It’s been a really interesting weekend. Yesterday I saw a leopard seal consuming a crabeater seal just off the coast. Birds swooped around above the seal, hoping to get a small piece. Later in the evening, the winds were gusting around 55 knots, which made it hard to walk between the two buildings on station. I had been planning to camp out in a tent in the “backyard,” last night but decided to save that for another day…
Today, a group of people from the station ran a half marathon! They ran up the glacier, did a few laps around the top, came back down, and repeated this several times. I was diving, or I would have ran it, I swear :-)
And guess where we are right now? Back on the Laurence M. Gould, the ship that brought us across the Drake to Palmer Station! The LMG is our temporary dive boat so we can investigate a beautiful area that is too far away for a zodiac to reach from station. Chuck and Maggie have been eyeing this spot for about 10 years, so it will definitely be an interesting trip. Incidentally, I am in the same cabin I slept in on the trip to Palmer. Good memories.
We are in the lounge of the ship, watching movies in the big comfortable couches and chairs, and I thought I would take this opportunity to write a little bit about the wildlife I have seen here. Since Antarctica is such a hostile environment, the animals and plants that live here are extremely interesting. When I say Antarctica is a hostile environment, I mean that it is the coldest, windiest, and driest (yes, driest!) place on earth. Most of the freshwater on the continent is permanently locked up as ice. In fact, Antarctic continental ice contains a full 2/3 of the entire world’s fresh water. In the Antarctic summer, the sun is up almost all day long, and temperatures hover around freezing (even above freezing here on the peninsula), but in the wintertime it is dark almost all day long and temperatures can reach -15 to -25°C. So it is a pretty severe place most of the time, but if there is one thing that is true it is that life will adapt and exploit even the most extreme, harshest environments on earth.
The continent has very few land plants (although you now know about the forests of underwater plants). There isn’t much space on the land for plants to grow- less than 1% of the continent is ice-free. However, even where plants can grow, conditions are so severe that only some lichens, mosses, liverworts and 2 species of flowering plants grow here. Imagine being an Antarctic plant. You need sunlight to eat, yet the sun goes away for almost half of the year! Amazing.
As for land animals, the largest terrestrial animal is a wingless fly called a midge. I haven’t seen one yet. The rest of the animals are classified as marine, even though they may spend time on the islands or ice floes.
There are penguins, of course. At Palmer, we see Adélies, Gentoos, and Chinstrap penguins. Penguins are as cute as you think, but smell worse. They smell very, very bad. Today we saw gentoos porpoising. This is when they dive in and out of the water as they swim. It’s amazing to see them shoot up out of the water. From far away, they look just like fish jumping. Check out the video on Flickr (the sound effects are people-made!).
We also see lots of seals. Fur seals have flippers that allow them to sit up and move around reasonably well on land. Take a look at the linked video to see some fur seals moving around on Torgeson Island.
Weddell seals are my favorite seal. They have a really large body and comparatively small head, like the dog I had growing up. Their faces are sort of cat-like. They have big dark eyes and are very placid and friendly. There was a Weddell seal hauled out on the ice near station for almost a week.
There are elephant seals and crabeater seals, which I haven’t seen up close, and then there is the infamous sea leopard. Leopard seals are top predators in this ecosystem- killer whales may be their only natural predator, and they exude confidence. They are called leopard seals due to the spots on their shoulders and sides, but really they look like a massive snake crossed with a puppy. Their eyes are alert and curious. They often come check out the zodiacs. The other day one followed us home for 25 minutes through the brash ice, popping up every few seconds on different sides of the boat. They do this thing called “spy hopping,” where they shoot straight up out of the water all they way to their muscular chests. They hang there for a minute, surveying the ice (or the zodiac!) before falling back into the water. They have been known to check out divers as well. Since they are a huge (11 feet on average) predator with an enormous mouth full of sharp teeth that routinely feeds on large animals, we don’t take any chances with them in the water. One of the dive tenders is always scanning the water for seals, and if we do see a leopard seal we have a special alarm that we lower into the water. The alarm shrieks loud enough for the divers to hear and return to the boat. We have had several leopard seal recalls this season already. They mess up our diving, but they really are beautiful animals.
I don’t know much about seabirds, although there are some amazing birds here, so I will just mention one. The Arctic tern, so named because it breeds in the Arctic at the top of the world, spends the northern summer in the Arctic then flies across the entire globe to the bottom of the world to spend the southern summer in Antarctica. Every year, it does this migration from pole to pole, travelling over 20,000 miles a year. In doing this, it spends almost its whole life in daylight, as the sun hardly sets during polar summers.
With that, I’m going to get some sleep for our excursions tomorrow. Who knows what we’ll see.