The Antarctic Ecosystem

Antarctica was a place I never thought I would live to see, but with the mortgage paid off and the kids almost out of the house, the time seemed right.  In January 2009 (mid-summer in the southern hemisphere), I was fortunate to be able to take a 3½-week trip to the southern tip of South America, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula.

The starting point for most Antarctic voyages is the world’s southernmost town of Ushuaia, in Argentina’s province of Tierra Del Fuego.  I arrived several days early to ensure that I literally “didn’t miss the boat”.  I discovered the night before our departure that I was on the last flight to land at the airport before their radar went out of service.  Nonetheless, all but one passenger made the trip, many of them travelling several hundred miles by bus to get to Ushuaia.  I strongly recommend arriving at your take-off point at least a day of two ahead of time for any such trip.  Our ship held 99 passengers (usually there are 100) and about 20 crew members.

The weather throughout the trip was very comparable to weather we might expect in November, with daytime temperatures in the 30s and 40s (a couple days in the 50s), windy (always), cloudy (almost always, so colorful sunsets are rare), and occasionally rainy.  We only had snow one day and, of course, it was mostly blowing horizontal.  We were told that some trips never see the tops of the mountains due to low cloud cover, so I guess we were fortunate.

The images here are, with one exception, from South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, which lie south of the invisible line in the ocean separating the nutrient-rich surface waters flowing north from Antarctic from the nutrient-poor surface waters flowing south from temperate climates.  This invisible line – the Antarctic Convergence – defines the Antarctic Ecosystem and forms an ecological barrier to the wildlife dependent on the massive swarms of krill that are the main food source for many sea birds, penguins, whales, and other marine life.

Even today, the polar ecosystems remain difficult to reach and are accessible for only a few months of the year.  Of the 19 days on board the ship, about 8-9 were days at sea.  The region’s waters, especially the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica, are considered the roughest in the world, and indeed, we had 70-knot winds and 30-foot waves one night.  The crew was guessing only about 50 percent would make it for dinner one day due to seasickness.  I had dinner with the ship’s doctor one night and asked him “How’s business?”  He said people hear him in the hall and as he walks by, doors open and a hand comes out for motion sickness medicine.  Passengers are warned when to expect rough seas and the medicine works fairly well (but expect drowsiness), so I wouldn’t pass up such a trip unless you know you are really susceptible to motion sickness.  Everyone, even the sick, were glad they took the trip.  On our return, we “rounded Cape Horn” on calmer seas and a much safer ship than many before us!

The photographer Duane Heaton provided the details and images for the Antarctic destination.

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