Monthly Archives: September 2010

Antarctica: What’s Eating that Penguin?

Boy meets penguin.

The Antarctic food chain is basic enough: Penguins rule on land. But they eat krill, and must venture into the sea to find it. Killer whales and seals feed on penguins, making the penguins’ necessary trips into the water dangerous.

Obviously this cycle misses the fish, predatory birds and krill-eating humpback whales, among other things, but you get the idea. But who’s bothering the penguins?

The Whales

Humpbacks (above) and killer whales are common in the Drake Passage and the waters surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula and continent. Although humpbacks feed on krill and fish, not penguins, killer whales are the penguins’ most deadly enemy. But the whales don’t always win…

If you’re having trouble accepting penguin death, watch this gentoo penguin outsmart an entire pod of killer whales, from FailBlog:

The Seals

It’s no wonder penguins are speedy swimmers and slow waddlers. Seals are more vicious predators under water, but they’re even slower and lazier than penguins when on land. The Crabeater seal (above) looks violent but eats krill and small fish — leopard seals eat their pups! This Weddell seal (below) preys on the occasional penguin but looks harmless on land. This makes for quite an interesting dynamic: Penguins will waddle within inches of Weddell seals on land, but in the ocean? Swim faster.

The Airborne Predators

I know, I said penguins are safe on land. And they are — but their chicks have some trouble.

Skuas love dive bombing into nests to snatch a weak one or two while the parents are away. But not all Antarctic birds are penguin Godzillas! Petrels, sheathbills, shags and terns are the seagulls of the South, and feed only on krill and fish. At least you can smile when they fly past with a catch.

Last but not least, stay tuned for a penguin guide, coming Friday!

Tara for TKGO

Advertisements

Antarctica: The Research

That little red dot in the bottom right hand corner? That’s a hut.

Antarctica dwarfs all human activity. Even a Frank Lloyd Wright, in place of that little red shack, doesn’t stand a chance against these towers of ice and snow. And this might be the reason why marine biologists, naturalists, geologists, penguin researchers and explorers love Antarctica more than Heidi Montag loves plastic surgery.

 

December 22, 2006: The greatest igneous rock your 7th grade science teacher never showed you is actually a landmass, and a geologist's dream.

 

Our expedition offered a little of everything. Dennis, a marine biologist, reported his findings in videos and photos every day after scuba diving to the bottom of the ocean. Jason Kelley, a geologist and naturalist, explained how the results of volcanic activity can be seen most clearly in Antarctica, where land is relatively unchanged since its formation because of a lack of vegetation.

Mike Polito, one of the many penguin researchers and a grad student at the time, taught me how to count penguins (with a counter) and use the results to track each species’ migration patterns.

Sometimes counting penguins is hard…

…and sometimes it’s too easy.

On the other end of the spectrum is Soames Summerhays, a National Geographic IMAX documentary filmmaker, who was filming a documentary on the continent and its wildlife. (As far as I am aware, it has not yet been released.) The two of us co-wrote a daily expedition report (DER) for the National Geographic ship logs about our day in Brown Bluff.

Research bases

Research bases became a way for countries to lay claim over different areas of Antarctica in the 1800s and 1900s. Chile, Argentina and Great Britain fought for over a century over borders in Patagonia and on the continent, and all still lay claim to overlapping territories. But who’s counting now, when neither Chile nor Argentina have active research bases in Antarctica?

 

International graffiti on old silos near the 1920's-era Chilean base

 

As there is no one able to haul off huge metal silos (not to mention nowhere to recycle them), this abandoned 1920’s-era Chilean research station is left to rust and wear in the elements.

 

An abandoned boat in the volcanic crater

 

This once-thriving Chilean base sits in the bed of a volcanic crater. The choice was ideal because the sea is calm, the rocks break the wind, and icebergs and debris don’t generally make it that far.

Port Lockroy

The Chileans and Argentinians don’t have research bases, but the British do! Port Lockroy is an active British research station on an island in the Antarctic Peninsula, and it’s the only active base left on the continent.

 

Researchers bunk in this room at Port Lockroy.

 

The base has been declared a historical monument and is funded entirely by people like me who bought dozens of penguin keychains and Antarctica postcards in the gift shop. It’s run by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, a charity set up in 1993 to restore the station’s buildings and preserve human history in the Antarctic.

 

Beware the strong winds! (They blew a little kid right off this entrance ramp to Port Lockroy and into a patch of nesting penguins to left, below the frame. Oops.)

 

For more of what’s going on now at Port Lockroy, check out the UKAHT’s Port Lockroy Diaries, written by researchers and logged on the site as far back as 2003. Read the most recent Port Lockroy entry to find out how researchers prep for four months at the south pole. Now how do we get jobs on that base…

Tara for TKGO

Shot of the Week

On especially clear days in Antarctica, when the sky and ocean are the same color, the icebergs and their reflections look like floating islands against a blue background.

Tara for TKGO

Antarctica: The Ice

The thing that makes Antarctica so different from a trip to Alaska, or even the Arctic, is the feeling that what you’re looking at will never be seen by anyone in the same way after the moment passes. The ship’s angle changes, the light comes from a different direction, the iceberg moves.

The ice changes hourly — and you are the only human being who will see it exactly as it stands before you. In that sense, Antarctica is the perfect mental vacation. Every moment is private; you are isolated even from others on the ship through your individual thoughts and perception.

But enough with the existential.

Survival tip: When kayaking among icebergs, beware those that are more likely to turn over. If you see a berg with a scalloped surface, stay at least five feet away. Those shallow grooves are made by lapping waves when the ice is underwater. When they appear above the surface, it means the iceberg has recently turned over and is more likely to do so again, taking you and the kayak with it.

 

This bird is asking for it. Bergs with scalloped surfaces like this one are more likely to overturn.

 

The Antarctic has far more icebergs than the Arctic — and much larger ones. Whatever you see above the water is only between 1/10th and 1/8th the total mass of the berg, and what’s below isn’t necessarily directly under it. And there isn’t always a warning sign, but when there is, it’s mind-blowingly cool. When the skies are gray and overcast, Antarctic glacial ice glows a fluorescent blue, like a black light, which can warn you if smaller bergs extend far to the side.

 

The blue glow has something to do with the reflection of the sky on the water on the ice on your retina. Complicated enough?

 

An iceberg’s life is as predictable as a human life, but instead of a hospital in which to give birth, a glacier calves (a chunk falls off) when temperatures warm up in the spring and summer, giving birth to a brand new iceberg. The berg’s ice slowly compresses over thousands of years, and it deteriorates under strong waves and/or melts as currents carry it to warmer temperatures.

 

Glacier meets the ocean: where calving happens and where icebergs are born

 

The best part of an iceberg? They might as well be fugitives, as they are destined to be nameless and constantly change shape. Like cloud classification, there’s plenty of room for debate in naming icebergs. There are two types: tabular and non-tabular. Tabular bergs are flat on top, like a plateau, and often keep the layer of snow that covered the original glacier when it calved. Eventually, tabular bergs become non-tabular after the snow has compressed into ice or the berg rolls over, allowing waves and currents to change its shape. Of the non-tabular bergs, different shapes are called anything from “wedges” to “dry docks,” but many could be classified just as well under two terms as none. (Most of the time, my gran and I left the specifics to researchers and named the icebergs ourselves. …But our names were a bit more like pet names.)

 

Researchers might say "dry dock" or "pinnacle." Gran and I say "swim-up bar."

 

Despite being surrounded by ice, summer temperatures hung around 30 degrees Fahrenheit during our December 2006 trip. This does not mean we wore normal clothing. Before Wellington boots were paraded in NYC store windows, I owned a pair two sizes too big in order to fit three layers of ski socks inside. (People who make frequent trips count Wellies as the best waterproof brand available.) While you sit in your comfy chair scrolling through photos, you can at least be happy you didn’t have to pile this on every morning and take it all off each night:

 

Two people, one day's worth of clothing. All photos by Tara for TKGO.

 

Of course, I’m still trying to find excuses to live on an Antarctic ice breaker during the four months of every year they go back and forth to research stations… so you know getting dressed is not that bad.

Next up? More on the researchers who really do get to stay four months of every year, and plenty of photos of Antarctic wildlife (yes, that means penguins, whales, skuas, seals and neon-pink aquatic life). Stay tuned!

Tara for TKGO

Antarctica: An Introduction

It’s common enough to find yourself drowning in adjectives when asked to describe any locale. It is rare, however, when not a single word exists capable of adequately embodying any part of a place, let alone an entire continent. Antarctica is that loss for words, whether you’ve been or not. No adjective does it justice, so for most people it is a few New York Times articles, global climate change bar graphs, calendars with photos of penguins and an 80-minute love story narrated by Morgan Freeman. For me, it has become a feeling.

Antarctica is no longer the “hidden gem” of tourist destinations, as it was when I went with my adventurous grandmother in December of 2006. In the last few years, Antarctica has undoubtedly become one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations. In 1992/1993, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) recorded fewer than 7,000 tourists, staff and crew landing on the Antarctic peninsula or continent. During the 2009/2010 season, over 59,000 landed. (Even by the time I had gone in 2006/2007, Antarctic tourism nearly doubled since 2002/2003.) Though the U.S. in 2009 tried unsuccessfully to cap the number of tourists that could arrive on the continent, the IAATO believes this category of niche tourism won’t continue to expand at this rate and responsible tourism actually helps awareness and research efforts.

So how can you get yourself there?

Antarctica is not a weekend trip, nor is it a cruise. The Falkland Islands and South Georgia, though beautiful and abundant in bird species, are British territory and not part of the Antarctic continent or peninsula. The only way to get to the continent is on an icebreaker, like the National Geographic Explorer. The best trips are not cruises, but rather expeditions, meaning the itinerary is subject to wild change based on the conditions of the oceans, ice, wildlife and “ports.” The main purpose of most expeditions, especially to Antarctica, is to allow researchers to collect another round of data for their decades-long projects on weather, penguin migration, erosion and other topics. Passengers provide the extra funding necessary to make the trip possible.

Expeditions to the continent generally require a minimum of two weeks to cross the Drake Passage (for which I highly recommend you pop seasickness pills like Tic Tacs), explore the outlying islands, break through frozen ocean water, reach a few open parts of the continent and return. Trust me, when the two weeks is up you’ll be begging for more. Despite living in Buenos Aires, New York City, Chicago, Florida and Wisconsin, my screen saver has repeated these Antarctic images and nothing else for almost four years.

While throngs of people spill into Antarctica as vacationing in remote areas becomes popular, “untouched” and “pristine” somehow remain the two most commonly used descriptors. Antarctica deserves more thought (and photos), and that is what you’ll find here in the coming weeks.

I can’t possibly give you the feeling of being on the deck of the National Geographic Explorer and listening to researchers, naturalists and environmentalists burst with excitement over newly documented numbers or a great photo opportunity after returning from excursions each day. But I hope that over the next few weeks, as I post more about the ice formations, polar research and wildlife, I can inspire you to save every dime you have and book this trip. Come back thirsty.

Tara for TKGO

Shot of the Week

When I lived in Barcelona, my dormitory was located on the same street as Gaudí’s incomplete masterpiece, La Sagrada Família. I walked up to stare at it in wonder many times, and this photo is from one of my late afternoon visits. The church looks like a different work from every angle at the base, and from this angle and the low sunlight hitting it, I love how it almost looks made of clay.

Karina for TKGO

What’s Next

A year has flown by since we started Tara and Karina Go Out! Thank you for reading, passing along our link and offering feedback. We appreciate it all immensely and have much planned for the future, including a redesign, city guide updates and, of course, plenty of excursions.

It’s about time we shared what’s going on in our post-college lives! You can expect plenty more from us on here, even though for now, we will be updating from separate hemispheres.

Tara

 

New York City skyline, by Karina for TKGO

 

It’s back to New York City for me! I’ll be exploring not only NYC, but also the world of social media consulting, from the helm (read: bottom of the totem pole) of an agency in Chelsea. Expect plenty of city guide updates while I’m here — the first round of which are already in the works — and frequent weekend jaunts toward fresh air. (I’m crossing my fingers for East Hampton, but I won’t turn down the beaches at Far Rockaway either. It’s getting cold too fast to be picky!) Drop me a line at Tara[at]TaraAndKarinaGoOut.com with recommendations and requests!

Karina

 

El Obelisco in La Plaza de la República, Buenos Aires, by Tara for TKGO

 

As of today, I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’ll be spending some time living here, attempting to make my way as a freelance journalist and learning the city Tara lived in and loved. I am lucky to be living with a couple other recent American college grad expats, as well as to have our own city guide to go off when exploring. I will be posting updates and insights on TKGO, as well as a blog in the Huffington Post Travel section. (I’ll share the link here as soon as my first post is up!) In the meantime, please send me any Buenos Aires recommendations not yet included in our city guide and I’d love to check them out: Karina[at]TaraAndKarinaGoOut.com.

Welcome to the next phase of TKGO, now reporting from two major world cities. Happy New Year, from both of us!

-Tara and Karina for TKGO