Antarctica! - Michael Burke


February 27, 2017

When Sherry and I decided to go to Antarctica, we mentioned our plans to some friends who had been there. They warned us that we would struggle to find the words to describe the place. Boy, were they right!

It’s not just the immensity and otherworldly beauty of the landscape. It’s the ubiquitous and ever-changing ice: large chunks noisily calving off of glaciers, huge tabular icebergs serving as floating lounges for seals, bergy bits and brash ice everywhere. It’s the surreal experience of looking out from the ship and seeing penguins leaping out of the water all around us, as if watching a morning commute from a traffic helicopter. It’s a curious Minke whale spending 15 minutes swimming around almost a dozen Zodiacs, repeatedly lifting its massive head out of the water as if to say “What are you?”

Time and again, we were left speechless.

If you don’t have time to read any further, I encourage you to watch my short YouTube video, which includes a time-lapse sequence of our transit through the dramatic Lemaire Channel. It’s a taste of Antarctica in only 2:40.

Our journey took us mainly through the South Shetland Islands just west of the Antarctic Peninsula, a very small part of a very large continent. Antarctica is approximately the size of the US and Mexico combined and contains 90% of the ice on Earth. Yet it is considered a desert, with less than an inch of precipitation falling in the interior most years. This is a place of extremes.

The wildlife in this inhospitable land is as amazing as the landscape, in no small part because of its ability to adapt to the harsh conditions. Penguins, seals, whales and even cold-blooded species like fish have evolved special adaptations and behaviors to survive in the below-freezing water.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to go kayaking during our cruise. There is nothing quite like paddling through an obstacle course of brash ice and bergy bits in 32-degree water. Or having a leopard seal, an Antarctic predator second only to a killer whale, surface right next to your kayak. With a kayak's ability to quietly navigate in tight surroundings, our small group of paddlers was able to experience Antarctica in an incredibly intimate and special way.

Even the seabirds were remarkable. The Wandering Albatross we spotted in the Drake Passage has the longest wingspan of any living bird (as much as 11 feet) and spends most of its life (up to 50 years) in flight.

Because it was near the end of the summer breeding season, we witnessed adult penguins starting their molt and penguin chicks shedding their down. Even at this late point in the season the large chicks are still targets of predatory seabirds. We witnessed a life-or-death moment as a South Polar Skua tried to steal a Gentoo penguin chick from the rookery right in front of us. An adult Gentoo fought it off - barely.

Yes, this is a remarkable place, full of majesty and a diversity of life found few other places on Earth. I have done my best to capture the wonder of it in images, and no doubt have fallen short.

To see all of my images from our Antarctic adventure, click here. A suggestion: click on the Slideshow icon above any image in any gallery, sit back and enjoy. You can always go back and read the captions if you want more information.

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