Polar Plunging – One of the craziest things I have ever done

On most trips to the Polar Regions we offer guests the opportunity to do the polar plunge, this is their chance to leap into freezing cold water so they can say they have plunged in the Antarctic or Arctic. I have participated in this silliness many times, including at the North Pole (90 degrees North) where the sea was freezing around us and the sea temperature was less than -1degree Celsius (sea water freezes at -1.9C). I remember with this plunge that I did a pin dive and ended up going vey deep. The water is so cold it absolutely takes your breath away, but when you are under water you cannot grasp. I remember opening my eyes and the water was completely black, because we were surrounded by ice and no light came through the water column. I thought to myself, if I didn’t know which way was up I would be very disorientated. Anyway, I shot to the surface and took a massive gasp of air and pulled myself out of the water pretty smartly.

 

So why, you may ask do I do the plunge once a season. It is a question that is very difficult to answer. Sometimes, it is because I promise to join someone in the frivolity or it is just a case of “Because I can”. But, actually, when I think about it, it is probably the craziest and perhaps dumbest thing to do. The feeling when you get out, though is one of exhilaration, which is probably due to the fact that you no longer feel any of your extremities. I suppose it is a bit like hitting your head against a brick wall it feels good when it stops. The strange thing is that when you get out it feels really warm, even if the temperature is below zero. Sometimes it does take a bit before one starts warming up and your hands and feet ache as the blood slowly returns.

 

An interesting fact about people who swim longer distances in such cold temperatures is that the body temperature continues to drop, even after they are out of the cold water and under a hot shower, so if you leave the water with a body temperature of 35C (already 2 degrees below normal), your temperature will continue to cool and you can become seriously hypothermic. I am never in the water for long enough for this to happen.

 

This year I jumped at 81 degrees North (1000km form the North Pole) in 0C water and in the Antarctic at 65 degrees South in -1C water where the air temperature was -4C. It is a load of fun and there is lots of jollity and laughter at people’s facial expressions and comments as they surface from the water. It always amazes me how many people come out of the water saying, “Wow, it’s cold!” Well, this is the Antarctic, the water is below freezing, what did you expect :-) .

 

In the end, everyone enjoys themselves and for those brave souls who do the plunge, you can go back home and have the bragging rights to say that you swam in the Antarctic.

 

Of course, what I do Duncan also does, so here are the photos of us plunging in the Antarctic. I decided to imitate a penguin and where a penguin suit (Why make a fool of yourself jumping into freezing water, when you can make a complete idiot of yourself and jump in wearing a penguin suit?)

Duncan and Clouds doing the Polar Plunge

Duncan and Clouds freezing after the polar plunge

My advice: If you are ever travelling in the Polar Regions and you have the opportunity to do the polar plunge, DO IT! Remember, you regret more the things you didn’t do, than the things you did do.

Love from the freezer

Clouds and Duncan

 

 

A blog and video of one of our Antarctic Cruises

It is always good to have a different view of the cruises that we do. We (expedition guides) love the places that we travel and we love to share that passion with people with a similar interest. Here is a link to the blog of a cinematographer who was on the ship with us on our trip to the Antarctic peninsula from 12-22 December 2014. There is a link to a short video in which Clouds is also featured. The work of Chris Stanley is truly exceptional.

Blog post: http://amberpacificstudios.com/2014/01/12/antarctica-expedition/Direct

Video Link: http://vimeo.com/83960502

Ralph Grizzle was also onboard and he is a travel journalist with his own blog. I am pasting a link here to his summary and at the bottom of the page are links to his day by day descriptions of our voyage. He describes the trip so eloquently, if you ever want to know what it is like from a guest perspective, read his blog. I am pasting the link below:

http://www.avidcruiser.com/2014/01/07/final-posts-antarctica-summing-trip-lifetime-go/

In Ralph’s words “No matter how high the cost or how low the mercury dips or how you choose to cross the Drake, get yourself to Antarctica to experience the world’s largest and most pristine wilderness area. Doing so may change your life. At 56 years old, the only life change I experience is whether to have red wine or white wine with dinner each evening (I usually go for red). Seriously, no matter what your age, you will not come away from Antarctica unaffected by what you have seen and experienced”

Antarctica is a very special place and I am extremely priviledged to be able to travel there and get paid for it.

Cheers for now

Clouds

 

 

The day the Turkey Vulture came to visit

As we were leaving the Falkland Islands a huge bird landed on the control panel on the bridge wing outside. We often have birds landing on ships, but normally they are small diving petrels or prions which are attracted to the lights on ships. Well, I was in for a surprise when I was called to the bridge to see the latest bird that had landed on our ship, it was none other than a turkey vulture. These birds normally soar with thermals (air that heats up, becomes less dense and starts to rise, giving the bird the lift it needs to fly without using too much energy). There was a strong wind blowing that day and the bird had obviously been blown away from the islands where it normally lives. I took some photos from inside the bridge, but when we were close to him, he flew to the other side of the bridge. He could clearly fly, but was using us as a resting platform before trying to get back to the Falklands. The next day he was nowhere to be found, so we can only surmise that he left us and made his way home.

I am putting in two photos that I took of the vulture and I have taken some really cool facts from a couple of websites which will show you what an amazing bird this is.

 

Look at the bald head which can get into carcasses and the hole through the nose to smell so well with

Turkey Vulture on the bridge wing

You can see how widespread Turkey Vultures are, right to the Falkland Islands which are just East of the tip of South America

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
Population Status: Least Concern
Body Length: 25-32 inches (63-81 cm)
Wingspan: 5-1/2 to 6-1/2 feet (1.6-2 m)
Weight: 2 to 4-1/2 pounds (0.9-2 kg)

Did you know?

  • The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. Its scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”
  • Not everyone sees vultures as a creepy harbinger of death—many see them as sacred for their cleanup role. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform, called a dakhma. They regard vultures are precious animals that release the soul from the body. However, in parts of urban India, where vultures have become scarce because of accidental poisoning by a livestock anti-inflammatory drug, not enough vultures remain to meet the demand and some people have turned to burial.
  • In cowboy movies the bad guy usually threatens to leave the hero in the desert for the buzzards, meaning the vultures. Although buzzard is a colloquial term for vulture in the U.S., the same word applies to several hawks in Europe. In fact, the Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) of Europe is the same species as the Rough-legged Hawk of North America

Amazing sense of smell

  • The Turkey Vulture is one of the few birds able to use its sense of smell to locate food. Though Turkey Vultures have a lot in common with other New World Vultures (vultures found in the Americas), they do have a very unique characteristic that is all their own. They have an amazing sense of smell, which they use to detect dead animals, sometimes from quite far away. Look at a Turkey Vulture’s nostrils, or nares, and you will notice that their nasal passage is completely open on each end. This is a characteristic New World vultures share, which other raptors don’t have.
  • The part of its brain responsible for processing smells is particularly large, compared to other birds. Its heightened ability to detect odors—it can detect just a few parts per trillion—allows it to find dead animals below a forest canopy.

No voicebox

  • Turkey Vultures don’t have a voicebox. They can’t sing or call. Their vocalizations are limited to hisses and grunts.

Flight

  • Though they look awkward and ungainly on the ground and must work hard to gain flight, they are graceful and elegant in the air, soaring in beautiful teetering flights across the sky. They rarely need to flap their wings.
  • They say “the early bird catches the worm” so it is lucky that Turkey Vulture don’t rely on worms to survive. Turkey Vultures are not early morning fliers, which has more to do with their flying style than anything else. When vultures fly, they tend not to flap their wings very much. Rather, these large birds spend most of their time soaring on rising air currents, called thermals, in search of food, or simply traveling from one place to another. Thermals are caused by warm air rising, which occurs later in the morning after the sun rises, so Turkey Vultures have the perfect excuse for “sleeping in.”
  • Once a Turkey Vulture is up and soaring, it is almost unmistakable due to its distinctive flight pattern. These birds are easy to identify as they teeter gently from side to side with their wings held open in a slight “V” shape.
  • Vultures in the Americas look a lot like the vultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa, with broad wings, bare heads, and the habit of eating dead meat. But surprisingly, they’re in different taxonomic families, meaning they’re not particularly closely related. They evolved many of the same features as they exploited the same kinds of resources in different parts of the planet. This process is known as convergent evolution.

Feeding and their featherless heads

  • Turkey Vultures have featherless heads. When feeding, vultures sometimes need to stick their heads deep into the cavities of dead animals to get to the juiciest bits! At times like these, a bald head is very useful – otherwise bits of flesh, blood, or other fluids might get stuck on their feathers, creating quite a mess. Though vultures spend a lot of time preening, or cleaning their feathers, it would be impossible for them to clean their own heads. A Turkey Vulture’s bald head also makes it easy for us to identify. a bright red head and pale beak are distinguishing characteristics of this species.
  • Turkey Vultures are almost entirely carrion eaters, which means they feed on animals that are already dead. They have been documented killing very weak or very sick animals, but this is rare. They are not a threat to livestock or pets. Though the vultures prefer to feed on medium to large animals, such as deer or sheep, they can be found in roads feeding on road-killed animals as small as squirrels and lizards.
  • When searching for a meal, they often fly low over an area, using their sight and acute sense of smell to find food. Vultures are social feeders, which means many vulture species might join together to feed on a large carcass. Other scavenger birds, such as eagles and ravens, might join the feast as well.

Keeping cool – would you pee down your legs?

  • In addition to their bald heads, Turkey Vultures have other unique adaptations. To keep cool, Turkey Vultures will sometimes pee on their own legs! This is called “urohydrosis” and they do it for two reasons. First, because Turkey Vultures don’t sweat like we do, they need a way to cool off in hot weather. When the urine evaporates from their legs, it has a cooling effect. Second, their urine contains properties that might help kill any bacteria on their legs and feet that they may have picked up when walking all over their dinner. Though it might seem gross to us, it actually helps keep the vultures clean.

I took this information from two very good websites which can be accessed using the links below

http://peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/Turkey_Vulture#sthash.iU6hZsxg.dpbs

 http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/turkey_vulture/lifehistory

A surreal Existence – the life of an expedition guide

Can you imagine a life where you are exposed to the most incredible wonders of the natural world. Spending 10-14 hours a day sharing these experiences with 100 people, folk who will spend 10 days or a fortnight with you and whose life will be changed by what you can show them. Your accommodation and food is provided and you bond with your guests, who are mostly here because they have the same passion as we do for the unspoilt wilderness. Our job entails driving zodiacs, our little rubber inflatable boats that can land us anywhere, guiding people ashore and explaining all that we are seeing, as well as lecturing on our specialty and talking to our guests about our experiences.  We are expected to know a huge amount of information about every area that we travel in, so it is a constant learning environment, which I enjoy immensely, as many of us share information and some of the latest papers on different topics. An ideal job perhaps, but one that leads to a rather unique transient lifestyle. Many expedition guides don’t have roots, their belongings are with their parents or friends, when they are on holiday, they go travelling to other remote destinations, you make many friends, but many of the friendships are rather superficial, seldom does one have deep intimate conversations with other expedition guides. Your colleagues will come and go, depending on the length of your contract and you may or may not see them again. I will often bond with guests, who then leave and I will probably never see them again, although sometimes we manage to remain in touch.

There are times when we are tired or jaded and you don’t want to go outside into a 30knot wind and big swell, and blizzard and the temperatures are well below zero before wind chill. There are times when you don’t want to put on your happy face and constantly be upbeat. But that too is part of the job. Even if the weather is good, there may be a call for whales and there are times that I think that I don’t want to go out unless they are pirouetting , however, I go out and am infected by the excitement of those who haven’t seen this before

When one gets home, it takes quite an adjustment to living a normal life with a routine and where you have weekends off. You get a chance to catch up with your friends (Something very important to me), although many staff don’t have many friends at their homes (they don’t really have homes).  It is almost impossible for staff working any length of time in the field to have relationships, unless it is with a colleague, which puts other pressures on ones working environment.

How do you explain to people back at home what you experience and what your life on the ship is like. Well, I think it is impossible and have given up trying. Sometimes I will show my photos to friends and I enjoy giving talks explaining what we see, otherwise I change my life for a regular 8-5 desk job with its own pros and cons.

Many people think I go on holiday for 2 or 3 months at a time. Well, it is a 24/7 job, with no breaks when you feel tired or sick. No breaks from people when you get all peopled out. I am however, incredibly privileged to work in the areas I work, to work with the people I work with and to meet the guests who share our excitement. If I can influence a few people every contract and give people an experience that will change their view on what is important in this world, then I have achieved what I set out to do and experienced the world most people never get to see. I love my job and in spite of the rather unconventional way we live our lives, there is something addictive to  this crazy and surreal existence.

Having a Whale of a time

We are in the privileged position to see numerous whale species during our expeditions and here is one encounter. Humpback Whales had been doing amazing displays. We have had the opportunity of seeing plenty of humpbacks and they show their flukes when they dive, they have been breaching (leaping out of the water) spy hopping (sticking their head out of the water to look around) flipper flapping (splashing their 5m long flippers on the water), as well as bubble netting (this is where they swim in tight circles and blow bubbles which corral the fish and krill into a tight group and then the whale comes up with its mouth open and collects all of the food.) We were asked how the krill reacted to bubble netting. The expedition team in their brilliance answered “Bubbles, flee for your lives, flee!” of course we cannot actually tell the guests this but we do walk around going “Bubbles, flee, flee”

Humpback whale fluking

Humpback Whale Tail Flapping

Humpback whale lying on its back flipper flapping

Crossing the Drake

We have to travel through the Drake passage from Ushuaia, the most Southern City in the world to get to the Antarctic Peninsula, this is the shortest distance to the Antarctic and is the body of water between South America and the Antarctic. It is where we have to cross the Antarctic circumpolar current, which is 5 times stronger than the Gulf Stream and contains 5000 times more water than the Amazon. This current goes around the Antarctic with no land mass to slow it down, when it reaches the Drake passage, however, it is
squashed between two continents and this bottleneck causes any waves or swell to be compressed and increase in height, leading to this being one of the worst sea crossings in the world. Many passengers are terrified of crossing the Drake as the waves can be as much as 15 or 20m high, although we try to avoid such big seas.

The Drake Passage is between South America and Antarctica

On the last trip we were close to the Antarctic and we had to take in the stabiliser fins in as we were now in an area where we could encounter icebergs. Without stabilisers it means that the ship tends to roll greatly from one side to another. Well, we hit a massive low pressure system with winds of 55knots (1 knot is 1 nautical mile per hour which is 1,852km per hour (so about 102km/h) this ranks as a force 11 on the Beaufort scale which is a 12 point scale. The waves were about 10m high and we were getting hammered. The beds have straps (like seat belts) but the beds themselves were not chained down, this meant that people would strap themselves into bed but then would roll to one side and the whole bed would flip on top of them (This happened to 3 passengers). The Grand Piano flipped over, it broke off its one leg which was bolted to the floor and came crashing down (fortunately nobody was injured). The ship was listing badly to the starboard side and the waves were crashing against deck 4 leaving some of the cabins flooded. So we had an exciting time.

What was good before it became that rough was that we had over 15 Royal and Wandering Albatrosses following the ship. These birds are huge, the Wandering Albatross has a wingspan of 3.5 m making it the bird with the widest wingspan in the world. They  were flying mere metres away from the ship. Here is an exercise for you. Get a piece of string and measure out 3,5m and you will have a real idea of its size. Get a longer piece off string and measure out 15m and that is the length of the average humpback whale, double that to 30m and you have the length of a Blue whale.

Young Wandering Albatross (He is still dark in colouring)

The Drake Passage may be notorious, but it is only one in 10 times where we hit such bad seas. It is the place, though, where we encounter the magnificent Albatrosses and Giant Petrels, and get our first taste of Antarctic Wildlife.

Does it get cold down there?

Isn’t it cold? This is a questions asked so often and the simple answer is yes! Only it would be a lot colder in winter. We are travelling around the Antarctic peninsula which is colloquially what is termed the Banana belt, because it is so warm (comparatively speaking). On average the temperature is around 0 degrees Celcius (32 F), but will often drop to 5 or 10 degrees below. This of course doesn’t take into account the windchill factor which can cause the temperature to drop to -15C. Wind is our greatest enemy down here as we cannot operate the zodiacs in winds greater than 35 knots (1knot = 1 nautical mile per hour and 1 Nautical mile =1.852 km. So anything over 65km/h means that we have to stop our operations, even if the sky is clear. We will operate in any other weather  conditions, snow, rain etc.

Zodiac cruising in great weather

People often ask me what we wear, and as it is not very cold we wear layers which are normally reasonably thin. So on an average day, I will wear a pair of thin fleecy long thermal underwear, warm trousers and waterproof pants, my top layer will include a T shirt, thin fleecy thermal layer, a thicker fleece and either a waterproof shell or a float coat (this is a coat with a layer of foam that acts as a life jacket but is warm and waterproof). I always wear a scarf and buff as well as a warm hat. We wear heavy neoprene wellies (gumboots) as we are getting out into water and water sometimes gets into the zodiac. If it is very cold out, then we add another layer of thermals to the mix.

Sometimes when we take passengers out on zodiac cruises and we are driving for 4 hours, sometime in the rain and snow, our gloves get soaked and we freeze. I have had occasion in the Arctic to be so cold that I could barely pull myself up the pilot ladder after a
particularly cold zodiac cruise.

Does this sound like fun? It is! But we need to be prepared. As Roald Amundsen (The first man to the South Pole) said “Adventure is just bad planning”

A regular day in my office

Although I have many different jobs (I am the environmental manager for the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), teach medical courses, work as an operational paramedic and work on ships as a climatologist/geologist/ornithologist(Birder) as well as zodiac driver and medic. My official title is lecturer, zodiac driver  and medic (I lecture in climatology and ornithology, and sometimes do a bit of geology, as my  background is in physical geography, and I have 25 years experience birding). We are all part of the expedition team (there are 10 of us), we have an expedition leader and assistant expedition leader and then a mix of lecturers, usually an historian, birder, geologist, marine biologist, sometimes photographers, and then one or two people who can lecture on different topics, depending on their specialty. We all drive boats and for me to get this job I had to get my skippers ticket (Boat drivers licence) to drive boats offshore.

Clouds driving the big MK6 Zodiac

When I am working on the ship I only need to think about a few of these jobs, but our job requires us to be very multi talented. Most of us drive zodiacs (inflated rubber boats), we guide people ashore, we lecture and I then am the medic as well!

Our standard day will start at about 7:30am when we lower the zodiacs by crane onto the water (on some ships it is really fun as the crane is lowered to deck 4, where there is a little gate where we climb into the boat and then we get lowered about 20m and hope that nothing happens to the crane as you hang there). We will then pick up the guests and shuttle them to the landing site.

Being lifted up by the crane when recovering the boats from the water

We split the driving, so 3 will drive and 4 will be onshore, those onshore guide the passengers and interpret what they are seeing. So effectively we are like Polar field guides, thus, even though my speciality is climate, I am expected to be able to talk in detail about the geology, seals, birds, penguins, history and ecosystem. Each landing lasts about 3,5 to 4.5 hours and we will head back to the ship at around 12pm where we have lunch and get the chance to have a micro nap (less than half an hour). We are back out on the boats again at 2pm for our second landing at a different site and will normally finish this one at about 5pm. By the time we have lifted the boats it is usually closer to 5:45. We have a chance to have a shower and prepare our recaps for the day. These are short snippets that we have to present on something that happened during the day, for example I may talk about a particular flight pattern of the albatross which allows them to fly without flapping, or the behaviour or breeding biology of a bird we have seen. Our recap starts at 6:45pm for 45minutes and we then have a quick meeting and head off to eat dinner with the  passengers (we are expected to socialise with the guests). I don’t normally get out of the dining room much before 9:30pm and then our time is our own to try and check emails (when we have satellite internet), download and process photographs from the day. We seldom get to bed before 11pm. On sea days or half sea days we have to give 1hour lectures on our area of expertise and we are expected to have a very high level of knowledge of this area, hence most of us have the minimum of a Masters degree. Working on ships is tough because you never have a day off, we have a few hours on turnaround day, when we disembark one group of passengers and embark the next group. This is the time we go shopping and call home. I normally work 2 month contracts, sometimes longer, but then one gets very tired.

Can you think of a better job to have? If you love the outdoors (and being with people), being a guide is a fantastic job!

Too white or too black – different coloured penguins

Something we see occasionally is odd coloured penguins. Penguins are normally black on the back and white on the front, but odd variations cause them to look washed out or completely black.

Leucistic (white) Adelie Penguin. Look at the penguins next to it for comparison.

 One trip in the 2011/12 season was very special because we had the opportunity to see 2(!) Leucistic Gentoo penguins. Leucism is a genetic abnormality where the melanin in the body does not deposit on the feathers, so they are beige where they should be black, but their bare parts, including feet, bill and eye are their normal colour. In an albino the body does not produce any melanin at all, so the eyes are red (from the blood supply) and the bare parts are a pale pink. The opposite of albinism is melanism, where the body produces too much melanin and deposits it on the feathers, causing the white feathers to be black. Only 1 in 40 000 Gentoo penguins and 1 in 80 000 Adelie penguins are recorded as being leucistic. Interestingly, both the penguins we saw (and they must be related as they both occur on the same island), had normally coloured chicks, so being a different colour, doesn’t affect their ability to find a mate, and it shows that this is a recessive gene.

Melanistic (Black in front) Gentoo Chick