A White Christmas on the White Continent

Merry Christmas! We’ve reached our final morning on the continent of Antarctica. At midnight, we stood on the deck of the National Geographic Explorer and recorded a video message for our students, families, and friends back home. It was, of course, still broad daylight, and light snow began to fall just as the clock struck midnight.

National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows enjoy a sudden burst of light snow at midnight on Christmas morning

After some sleep, we woke up just off Paulet Island, a small island in the northwestern Wedell Sea, which, unlike the other places we’ve visited recently, has obvious signs of past human inhabitants. In the winter of 1903, Swedish geologist Otto Nordenskjold and his team had to endure an unexpected winter on the island when their ship became entrenched in pack ice and was crushed beyond repair. The team built a small stone hut and survived on penguin and seal meat. The naturalists’ presentations aboard our ship have been incredibly thorough, and, believe it or not, they have actually addressed the topic of eating Antarctic animals. Apparently, Frederik Cook, a late 19th century American surgeon and explorer, described penguin meat as “a piece of beef, ‘odiferous’ cod fish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce”.  I think I’m a fairly adventurous eater, but that sounds awful. Awful or not, the meat kept all but one member of Nordenskjold’s team alive during the winter of 1903 – which is pretty amazing given the near 24-hour darkness and frigid temperatures of Antarctic winters. Miraculously, even the ship’s cat survived the long, dark winter and left the island alive!

Penguins have made their home in the remnants of Nordenskjold’s hut

This morning, we began with a hike up Paulet Island, known for its distinct volcanic cone. As we climbed, we contended with large piles of loose volcanic rock, slushy snow, and lots and lots – and lots – of guano. We ascended the steep incline surrounded on all sides by penguins. When we finally emerged over the ridge, the size and density of the colony was breathtaking. More than 40,000 pairs – almost 100,000 penguins! – call Paulet Island their home, and there were nesting penguins with newly-hatched chicks in literally every direction (see video below). We had to be very careful not to step off our narrow, snow-covered path, as there was no penguin-free land to be found, and we wanted to be certain that we didn’t accidentally crush the tiny, fragile chicks.

Since we were guests in the penguin colony and were abiding by the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty meant to protect the wildlife on this pristine continent, the penguins dictated our every move. As it turns out, they were not the most welcoming hosts. Hundreds of penguins blocked our intended route as we were heading back from visiting the remnants of Nordenskjold’s stone hut, and so we had to turn around and climb back up the way we came. With the rivers of slippery guano and slushy snow and piles of loose, sharp volcanic rocks, the climb was very difficult, but I came out of it with just a nasty, colorful bruise on my knee from slipping in penguin poop – and the best story ever to explain my minor injury.

Climbing up a steep incline covered in guano and loose volcanic rock. Photo courtesy of our GTF mentor, photographer Eric Guth
All those “dots” behind us are penguins! Photo courtesy of our GTF mentor, photographer Eric Guth
Taking in the moment. Photo courtesy of our GTF mentor, photographer Eric Guth

There’s rarely an idle moment aboard the National Geographic Explorer, and so, as soon as we finished our hike, I climbed into a sea kayak with Peg Keiner, one of the other GTF teachers. The kayaks are inflatable and are equipped with a foot pedal steering system in the back seat. Since Peg is the stronger paddler, I was appointed navigator (yes, anyone who knows me well is probably questioning this decision – and with good reason). We were told that these kayaks are affectionately called “divorce kayaks” by the crew, as they require constant and precise coordination and communication between the people in the front and back seats to steer successfully. Since all of my kayaking experience has been in a solo kayak in lakes in Connecticut and sheltered inlets of the Long Island Sound, maneuvering a double sea kayak in 30°F weather in the windy waters of the Antarctic Sound was a completely new experience for me. Within minutes, our hands – with two pairs of gloves each – were numb. There was little time to warm up, though, as we had other important things to attend to – like navigating around large drifting icebergs (hitting them can cause calving and unplanned plunges into the 29°F water) and large groups of porpoising penguins leaping in front of our boat.

Kayaking in the Antarctic Sound amid icebergs, penguins, and one large ship

We talk a great deal about perspective in my classes, and this kayaking experience was an incredibly poignant example of this concept. As we paddled in these kayaks, perched just above the water’s surface, we saw the Antarctic Sound from the perspective of the penguins and the leopard seals that swam around us, and we fought the same bitter winds as the seabirds swooping low to gather food. It turns out that Peg and I actually made an excellent kayaking team, and we managed to successfully steer our kayak through the windy Sound and back to the ship without colliding with any ‘bergy bits, penguins, or fellow kayakers.

We ended the day with a lovely Christmas dinner – our second, actually, as the culinary team prepared a traditional Filipino Christmas dinner for us yesterday. Tomorrow, we begin our journey back through the Drake Passage as we head toward Ushuaia again.

One Comment

  1. Emilia

    What an adventure— just want to keep on Exploring!

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