsy old men coming home from a formal party.

Their fat, pink-webbed feet clutch uncertainly at rocks. They teeter, often stumble and fall. On snow, however, they simply belly-slide.

Hungry Adelie penguins, chinstraps and gentoos came to the sea to feed, but on reaching the water's edge they stopped, pulled back and milled around, none wanting to be the first one in. As the rocks became crowded, some were pushed in, protesting all the way.

In Feet First

Most went in feet first like small boys jumping into water. One reluctant Adelie kept pulling back, sliding on the slippery rock and at last dived in head first, the only one to take that approach.

They bobbed near the shore till the need to feed their chicks drove them into deeper water where krill swam, providing an abundant protein-rich buffet.

One morning a storm whipped up high seas, postponing a landing at Deception Island. After a day of watching spray from the bow spume over the crow's nest, conversation turned to "survival" at the bar, where having a cocktail before dinner was a matter of holding onto one's drink and the bar.

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