31 December 2012

Happy New Year’s Eve from the Southern Ocean

Southern Royal Albatross in flightImage Credit: Brocken Inaglory
Southern Royal Albatross in flight
Image Credit: Brocken Inaglory

The sea has been exceedingly good to us on our first full day sailing from the Falklands east-southeast toward South Georgia Island. The sun came out around noon and with only 2m swells and very light breezes, the abundant wildlife sightings were easy to enjoy. A few whales (fin, minke, and unidentified) were spotted, as well as the first “great albatrosses” of the trip, the Wandering and Southern Royal Albatrosses with 3m wingspans. Many were delighted with sightings of striking black-and-white hourglass dolphins, which zipped around the ship in successive groups of up to 50 at a time.

A sea day is surprisingly busy. With world-class scientists and an expedition staff whose expertise spans photography, marine wildlife biology, and art, the schedule was packed with excellent lectures. Today’s topics were introductions to the Scotia Arc with Ian Dalziel, oceanography and climate of the Antarctic with Rob Dunbar, marine mammals by Kate Spencer (pleasantly interrupted by an announcement of dolphins from the bridge), and the first of a voyage-long drawing course with Edward Rooks.

The ship’s bridge is open for bird and whale spotting so staff are stationed there to point out and identify sightings so some people are torn between talks they’d love to hear and wildlife they’d love to see. There are also several levels of open outer decks, a library, and a bar with comfy couches to relax in. The bartender, João, in collusion with passengers, has begun naming a drink a day with geology theme. Today was the “Scotia-rita.”

Then there’s biosecurity. Sub-Antarctic and to a lesser extent Antarctic habitats have already been significantly changed by species and pathogens introduced by humans, and we have serious measures in place to ensure we don’t contribute to the problems. Every piece of clothing and gear that will go ashore in South Georgia must be thoroughly cleaned and then approved by a staff member. Vacuum cleaners and tweezers are the tools to make sure no plant matter or seeds remain in velcro, seams, folds, cuffs, treads, straps, or any other crevice. It’s a time-consuming process. The ship’s mud room, where boots are kept to dry between landings, becomes biosecurity central for most of each sea day. The effort is worth it to protect the incredible wildlife and flora of the Antarctic.

And lastly, tonight the ‘Akademik Ioffe’ crossed into 2013 on smooth seas with a lovely Southern Ocean sunset to the stern. Right after a sumptuous dinner we celebrated at midnight GMT, only 9:00 p.m. ship time, which was just fine for folks still tired from travel and an exciting first landing day. In the ‘Ioffe’s’ dining room we sang “Auld Lang Syne” with the correct pronunciation of “syne” with an S sound, not a Z, thanks to Ian Dalziel correcting the linguistic record, and joined hands to sway in time with the ship’s mild roll.

Sea day quote heard on the ship:

“No rocks anywhere.” — a geology student

– Kate Spencer, Staff Naturalist; Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris