Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Antarctic Dream

I had a dream. An Antarctic Dream. That was the appropriately named ship that carried me to the ends of the earth and back. It has been said that your life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but the number of moments that take your breath away. If that's the case, then I lived more in the last few weeks than the rest of my nearly 22 years. This picture is one of the many breath-taking views I was able to see on my recent trip to Antarctica. When I looked up, I was surrounded by these mountains covered in snow and ice, the tops lost in drifting clouds. And when I looked down, I was surrounded by ocean full of drifting ice.

And here is my Dream. This ship was my home for the 9 day voyage. The first two days were spent crossing the Drake passage from a small city called Ushuaia, Argentina, proclaimed to be the southernmost city in the world. The Drake passage was fairly smooth on the trip down, but even so, I'm afraid I spent most of the time in bed with a small case of seasickness. On the third day, I woke to see a small island that was actually an active volcano called Deception Island. This was to be our first stop.


We disembarked on little rubber zodiacs that were able to fit about 10 people. There were only about 80 people on the ship, so by using 2 zodiacs, we were all able to go ashore in short order. This zodiac was called the Condor. The other zodiac was called the Orca, and that was the first one that I rode on to go ashore. The place we initally landed at was an abandoned Argentinian station. There were a few penguins walking around, and they were the first ones I got to see. By the end of the trip, I had seen hundreds, if not thousands of the flightless birds.



This is a nesting Gentoo penguin. It is adjusting the eggs that it is laying on to make sure that they stay warm. It has laid these eggs on the nest of small rocks that it has made with its mate. The nest is important to keep the eggs off of the ice, as well as allowing for drainage created by the parent that lays on top of the eggs. While this penguin sits on the eggs, its mate will go out and fish as well as look for more rocks to make the nest even larger. The size of the nest is the way that these penguins show their social status. The bigger the nest, the more successful the penguins. However, these rocks are in low supply, so these penguins must be on constant alert, lest other penguins come along and steal rocks from their nest, which was a common occurrence.




Here, you can see a Gentoo penguin as it is returning to its nest with a small rock to add to its nest. The nest takes a long time to make, as it is composed of hundreds of these small rocks, and each rock is individually carried to the nest by the parents.






Most of the penguins that I saw were Gentoo penguins, which are easily distinguished by their white headbands, but I was able to see a few Adelie penguins, like this one here. They have an all-black head with white rings around their eyes. The other kind of penguins that we saw were Chinstrap penguins, which have white faces and a black line under their chin, from which they derive their name.




Here, two Chinstrap penguins are seen right next to two Gentoo penguins. Different species of penguins tend not to get along, as they fight over nesting areas, but on my trip, I saw the three species get along fairly well. The Gentoo penguins especially seemed to get along well with either the Chinstrap or Adelie penguins. However, I never saw Chinstrap and Adelie penguins alongside each other, so maybe they were the ones that fought.


The penguins were quite fun to watch. This penguin is scratching an itch that's a little difficult to reach. It also has a chick that's getting a little too big to fit under its warm belly. These chicks were very cute to watch as they moved around, but they always stayed very close to their parents, and their parents kept them under their protective wings.





This penguin chick gets a feeding from its parent. As you can see, this Gentoo penguin has two chicks that it is raising. This is because Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie penguins lay two eggs every year, while King and Emperor penguins only lay one. The two chicks will normally fight for the right to remain close to the parent that stays to watch them. This means that one of the chicks will be dominant, and has a better chance of surviving because it tends to be fed more, as well as be guarded closer and kept warmer.

As the chicks grow larger, they are able to wander farther away from their parents. This chick here takes part in chasing off an adult penguin, helping to protect the nest from would-be rock thieves. It was quite funny to watch an adult penguin get chased around by a little fuzzball. I don't know what the chick would've done had it actually managed to catch up.



Here is an entire colony of penguins, showing just how many we were able to see close up. However, this isn't even half the number of penguins that were nesting on this island. And they weren't alone on the island. There were several other birds nesting on the island called Skua. Skua are brown birds that feed on penguin eggs and chicks. They will also scavenge penguin carcasses left behind by other predators, such as the leopard seal. I was able to watch the Skua as they flew over the penguins, causing the penguins to let out a screeching warning to others. And when the Skua landed near them, the penguins brought their chicks close under them as they menaced and chased the threatening birds.






This penguin is letting out a call, quite a common act for them. This is a common mating behavior, and has earned the Gentoo penguins their nickname of Jackass penguins, due to the fact that the call sounds quite similar to the braying of a donkey. The call is very loud, and when they do this call, their chest blows out like a croaking frog, then sucks in as they draw a breath, and then blows out again as they repeat the call over and over.











I was able to see more than penguins on my trip. This is a whale that I was able to watch up close and personal, since I was in a zodiac as it swam around us. It would come up for a breath, then go under the water and swim around and under our zodiac. It was thrilling to see such a large creature as it went under our small zodiac, which it could easily have capsized if it wished. But it was just having fun and playing with us. I was able to see Fin, Humpback, Minke, and Killer whales on my trip. The Orcas were quite a sight, as they were surrounding a Humpback whale, most likely in an effort to secure themselves some lunch. Orcas are the dominant predators in the Antarctic food chain, eating whales, seals, penguins, and fish. Leopard seals are right below them eating penguins and other seals. A picture that I took of a leopard seal is in the previous post.

This is an elephant seal that was just off the coast of an island that we landed on in the South Shetlands. It seems that the seals were about as curious in me as I was in them, as they always looked at me. However, they were content to remain where they were while I walked around. Soon after I took a picture of this seal, it swam away, but there were several more on land laying around, and they barely moved at all as they lay in the mud, basking in the sun.





This friendly-looking seal is a Weddell seal, which, as can be seen, is quite fat. Weddell seals are very friendly and easily approachable, which makes them easy to study. This is why the most is known about Weddell seals of any of the Antarctic seals. I saw quite a few Weddell seals and leopard seals, and I saw one Crabeater seal.





Here are the other Elephant seals that I had mentioned. They were laying around in the sun and molting. There were no males in the group, just females. The males are easily distinguished by their longer nose which slightly resembles the trunk of an elephant, for which they are named. Elephant seals are very territorial, with one male mating with all the females in its territory, which is why there were no males in this group. The male of the territory was most likely out looking for food.



I had a blast on this trip. Even in Ushuaia before the trip started, I was having adventures, like going to a glacier where this picture was taken. But perhaps one of the most memorable adventure I had was the Polar Plunge at Deception Island. That's right. I had my swimsuit on underneath my winter garb, and when the time came, I took off all but the swimsuit and ran into the 2 degree Celsius water. I swam back to the shore, staying in for as long as I could. When I got back, there was a little puddle of water that was geothermally heated that I washed off in. I even got a certificate from the ship for doing this.

Despite my wish to stay in this beautiful scenery, we eventually had to turn our backs to Antarctica and make our way back to Ushuaia. That meant another 2 days to cross the Drake passage. This time, we had a somewhat rough time, with one day having some very high waves. We were always impressed with the waiting staff at meals as they managed to carry trays of food and drinks to the table as the ship rocked severely back and forth. One instance, one of the waiters actually set his feet and slid about six feet along the floor before coming to a stop, and he did it without dropping anything off of the tray he was carrying.

I will end my post with this happy penguin picture. It is one of the family's favorites of all the pictures that I took. It seems to be so carefree. I am very glad for the opportunity I had to be able to go to Antarctica with a class from Iowa State, and it is a memory that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. While I was there, I was constantly in awe of God's creation. The beauty that surrounded me was simply stunning, and I thank Him for allowing me to see it.

24 comments:

Karen said...

That was amazing and thank you so much for sharing with us. I'm sure that you will treasure the trip forever :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the great pictures and description of your trip! It must have been awesome to see all of that and to have such an amazing experience! God certainly has created a beautiful world for us to enjoy---we definitely can see His glory all around us! Paulette

Susan said...

You had a trip of a lifetime--thank you for sharing. My nephew Matthew Kippenhan has been a project manager at McMurdo for several years, working for Raytheon. He has a love for Antarctica.

Kristin in VA said...

What amazing pictures! Thanks for sharing them...as an ISU graduate, I am in awe of the opportunities you have there now :). I know it must have been a once in a lifetime adventure and one you will not forget. Go Cyclones!

Kristin in VA Beach

holly said...

Amazing account of your trip--what a beautiful memory you will have of that once-in-a-lifetime trip! I especially enjoyed the facts about the penguins! Thanks Aaron!

princessquiltandknitalot said...

Wonderful pictures, thank you for sharing! what class did you take to go on this trip and what is your major? My daugther is a sophmore in high school and trying to figure out what to study, she loved this blog update.

Aaron said...

This was a study abroad class that I took, and my major is Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. It is a mixture of Computer Science, Math, and Biology. The trip was through the Biology department, so you don't have to have such a ridiculous major to go, but it's what I have. I'm glad people enjoy the blog, it was fun to make.

Robin said...

Aaron, that was AWESOME. I loved the pictures of the mountain and all the penguins. I still can't believe you went swimming in that cold water. Did your Mom think you were crazy????

rohanknitter said...

That is amazing!! Your pictures and stories are great, thanks for sharing!

Janice said...

Oh.... I KNOW that he is crazy!! And the certificate he got for taking the Antartic Polar Plunge confirmed it. Here is part of the wording of the certificate: 'We do solemnly acknowledge that this was an act of indubitable courage (as well as extraordinary, incomparable foolishness. Based on the Expedition Leader's observance of this act of absurd heroism, and the Ship's Doctor's confirmaton of the said person's (Aaron Riggs') temporaty loss of any common sense, we consider the bearer of this certificate a key member of the Antartic Polar Plunge Club" I can honestly say he's certifiable....

Sheri at The Loopy Ewe said...

What a great trip! Loved reading your synopsis and seeing the wonderful photos. Thanks so much for sharing them with us. I'm glad that you could go! (Although we missed seeing you when we were up in Cedar Falls.)

Bobb said...

Very cool!!!! It's too bad we missed each other this break. It would have been fun exchanging stories from opposite ends of the world =) We'll just have to trade tales of ice, snow, and random creatures that live there via the internet.

Take care cuz!!

SwissKnits! said...

It's great that you could live in the moment and get every ounce out of your fantastic trip!
I look forward to more posts!

What a wonderful opportunity!!

Danielle said...

what an amazing trip... i love the photos!

a friend of mine has been driving zodiac boats for tours in the arctic for years... did you meet anyone named jen or pete?

Kristi said...

Thank you for sharing your amazing trip with us. The pictures are great and your story was so much fun to read. Glad you had such a wonderful time. Kristi

JoAnn said...

Thank you so much for sharing your photos and details of your trip. I love the Happy Penguin in the last photo also. You are lucky to have had a once in a lifetime experience at such a young age.

Jared Sweerin said...

Whoa. Crazy stuff there Aaron. Hi Janice.
We have a family friendly blog as well!

A :-) said...

Wow! What a trip! Thanks for sharing your photos - it looks like you had a wonderful time :-)

marit said...

WOW! That was amazing! Thanks for sharing:-), I loved reading about it!

Mary said...

Thanks so much for sharing your adventure.I felt as if I were there!Your photos and the informative captions were great.
Congratulations on having such a marvelous trip and again thanks for sharing with your mom's blog readers.

Allison said...

Sounds like a most amazing experience. Thanks for sharing with us!

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh! That is unbelievable!! I feel like I just read an article from the National Geographic! Very well written, educational and entertaining!! I give you an A+ for the class AND that blog entry! Wow! Glad you are home and safe!! Love you guys! Cheryl

jokir said...

I think you need to write. You definately have some books in you just waiting to get out.

Marianne said...

That was a totally awesome trip! I loved your photos, especially the ones of all of the penguins! (I started liking penguins when I was in high school. Then, my oldest son turned into a Linux nut, with Tux, etc.) I also liked the ice mountain photos, etc. :-)

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and photos with us! Your blog entry was truly well-written! And I thought the polar swim events around here in Michigan were nuts, FPS! :-)

Take care, Marianne