While the Shackleton Epic team are waiting for a break in the weather so they can embark on their extraordinary re-enactment of the legendary expedition, the group of sponsors lucky enough to be taking part on the support vessel Australis have been loving their taste of Antarctica. Intrepid’s Jane Crouch has been on board and lets us in on the wonders of this great white continent but also its very real threat…
“Awesome, magnificent, gob-smacking Antarctica. There just doesn’t seem to be enough adjectives – whether taking in the minutiae of ice-crystals or the water repellence of seal fur, or the grand vistas of snow-laden jagged peaks and icy waters – Antarctica is extraordinarily beautiful and any words don’t seem to do adequate justice to the incredible majesty of the place.
Within minutes of stepping onto the yacht Australis, our home for 10 days, a small iceberg floats by and up pops one Adelie penguin – perhaps the advance party to welcome us we’d like to think! We sail around to our first stop at Frei base, and are soon meeting some of the 30,000 pairs of Adelie penguins who nest there and a handful of aptly named chinstrap penguins. They’re not too perturbed by us, nor are they anywhere it seems, but we work on maintaining the ’5 metres away rule’. It seems the penguins aren’t aware of these rules, so after I sit quietly on a rock for awhile, there are penguins hopping all around me giving me ‘the eye’!
At both Cuverville Island and Port Lockroy we visit gentoo penguin colonies. These red billed penguins with a distinctive white patch above their eyes are nesting. Mothers and fathers share parenting responsibilities. Some were lying with their plump bellies over the top of one or two eggs, laid into a nest of pebbles. Some stood with one or two chicks at their feet, wrapped in the warmth of their belly feathers, and periodically looking down to feed them a morsel of the food they’d caught earlier. As individual penguins return from the sea to the colonies, they greet their mates with a bowing of the head down towards the feet, dipping up and down several times while making a gentle ‘ah, aha, aha’ sound.
No matter where we go, wildlife abounds – peer out over the water awhile and we see water spouting up from a whale’s blow hole in the distance. Humpback, orca or minke? Watch several breaches and the whale’s size, colour, fin and tail shapes help us identify what type of whale. In Wilhelmina Bay, a 360 degree view has us surrounded by all three types of whales – and we can see more than 40 all around us. My neck sure gets a swivelling workout! Wowwwwww! One of our group, Keith, pops his acoustics recording equipment in the water and records whale singing and burps! We can see plenty of their food, swarms of krill, just below the water’s surface. They say the krill levels are better in the water in this area than the previous couple of years, but how much do we know about the general health report trajectory of these waters?
In Admiralty Bay we learn that the waters there used to freeze over every winter, but this hasn’t happened the last 11 years. Less Antarctic ice means less algae breeding under the ice. Less algae means less food for krill. Less krill means less food for penguin and less penguins mean less food for seals. No one tells you in plainer language about the cycle of life and climate change impacts, than ecologists working in Antarctica. We’ve been privileged to meet several during our Shackleton Epic journey and these are the observations they share … with an up to 50% reduction in penguin numbers observed in several colonies in recent years.
It is such an extraordinary privilege to be in this magnificent place, but it’s a place that needs our help to combat current challenges. I’m heartened that there are great scientists working on these issues, and that I can help support them through a wonderful organisation like Fauna & Flora International, who are working to protect some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and species on our planet.”
You can follow the Shackleton Epic via the blog and Live Tracking at shackletonepic.com/blog.
To support Jane’s efforts to raise funds for the linked cause, Fauna & Flora International and their biodiversity and habitat protection work, please head to justgiving.com/JaneCrouch.