Expedition days are days that don’t have a schedule set ahead of time. I mean, there’s an intended plan, but the chances are low that the day will follow that plan through ‘til the end. Today was an expedition day, and it fell off the plan by around 10a.
Breakfast is moving 30 minutes earlier day by day, matching approximately the sunlight (sunset last night was 10:45p and sunrise this morning was about 3:30a, with lots of dawn and dusk). We landed and cruised at Paulet Island yesterday, and we did the same again today, along with a third option, hiking to the top of the island. Melinda and I chose hiking, as we got an hour or so of colony photography and observation yesterday, and the hikes generally are fun. The hike today was described as “shorter and steeper than the previous hike,” which is funny because that’s how the previous hike was described as well. Fine.
The zodiac ride to the island was a little exciting as we had 2m swells, moderate winds, and scattered bergy bits of ice between the ship and land. Jim, our driver, caught air beneath the boat on one swell to the surprise of all us passengers, and Jim. He slowed a bit thereafter but it was a bouncing plow through the water. Nonetheless, we were on land by 8:45a and joined the dozen people for the hike.
The hike starts by passing a stone hut used by an expedition around the turn of the century when the group lost their ship. The hut now is on the edge of the Adelie colony, and the penguins don’t seem to give any thought to the historical significance of these stones. We see two skuas feasting on a stolen penguin chick near the corner as we pass the hut on our hike. The hike path takes us inland, around a lake and up a steep hill. The route around the lake is tough-going for a few reasons. One is that the ground is all angular stones that don’t afford great footholds, so one must pick one’s footfalls carefully. Another is that the easiest path is in use by the Adelies as a highway between an inland colony and the sea, and we cannot block that route. The lake is in the caldera of an old volcano and the water is a surprising green color. I guess nothing drains the lake, and the only water that feeds it is a trickle of snow melt. Melinda and I saw a Gentoo penguin at Stromness bathe in a freshwater pond; these Adelies would rather walk along a difficult stone path for 100m than swim through this green lake.
As we round the lake the wind picks up a bit and makes walking the awkward path more difficult for balance. On the opposite side of the lake, we begin our ascent to the top. It’s probably 300m to the top in elevation, but the hill is just volcanic rock of varying (and mostly small) size. Nothing is growing here, and we’re just about above the penguin line, so the hill is essentially a pile and our angle of attack the critical slope of this material. The rock is red, or black, or grey, and varies in size between golf balls and breakfast cereal. We don’t walk straight up but hit the slope at 60, rather than 90, degrees. The slope itself is a 28 degree incline, so we’re heading pretty steeply up. The rocks slide easily beneath our feet, and the wind is blowing more now. We stop a few times on the way up for Marlene to listen to the radio discussions down at the landing site. About the third time we stop, the radio discussion gives us a directive: the landing site’s been relocated on account of the wind, and the new location is tenuous. We’re to return to the ship at once. We’ve climbed maybe 100m vertically, not quite to the ridge above the lake, but that’s all the farther we’ll go. I’m just as content turning around, though – on the way up the top of the hike is described as “steeper at the top” and “tricky in one place” where we would need “someone to help you through.” Looking up I see no tight squeezes, so I can only imagine it’s a very narrow path and a steep drop-off. I’m not really ready for that today, but the winds provide me a graceful means to avoid the issue altogether.
Because the landing site’s changed we retrace our steps to the first site then follow the beach to the new site (about a quarter mile away). Along the way we’re walking much more closely to the penguins than protocol would suggest (advice is 5m distance but we’ve been asked to not tarry and so are only a few feet away from the penguins most of the time). The Adelies scatter pretty quickly when a human approaches, much more quickly than the Kings or Gentoos did, but the Adelies are quicker to replan and walk around, or through, a group of people to get to their destination. So, they’re both skittish and fearless, if one can be so disposed. I put my camera away as we’re clearing the beach, but as we’re walking it’s clear that the situation isn’t _that_ urgent that I couldn’t stop five seconds for a photograph once or twice. I pull out my camera and snap a few more along the way.
The zodiac ride back to the ship is pretty mellow all things told, and we’re on the ship safely. On ship we hear the story that will be retold throughout the morning. The zodiacs are returned to the ship by a hoist and the driver rides the boat up. When Tom’s boat was being hoisted, rather than the boat remaining approximately balanced, the wind upturned it and dumped the contents: dry bag, motor battery, gas tanks, and Tom. Tom managed to hang on to the boat with one hand, fortunately, so he never fell in the water. And another driver was very nearby and managed to pick up the dry bag and gas tank. But the battery was gone, of course, as were a few other loose items, and Tom’s shoulder and hand will be sore for a few days.
We’re back on the ship by 11a, about 90 minutes before we’d have expected, but that’s what an expedition day is about. All the boats are on the ship around 11:45 and I spot Ted on the bridge speaking to the captain about plans. Before Ted had come aboard I was looking at the barometer and the captain remarked to me, “Today, bad weather. Tomorrow, much calmer. Day after, calm. Day after that calm.” I say, we can hope so; “Not hope, I have information.” Nice. But he adds, “But, is Antarctic.” About 20 minutes later Ted announces the new plan: head to the Firth of Tay and try for an afternoon landing; maybe it’ll be sheltered there. At least it’s in the lee of the wind.
We lunch and the ship moves on. We reach the Firth of Tay around 2:30, but the winds haven’t let up; they’re still blowing at 40 knots. We had plans to land at Brown Bluff in the afternoon, too, but the winds won’t allow that. So the plan changes again: we won’t land again today, we’re going to the west side of the peninsula today, and we’ll try zodiac cruising and landing at Cierva Cove and Cuverville. The rest of today is set up as lectures (Ted and Kate), dinner, and a movie. The seas are pretty rough and people start to disappear on account of seasickness. Myself, I’m starting to feel a little queasy, but I’m going to tough it out rather than take a patch and get the side-effects again. The seas should calm as we go into the night, and we’ll be at our next location around 6a according to the autopilot. So for now, I’m planning to post this entry and head to bed. It’s still plenty light outside (sunset won’t be for another two hours) but tomorrow’s plan begins at 6a.