March 17, 2020

Post by Landon Belanger

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, good morning, it is another beautiful day, I won’t bother informing you of our location today because you already know, as we are still anchored inside the Ushuaia harbor… The light is peaking over the mountains this morning, dancing across the valleys, if you have a minute to poke your head outside before breakfast, I advise you to do that. We have another day of programming lined up for you all. It is 9 am, breakfast is being served for another 30 minutes, so make sure to get up there and grab your coffee”.

The now familiar voice of Laurie crackled into silence as a we all rolled over in bed, the morning routine is now fairly familiar. We awake to Laurie’s calming voice, we go to breakfast, we tell the omelet chef what we’d like included in today’s omelet, we sit down at the Quest University reserved tables in the forward, starboard end of the Polaris Restaurant, Hans or Marlin or Johnny bring over coffee, and we start light conversation as we slowly wake up.

This particular morning, I am stretching my neck back and forth from right to left, forward to back, beating myself up for not ‘locking up my neck’ (as my sister Tessa has taught me) when I was head banging to Bohemian Rhapsody last night at Karaoke night. Luke placed my name in the singing pool last night without my knowledge. Making up for my embarrassment and unwillingness to sing, the entire class came up to support me and sing along with me. This is unsurprising as this particular group has become an incredible safety net for me time and again this trip. Having broken my leg the week before leaving for this crazy adventure, it didn’t take long before everyone started helping me out with little things – at landings Laura would put my PFD in the bin to save me a walk, Anna would be waiting with one of the Quark branded Biosecurity safe walking poles to help get me over the rough terrain, Liam would help me summit the glaciers so I didn’t slip down, just to name a few.

At breakfast, Colin told us we were planning on meeting at 10:30 in the Universe, the makeshift, windowless, center of ship, office-convert-classroom Quark lends us. We each brought in the ‘food maps’ we made depicting the trophic layers within the Antarctic ecosystem. In short, everything ‘big’ that is exciting to see (seals, whales, penguins) all rely on krill as their main food source. Krill in turn are the most successful species on the planet. At any given time, the estimated standing stock is between 125 million – 725 million tons. Feeding on diatoms, phytoplankton that grow on the bottom of sea ice, krill provide food directly or indirectly for all life in the Southern Ocean.

An Antarctic Krill, found during our last excursion in Antarctica

The early afternoon saw a few hours of work on the aft deck, in the sunshine, overlooking the Ushuaian mountains that Laurie had mentioned in her morning announcement. Another potential traveling induced stress was introduced when the US embassy Tweeted (what a world we live in) that domestic flights within Argentina will be cancelled between the 20th and 25th. This of course means that our recently rescheduled flights on the 22nd and 23rd may not be possible. After a quick moment of panic, we all remembered that while there is a global pandemic taking place off the boat, we’re still being served 3 course meals and hot-totties out in the sunshine surrounded by Patagonian mountains.

Our blissful ‘pandemic’ lifestyle was completed this afternoon when the staff set up a party for us on the aft decks of the ship. They threw us one hell of a St. Patricks Day Party. Several parts of dinner were served green and Guinness and fruit punch were supplied. Maddie and Onyx rightly acknowledged that drinking the fruit punch will help fend off scurvy, and thus, swerve the scurve was invented – a novel, kickass, dance move, that only those present at (likely) the best St. Patrick’s Day Party of 2020 know about. Many of us danced until the first hours of the morning, before finally returning to our cabins to find them ‘turned down’ with our favorite little chocolates awaiting us on our pillows.

March 16th, 2020

Post by Madelyn Hollister

We have sailed through the last bit of Drake Passage and this morning we woke up to the calm seas of the Beagle Channel. Anchored in the middle of the Ushuaia Harbor, we are surrounded by beautiful views of mountains and the colorful town of Ushuaia. Not a bad place to be quarantined for a week!

A brown skua

As we recovered from the Drake Passage and the 4-8 m swells of the Drake Shake, we spent some time out on the deck enjoying the views. Flying around the harbor were black-browed albatross, skuas, giant petrels, terns, and gulls.

The majority of our day consisted of homework, watching lectures, booking new flights, and contacting friends and family now that we are back in cell service. Unfortunately, we found out today that Canada is closing its borders to non-essential travel, which may or may not include people with study permits. We will be looking into this further, as it will likely impact where we travel to after the quarantine. Colin gathered us for a brief class meeting to give us some tips for the next week, including walking around the deck for exercise, continuing our daily journals, and staying positive and busy. Someone suggested the idea of giving our Keystone presentations on the boat since it is likely our last chance to present them to a live audience. Overall, our spirits are high and everyone is very supportive of each other’s needs. We are looking forward to the extra days on the boat with each other and with this wonderful community!

A view of Ushuaia from the anchored ship

The majority of our day consisted of homework, watching lectures, booking new flights, and contacting friends and family now that we are back in cell service. Unfortunately, we found out today that Canada is closing its borders to non-essential travel, which may or may not include people with study permits. We will be looking into this further, as it will likely impact where we travel to after the quarantine. Colin gathered us for a brief class meeting to give us some tips for the next week, including walking around the deck for exercise, continuing our daily journals, and staying positive and busy. Someone suggested the idea of giving our Keystone presentations on the boat since it is likely our last chance to present them to a live audience. Overall, our spirits are high and everyone is very supportive of each other’s needs. We are looking forward to the extra days on the boat with each other and with this wonderful community!

The class looking happy and healthy on the first day of quarantine

Jean, a Quark staff member and ornithologist, gave a lecture on birds, and later on, Finn hosted a workshop on Antarctic bird and mammal identification. Other activities on the ship during the day included board games, yoga, tea time, and a lecture on Ernest Shackleton.

This evening, the ship hosted a karaoke night. A ton of people came out for it, and it was a great relief from the stress of the last couple days. As a group, we sang Bohemian Rhapsody, and got up to dance for several other songs including Dancing Queen and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. It was lovely to see people having fun, dancing together, and making the most of our situation.

March 15th, 2020

by Liam Johnson

As we finish our last day sailing across the Drake passage, we are all patiently awaiting news regarding the fate of the world! Although we could dwell on possibilities, we have been trying to spend time reminiscing on our amazing trip thus far. Today we experienced the Drake shake; swells were reaching 8 meters! This was definitely the highest sea that I have ever been in, which has been the consensus for most of the class. Understandably, a number of us were quite seasick today and out for the count, but some of us were able to attend the daily talks given by the expedition staff. Since there wasn’t a whole lot to look at (we had brief glimpses of Wandering Albatrosses), I figured I would write about how we are keeping busy on the ship!

            The first talk of the day was given by Federico (the only Argentine expedition guide) about Adrien de Gerlache’s Antarctic expedition. De Gerlache was a pioneer for Antarctic exploration as he charted much of the western Antarctic peninsula and was one of the first explorers to spend a winter on the continent. One of the main challenges for his crew was scurvy, due to a meat-centered diet and minimal sunlight. De Gerlache had spent a number of years prior to his Antarctic expedition up in the Arctic and had learned from Inuit people that raw meat can be a source of vitamin C. Although eating raw seal meat was compared to eating a cocktail of reject beef cuts, it severely reduced the number of cases of scurvy among the crewmembers. Another landmark of de Gerlache’s expedition was the creation of an ice channel to free the Belgica from the consolidated ice floes. Even though it was treacherous work, they managed to make it home before spending yet another winter in Antarctica. De Gerlache never returned to Antarctica however, one of his crew members (Roald Amundson) later was the first explorer to reach the geographic south pole.

            The second talk was given by Yvonne, the on-board geologist. Her talk was a discussion of the fate of the Antarctic ice shelves, with rising global temperatures. Unfortunately, I was quite seasick for this one and was quite drowsy. One take home message from this talk was the relative speed of glacial melt vs ice shelf melt. Glaciers will generally melt via drip (and as such, much slower), whereas massive icebergs can break off of ice shelves and drift out to sea, melting much quicker. Although breakage events are not particularly common, the Larsen ice shelf (on the eastern side of the peninsula) has had two major bergs break off in 1995 and 2002. The problem with the disintegration of ice shelves (as a result of increased carbon emissions), is that the glaciers that “feed” these shelves no longer have a barrier and subsequently flow faster into the sea. One implication is that once the temperatures in the southern areas of Antarctica reach a certain threshold, there will be a massive ice shelf breakage event, potentially causing mass sea level rise.

            All in all, morale is high. For dinner we ate tuna tartare, duck breast and espresso mousse. We have been both eating and sleeping well. Now to keep busy for the next couple of days to avoid cabin fever! Attached are some of my favorite pictures thus far.

March 14th, 2020

by Luke Urso

The stretch of water between southern tip of South America and northern most point on the Antarctic peninsula is called the Drake Passage. Some facts about the Drake. It’s home to many species of sea birds. Among them is the Wandering Albatross. With a wingspan of up to twelve feet, it is the largest flying bird on the planet. It flies alongside the tiny Storm Petrel, which is among the smallest of sea birds. The Storm Petrel weighs the same amount as 30 paper clips and is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Watching from the stern, I saw them in flight together. The albatross making the waves seem as hills and the Storm Petrel making them seem as mountains to climb, sheer and wind-blown and frosted with spray at their peaks.

Another fact about the drake is that it’s the roughest stretch of open water on the planet. With devastating regularity, the drake is torn by Antarctic cyclones. Blowing with hurricane force, the winds stir up waves so massive and prolific that sailors have given them a name of their own: Cape Horn Rollers.

A final fact about the Drake is perhaps obvious. When you start on south ward you are in one place, a place of familiarity, of roads and restaurants, of jobs and school, of email and news and Facebook, and when you reach the other side you find that you have entered another place entirely, a place of ice and rock and water and silence. There’s a point in the Drake, between the peak of one roller and the trough of another where you make the transition. Though it’s not a border you can see, it is perceptible, nonetheless in the plummeting temperature outside. It is called the polar front and it is defined as the point where warmer sub-Antarctic seas converge with the frigid surface water of the Antarctic circumpolar current. For myself, it was upon crossing this point while heading southward that I felt I had entered another world.

On the 14th of March we crossed the polar front for a second time, this time heading north, and once again entered a new world. COVID-19 had been at work around the globe, spreading out of control, and rising to pandemic levels in our home countries. At breakfast the previous day, Colin informed us that Quest would be moving all classes online and evacuating campus. Graduation was to be canceled as well, along with keystone symposiums.

Later that evening, we learned that Argentina would be canceling flights starting on the 17th and our trip would be cut short as the ship made for Ushuaia in all haste, to make it back in time. We departed from the frozen continent that night and made good speed through calm seas off the west coast of the sheltering Antarctic peninsula. The conditions inside the ship were more confused than anything else. Internet connection was poor and intermittent at best so communication with the outside world was limited. Colin purchased time on the ships satellite phone connection and through that we were able to talk to our parents and loved ones.

We awoke on the morning of 14th having left the shadow of the peninsula well behind us and could feel the rocking of the ship as it was jostled by the Drake. The seas, light as they were for the Drake, were still strong enough to be felt by most that morning. Those who made it to breakfast came somewhat bedraggled with mild to moderate sea sickness, made worse perhaps by the general feeling of weariness imparted by the confusion of the previous day.

The dining hall, located well forward of midships, amplified the rise and fall of the ship as it climbed and fell across with waves, so that every so often a collective groan would sound as passengers dropped their forks to brace themselves against a particularly heavy swell.

For most, the day was spent alternating between lying sea sick in bed to short burst of energy on the phone or our computers working out airline tickets. By the afternoon, most of us had reached some sort of stability with travel plans or at the least had been able to contact our families and let them know what was happening. Throughout the morning, the swells had mounted in size and by lunch the seas were “exceptional”, as the shipboard director put it. Despite the high seas and driving wind, the atmosphere over lunch was light and happy. We joked about holding our own graduation on board, shared our favorite memories of the trip and thanked Colin for all his effort on our behalf. After lunch, most of us returned to our cabins to wait out the high seas in the comfort of our warm bunks.

It was later in the afternoon, closer to dinner, when an announcement of an important update from the shipboard director came over the intercom. My roommate, Tristan, and I were watching a movie in our cabin when we heard the announcement. We flicked through the channels on our cabins small TV to find the one with that showed a feed of the briefing room. We flicked passed the channel that played Seinfeld re-runs on repeat, to find the screen filled with a picture of the shipboard director, Laurie, in the briefing room addressing the assembled passengers in front of a power point. Tristan and I watched for moment.

Then, suddenly, we sprang out of bed in unison and rushed towards the TV, falling over an open backpacks and loose computer cord as we moved, while the ship hurled itself up and down. We had both seen the words scrawled on the projection behind Laurie: “Quarantine” and “March 22nd”. There was moment of stunned silence between us while Tristan and I both starred uncomprehendingly at the fuzzy screen before we both turned to each other with baffled looks. Was this real?

Short answer, yes. We learned that we were to be held in quarantine on board the ship by the Argentinian government. At that point, we knew little else. Where we were going to disembark, whether flights would be running, which boarders would be closing – we had no answers.

That night we crossed the invisible line between the Antarctic and the rest of the world. While the ship crashed over and through the rolling sea, we all huddled around phones and computers navigating the equally perilous sea of uncertainty that we were now forced to cross.

If the world hadn’t gone crazy, and we hadn’t been occupied with canceling flights and communicating to loved ones, we might have looked outside. We might have seen the Wandering Albatross, commanding a graceful control despite the gale, soaring up and over the mountainous waves, confident and searching and unassailable. Or if chance would have it, we might have sighted the tiny storm petrel, fluttering perilously, blown about, and dwarfed by the winds and waves and sky. Which were we? Certainly, entering the Antarctic a week earlier I felt more akin to the Albatross – but now?

The Storm Petrel gets its name from riding wind-wrought seas, defying fate and sense. It’s reassuring that the Storm Petrel calls the drake passage it’s home. It’s smaller than a door mouse yet lives among giants. The sea must seem daunting at times, but the drake isn’t always rough. Between cyclones the winds die down, the waves still and the sea becomes tranquil. What of the storm petrel then? It’s so weightless and agile that it can alight upon the surface, fluttering its wings and dancing its feet across the water while it snatches mouthfuls of krill. It dances and dives and rides gentle thermals. And when the wind rises to 100 miles an hour, and the waves tower 15 meters high and certainty is blow away? The Storm Petrel flies on.

March 13, 2020

Post by Chloe Lee Rowlands

It snowed in Antarctica this morning.

The day, unfortunately, began with the news that Quest was to close their doors and go online for the rest of the academic year, following the lead of countless other universities around the world in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is hard to classify this news within the “good news, bad news” binary. Quest is making the only decision it can in order to keep its students, staff, and faculty safe. However, it comes as quite a sad announcement to those of us on board, as I’m sure it does to our peers back in Canada. For all of us, this news means that we will not get to say goodbye to our friends, mentors, tutors, or community. For eight of us, those who plan to graduate in April, this news means no graduation, no real keystone– at least not the way we imagined it would be, and no chance to say goodbye to the peers we have spent four years learning, living, and playing alongside.
While we know that this decision was not only the right one for Quest to make, but also the only one Quest could possibly make in these circumstances, it feels like a loss. We are sad, confused, and shocked. Our responses oscillate between expressions of sadness, frustration, and attempts to cope with the news through humor– sometimes misplaced, but always with the intention of keeping our spirits up and making the most of our time here… we are in Antarctica after all.

Back to the boat by 11am, the next activity was quickly upon us. The days in Antarctica feel long— between the early mornings and countless activities, it is consistently surprising to remember that we have only been in Antarctica for a few days, and only on board this ship for less than a week.

Luke: Excited about the unknown! Is it whale snot or a worm? 

Our last activity before lunch was one that we have been looking forward to since before we boarded the ship– the Polar Plunge. As we made our way to the long line of slightly shivering passengers in matching white bathrobes, our feelings ranged from dread to excitement to doubt. And yet we all knew that we were absolutely going to take the plunge. As I said, we are in Antarctica after all.

Even so, it would be misleading to say we were all without doubts. But even the most of dubious of our group had their worries vanquished by the inspiring sight of our dear friend and fellow shipmate Cheryl, who had beaten us to line up for the plunge, and came back past us with her hair dripping with the cold, Antarctic waters and the biggest, beaming smile on her face. Cheryl is an inspiration in more ways than one, and has become an unofficial, and treasured, member of our class. Not only does she have a consistently incredible positive attitude and an eagerness to learn and explore that pushes us to do the same, but she holds a perspective on climate change, and her part in it, that has made me feel that I too have agency.

In this class we have discussed both the benefits and the costs that are wrapped up in our decision, and in anyone’s decision, to come on a voyage like this. The carbon debt we are incurring is substantial. Colin estimates that the carbon debt we are responsible for is as much as that of an Australian family over the course of an entire year. Cheryl is also aware of this debt, and has already taken it upon herself to offset this debt by planting over 300 trees by hand. She plans to continue this effort upon returning to Australia. Her awareness and her action are inspiring.
Also inspiring, was the sight of Cheryl fresh out of the Antarctic waters. And so, one by one, we all followed in her lead. But not before turning our time in line into a Mudroom dance party, even compelling a few fellow passengers to join in. Once it was our turn, and after being wrapped in a harness, we made our way down the same cold staircase that we use to board the zodiacs, but instead of climbing into a boat, we smiled for the camera and jumped into the frigid waters. And, in what seems like a testament to the community we have formed, as each of us climbed out of the water and passed whichever of us was waiting for the next plunge, we shared a shivering hug.

Rocks: The stunning geology at Portal Point…. I’ll have to ask Anna, our resident geologist, about it!

We warmed up, had lunch, and then we were off on yet another excursion– a zodiac cruise around Charlotte Bay and a landing at Portal Point, our last landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. We began with the landing, which brought us to a stunning landscape: cracked rocks leading up from the water, slowly met by ice, and then continuing up to glacial hills looking out over the bay in all directions. Upon disembarking, we jumped into Luke’s field talk on the formation of ice ages, and how we have come to learn what we know about them. What a unique experience it is to attend a lecture on ice ages, while standing on ice, surrounded by glaciers. I feel lucky to attend a university which prioritizes place based learning like this, and it is a nice reminder, amidst the chaos, that I am only here because of the values Quest holds, values which align with my own and for which I am immensely grateful.

Luke’s presentation: Upon landing at Portal Point, the class gathered on ice to learn about ice ages from Luke.

Following Luke’s talk was a time for exploration, observation, and reflection. While the first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula was one of buzzing excitement, loud penguin calls, and photo opportunities for passengers who were arriving at their 7th continent, at this landing there seems to be a communal feeling of silent reverence for the place we are at and the experience we are having. For the most part, everyone splits off in different directions, but most of our group sits together silently atop the glacial hill for a while, either looking out over the water or lying on our backs and watching the snow fall around us. It is our first Antarctic snow, and after having sunny weather and windy weather, it somehow feels fitting to end our time here with the snow, getting to watch the icy world around us replenish, if only a little bit.

To end our day’s adventure, we hopped back aboard a zodiac. The snow is still falling around us, and as we cruise around the bay and watch the humpback whales which yet again grace us with their presence, we can see a slight skin of ice begin to form on the surface of the water. It is impressive how quickly things happen in such an extreme climate. Especially when compared with the snow we experience in Squamish, which often falls in the morning and is gone by the early afternoon. We admire the ice, in all its varying forms, and the whales, still unbelievably close to our Zodiac, and then head back to the ship in appreciative silence.

The day ends as it began: with some news. At the evening briefing, we are told that the situation in Argentina pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic is developing. Argentina has cancelled flights to the United States, as well as a few other countries, starting on the 18th of March. Therefore, our itinerary has changed and instead of docking on the 17th as planned, we will be arriving in Ushuaia a day early to give passengers time to travel home before these restrictions are implemented.

Landscape view: As put by our Zodiac guide, “Look around, this is as Antarctic as it gets.”

While it is slightly sad that our trip will be cut short, and that we will miss the expedition in the Shetlands that had been planned for the following day, we are not too broken up about this. Between our smooth conditions, luck with the weather, and incredible expedition staff we have already packed more into the few days we have been in Antarctica then we could have possibly hoped for. I am grateful, awe-inspired, and blown away by the experiences I have had, the sights I have seen, and the opportunities I have had here. I am sure that my classmates would share a similar sentiment. We are very, very lucky to be here.

March 12 – Danco Island and Neko Harbour

by Jacob Tracy

Today was our second full day of Antarctic expeditions, and though many of us are tired, the circumstances bring upwells of energy and emotion. All is new, and all is beyond time.

We landed in the morning on Danco Island, a small domed island in the southern end of the Ererra Channel, surrounded by mountains and glaciers with rough edges. Huge icebergs resting in the water dwarfed our ship. Sun and blue skies broke through the clouds. Once ashore on a pebbly beach, chunks of ice and boulders dotted the view, as did penguin bones and corpses, upon which opportunistic moss and algae took hold. The intertidal zone presented red algae, many limpet shells, some washed up salps, a dead squid, and a small orange worm poking about. Hordes of gentoo penguins came into view, some by the water, but most higher on the hill in their colony. The island is home to 2,600 breeding pairs of them. We wait as they crossed. Skuas and Wilson storm petrels flew by. There was a bright mood about.

My eye was caught by flat slabs of concrete in the distance. Closer inspection revealed them to be the foundation for what used to be British Base O, one of 26 similar bases, built by the Falkland Islands Dependence Survey in February 1956, and occupied until February 1959. This particular site was used for topographic geology surveys, but following the Antarctic Treaty it was not selected for historic preservation status, and was demolished and removed in 2004 to comply with the Environmental Protocol of the Treaty. All this was detailed by a sign upon the slab, not only documenting the past but anticipating future traffic and readers such as myself. A few broken old whale bones rested nearby. On my walk over to the foundation, I found a small rubber endcap for a cane. Human presence and intent here has been quite heterogeneous, but the remnants from all carry forward in a unified and easily recognizable foreign materiality. Gentoos bit at our shoes and little red flags marking the path.

Rubber on Danco Island (Jacob)

Our zodiac excursion shortly after was immediately zipping toward an area where some whales had been spotted earlier, and sure enough they were still readily surfacing. Three or four humpbacks were rising in sequence, their blows making a loud whoosh, tails and fins appearing in a glorious slow motion dance. Our gazes were fixed. A chunk calved off an iceberg ahead of us, starting a brashy ripple wave. We zipped around such massive icebergs to catch up, our guides positioning the boats for optimal views. I wonder to what extent the engine noise, or that we essentially surround them, affected this group specifically, and the species at large. Are they curious, ambivalent, or annoyed? Certainly better than killing, but emissions inherent in such tourism, and our incessant presence itself, has repercussions I have yet to fully grasp. After looking at a whale watching guideline poster outside the mud room, we had clearly entered the “no go zone” within 100 meters, and directly in front of the whales. They are magic – do I belong here? Later on, a few of us dipped in the heated saltwater pool, and soot from the ship engine was collecting on the surface. It was dark and smeared to my hands. Following a quick swim, lunch, and chalk talks on invasive species and glacial formations, we geared up for outing two.

Humpback whales in the Errera Channel (Jacob)
Crabeater seal on an iceberg in Neko Harbour
Skua and gentoo penguins in Neko Harbour
Gentoo penguins at Neko Harbour

The second landing site of Neko Harbour was a relatively narrow bay surrounded by ever higher mountain ridges, capped with rolling and precarious glaciers exposed to their sides and bulging with geometric forms, yawning with deep neon blue crevasses. Looking from the top to bottom of the glacial edge, layers quickly become invisible, lower down compressed at tens of thousands of years old The mountainsides revealed bands of dark and light browns and greys, geologic waves washing over the earth even slower than the ice above. This was the peninsula proper, the continent of Antarctica. We hopped in our zodiacs and made our way through the water, thick with icebergs and brash. Colin pointed out certain clouds back towards the ocean, a sign of impending winds and weather. The water was like glass, and we could see firsthand that about 90% of icebergs lies below the surface, a haunting and unreachable form, sending up the occasional ancient bubble with pressures reaching 30 atmospheres. The 10% above the water is essential habitat for the life abundant here, such as four crab eater seals we found resting on an iceberg together. A leopard seal poked its snout into the air, and a pod of nearby gentoo penguins swam away, jumping in and out. We spotted a minke whale out by the kayakers, its pointed dorsal fin a giveaway, and in silence its blow was easily heard from far away. A glacier calved off before us making a low thundering crack, and the waves lapped up upon the beach as gentoos scurried away from its break upon shore. We landed shortly after, stepping foot on to a continent only known by humans for 200 years. For lots of folks here, people from around the planet, this was their seventh and final. Going from being undiscovered to a tourist hotspot within two centuries is a remarkable sign as any that our world is connected in expansive ways. Concrete foundations were here too, the remnants of an Argentinian refugia, since dilapidated and removed. Peaks and glaciers around rose up from the ocean. A small steady stream of flowing water cut its way like a ribbon though the diveted slope, melting. Gentoo penguins abounded, and many were molting, resting to push out old feathers. Some were waddling about with small stones in their beaks, gently practicing nesting skills. Others came up to us, even into our laps. They cawed and squeaked, chased after each other, and slept unbothered. The wind was picking up, and by now, I was used to the smell of a colony. Suddenly, a snowflake hit my nose. Each day here feels like five, within which endless landscapes and fleeting moments are imprinted upon my memory, changing infinitely and imperceptibly as ice. This is the furthest South we have ever been, and likely ever will be

March 11, 2020 – A full Antarctic day

Laura Schmidt-Schweda

The day started early with a 6:00 am wake up call for breakfast, as we prepared for a long day with three (three!) excursions. Breakfast was a brief affair, as we all prepared to head out on our first excursion for the day, in Mikkelsen Harbour. Surrounded by blue glaciers and crumbling ice, the water filled with icebergs ranging from tiny chunks one could pick up out of the water, to ones which were the size of a car on the surface, expanding under water to twice the width and depth further than we could determine.

The first part of this excursion we spent on the Zodiac, exploring around the bay. Right away, we spotted our first Leopard Seal hanging out around a small iceberg, which was an incredible sight. For the second half, we were on a small island, which is home to an Argentine refugium. There were lots of Gentoo penguins, and we watched the young ones exploring the beach, jumping in and out of the water, chasing each other, and chasing their parents for food. Right at our landing site, there was an assortment of whale bones, as well as remnants of water boats. These boats were used during whaling to bring water to shore to process the whales.

Whale bones at our landing in Mikkelson Harbour. (photo taken by Alice)

After lunch, we had a short break, and then we were off on our next excursion, a Zodiac cruise around Spert Island. This is an unusual chance, as often the wave and ice conditions in this area often don’t allow for excursions.

The class split onto two Zodiacs, and we were on our way! We circumnavigated the island, which was an epic adventure through some beautifully blue waves, past plenty of icebergs, and through phenomenal volcanic rock formations, likely formed in the Cretaceous-Cenozoic, and carved out by eons of glaciers.

Some of our class seen on a zodiac as we drove through one of the rock arches around Spert Island. (photo taken by Alice)

Upon our return to the ship, there were some much appreciated snacks. We then spent some time in our ‘classroom’ (the windowless staffroom) however, our presentations were interrupted by Laurie, our expedition leader, announcing over the PA system that there were Humpback whales in the bay in front of us. We jumped up in excitement, and hurried to the outside decks where we were allowed onto the bow of the boat for the first time. The ship slowed down in order for everyone to enjoy the 15 or so whales lunge feeding in front of and beside the ship.

Whales ahead of the bow of our ship on our way from Spert Island to Cierva Cove (photo taken by Anna)

The last outing of the day was another Zodiac cruise through Cierva Cove, a vast bay filled with even more chunks of ice floating in the water. Some of us saw a crab eater seal, which was the last on the list of the seals we expected to encounter. This seal feeds mostly on krill, with 70% of it’s diet consisting of these crustaceans. Unlike their name implies, these seals do not eat crabs. There are, in fact, currently no species of crabs in Antarctica, however, King Crabs (known in culinary circles as snow crabs), are slowly making their way towards the south. As we were discussing seals’ behaviour, our Zodiac driver and expedition guide noted how Leopard Seals, unlike other seals, are not seen with each other. Naturally, the next iceberg we spotted with a seal on it turned out to have not one but two Leopard Seals, peacefully laying there, yet another special sight we got to experience!

The first Leopard Seal we saw, swimming between our zodiacs at Mikkelson Island. (photo taken by Anna)

The timing of the cruise was another unusual opportunity. Sunset outings are rare, as the conditions must be ideal and the sites near enough to each other, and during the peak season, it is light much too long into the night. At this time of year, on a peacefully calm day like today, our three outings made use of all the daylight that occurs. Dinner was, as always, and entertaining and delicious affair. It was an early night for all of us, after a short recap of the incredible day, and a potential plan for the adventures that tomorrow will bring.

March 10, 2020 – Arrival in Antarctica

Post by Onyx Long

We woke up to the regular morning announcement starting in an overly chipper “gooood morning ladies and gentlemen.” We were quick to get up to breakfast with spirits high as today we were set to land for the first time. As we sat in the dining hall eating our eggs benedict and hash browns, I spotted a vague dolphin shape launch from the water. With my startled shout of “I saw something!” many of us crowded at the windows for the show. A chorus of “there’s one!” and “another!” “I saw it” was soon interrupted by a sudden shocked exclamations as a massive blow hole emerged from the water not twenty meters from the boat, followed by a long stretch of shiny black back, and finally a small fin before once again disappearing into the deep. Our boisterous celebration of this breakfast show had caused a disturbance in the rest of the dining haul and just about the entire room had gathered near the starboard windows.

            Afterwards we gathered in the nautilus lounge for a presentation about whales in the area. During this presentation we learned that hourglass dolphins and fin whales often travel and hunt in groups, and that during our breakfast coffee we had in fact encountered the second largest creature on this planet. Not long after this it was announced over the loud speaker that the first iceberg had been spotted dead ahead. We hurried up onto the front deck where we huddled out of the wind and marveled at the only thing on the horizon: An enormous, nearly ship shaped, iceberg slowly drawing nearer. We stood up there, and as our proper appreciation of the ice had subsided, we started noticing that we were in fact surrounded by whales on all sides. Some were near, some were far, but almost everywhere you looked there were squads of fin whales spouting and rolling past. This spectacular siting held our interest until our rumbling stomachs became too noticeable, and we headed down for lunch.

The first iceberg spotted

After lunch there was quick turn around into a presentation on the history of claims and the Antarctica Treaty. The presentation was thorough and riddled with unnecessary power point animations and slide transitions. We were then asked to break into groups of two and briefly describe what each article of the treaty meant in a few short sentences. This breakout was disrupted almost immediately by the first siting of penguins leaping out of the water in large groups. Once again, we crowded around the windows, some of us squealing in our excitement. We ran outside past the smoke deck and pointed and cheered at the squads of penguins going by. We were now drawing close to the time of our first excursion onto land at Robert Island. We were told to get into our gear and meet on the back deck where we went over our brief summaries of the articles as a group. Once again we were distracted, this time by the zodiac boats being craned down from the top of the ship and into the waters below. 

            Once the Albatross group was called, we hurried down into the mud room, chattering about the necessary number of layers, and dawned our designated boots and bright yellow parkas. We boarded our zodiacs and as we headed towards the island, we were refreshed on zodiac safety. Although safety is of the utmost importance, it was rather difficult not to lose yourself in the beautiful icy surroundings, and the massive towering glacier that we were heading towards. The glacier spread across the land in layers of condensed blue ice, opening into sharp crevasses and beautiful deep blue formations. We landed to the left of this glacier on a rocky beach home to a group of elephant seals, a group of fur seals, one loan weddell seal in their midst, and a colony of gentoo penguins huddling on the rocky outcrops. This landing moved some of us to tears immediately on sight.

A colony of molting chinstrap penguins

            The elephant seals were shockingly large, and nearly all of them lay perfectly still, only moving to throw sand across their blubbery amorphous backs. They grunted and sighed in acknowledgment of their humanoid onlookers, but otherwise were persistent in their lounging. The fur seals on the other hand were decidedly more active, hobbling at each other making high pitched cooing sounds, and nipping at each other’s tails. The penguin colonies hung close to the fur seals, and preened at their old disheveled featheredge, or their fluffy down baby coats. Most stood quite still, huddled or lying across the rocks, some waddled, wings held back and out for balance across the rocks, making their way up the hill on their well-traveled highways. More than once an onlooker blocked the road of the penguins, who stood there, with judgmental eyes patiently waiting for these large, obnoxiously yellow, featherless bipeds to clear out. Following the penguins up the hill lead me to a beautiful outlook over glaciered jagged mountains, and black rocky protrusions from the water shining silver in the afternoon sun. I sat there and sketched the landscape imagining what it must have been like to be an early explorer seeing this spot for the first time in history. It was not lost on me that to nearly everyone here, it was in fact a collection of firsts.

A waddling gentoo penguin

            When I made my way back to the shoreline, I noticed that I was in fact quite late to the boarding of the zodiacs. A crowd of people had lined up ready to embark on the next portion of our excursion. None of these people were my people, and I realized that my fellow Questies had in fact, left me on an island. For this reason, I cannot in fact speak to the experience of the rest of my classmates on the following zodiac tour, but I myself had a lovely ride with Jimmy Z as my guide. We went up close to examine the sculpture of the glacier’s enormous cliff face, then turned to go to the back side of the island where we encountered an injured gentoo penguins battle of wit and fortitude with two fur seals and a gang of skuas. Although we did not see the end of this epic fight for survival, we had to accept that this penguins fate seemed rather inescapable.

Two fur seals in motion

We then headed out into open waters where Jimmy Z scooped out a salp. It was a crystal-clear diamond shaped sack of gelatinous goo, with no internal structure other than an orange ball that we were told was it’s stomach. This creature had only appeared in these waters in the last few years as a result of increasing temperatures. They eat the phytoplankton that would normally be the main diet of krill (the bottom of and the most crucial component of the food chain). It was at this point that I volunteered to eat the salp. I was immediately scolded by Jimmy and met groans of disgust from many of the other zodiac passengers. It wouldn’t be until later that this sentiment would be shared with my other classmates back on board the ship, and I would not get to experience my salty gelatinous snack until the next zodiac ride.

Fur seals and gentoo penguins sharing the shore
A seal skull. Unidentifiable due to lack of teeth

            Immediately upon disembarking the zodiac I realized I was not only exhausted but starving. But dinner would be preceded by happy hour and a chalk talk on ice fish, which have adapted to thrive at near freezing temperatures. I found the book that was passed around during the talk, which containing pressed and painted images of Antarctic ice fish, to be particularly interesting and beautiful. Then it came a dinner of Argentinian styled foods such as large slabs of steak and tortilla bowls full of black beans avocado and bell peppers amongst other things. After dinner there would be a presentation on maritime superstitions. Although I was eager to learn what preposterous ideals sailors of the days of old had held, I found myself practically passing out into my bowl of rice pudding. I decided to end an exhilarating day of firsts there. I cannot put into words the beauty and the wonder surrounding each wildlife encounter, each turn around a corner, each new and exciting ‘first.’ I feel incredibly grateful to be here, and could not in my wildest dreams have hoped for what we were lucky enough to have experienced on our very first day here.

March 9, 2020 – Drake Passage

by Halina ScottSmith

00:01 Argentine (ship) time; 20:01 Pacific time

Apparently I am far too excited to sleep, so I thought I would start this blog post promptly at 00:01 on the 9th of March. Colin predicted we would cross over from the Beagle Channel into the Drake Passage at around this time and it seems as though he was spot on! At about 23:00, on the 8th of March, we began to feel larger swells which picked up intensely just before midnight.

The ocean. An impossible attempt at capturing the ocean in all its beauty on this astounding day at sea. Photo credits to Hali ScottSmith

Today will be our first full day at sea and it is likely to involve much time spent outside on the outer decks watching for whales and seabirds, and some time spent inside watching various Antarctic related lectures. It is nearly impossible to describe our feelings of anticipation. The best parallel I can draw is how one feels on Christmas Eve as a kid.

22:00 Argentine (ship) time; 18:00 Pacific time

It was 7 degrees Celsius this morning as we travelled through the middle of the Drake Passage. The boat was quiet as I walked the perimeter of the upper deck at 7:15 this morning. It wasn’t until my second lap around that I ran into anyone – Ray and Janet from New Mexico. The fourth couple I’ve met whose motivation for being here stemmed from their desire to travel to their seventh and final continent.

The easiest icebreaker is to ask people why they’re here and where they’re from, but it’s strange to talk about home. It makes one realize just how far south we are. How isolated we are from all other land. No matter what direction you look in, there is nothing but a never-ending ocean and a pale pastel-blue sky separated by a thin, almost non-existent, horizon.

Crew member, Finn Steiner, vacuuming a fellow passengers gear to remove non-native biomaterial, demonstrating the biosecurity protocol process. Photo credits to Hali ScottSmith.

The swell this morning was strong, and today was the first time I have ever been thankful for my experiences on BC Ferries. Engaging my sea legs, I pulled out my camera and began to photograph the ocean. The moment I had been anticipating for a year had finally come. Standing alone, in the salty, cutting wind, the ocean roared at me, crashing into the side of the ship. Grinning from ear to ear, I realized in that moment, for the first time, that I am on my way to Antarctica. Just then, two juvenile Wandering Albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) and a juvenile Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) came soaring into view. Suddenly the deck flooded with passengers, drunk and stumbling about – or, perhaps it was just the waves. It was only quarter to eight after all.

Feeling excited about what was to come, I ran to get some breakfast. Walking into the dining hall, the omelet station smelled amazing; unfortunately for BC Ferries’ reputation, and my awaiting omelet, I had a date with the garbage can outside I couldn’t miss. It seemed the Drake Lake had still shaken up my stomach. Luckily my cabin cleaner, Mark, is very kind, and brought me and Chloe green apple and crackers – his sworn seasickness remedy. While we recovered, our peers attended a lecture on the early Antarctic explorers, with ship expert Federico. Feeling better, we rejoined them to watch a presentation on seabirds, with the ship’s ornithologist, Jean. During the lecture Jean discussed the misconception that Antarctica is still a pristine environment. Human impacts have proven to be detrimental on the continent and, according to Jean, humans are seabirds’ biggest threat; both outcompeting them in fishing and polluting their home with plastic and other contaminants. This knowledge is crucial for our understanding of the outreach human impacts have had. Furthermore, a conversation surrounding conservation is important and pertinent at this time with the future renegotiation and possible amendments being made to the Antarctic Treaty. The Treaty was created with the intention of protecting Antarctica in the name of peace and science. Moving forward, it is imperative that we keep these common goals in mind in order to maximize human potential for cooperation and protect the Earth we are so privileged to call our home. These sort of discussions consistently force me to reflect on my own motivations for being on this ship, and the negative impacts this trip on the Ocean Endeavor may have, which I have inadvertently chosen to play a role in.

Daption capense, commonly known as a Pintado (Cape) Petrel, which is a seabird of the Southern Ocean. Photo credits to Maddie Hollister.

In order to help combat our impact on the Antarctic, we all partook in the ship’s ‘biosecurity protocol’. This process involved cleaning our gear of any seeds or other non-native biological material. This is important as the introduction of non-native species to Antarctica could have catastrophic effects. Following this, we attended a few logistic meetings regarding Zodiac expedition safety, IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tourism Organization) regulations, and a recap/briefing of today and tomorrow.

Diomedea exulans, commonly known as a Wandering Albatross. A seabird we will only see while travelling at sea because they require the strong winds of the Drake Passage. Photo credits to Maddie Hollister.

Today was momentous because we crossed through the convergence. The convergence is the place where the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans meet the Southern Ocean. Fun fact: this is the only place in the world with a circumpolar current – a current that can travel completely unencumbered around the globe. We know we crossed over the convergence into the Southern Ocean, not only because of our position, but because there is a noticeable change in wildlife, particularly evident in the birds one sees. Today, after lunch, we saw our very first Pintado (Cape) Petrel (Daption capense), a seabird of the Southern Ocean.

We are looking forward to tomorrow because there is a chance we may get to take our first Zodiac expedition to Robert Point, the Southernmost tip of Robert Island which is part of the South Shetland Islands archipelago. We will update you more on that tomorrow!

Sending love from the Southern Ocean

March 8th, 2020 – Embarkation onto the Ocean Endeavor

By Alice Pearson

The long-awaited moment finally arrived – we have launched! The day started with a quick trip to the waterfront to drop off our bags and fill out the final paperwork, and then we all went our separate ways to explore a very sunny Ushuaia.

While out wandering, we found a couple of beaver murals. We learned that the beaver, Castor canadensis, was introduced from Canada with the intention of starting a fur trade, which unsurprisingly didn’t go according to plan. The beavers shaped the landscape by building dams and devouring the native birch along the shores. Along with the major ecological impacts from their landscape architecture, there was no positive economic impact as the beavers’ pelts were ragged and undesirable for trading purposes due to different climatic conditions. There are still beavers in Ushuaia, and the locals that we spoke to consider them to be a nuisance. This very intentional example of an introduced species is a stark contrast to the very careful protocols that we must follow when we disembark in Antarctica. We do not want to be responsible for introducing any non-native species to the continent, and all it takes is one rouge seed trapped in a cuff. We were asked to clean our gear prior to packing, will be borrowing boots and wearing a new parka, and will be vacuuming our remaining gear in an attempt to minimize the risk.    

A beaver mural seen in central Ushuaia. After taking this picture we ascended the stairs to check out what was beyond the main street.

Mid-afternoon we reunited at the waterfront and loaded onto a bus. After a very short drive around the block, through port security, and down the dock we came to a stand still – there was one final test – is everyone healthy enough to board? Sitting in the back of the bus waiting for the two buses preceding us to be checked by the expedition doctor the excitement and anxiety was palpable. The first Quest student was told to wait, their temperature was too high, and the next Quest student was told to wait, and the next one… Colin being the first to successfully pass the test on the initial sweep.  All in all only four of us plus Colin were cleared on the first round – those who passed were ushered off the bus and on board the ship, those who didn’t waited for the slightly more accurate thermometer (an in the ear reader vs. the forehead radar) and a visit from the ship’s doctor. One by one we got the all clear and thankfully are all settled into our cabins for the first night at sea!

Our ship, the Ocean Endeavour, pictured from the bus as we waited for the final health inspection.

As we left the dock we gathered on the stern to enjoy the twilight (we didn’t cast off until slightly after 6pm) and were lucky enough to spot many different species of birds and a small group of whales! The whales were most likely humpbacks. Initially there were just a few spouts way off in the distance but eventually as we were travelling in opposite direction to the whales we became close enough that we could make out their backs as they arched out of the water to breath. After a couple of minutes their tails were revealed, dark on the top and white underneath, which marked their dive out of sight.

This evening as we ate dinner we were sailing through the Beagle Channel. The channel was named in honour of the HMS Beagle, a ship captained by Fitzroy and made famous for its trips to the Galapagos Islands with Charles Darwin as the scientist. These voyages were very important to Charles Darwin developing the theory of evolution. The Beagle Channel is a narrow passage between Argentina and Chile and can be challenging to navigate. For this reason, we are currently being accompanied by a pilot, an expert navigator of the region, to ensure safe passage through the challenging water.

After we ate a delicious dinner, collected our parka and boots, and found our expedition locker and zodiac assignments we were free to explore. A couple of us went out on the deck on the bow to enjoy some fresh air and assess our surroundings. It was dark, and we watched lights blinking from the shore and boats moving through the passage. A very small boat appeared off the bow (to the front) and approached from the starboard (right), dipped behind the stern (back) and pulled along the port (left) side before stopping flush with the boat.  Walkie talkies crackled from the bridge (the deck below where we were standing) and a person opened the side of the ship. An exchange of some sort took place and then the smaller boat cut the engine and drifted away. Our hypothesis is that this boat had something to do with the pilot that we have on board as it had very large lettering on the side that said “PRACTICAJE” which means pilotage, but we have yet to confirm this! 

The PRATICAJE boat stopping for a quick chat on the first evening.  This was when the boat was approaching from the stern, and it came to stop just between the two lifeboats.  

Fun fact: just like at Quest there appears to be roving rubber ducks on board and we found the first two this evening!

Landon posing in the library with one of the roving ducks.  Colin and Luke (in his fancy new parka) discuss the books in the background!