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*OK, fellow desert dwellers, how many species of whales can you name?
*True or false: a whale is a fish.
*What is the difference between a bergie and a bit?
*Name the most highly regarded Antarctic explorer.
* * * *
The average person returning from Christmas vacation didn’t know the answers, but you did, because you’ve returned from Antarctica in this, the last installment of our three-part series, “The Christmas Vacation of your Life.”
Instead of casinos and after-dinner shows, your cruise ship, the Clipper Adventurer, entertains its 122 passengers with presentations by renowned naturalists. Without trying, you learn more than you ever imagined about Antarctic birds, mammals, geography, geology and history.
But this isn’t school. It’s a cruise, and you’re having fun. At least that’s what we’re promised the day we land at Paulet Island and climb its 1,000 foot high summit. Thirty-knot winds and loose scoria translate to an exhausting two-hour ascent.
But along the way, you pass dozens of Adelie penguin nests. You try to take their picture while holding onto a rock to keep from blowing away. It’s not easy.
When you finally attain the gale-whipped summit, the view--and the wind--takes your breath away.
January’s clear summer sunshine sparkles off icebergs in the Weddell Sea. Seabirds—skuas, petrels and sheathbills—swoop inches from your head. Below, dark blobs lie on light-colored sand. Those are Weddell seals, sleeping on the sunny beach as if they were in California instead of Antarctica. Out comes the camera again!
The Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica is rich in plant and animal life. Passengers love to stay on deck, binoculars raised, seeking whales and dolphins. We are not disappointed.
As soon as our ship enters Antarctic waters, someone spots a “blow” from a humpback whale. Soon, three more spouts appear as four humpbacks lunge through huge schools of krill, tiny shrimp that are humpbacks’ favorite meal. The captain quietly steers the small vessel closer to get good photos but never disturbs these giant mammals. Every passenger and crew member stands as if glued to the deck rail, snapping photo after photo.
Every day, a whale, dolphin, seal or sea lion appears. By the end of the voyage, you will have seen killer, sei, minke and southern bottlenose whales, two species of dolphin, five species of seal and the South American sea lion. Your camera has never seen so much action.
Say “iceberg” and visions of Titanic appear. In Antarctica, you sail daily among glaciers and icebergs without catastrophic consequences. All ships that sail here, including your Clipper Adventurer, boast ice-strengthened hulls.
Instead of fearing ice, you learn about it. For example, glaciers are land-locked rivers of thousand-year-old ice that flow ever so slowly from mountain to sea. When they reach the sea, they calve, or break off icebergs.
An iceberg is bigger than a house. When an iceberg melts into something smaller than a house, it is called a bergie. When it melts further to the size of a car or smaller, it’s now a bit. Small bits that collect together in sheets are called brash ice. Brash ice will trap a ship—but not for long. Tides and weather will melt or shift it and the ship continues.
Sir Ernest Shackleton was a famous Antarctic explorer responsible for saving the lives of every single crew member during a two-year struggle to survive on the ice and in the ocean. Naturalists’ presentations prepare you for a Zodiac landing on Point Wild, where he rescued his men in 1916.
Silently, the Zodiac drifts in fog and heavy surf. In this open inflatable craft, you appreciate the plight of men who endured for months, surviving on penguin meat and seal blubber, trusting their leader to return for them. Only seabird calls break the silence as the Zodiac rocks back and forth with each wave.
Tony, the Zodiac driver, opens a hatch forward and brings out a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish whiskey and cups. He reaches into the ocean and collects ice bits. “This ice is about 2,000 years old,” he comments, gesturing to the glacier that released it. Then he pours “a wee dram” and hands each passenger a cup. “To Shackleton!” he toasts.
“To Shackleton!” twelve voices echo. You toss back Irish whiskey in honor of the Irish explorer. There’s not a dry eye on the boat.
c. "Follow Me!" Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2005