Sunday, December 26, 2021

A Quick Trip -- To Antarctica!

Livingston Island with lenticular clouds, December 7, 2021

On Tuesday morning November 9 (not quite seven weeks ago), I received the following email: 

"Hi Wayne, One of our staff members has a family situation that came up last minute. You were the first one I thought who could replace him. The dates are November 28 – Dec 12, 2021 – our Total Solar Eclipse cruise. Please let me know. Thanks, Julia" 

I've received a number of inquiries like these through my career, working as a roving Geologist Will Travel and I can honestly say that I have NEVER been able to accommodate a request like this on such short notice. Nevertheless, I looked unceremoniously at my digital calendar and to my delight and surprise I saw something unusual before my eyes - blank space. There was absolutely nothing to preclude me from saying YES and joining this expedition as a Zodiac driver and geologic lecturer. I then recalled that this was a trip that I had requested 18 months prior, as I have become a bit of an eclipse chaser. After a quick discussion with my wife about the advisability of my going, I replied,

"The answer is yes! I can help you. Let me know the details, Wayne

The elapsed time from query to acceptance was one hour and four minutes. I was going to Antarctica for my 30th time! There was lots of paperwork to be completed and many tests needed for entry into Argentina. But I was willing and the Ice was calling once again.

Poster by Tyler Nordgren

I soon learned that other friends who work as guides or lecturers on trips like these were also headed south. Rob was going with Wilderness Travel and Tyler was on with Betchart Expeditions and The Planetary Society. Tyler created the poster above and you can view more of his space artwork here.

Avenida Presidente Roque Sáenz Peña Buenos Aires Argentina

After all of the preliminary necessities to fly 1/5th of the way around the world (and during a global pandemic), I found myself once more in the heart of one of the great cities of South America, Buenos Aires. I love this city for its elegant character and as I soon learned, its humility in the face of the pandemic. Never before had I seen it so calm, so introspective. Nearly everyone wore masks, even outdoors on the sidewalks. We stayed in a hotel for three nights that had been closed entirely for 18 months. Staff were still trickling in after the long layoff. It was refreshing to see a society that had come to terms with what was needed to move on from the microscopic enemy that has no regard for the safety or health of the human endeavor. Here, there was no hint of the "keep-your-hands-off-of-my-body" type of mentality that still permeates the United States 245 years after its rebellious Declaration of Independence. Civil-ized - that's what I thought of as I explored the Recoleta, Palermo, and Barrio Norte neighborhoods.

This meal was enjoyed at Fervor restaurant on Avenida de Libertador 

I was with six of my shipmates, who had flown in from South Africa, Italy and the United States. We were an eclectic group who soon bonded in sheer joy at being somewhere, anywhere, after the long lockup. It is summertime down south and 80 degree weather always brings a smile to my face. The exchange rate was VERY favorable to a Norte Americano and I took great pleasure in sitting at an outdoor restaurant and ordering one of the world's great steaks, grown on the Argentinian Pampas (grass-fed) and grilled to perfection over open flame. 

View of Isla Navarino from Ushuaia Argentina on November 30 2021

But enough of that. We soon flew to the world's southernmost city of Ushuaia, located on the Beagle Channel and on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego. The city was essentially devoid of the usual numbers of visitors (because of the pandemic) and as it was imperative that we arrive at the ship without infection, I found myself aboard Le Lyrial, which set sail at 9:30 PM on November 30th, bound for the South Orkney Islands.  

Sunset on the Scotia Sea, at 9:24 PM local time, December 1, 2021

I had only been to the South Orkney Islands a few times before and in the earlier days of Antarctic exploration, when the trips were more free-form and unscheduled. Today, the trips follow strict scheduling procedures due to the sheer numbers of ships stopping at the few choice places to set foot on the continent. The South Orkney Islands are considered a part of Antarctica since they lie below 60° south latitude. We made one landing here at Shingle Cove and were 'blown-out' of a Zodiac tour at another location due to strong katabatic winds.

Map of the South Orkney Islands with stops labeled

The beach at Shingle Cove looking east in South Orkney Islands, December 3, 2021

Metamorphic fabric in the Scotia Metamorphic Complex at Shingle Cove. The rock unit is described as "ocean floor-derived sequences of uncertain but perhaps Permian to early Jurassic age..." Ref.: British Antarctic Survey Geological Map of the South Orkney Islands, 2011.

Looking southwest along the shore of Shingle Cove

View to the northeast to the skerries near Powell Island, where we viewed the eclipse

The eclipse on December 4 would occur at 4:08 AM local time. But not to worry - the sunrise at this latitude was at 2:33 AM, meaning that the sun would be up for a full one and half hours before the disk of the sun would be obscured. Unfortunately (and not at all unexpectedly for this part of the world), the sky was completely overcast without a chance of the sun peaking through. Still, most people were up at this early to see and experience what would happen. And even though we did not see the moon travel in front of the suns entire disk, it did get dark for one minute. One of my fellow shipmates and naturalists, Rich Pagen, captured this time lapse (below) of the celestial event.

Sixteen second time lapse video from the back deck of Le Lyrial of the December 4 total solar eclipse

Crossing over to the Antarctic Peninsula, we had some very rough seas. But when we arrived at the Peninsula, the weather was fine.

Tabular iceberg in the Antarctic Sound, also known as Iceberg Alley

Rosamel Island is a tuya, a volcano that was erupted beneath the glacial ice when it was more extensive

Adelie penguins on a sunny day on an iceberg

Brown Bluff is another popular stop and is another tuya belonging to the James Ross Island Volcanic Group, a series of Pleistocene cones now emergent from their glacial carapace

A low-tide delta of sand that has formed from sapping - when the tide went out, water ran out from the higher beach sand and transported it to where it spilled into a delta front

Half Mood Island with Livingston Island in the background. Both belong to the South Shetland Islands group

Hikers on Half Mood Island

An iceberg with teeth!

Orne Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula - note how the wind and solar radiation has scalloped the snow and ice away from the base of the peak (center)

Copper mineralization near Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula

A tilted unconformity between Permian and Pennsylvanian basement rocks overlain with Triassic and Jurassic volcaniclastic sediments.

I am back home now but am scheduled to return to The White Continent three more times this season. Stay tuned!