Saturday, March 23, 2013

Quark Expedition- The Gift of White!

Glacier at Neko Harbor

Snow with the magical blue glow of glacial ice

A zodiac full of explorers

Antarctica rarely gets precipitation but we got snow and rain

More fabulous scenery on the White Continent

The beautiful scenery, combine with the peace and silence of Antarctica makes it such a special, almost holy, place. Only around 40,000 visitors go there annually. Small-scale "expedition tourism" has existed since 1957 and is currently subject to Antarctic Treaty and Environmental Protocol provisions, but in effect self-regulated by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). Not all vessels associated with Antarctic tourism are members of IAATO, but IAATO members account for 95% of the tourist activity. Travel is largely by small or medium ship, focusing on specific scenic locations with accessible concentrations of iconic wildlife. We were told the numbers are capped to protect the environment.

Nothing grows there since all there is is rock, snow and ice. All that lives is dependent on sea life, especially krill, which was described to be like small shrimp. Antarctic krill, which congregates in large schools, is the keystone species of the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean, and is an important food organism for whales, seals, leopard seals, fur seals, squid, icefish, penguins, albatrosses and many other birds. We actually saw the three types of penguins who nest in the peninsula of Antarctica- Gentoo, Adélie  and Chinstrap, two types of seals- Leopard and Weddell, and whales- not sure what kind. We also saw birds- petrels and skuas mostly. The skuas also eat the eggs and chicks of the penguins. The adults protect them as best they can, but it doesn't always work. The rules of the jungle apply even is this freezing climate!

Emblem of the Antarctic Treaty since 2002

Signed in 1959 by 12 countries, The Antarctic Treaty  now has 49 countries on board. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, prohibits nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal, supports scientific research, and protects the continent's ecozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted by more than 4,000 scientists from many nations. There is also a treaty about whaling to protect the whales and all countries, except Japan, do not kill them. I understand Japan still kills whales for experiments in science, but not as much and might not do it much longer since younger people in Japan do not eat whale as the older people did.

If you look at the map of the continent above, we visited the top left peninsula sticking out which is closest to South America. We left from Ushuaia, Argentina (the southern most city in the world) where 95% of the visitors leave from because it is only a 2 day ship ride across Drake Passage to get to the continent. It is the closet departure point. What we saw was amazingly big and impressive and yet, looking at the map, you see it was only a small part of the entire continent. It gives me pause to realize just how vast this amazing continent is! Huge! Massive!

I felt it was such a privilege to visit Antarctica. Not that many people go there and it is so special and unusual a place to be. So different from real life. I am so glad I got to see how simple and elegant and cold! nature can be. It was truly a gift and I am so grateful.

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