1 January 2013

New Year’s Day at Sea, en Route to South Georgia Island – Shag Rocks
Contributed by voyage passenger Joanna Ettlinger

Shag Rocks, En Route to South Georgia Island
The Shag Rocks, en Route to South Georgia Island

Happy New Year! First day of 2013 dawned clear with calm seas, to the relief of those who celebrated New Year’s Eve well into the wee hours of this morning. A few hardy souls welcomed the sunrise this January 1st. The rest of us awoke to Ted Cheeseman’s dulcet tones at the civilized hour of 7:30 am informing us that we had just crossed the Polar Front, further evidence of just how far from home all of us are. The crossing was marked by a sharp drop in surface water temperature and an increase in abundance of sea birds, predominantly prions, petrels and albatross, and the occasional sleek dog-like head of a fur seal bobbing above the waves.

Rob Dunbar elaborates on the Polar Front: “The Antarctic Polar Front is the boundary between the warmer subtropical waters extending north into the South Atlantic and the much colder waters that bathe South Georgia Island and circulate round and round Antarctica. The crossing was abrupt from the perspective of a sea voyage – over the span of 6 or 7 hours the sea temperature steadily dropped from about 7 to 3.5 degrees C. By comparison, the ocean temperature dropped only about 2 degrees during the previous 24 hours. The Front is more properly called a frontal zone as its precise location between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia changes as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current meanders in response to the winds and the march of the seasons. The Front is an important biological boundary in the Southern Ocean, separating highly productive waters within the circumpolar flow from a lower productivity ocean to the north. As we crossed this boundary and approached South Georgia we observed greater numbers of seabirds around the ship, particularly the albatrosses. These seabirds are feeding on the greater abundance of crustaceans and small fish as we move steadily southeastward. South Georgia always sits south of the Polar Front and is much colder than the Falkland Islands. These low temperatures combined with the perpetual influence of the southern hemisphere westerly winds combine to produce a heavily glaciated landscape at South Georgia Island – a great contrast with the green grasses and tussocky landscapes of the Falklands.”

Our second sea day kicked off with a lecture by Ian Dalziel on the geology of the South Georgia microcontinent, which was followed by a very bloody history of ancient and modern whaling by Michael Moore. Richard Alley provided a highly entertaining (as always) and thought-provoking précis on ice sheets and sea level rise, which led to a (slightly heated) discussion on global climate change, politics and science. After lunch, Scott Davis dazzled us with his wonderful wildlife photos and an excellent discussion on the basics of effective nature photography. I’m sure that all who attended his seminar would be thrilled to produce even one photograph from this trip of the quality and beauty of Scott’s images.

Pauline and Tim Carr continued sharing their experiences on South Georgia Island with a presentation on life at Grytviken, the Antarctic Outpost. The second of Edward Rook’s drawing workshop was well attended, and even the most left-brained of us managed to produce recognizable birds under Ed’s skilled and patient tutelage. Class participants are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to start sketching some penguins! Tom Murphy presented the second of his tutorials on photographic composition and was followed by Jim Danzenbaker who gave us the low-down on King penguins prior to our arrival at South Georgia tomorrow morning. Jim also managed to successfully convince every audience member to imitate the mating behavior of the King penguin (yes, we were all pointing skyward, flipper flapping, and making noise). He then informed us that we had just let the rest of the ship’s passengers know that we were ready and willing to mate.

In between lectures the staff and passengers continued the biosecurity process, which was affectionately dubbed allo-preening, or grooming each other like animals do, since we often wound up turning each other’s clothing articles inside out to find hidden seed hiding places.

Land ho! At 7:10 pm the Shag Rocks peeked over the horizon, tiny gray bumps off into the hazy distance to starboard. The ship passed their guano-encrusted slopes around 8:30 pm, which prompted most of us to don several layers and head to the top deck for a photo opportunity, the first of many as we eagerly await our arrival on the southwest coast of South Georgia Island tomorrow morning.