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The Deep South

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

It is unclear what has set off the Adélie penguin, but it is bent on venting its rage. Flippers flapping, it flops onto another penguin without warning, knocking it onto its stomach. The victim of this apparently unprovoked assault wriggles as fast as it can across the rocky beach, covering about 30 feet in a few seconds, but it cannot escape the wrath of its tormentor. The fight is a rout, a bird-on-bird beat down, and if it had occurred between almost any other species on earth, it would have been frightening to watch. But because it involves Adélie penguins, foot-and-a-half-tall birds that look as if they are wearing tuxedos, it is as comedic as it is alarming.

Both birds belong to a colony, a large group of penguins, that is nesting at a place called Brown Bluff, the site of a December morning excursion during a 15-day Lindblad Expeditions trip to Antarctica. The altercation prompts questions from the Lindblad guests who witness it. What could make a penguin this angry? What violation of the penguin social code could provoke such an outburst? Steve MacLean, one of the guides on the trip, suggests that it is a domestic dispute, the kind, it seems, with which a Jerry Springer viewer might be familiar.

MacLean explains that penguins return to the same site annually to mate, but if last year’s female fails to arrive in a timely fashion, her mate may take up with another partner. If she appears after the male has found a new mate, a fight may ensue as the established female attempts to scare away the interloper. Stacey Buckelew offers another theory. Buckelew is a volunteer with Oceanites, a nonprofit organization that monitors Antarctic wildlife populations; Lindblad Expeditions donates a cabin aboard the Endeavour to Oceanites so that it can conduct research throughout the Antarctic cruise season. “My best guess is that a lot of testosterone was involved,” she says. “Possibly, it was a young male taking out its frustration by bullying. Penguins don’t breed until their fourth year. That guy could have been 2 or 3, taking out his frustration on a beta male or some other unfortunate.”

It is impossible to know what was going through that bird’s brain, but the opportunity to witness and ponder mysteries such as this is what attracts visitors to Antarctica and compels them to return. While the continent is experiencing a surge in tourism, it will never become a hot travel destination, figuratively or literally. The high season occurs during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter season, when Antarctica’s summer temperature hovers around the freezing mark. Its location is inconvenient; reaching the continent can require navigating the Drake Passage, a treacherous 400-mile-wide stretch of water located off the tip of South America. (During the December trip with Lindblad Expeditions, the Endeavour, which is stabilized to prevent rolling but still pitches, experienced 10-foot swells. The crew considered these mild compared to the 30-foot swells with which the ship has contended.)

Those who book passage to Antarctica offer various reasons for doing so. Some want to venture to the planet’s most inhospitable continent, just because they can; some wish to see the penguins and other forms of exotic wildlife in their native habitat; some seek to photograph icebergs sculpted by wind and weather, and midnight sunsets that paint the landscape in the colors of Easter candy; and some long to tread the paths of explorers such as Capt. James Cook, Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton. Virtually all of the visitors come away from the experience amazed, and several are hopelessly smitten. Expedition leader Trip Dennis is among the love-struck. Although the North Carolinian naturalist is just 35 years old, he has been to Antarctica more than 50 times. “I just have the bug,” he says. “I’m always thinking about it. I’ve done seven summer seasons, working the whole time.

Dennis and others in the expanding community of Antarctica fans have Lindblad Expeditions to thank for pioneering the notion of pleasure trips to the continent, of which it will offer six from November 2005 through January 2006. The company has a unique claim on Antarctica, because Lindblad Expeditions is the surviving remnant of the outfit that first brought tourists to Antarctica on a regular basis. Lars-Eric Lindblad led his first expedition of paying customers here in 1966, and in 1969, he began offering annual trips after he launched a ship expressly designed to tour such remote areas of the planet. Lars-Eric died in 1994, but the branch of the company started by his son, Sven, continues. In recognition of Lars-Eric’s tourism accomplishments, an Antarctic cove was named in his honor, but the Endeavour did not include Lindblad Cove on its latest itinerary because, ironically, it was inaccessible.

The Antarctic market is now large and robust enough to attract competitors, but Lindblad Expeditions maintains its advantage by offering activities such as sea kayaking in vessels designed to resist capsizing. The Endeavour carries 24 of the yellow two-seaters, which are launched from a portable platform that is erected at sea. The voyagers on this Lindblad Expeditions trip embrace three opportunities to man the kayaks. Although they can be deployed under only the most benign conditions, the Antarctic weather cooperates one more time than is expected on a typical trip, allowing for a glorious row under blue skies on Christmas morning.

While all of the passengers have access to the same excursions and lectures, no one experiences the same journey. The flexibility built into the Antarctic schedule allows passengers to devote a morning to climbing a snow-covered hill and tobogganing down it, paddling in a sea kayak, observing a group of nesting Gentoo penguins, or relaxing in the Endeavour’s library with a cup of hot cocoa.

The ship serves as a cozy haven between shore landings, but originally it was built as a fishing trawler in Germany in 1966, was converted for passenger use in 1983, and underwent many more renovations and refittings before it was rechristened the MS Endeavour in June 2001. Accommodations range from functional to comfortable, with the finest cabins (available for $14,250 for a 15-day excursion, not including airfare) featuring separate sitting areas and large windows. Passengers can avail themselves of a spacious lounge equipped with a bar, a piano, and screens for showing movies; a fitness center with an adjacent sauna room; a sundeck; a dining room; and the aforementioned library. In addition, the ship’s bridge is open to passengers at almost any hour.

In the lounge, Lindblad Expeditions passengers enjoy screenings of undersea footage shot by a staff member who films the ocean floor with a camera-equipped remote-operated vehicle (ROV). David Cothran operates the camera on this particular trip, delighting his audience with images of sponges, sea spiders, and the rarely seen crocodile fish, a bright orange creature with a head that bears an unmistakable resemblance to the fearsome reptile.

But this is hardly the only fantastic view of native wildlife presented. From the deck of the Endeavour, passengers see numerous fin and humpback whales, Weddell and elephant seals, wandering albatrosses, and four different species of penguin: the boisterous Gentoo, which has a band of white feathers encircling its head and a splash of red on its beak; the Chinstrap, which derives its name from the slim charcoal black line that runs across its face and beneath its beak; the Macaroni, whose head is crowned by an unruly yellow tuft that would do a punk rocker proud; and the Adélie, which, because of the white circles around its eyes, appears to be in a state of surprise.

Earlier in the voyage, during the mandatory briefing on how to behave in the presence of Antarctic wildlife, Dennis warns passengers to maintain about 15 feet of distance from the animals and to back away from any that appear nervous, but he adds that the animals themselves might not abide by the 15-foot rule. However, he does not prepare his audience for the indifference with which many penguins will regard them.

Like the birds of Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, Antarctic penguins have not developed a fear of human beings. Many have not developed a curiosity about humans, either, and so they move across the landscape with the single-mindedness of commuters striding toward a subway platform. This nonchalance enables the birds to pass within inches of their human observers, and allows for astonishing scenes such as the one witnessed on Gourdin Island, outside of the Antarctic Sound.

Those who have chosen the right spot on this Christmas afternoon enjoy a view of the penguin version of Grand Central Station: In the distance, flocks of Adélies swim toward the shore, leaping over the surface of the water in the manner of dolphins—indeed, the action is known as porpoising—while dozens more birds gather the gumption to dive in from spits of rock that the tide is slowly submerging. When a sufficient number of birds have collected at the rear of the pack, strength of numbers forces those at the front of the rocks to take the plunge. They launch themselves into the water with the grace of synchronized swimmers. Meanwhile, more penguins arrive on the shore, erupting from the sea at the observer’s feet, shaking the water off their sleek, slick bodies, and waddling to their nests.

Needless to say, adventures like these are not available at a local zoo. The guides enhance what the passengers see with shipboard lectures on relevant subjects. They describe how Antarctica came to be isolated from the rest of the continents (several million years ago it was part of a landmass that contained Africa, South America, and Australia, before tectonic plate activity separated them), how Antarctic wind patterns flow (because of the continent’s polar position, winds can circle an entire latitude without being impeded by any other land), and how some southern explorers never made it home (including the British explorer Robert Scott, who, after being beaten to the South Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, died just 11 miles away from a supply point on his return journey).

But not every session with the guides covers such serious material. During one of the nightly predinner meetings recapping that day’s adventure, MacLean includes an amusing aside on how the Adélie penguin was named. A Frenchman, Capt. Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville, discovered the bird in 1837 and named it in honor of his wife. “Imagine d’Urville explaining to her,” says MacLean. “ ‘Yes, I’ve been away for three years, but I named a short, fat, flightless bird after you.’ ” 

 

Lindblad Expeditions, 800.397.3348, www.expeditions.com

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