Wednesday, November 30, 2016

ABUNDANT LIFE IN THE SOUTH ATLANTIC


Arrival at South Georgia after approximately three
days sailing from the Falklands. Whales, dolphins and
seabirds are seen in increasing numbers as the
convergence zone is entered.


Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Note:   Keep in mind Saturday, Dec. 17, 4:00 pm, when I'll present slides and a short video of the trip Thor and I took to the Falklands and South Georgia.  I think you'll be both entertained and educated about life in the Southern Latitudes as we briefly experienced it on our recent Lindblad voyage.  Donations at the door will be accepted in support of the Trueblood Performing Art Center.

Studying atlas pages of the southern ocean in the southern hemisphere, it might be assumed there is nothing but ocean, a vast emptiness.

A sign in the waterfront park in Ushuaia, Argentina, reinforces that belief.  It reads, in Spanish, "fin del mundo."  End of the world.  But that belief might be a hold-over from several centuries ago when little was known about what existed in the Southern Ocean, and Cape Horn was the end of civilization as was then known.   It's true that from the Falkland Islands latitude of 54 degrees south there are few land forms, but a good deal of ice and cold ocean, and that human habitation is sparse for reasons of climate.  But during those centuries, discoveries were made of new lands, of islands, and the Antarctic Continent.  We can say today that although it is a very remote, and often hostile, place for humans, there is an abundance of bird and sea life.  And this is due, in large part, to the cold ocean waters flowing northward in the Antarctic, creating rich food sources for these animals.

Elephant seals (above), fur seals and penguins
provide a great source of color and entertainment
ashore.  


Man quickly adapted and endured harsh conditions found in the southern ocean for reasons of profit.  Sealing and whaling soon became major activities that drew men and ships to this area in the 19th and 20th centuries So did the quest for science.  Science - the study of the earth's magnetism, meteorology, biology, geography, geology, oceanography and mapping - was often the stated reason that aided in securing expedition funding from government and private sources.  And even today, science remains the higher calling,  often an underlying reason for planting flags and expanding the empire.  Antarctica, the continent, is a vast area with outposts of national influence, rights respected by a treaty that has thus far encouraged participating nations with interests there to coexist while learning more about this least populated land.

Industrial scrap in the form of old barrels and oil tanks clutter
the small beach area in Godthul Harbor.  We hiked beyond this,
to the hilltops, for great harbor views.


Our voyage led us "below the convergence zone," where the cold waters of the continent meet warmer ocean waters, where there is found increased ocean habitat, and unique island climates.  Thor and I traveled, therefore, to the Antarctic, but not to Antarctica, the continent itself.  (Maybe another time!)

While the southern oceans may appear desolate, they are an extremely rich source of food for bird and sea mammals, and this in itself becomes an attractive magnet for today's so-called "expedition cruising," whereby paying shipboard guests are invited to observe, photograph and learn about the ecosystem of the cold Antarctic waters.  (And I would add, to learn about the human history of this area.)

Convergence zone where cold Antarctic ocean
waters meet warmer currents indicated by green 

line.  South Georgia falls within that zone; Falkland
Islands lie just outside the zone, a water
temperature difference of 5-10 degrees F.


The ocean waters of the convergence sustain remarkable bird and mammal numbers.  Some of these species are still bouncing back from sealing and whaling days, when industrial processing sites were  constructed in South Georgia's protected harbors.  Whales were found swimming in adjacent waters, and something like 175,000 whales were killed over a 60-year period, at the height of South Georgia's whaling days.  I was surprised to learn that this existed into the 1960s, and ended only when the practice of shore processing proved unprofitable, and whales were further than the immediate South Georgia waters.  Whaling continued, but with self-contained factory ships.

Penguin colonies found in the bays of South Georgia range from several hundred to the thousands.  The fur seal, once thought nearing extinction (300-500 were estimated) when sealers took pelts, are now believed to be 3-5 million in number and growing.  In fact, we were told that bird nesting grounds on cliffs and hillsides that surround South Georgia's harbors may now be threatened by the fur seals who use the same areas when they come ashore to mate and raise their young.   No one seems to know what the right balance ought to be, in terms of fur seal numbers.

Our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, dropped anchor fifteen times or so in different harbors during our five days in South Georgia waters.  Three times we anchored and and went ashore near rusting, abandoned equipment or buildings remnants of an industry that was fairly booming just a little over 50 years ago.   Except for Grytviken, which was perhaps the largest whale processing site on South Georgia, now cleaned up of dangerous debris and open as a museum, the other whaling or sealing historical sites must be observed by visitors (who first register with the local authorities) from a distance of 200 meters or greater, for safety reasons.  Grytviken and the other whaling or sealing processing sites were licensed from the British by Norwegian companies, from approximately the early 1900s into the mid-1960s.

King Penguins and seals coexist on this section of beach in St. Andrews Bay.   


When stepping ashore in a harbor to visit, one of the ship's naturalists' first tasks is to find a beachhead occupied by only a few seals.   The sheer numbers of elephant seals and fur seals found along the shore are such that this isn't always easily done, especially where a beach narrows or is hemmed by hills on either side.   Cones are sometimes set down to indicate a safe walking route inland, up the beach and away from the waterfront frequented and claimed by seals.  But, of course, orange cones mean nothing if the seals have a notion to move to a new spot.

From a vantage point a few hundred feet removed from the water's edge, passengers can observe in relative safety.  Nevertheless, fur seals are still found even hundreds of yards back from the beach, lying amongst tall humps of tussac grass, and they must be respected for both their speed and their teeth should they become aggressive.

It's hard not to find fascination with the sounds and motions of the male elephant seals as they posture, belch and grunt, challenging one another, and with the females and their pups.  Just the bulk of such huge animals that simply flop down on the beach after months of continuous activity in the ocean is impressive.

Amongst the seals can be seen a scattering of penguins of various types, with more penguins found in hillside colonies or further upland where they might inhabit the sometimes relatively flat, expansive beach areas.   Here, fresh water glacial streams may empty into bays.  In St. Andrews Bay, the largest single colony of King Penguins may easily exceed half a million penguins, scattered about within a half-mile or so radius of the beach.  These numbers are made up of parents and their chicks, molting penguins, and birds that may not yet be ready for mating.

Grytviken, a former whale processing port, is now a museum village with post office and
museum display buildings, staffed by approximately 24 residents who represent
the U. K. Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.  The 

Territory derives income from commercial fishing licensing and tourism.
(Elephant seal, upper left, found a spot to his liking between sections of pipes.)

You may wonder, as I did:  Is there a smell associated with so many krill and fish-eating birds and seals in one place?   Yes, somewhat, but it's very slight as compared with, say, a midwestern hog farm or a dairy barn where cows have been kept indoors.  Comparatively, this odor is nothing at all.  Wearing rubber boots for coming ashore in a Zodiac, you may expect to step into, onto, or over greenish puddles of poop and feathers, residue from the birds, and I would estimate the Ecoli count in the waters adjacent to the beach is high.   But then, we weren't there for the swimming.

During our days spent at sea, and every evening before dinner whether at sea or not, presentations were given by several of the ten naturalists on board.  This was an excellent way to learn about what we might encounter in the coming days, and it also served as great reinforcement of what we experienced earlier that same day.  Slides, short videos, and summations highlighted things we might otherwise have missed, or misunderstood.

I would add that each day from about 6 to 7pm, the wrap-up session coincided with "cocktail hour." Afterward, each naturalist, the ship's doctor, and even the ship's captain, made the rounds of the lounge seating area with trays to pick up our empty glasses and plates as we headed off to dinner.  This practice, led by the captain, is designed not to impress passengers, but rather to instill a sense equality in duty and a willingness to serve.  But I was impressed, nonetheless, by the camaraderie that existed among these professionals, many of whom would soon join the paying guests as evening table mates for  dinner and conversation.  These examples, and the standing Lindblad "open bridge" policy, add a welcoming closeness in shipboard experience, unexpected and unique compared with cruises we've taken on much larger ships of larger name brand companies.

Sale of stamps, commemorative coins, books and other
souvenir items is a source of South Georgia revenue, helping
to maintain government staffing and management there.




There remains much to tell about, so I hope to see you at the TPAC on the 17th!

-  Dick Purinton

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