The Voyage Home

  by David Krakowski

 After three months of hard work and wonderful experiences, it was finally time for the two of us to bid farewell to Palmer Station and its summertime inhabitants.  We had made some very close friends, particularly within our own research team, and saying good-bye was hard.  We were lucky enough to be scheduled to ride home on the M/S World Explorer.  During the summer months, tourist ships frequently happen by station as they take their passengers around the northern Antarctic to give them a small taste of the vast pristine environment.  When ship routes pass near Palmer Station, these ships will ask permission to visit the station.  A visit to working research station is considered a welcome treat , and in exchange for tours of station they bring us fresh vegetables and fruits.  This year however, the tourist ships were performing the extra service of transporting researchers and personnel to and from Palmer Station.  Earlier in the season, the M/V World Discoverer (Image 1stopped at station bringing a larger group of scientists.  The Explorer and Discoverer are sister ships, and are very similar in size and layout.  Both are very luxurious inside.  After an extended good-bye, we boarded the Explorer and left station for the last time. 
     The Explorer was scheduled to navigate it's way north off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, stopping in the South Shetland Islands.  The next day we arrived at Deception Island.  Deception Island is so named because of it's shape.  It is roughly circular, with a small opening at the southern end into a flooded central cavity.  It is essentially a donut with a small bite taken out of it.  Early explorers were "deceived" by the apparent impregnability of the interior of the island, hence the name.  This peculiar shape is testimony to the origin of the island.  Deception island is actually the top of a volcano which is mostly submerged below the surface of the ocean.  There have been eruptions in parts of the island in recent history, including a series of very destructive ones in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As we approached the island, we aimed tonavigate the narrow opening into the flooded caldera.  This opening is known as Neptune's Bellows (Image 2), so named for the howling winds that careen through the mere 300 meters wide slice out of the island.  The ship landed at Telefon Bay (Image 3), a large ash beach near a crater left by a recent eruption.  The ship anchored off shore and zodiacs were lowered into the water to transport the tourists to shore.  Once ashore, we hiked along the fine volcanic ash inland and up the side of the crater.  At the top, we could peer tentatively into the immense crater (Image 4, 5, 6).  Eruptions have in the past destroyed research stations on Deception Island, and many were consequently abandoned. 
     Another area of interest we visited was Pendulum Cove.  There are thermal vents at this beach which bubble up very hot water through the volcanic sand. The hot water mixes with the icy ocean water, creating a bearable, if heterogeneous temperature mix which can actually be basked in.  Many brave tourists, including Yours Truly, tested out these waters in nothing more than a bathing suit (Image 7).  What a weird feeling it is to be laying out in the Antarctic! 
     Our next stop was  Elephant Island.  This island was renowned among sealers for it's huge elephant seal populations, which were subsequently decimated for their blubber.  Sealing has long since been abandoned here, as it has been everywhere else in the Antarctic, and so many species of both seal and penguin find this island a safe haven to breed or bask.  We came ashore in our zodiacs to find a large colony of nesting chinstrap penguins (see Penguins/Seals entry) and gentoo penguins (Image 8).  The scenery was astounding.  Narrow channels were skirted on either side by thousand foot peaks (Image 9).  Huge glaciers spilled out between hillsides onto the flat beach. 
     Next we spent three days on and around an island that is reputed to be the "jewel" of the Antarctic, South Georgia (See "South Georgia" entry).  There we saw an abundance of wildlife and scenery that was unparalleled throughout our voyage home.
     Our final stops were at the Falkland Islands.  The Falkland Islands are a small group of islands east of southern Argentina, and were made famous by their central involvement in a war between Great Britain and Argentina in the early 1980's.  Sparsely inhabited, much of the land serves as grazing pasture for herds of sheep.  However, the islands are not without their unique wildlife.  There we saw nesting Penguins, and cormorants (Image 10), as well as numerous other species of Bird.  Most interesting of all were the rockhopper penguin colonies (Image 11).  Nestled at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, these penguins coexist near king cormorants and raise their young in a fashion similar to gentoos (Image 12) and chinstraps.  They are quite noisy little penguins, and the colony was a continual cacophony and bantering of adults and chicks.  True to their name, these little birds are quite adept at negotiating the rocky terrain of their nesting site. 
     The Once in the Falkland Islands, we traveled to Port Stanley, the capital, a tiny town of 2,000 people, where we boarded a plane bound for Chile.  Our trip home from Station lasted eleven days, and afforded us sights and experiences that we never would have had the opportunity to enjoy.  Our voyage home was truly the icing on the cake that was our expedition to Antarctica!